I must preface this review with the admission that I have never played a game of Twilight Imperium to completion. My most recent attempt was a game that consisted of about an hour of rules explanation followed by six hours of playing -- and we still had to declare "the next round is the last round" instead of playing until someone got enough victory points to win. Twilight Imperium is a very long, very complex game; and its expansion, Shattered Empire, simplifies it in some ways and lengthens it in others. It's also a lot of fun and, if you have the patience, it's very rewarding.

Each player takes control of an alien race. The races all have certain starting ships, homeworlds, and technologies. The races also get their own advantages, such as combat bonuses, additional command tokens, or trade benefits. Players then put together the "board" from a series of six-sided hexes. Hexes will contain a planet (or two), a nebula, a supernova, or empty space. You want to put planets near you, while putting unwanted tiles near opponents. In the center of the board is Mecatol Rex.

Each player's race sheet provides a turn breakdown, information on ships (cost, movement, bonuses, and combat values), and resource management. Each player has a number of command counters that are divided between Strategic Allocation (for using secondary abilities of command cards), Fleet Supply (which determines the maximum number of ships in a hex), and Command Pool (used to build ships or to move -- and possibly attack with -- your fleet). Switching command counters each turn is a key element in Twilight Imperium.

At the start of each turn, players choose a command card, which provide everything from technology advances to calling for intergalactic votes on political cards. Much like the game Puerto Rico, these cards have a primary ability that benefits the player who selected it, followed by a secondary ability that other players can use (though they'll likely have to spend a counter from Strategic Allocation to do so). Command cards are numbered, and their numbers determine the order of play.

After command cards are selected, the action phase begins. Players can use the main function of their command card, use a counter from their command pool to activate a system (either moving ships there or to build at a spacedock), transfer ships, or pass. This is when players can take new planets, which provide resources for building ships and buying technologies. This is also when players attack.
Combat is very similar to Axis & Allies: After any pre-combat rolls are made, each side rolls dice and damage is inflicted simultaneously on each side. (There are action cards that can affect damage, and two large ships take two hits to be destroyed.) Unlike many other combat games, a large army can't plow across the board in one turn: The Fleet Supply creates a very strict limit for how many ships can be in one hex, and once a system is activated with a command counter no ships can move from that system for the rest of the turn.

For all this discussion of the game, I still haven't said how a player wins. There are certain public objectives that give players victory points for meeting their requirements (such as having at least two technology advances in three different fields) and each player gets their own private and more difficult secret objective (like occupying two hexes next to opponents' homeworlds). After each action phase, players have the chance to get the points for one public objective or their private one. When a player reaches the predetermined number of points for victory, they win! (The basic rules have a command card giving the player two victory points, while this is missing from the Shattered Empire command cards.)

Of all the games I own -- and it's a large number -- Twilight Imperium is easily the most complex. There are a lot of elements to keep track of, setup and rules explanation take a long time, and it's easy to spend a half hour for a single turn. The game does speed up as the players get more planets and resources, and interpersonal diplomacy ("I won't attack you this turn if you don't attack me") can be as important as lucky dice rolling. If you have the time and focus to devote a whole day to playing, Twilight Imperium is a rewarding way to build yourself a space empire.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch


digitaldoc said...

It sounds like a good game to be played on a computer. The setup alone looks like it could be a substantial time investment here.

smg58 said...

Yes. I also don't recommend starting at 2 in the afternoon if you intend to both finish the game and see your wife before she goes to sleep. But the game does have its appeal.

greg said...

This is the best board game I have ever played but there are enough rules, cards and pieces to drive you nutz.