I’ve seen one of Fantasy Flight’s oldest IPs, Twilight imperium, for years now and to say it’s the sort of game that floats my proverbial Starship is an understatement: Large box, lots of components, lots of minis and promises of a thinking man’s game that could take up to 8 hours to play! And yet, it’s only now, on its 4th edition, and a few years after its release, that I played it; I’m obviously losing my gaming spirit in my old age.
This Christmas though I finally sat down with my brother, in our annual Christmas gaming session, and played the behemoth (not once but twice) I have to say, it wasn’t what I was expecting and to be honest I wasn’t sure how I felt about that initially. It should be noted that TI is a game for 3 – 6 players so how I and my brother played it with two is something I’ve talked about in a separate article (simple enough)
Opening the box, you are met with a proverbial raft of tokens, plastic minis, hexagonal tiles, rule books, and reference sheets. It’s glorious, quite intimidating and something I thought, having never played it before, would be suitably complex and long, or at least long for me and my brother (if it’s not 14 hours plus it’s a quick game in our household). But the thing is, after we set up the first game and started going through the rules it soon dawned on us that TI is 1. Not as complex as it looks, 2. Not as drawn out and long as it looks 3. Not as intimidating as it looks and 4. Not like any wargame we’ve ever played.. in fact, in our first game; I didn’t fire a single shot!
How many players?
First up, and I guess most importantly, you chose how many players you want to play with. Naturally supporting 3-6 this is a game designed to be better with more people involved, as a big part of the fun is how players interact and deal with each other. I and my brother therefore initially struggled to figure out how we could play the game and not take away from this experience. At one point we were even going to can it off altogether, having felt that none of the 2 player options online were to our liking, but we persevered and settled on a simple fix… the 3rd NPC would be controlled by both of us!
MADNESS! See the attached link on how we played with just 2 players and without changing the rules or phases.
Having decided how many players there is going to be you now have to decide on what one of the 17 factions you want to use. Each with a data card to provide you with background lore, their demeanor (so are they warlike, mercantile or diplomatic) and obviously their starting technologies, fleets, and abilities. I, for example, played as the Federation of Sol wherein I started off with Carriers that could move 2 instead of 1, Infantry that hit on 6+’s instead of 7+s and the abilities to gain more command tokens (which are very important), make 2 actions per token instead of 1 and place infantry units on planets I control. They also have the space for 4 commodities, that can be traded for trade goods, your currency for the game and can be very important later on.
The Federation of Sol, as is generally the case with human races in games like this, is a middle ground race. Fast at expanding but with a middling fleet and middling starting technology. Conversely, races like the Jol Nar are more technologically advanced with bigger fleets but balanced out by being fragile and having a -1 to their hit rolls. Each race, therefore, plays very differently and has its own type of gameplay and character depending on how you want to play/try to win the game. If you aren’t interested in conflict then play a diplomatic or mercantile race and trade/talk your way to victory, otherwise chose one of the more warlike races, build a mighty fleet and bring the galaxy to heel by force of arms!
Depending on how many players there are, depends on how you set up the board, with pre-set board setups available for newbies.
Each player is handed out a number of system tiles and a number of anomaly tiles (asteroid fields, supernovas, nebulas, gravity wells, and blank space.) and they take turns placing them around the core planet, Mecatol Rex. Meaning that each time you play, you have a completely different set up than before. Whereas one game you may have easy access to planets with lots of resources, giving you ample funds to build a fleet, in others you might be surrounded by anomalies or planets that have higher influence than resources, meaning that your gameplay will have to shift and adapt; even if this is contrary to your initial factions strength.
Once the game is set up and everyone has mustered their starting forces its time to get down to the game.
To start with each player is dealt a secret objective, this could be anything from taking X planet to acquire X technologies and then 2 further objectives are turned over for everyone to see. The good thing about this mechanic is that it is random and can alter the way a faction plays quite fundamentally. In the end, the game is based on victory points and if none of them, or not very many of them, relate to what you are good at, then it can be problematic.
Starting with the randomly selected Speaker, players take turns choosing a strategy card, that gives benefits to both players and opponents, though the opponents generally have to spend actions to use the secondary. These can be a way to build defenses, research more technology and even become the speaker, a card that became critical when I and my brother played.
On top of this, each card has a number and this is the initiative order of play, so choose wisely.
Each player starts with 8 action token, 3 going on the Strategic section of your faction sheet, 3 going on your fleet section (this represents the size of the fleets you can sustain) and 2 going on your tactical section. For the first turn these are set for everyone but each turn, on the status phase, you can move them around to where you need them. Need a bigger fleet? Add more to the fleet section. Want to be able to take advantage of the Strategy cards? Move more into the strategy section. Have a big expansion planned? Move them to the tactical section.
Just make sure you use them sparingly, as you only gain back a limited number, dependant on your faction and technology. Don’t do what I did and move a load from your fleet section, spend them on moves and then realise you can’t support a big enough fleet to defend/intimidate people; leaving yourself vulnerable.
