PLAYlist 18: Twilight Imperium Fourth Edition

Jan 22, 2018 By Austin Trunick
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There are big games, and then there are Big Games. Ever since its premiere edition in 1997, Twilight Imperium has been the capital B-D Big Daddy of Board Games. It was sort of game that neophytes whispered about with nervous trepidation, while veterans would recount their most memorable sessions the way Don Draper talks about a Hershey bar. For years it sat atop a pedestal all its own, an object of awe and wonder. It wasn’t until recent years, when Kickstarter-fueled releases like Kingdom Death Monster and Gloomhaven arrived with seemingly-endless content (and in boxes approximately the size and weight of a Honda CR-V) that Twilight Imperium’s place atop the throne of exorbitantly huge board games was ever threatened. Over the last two decades the game has received periodic updates, facelifts, and rules tweaks, but Fantasy Flight’s latest incarnation, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, is the first new version to arrive since the start of the board gaming boom we’ve experienced in recent years. With more and more players entering the hobby, you’d think that would mean there’s a bigger pool of players who are unintimidated by a game with an estimated eight-hour playtime, and ready to experience Twilight Imperium in all of its grandeur.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa there, buddy,” I hear you saying. “Did you say eight hours?” Well, yeah, I did. In truth, its length is likely what Twilight Imperium is most famous for. When you sit down to a game of TI, you need to be prepared to invest what could amount to the length of an entire workday. That alone will be enough to turn away anyone with only a passing interest in the game. If you’re willing to put the time into it, is it worth it? Gee willikers, yes, and I’m going to tell you why. But first, I’ll preface: this isn’t a review comparing Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition to its previous editions. It’s meant for newcomers to the game, rather than veterans wondering if it’s worth an upgrade. Until Fourth Edition arrived in late 2017, the closest I’d come to experiencing all that Twilight Imperium had to offer was hefting around the box for Third Edition at my local game shop. (That’s not a bad bicep workout, FWIW.)  To be honest, I was too chicken to pick up a copy and push it on my friends, fearing that there was no way such a big, long game could really be as good as they say it is.

I was wrong. 

Twilight Imperium has three to six players taking on the roles of leaders to one of 17 (!) powerful alien races, each jockeying for control of Mecatol Rex, the one-time cultural center of the entire galaxy – and now a burned-out husk, destroyed long ago by war. (It’s like the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones, if King’s Landing had been annihilated by an atomic bomb and was being squabbled over by space marines, humanoid turtles, and lion people.) Each of the races has its own rich history, home planet, and a unique set of special abilities and technologies that makes it play differently from any other. There’s an overflow of flavor to be found in this game, from the gorgeous artwork to the detailed backstories found on each race’s player card and in a glossy booklet included in the box.

Each player is given a player board describing their race’s powers and outlining their fleet; stacks and stacks of tokens; and a massive bag of plastic space ships. (There are more than 350 ships in the box.) About half the game happens on the boards in front of each player, while the other half occurs across a modular hex grid map in the center of the table. As the layout of this board will vary from game to game, you’ll never battle your friends for control of the exact same galaxy twice.

For a game with more pieces than Rick Wakeman has keyboard keys, Twilight Imperium is far less complicated than it looks. A round begins with players drafting from eight strategy cards, which each providing the player who selects it a powerful action they’ll be able to take on their turn – and their opponents with the opportunity to pay for a gimped version of the same (or a similar) ability. Players will then take turns embarking into uncharted areas of the galaxy, establishing footholds on empty planets, or engaging in battle with another player’s fleet or ground troops. All of these actions cost command tokens: the game’s most valuable resource. When a round ends, players claim victory points from public and private objective cards, do a little bit of housekeeping, and then start it all over again with another round of drafting.

In a game with this many plastic battleships, you’d expect combat to play a significant part in it. It can, in certain situations and with certain types of players, but more often than not the wars playing out in Twilight Imperium are of the cold variety. (In our games, fleets were more commonly used as a flexing of intergalactic muscles than as an actual invading force.) When combat is engaged, it’s a relatively straight-forward rolling of dice. There are no complicated charts that need referencing, or any other of the business that so often sucks the enjoyment out of any big, tabletop space battle. The battles are thrilling, high stakes affairs – and welcomely brief.

