Twilight Imperium: First Impressions – Diplomacy and Death Stars
At 9.30am on Saturday 3rd February 2018, we started playing Twilight Imperium for the first time. At 10.30pm on Saturday 3rd February, we finished. It is a big game.
What is Twilight Imperium?
Twilight Imperium is a stellar conquest game for 3-6 players in which the players take control of a species of alien looking to find their own way in the universe. Throughout the game, they need to gain victory points through completing objectives about conquest, economy, diplomacy, or technology.
To facilitate these different types of playing experience, the game is split into a few rounds. First, you choose a tactical strategy for that game turn out of 8 special abilities – these give you the option to change how you play each round, with secondary abilities available to those who do not choose it. Next comes the actual tactical movement/building/strategising phase, in which players can move, attack, and negotiate with other players. Finally, there comes a politics round, in which players are presented with two agendas and can vote for or against those new rules entering the game.
The game is completely asymmetrical, with each alien species having their own mentality and skill set. They start with different ships at the start of the game, and have their own different abilities. These range from adding +1 to combat rolls, to being able to veto political agendas as they come up for voting.
I suppose one way to think of Twilight Imperium is as a kind of Star Trek simulator. Yes, you can be violent and vicious, but you can also play a peaceful game, and rely on diplomacy (assuming meta-gaming doesn’t take over that is) to try and win the game.
I won’t go into the rules here – because they are so complex – but just thought I would go into a few Twlight Imperium first impressions, a little bit like Gloomhaven first impressions a few months ago. If you do want to go into the rules in more detail then you can watch the same video we were recommended here.
Twilight Imperium: First Impressions
So, what were our Twilight Imperium first impressions? That is a really good question and one where it is difficult to necessarily know where to start. It is such a huge game that it may be an idea to break this down section by section.
Twilight Imperium Components
The first thing to talk about, the obvious thing, is what the game physically looks like. This is because it is absolutely freaking huge, needing an entire eight-person table to spread out over. The board itself is created out of hexagonal tiles, much like Catan, however, each tile has either planets on it (which can be colonised), open Space (Space, with a capital “s”), one of a few anomalies such as asteroid fields, or Mecatol Rex. The latter one of those being the old galactic central capital planet, and worth several victory points throughout the game.
Unlike games like Catan, where the game is more abstract and so the artwork is rougher, Twilight Imperium has stunning artwork, giving each tile its own identity.
The players also have their own identities, with one of 17 races to choose from. Each one of these has artwork depicting the race, a quotation from a member of that race, and whole page worth of backstory on the back of the player mat. This really helps with the characterisation of the game, something which is desperately needed when playing for such long periods of time. You are not just controlling The Barony of Letnev, for instance, but you are The Barony of Letnev. This helps define your playing style and refine how you approach each move.
We played a six-person game with The Naalu Collective, The L1z1x Mindnet, The Ghosts of Creuss, The Barony of Letnev, The Universities of Jol-Nar, and finally, I played as The Xxcha Kingdom.
Lastly, we have the physical components themselves. These are remarkable, with each player having 10 different types of piece to choose from whilst playing the game. These range from Fighters to Destroyers to War Suns.
The components are not just spaceships, however. There are also ground forces, depicted by a flag, space docks, and PDS cannons. It is worth noting that these don’t vary in style based on the race, otherwise that would be a lot of plastic. Instead, they vary in colour per player.
You’ll notice I’m going to talk about the politics of the game before talking about the warfare. Part of this is because I played an entirely political game and still came second, without firing a single aggressive shot. In the end, it only came down to initiative order to see who won. In the latter half of the game, I became a force to be reckoned with as The Xxcha Kingdom, purely because I had managed to get deals with people.
There is an official Politics round and this is something that happens after the round when the first player reaches Mecatol Rex (the centre of the board). It then happens after every turn, and during that turn players may vote to pass, abstain, or fail a new rule that comes into play. These can be one-off, or they can be laws which remain active until someone wins.
To be blunt, however, we were all surprised at how little those rules affected the game. One of the abilities of The Xxcha Kingdom is to veto laws as they come out. I only did it once. Most of the time we all abstained from the voting because we just didn’t care about the result.
Where politics really came into play, however, was between the players. In Twilight Imperium the players are encouraged to strike up deals, purchased favours, and create pacts. These can be verbal agreements or, with certain things, there are promissory notes.