Taking turns, based on your initiative, players can carry out actions. These can be anything from activating a system, so they can build or move, to attacking fleets and landing ground units. On top of this players can also carry out strategic actions, which are triggered when using Strategy cards. You should note that not all actions cost you an action token. Using your own strategy card doesn’t cost you a token, though using the secondary on an opponent’s does. Moving, attacking and the building doesn’t cost a token but activating systems does and you HAVE to activate a system to do any of these; this means you flag pole your intentions to a point and other players can alter their strategy to match.
This phase won’t occur until someone has taken Mecatol Rex but when it does, the Speaker flips over 2 agenda cards and players use the influence from planets they own, as well as resources and potentially action cards to cast votes on these agendas. In some instances the agenda will just affect units, players or planets for that turn in others they will be laws that affect the entire game! It is therefore imperative that you use this phase to trade, make alliances and persuade people to vote in certain ways. Therefore if you are being a douche and running around invading people, there is a good chance you will get shafted in this phase… though each player does have action cards and in some cases, these can be agenda affecting cards.
For example, I was being ganged up on by my brother and the NPC. I had a pretty big fleet and had been hammering the NPC who had declared war on me. We decided that there was very little chance that the NPC would, therefore, see things my way when it came to the agenda phase and so he voted against me, with my brother, on an edict that forced the nominated player to lose all their action cards, of which I had a few I needed. Luckily I was able to play a card just before this happened that stated that there had been a mistake and that I was able to nominate another player to be sanctioned… I dutifully chose my brother, who lost all his cards and pretty much ended his chance of catching up to win the game.
Game flow and feel
The game actually moves pretty quickly, when you know the rules, and we found that on the second play through most of our time was used up deciding on decisions for the NPC player. The game as a whole took us about 5 hours and we figured that you could add on an extra hour for every player you had, as a rule of thumb, so a 6 player game could take upwards of 8 hours, which, in the grand scheme of things in big games like this, isn’t a massive amount of time, to be honest.
As the game is based on action turns being taken in initiative order you aren’t left twiddling your thumbs while you wait for 5 other players to make their moves, things come about quite quickly and therefore you feel like you are always included within the game; something that is added to when the agenda phase comes into play and all the back door deals and treachery are afoot.
Combat is streamlined, based on D10s and casualties are taken on both sides when hits are registered; similar to that of Axis and Allies or Conquest of Nerath. Also, combat, as much as it is enjoyable, isn’t necessary some times and in some instances better to leave. Like I said at the start I played an entire game, and only lost by 1 point, without firing a shot!
You can spend ages building up a fleet and it might just sit there because the objectives are directing you in another way. It is also important to understand that resources aren’t superabundant and so you might have the mightiest fleet in the galaxy but if you lose it, then you aren’t going to be able to recover in time and this will either mean any conquest goals will be unachievable or you will just leave your self-open to counter-attack and destruction.
You find really odd situations wherein you have big fleets sitting near planets and doing nothing, simply because the risk of losing that fleet and or what the attack could mean, renders it inert. Especially when you have a limited amount of turns, something big like losing your fleet or starting a war could be catastrophic for your game.
It’s this sense of uncertainty, coupled with a need to placate others within the Galaxy that makes for an interesting gaming experience and I can only assume that 4,5 and 6 players games can become somewhat tense at times. Everyone vying for similar objectives but in different ways and knowing that one wrong move can end a vital alliance or have the council turn against you.
General thoughts and summary
TI4 is a wargame, that isn’t a wargame and is complex without being complex.. odd I know but it’s true. You have all the components and facets needed for your generic conquest type game but with so many avenues for success, outside of war, and with so many differing factions and faction traits, coupled with objectives, action cards, agendas, and promissory notes, that you end up with a game that could literally go any way and you could, like me, find yourself amassing a huge fleet and never fire a shot.
Now I have to admit, I was slightly miffed about this lack of war-making the first time I played (being a wargamer, through and through) and I was also not sure about the limited turns, 10 or 14, as in my mind this didn’t give me enough time to build up and then crush my enemies, It also forced me down routes I wasn’t sure I wanted to take. I, therefore, finished the first game unsure if I had enjoyed it or not. The following night though, having slept on it and having seen that my brother had thoroughly enjoyed the experience, decided to give it another go …..loved it.
I understood the rules more, I understood how the game flowed and I think overnight something had clicked in and I just got it. Granted this time round I did have some bigger fights but they were products of the NPC player we had set up turning on me to achieve his objectives. It was great and I was able to use all aspects of the game to my advantage. From optimizing technology to better suit my goals, to using action cards and influence to impose agendas/edicts on other players.
I had gone into the first game thinking of it like it was Axis and Allies or one of those big conquest games like that and when I didn’t get what I expected it made me think I hadn’t enjoyed it, when really it wasn’t that I hadn’t enjoyed the game, I had just misunderstood what it was. So when I came back with more of an understanding and different mind-set I loved it and really wished we’d had more players to add to the experience.
All in all, TI4 is a great game (though not the cheapest), balanced, not overly complex, quicker than you might think and with a lot of replayability. If you are the long hall wargaming type then you’ll need to go into it understanding that it isn’t really a wargame, despite its look, it’s a game of diplomacy and threat… with the ability to war it out, if you must.
A must play.