The most intriguing cross-table interplay comes from, of all places, Twilight Imperium’s political system. Once a player moves into Mecatol Rex, it opens up the agenda deck. At the end of each round, two cards will be drawn from the top of a pile. Each one represents a “law,” a new, game-altering rule, which players will spend their influence points – won by controlling culturally-important planets – to vote for or against. These are one of my favorite things about TI: a rule can drastically change how the game is played, open up all-new strategies, or invalidate ones that players have spent their first few of a game hours working towards. Players can bargain or barter with their fellow players any way they please in hopes of swaying the vote one way or the other – these discussions can get heated when a law has the potential of tilting power in a new direction.

The game ends when someone wins with ten victory points, or nine rounds have been played. (Victory points are scored through public objectives, of which new ones are revealed at the end of each round, or via private objectives, which can be drawn from a deck using the appropriate strategy card.) Again, I can hear you thinking. “Wait, you only play a maximum of nine rounds? That’s, like, almost an hour per round, isn’t it?” Yes. Those rounds are very, very deep. Because you’ll have quite a few turns within most of those rounds, you’re not going to feel hamstrung by how many you’ll get through the game. And I’ll say, too, that ten points doesn’t sound like much, but will be very hard to reach. The game is well-balanced, and smart opponents will work together to block you if they think you’re getting too close to victory. It’s not far out of the ordinary to have two dominant leaders deadlocked in a race over the top, only for a player who was losing through the entire game to pull off an upset, come-from-behind win.

Everything I’ve described here is only the tip of the asteroid. There are technological advancements to be made; diplomacy and trade to exploit; and production engines to build upon. It’s a box that includes, as the website boasts, “354 plastic units, 450 cards, 700 tokens, 50 galaxy tiles, and so much more.” They’re not exaggerating.

Think of Twilight Imperium as a giant box of Legos. Not one of those $800 Millennium Falcons that take three months to build, but a humongous garbage can full of Legos in every imaginable shape and color. It’s more Legos than you’ll ever realistically build something from, unless you’re one of the nine people who make it their livings building ginormous Lego chairs on YouTube. It’s a pool of toys that will feel near-infinite every time you dive into it.

With its blend of political intrigue, strange alien races, and battles that span star systems, Twilight Imperium is a space opera in a box. Yes, there are plenty of other games out which can serviceably recreate the thrills of watching a Star Wars movie. Twilight Imperium is the only one that recreates the feeling of plowing through the entire original trilogy in a single sitting.

On top of it all, TI4 isn’t as hard to learn as you might think. The box includes a walk-through rulebook for first-time players, and a tutorial game recommended for beginners; a separate reference book explains anything else you’d want to know in greater detail. If you head to YouTube, there’s a good how-to-play video that’ll get you rolling in under 40 minutes. That’s quite the brief investment considering how much time you’ll spend gaming afterward.

Twilight Imperium functions fine as a three- or four-player game. You’ll have a good time playing out your own private space opera, and – here’s the selling point – wrap up in a relatively quick four to five hours. That said, this game is meant to be played by five or six players. That map doesn’t dramatically size up when you add players, meaning that real estate becomes much scarcer when the table is crowded. At least 75% of the fun in TI comes from bumping up against other players’ starships, vying for control of planets, making clever use each others’ strategy cards, and of course the political positioning and arguments that arise every time a new agenda card is revealed. Twilight Imperium is a dramatically more exciting game at a higher player count. And, as weird it may sound, this is the reason why a three-player game played in five hours will feel longer than a five-player game played in seven hours. I’m not trying to deter anyone with a small gaming group, but I also don’t want anyone dropping $150 and feeling disappointed when the game doesn’t quite deliver all of the excitement and drama we made it out to; just know that you’ll need at least five players to unlock the game’s full potential. 

Do we recommend Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition? Yes, without a doubt. If you’re not scared off by the marathon gaming session required each time it hits the table, it certainly provides more than enough entertainment to merit its length. Make sure that you have friends equally unperturbed by the time commitment, as well as a big table and comfortable chairs. (Your butts will thank us later.)