Promissory notes are written agreements between players that have to be honoured. There is no choice. A player can back out of a verbal deal if they want, but once a promissory note has traded hands then it is law. Players can trade promissory notes that they were given by other players, and that is totally allowed.
Each player has four promissory notes to give away, ranging from Ceasefire to Trade Agreements to Support for the Throne. These give anything from enforced peace in a territory (and ultimately how I wasn’t wiped out a lot earlier), to forcing a player to give you their resources, to a victory point that is taken away should that player then attack you. They can swing votes and gain notoriety.
There is an option, in Twilight Imperium to play a completely pacifist game and deal in promissory notes. This is ultimately how I decided to play, and even with all five other factions ganging up on me towards the end, they just couldn’t wipe me off the map.
The advanced player negotiations take negotiations we have seen in games like Catan in the past and add a new dimension. Where the politics round falls a bit flat, there is strength in how the player interactions can change the game.
Warfare is theoretically simple in Twilight Imperium, using ten-sided dice. Each ship can roll a number of dice (usually one, but War Suns can do three each) to gain a certain number of higher. Any hits are added together. The opponent then does the same and you remove ships equal to the number of hits scored against you. That’s the crux of it.
That being said, the Warfare round has five steps, including anti-fighter attacks and bombarding planets.
During my first game, I played a diplomatic game and so only experienced the rough end of combat when all the other players turned on me during round five or six; however, the combat seemed to take fairly long time to complete. It may just be because there is a lot of it, or it may be because there were so many ships and so many rounds, that it felt like it stretched longer than it needed to be.
Action cards could also be played during combat (as well as any time they say they can be played) and they can swing the whole battle. There is a lot of luck involved in drawing the right cards, and I only played two all game. Meanwhile, other players were playing four a turn.
The other thing, and this may sound weird, that I was surprised at is that only a few races can retreat instantly. Most have to play through the first few parts of combat before they can retreat. This may make sense from an ambush perspective, but on a couple of occasions, I was completely fine with people taking my planets. I didn’t care, and so the first few rounds of combat were arbitary.
That being said, the players who were in combat a lot, right from the start, found it slick and interesting. I’ll have to play a militaristic race in my second game to really be able to comment. I fully accept that I may not have the best Twilight Imperium first impressions for warfare.
One of the components mentioned earlier on in this article is the strategic capability of the game in the form of a Strategy round. During that round, players choose how they want to play their turn, with various different options available. They can play a Political strategy card (giving them more action cards and the ability to change laws that will come into play), or the Diplomacy strategy card to keep players from invading a territory. Alternatively, you can choose to play a more violent game with a Warfare strategy card, or Leadership to get more Command Tokens (each movement a player wants to do each turn requires the use of one…seriously, if you haven’t watched the video by now – just watch it). These are brilliant for offering bonuses to players that give them a distinct advantage in one area of the game over others.
What this ultimately means though is there are eight core strategic motives in the game, and each with their own distinct strategies and advantages. Of course, they all have their own disadvantages as well.
We had friends who would play the Technology card to improve their fleet with upgrades, or the Trade card to get and distribute trade goods/wealth. Personally, I liked to use a mixture of the Trade card and Diplomacy cards to always give me something to purchase favours with. It was great fun.
Conclusion: Twilight Imperium First Impressions
So what were my Twilight Imperium first impressions? Well, I really liked it and I am looking forward to my next game. It was really fun having so many options for how to play the game. Rather than feel pidgeon-holed, it was up to us to choose how we wanted to play. It is also a game in which it is hard to gang up on someone, and everyone has their own abilities to make sure they have something over the other players at all times.
Yes, Twilight Imperium is worth playing. It is highly enjoyable, and, more importantly, in a way, it didn’t feel like a 13-hour game. We’re booking our next day in now.
There are so many things I want to talk about – so many things I haven’t said – but this is already a fairly long article. I was debating the best way of ending this article, and I think it is best to end on a gallery, so here are a few more images from the day.
So there we go – my first impressions of Twilight Imperium. There are a lot of gamers who have seen it, heard of it, or played it so I am curious – what do you guys think? Who did you play as? What did you enjoy or not enjoy? Let me know in the comments below.