Besides the length, the other thing that will give prospective players pause is the game’s price point. At an MSRP of $150, Twilight Imperium is less in the price range of your average board game than it is in the ballpark of a gaming console. Let me propose something. If you’ve got a reliable gaming group, think about chipping in together for it. Online retailers regularly sell it for closer to $100, and divided five or six ways, that’s not a terrible investment. Given the amount of stuff in the box – once again, we’ll point out the hundreds of plastic ships – and the amount of time you’ll get out each game, it’s a good value. With the way the 17 different alien races play and interact, there’s a lot of variety and replay-ability out of the box; you’re going to want to try them all, and that would take you upwards of 100 hours to pull off. Suddenly the price tag doesn’t seem so terrible, does it? Not to mention that the production value is outstanding, even by Fantasy Flight’s lofty standards – this is a beautiful game, through and through.

And now... music! I’ve been excited about assembling this playlist since we launched this column. Space Disco is so wacky and tacky that I’m just filled with glee thinking about it – it’s perhaps my favorite niche musical subgenre. I’m bypassing our usual Spotify playlist for YouTube this time because the music videos for so many of these Space Disco tracks are works of art in their own right.

When Star Wars was released in 1977, it not only captured the hearts and minds of little boys the world over, but those of fully-grown (primarily Eastern European) disco artists. The futuristic, electronic sounds of synthesizers were growing more in vogue as the 1980s approached, and Star Wars and disco were two of the biggest things on the planet. Savvy producers figured out that you could drop in some lyrical references to robots and space ships, maybe insert a few laser gun sound effects, and you were almost assured of having a novelty dance hit on your hands. Here are some good example lyrics from Sarah Brightman’s 1978 single, “(I Lost My Heart to a) Starship Trooper,” which was a Top Ten hit in the United Kingdom:

“Tell me, Captain Strange, do you feel my devotion / Or are you like a droid, devoid of emotion? / Encounters one and two are not enough for me / What my body needs is close encounter three.”

What’s incredible is how prevalent Space Disco was, and for how long. Credit should go to Germany and Italy for producing many of the genre’s earliest hits, but it quickly spread to the U.S., U.K., and Canada, and then to South America and the U.S.S.R by the early 1980s. (Some synth and Italo Disco artists picked up a few of the more science fiction-y elements and carried them into the late ‘80s, but its popularity most died out by the release of Return of the Jedi.) Beyond the cheesy lyrics, one of my favorite things about Space Disco is Space Disco fashion – quite a few of these singers and bands would wear costumes that looked like something straight out of a low-budget sci-fi TV show. (Ganymed, whose “It Takes Me Higher” and “Music Drives Me Crazy" are on the playlist, are probably the goofiest example of this -- the video's embedded at the end of this article, if you want to skip ahead.) You have to figure a few of these bands watched Star Wars’ cantina band scene and thought, “Man, that should be real life.”

Now, there’s not nearly enough space disco here to cover a full, six-to-eight-hour game of Twilight Imperium. That’s by design. Part of the reason being that it begins to get repetitive after the first hour or so; the other part is that, unless you’re a West German DJ working the dance floor in 1981, listening to six consecutive hours of this would quickly drive you crazy. But I implore you, please give it a listen. Even better, if you’ve got a spare tablet or TV in your game room, just throw on the playlist and leave it going in the background. Trust us: some of these videos just need to be seen.

***

Previous PLAYlist columns: Flip ShipsNMBR 9UnearthEscape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue)Whistle StopCaverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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sanvi
February 2nd 2018
7:54am

When Star Wars was released in 1977, it not buffets near me now only captured the hearts and minds of little boys the world over, but those of fully-grown (primarily Eastern European) disco artists

Kristen Robinson
February 2nd 2018
11:59pm

Twilight Imperium is one of my favorite games. It came into existence at the same time when i came to this world. That is also a big cause of its favoritism. The thesis writing service also named this game as the most played game by the kids, and the youngsters. Thanks a lot for posting its 4th edition, and sharing such useful information here.

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September 11th 2018
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September 14th 2018
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