Twilight Imperium is, in a word, massive. It is a box full of galactic hexes, plastic ships, embossed cards, cardboard counters, and reams of rules, all with one purpose: to recreate a space opera on any flat surface that has the space to accomodate it. I often refer to it as “Game of Thrones in space”, as it relies just as much on political intrigue, backroom dealing, table talk, and canny positioning as it does strategic war planning and tactical combat. I finally had the chance to sit down and play a game, graciously hosted by Jay of Goblin Artisans. Joining us were Josh, who does board game reviews, and my father, a man who’s been playing wargames since around when Tactics II came out in 1958.
We began with a pre-generated semi-randomized galaxy, rather than taking extra time to indulge in the interesting but time-consuming minigame that allows players to set up the systems, hazards, and resources around the capitol, Mecatol Rex. We then chose our races, with me dealing two home systems to each player and letting them pick one. Josh chose the Xxcha Kingdom, Dad picked the Sardakk N’orr, Jay selected the L1Z1X Mindnet, and I settled on the Mentak Coalition. After a brief tutorial on tactical actions and how play would proceed, we sat down for the first round.
Spinwards from top left: Xxcha in yellow, Sardakk N’orr in blue, L1Z1X in green, and Mentak in red.
Since none of us had played Twilight Imperium before, Round 1 was very much a round of getting familiar with the mechanics of the game. There was a touch of confusion regarding the relationship between the strategy cards and one’s choices; I had to reiterate that one does not have to execute a strategy card immediately on its priority number. For the most part, the round consisted of all four players claiming systems in their immediate environs. The Xxcha Kingdom extended an olive branch to the Mentak Coalition right from the beginning, and began what was, for most of the game, a very cordial and peaceful relationship. The Sardakk N’orr began its spread relatively quickly, and the L1Z1X Mindnet began churning out dreadnaughts. None of this was surprising, and by the end of the round, all of the players had a much firmer grip on not only the rules of the game, but how to go about earning their first Victory Points.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” The Mindnet invokes Warfare.
Given the semi-random nature of the pre-set galaxy, it was by sheer dumb luck that most of the planets within easy reach of the Xxcha were heavy on influence. They begin exerting it almost immediately, dominating votes and earning one of the first public objective’s victory points. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The L1Z1X was already in a threatening position, using Warfare to intimidate their Mentak neighbors while also eyeing up the encroaching Sardakk. The Sardakk, for their part, occupied Hope’s End, training their first Shock Troops and preparing for what would either be a massive invasion of Mercatol Rex or a thrust into L1Z1X or Xxcha space, depending on which race looked at them funny first. Still, at this point in the game, no major battles had been fought and the galaxy was relatively at peace. This, however, was not meant to last.
Mecatol Rex is temporarily dubbed “Space Tortuga.”
In a bold move worthy of audacious pirates, the Mentak seized Mecatol Rex during this round. While this was undoubtedly a victory for the privateer coalition, the annexation of planets by the Xxcha even closer to their borders would be a telling weakness that was not immediately recognized. The forces of the L1Z1X continued to build on the very doorstep of the usurpers, while the Sardakk continued building military might of their own, right on the doorstep of the Xxcha. Tension was building throughout the galaxy, and it was only a matter of time before implied threats would have to be answered with irrevocable action. The Mentak scored the Defender preliminary objective, which put them in the running for the lead with the Xxcha, while both the L1X1X and the Sardakk scraped what VPs they could out of their preliminary objectives.
Pirates and cyborgs fight as turtles mobilize and bugs threaten.
The Xxcha, a race not known for quick action, began to mobilize in the direction of their bellicose neighbor, the Sardakk. Considering the size of the Mentak force occuping Mecatol Rex, the Xxcha had no desire to break their non-aggression pact. The Mentak, for their part, could not leave the fleet of L1Z1X dreadnaughts in a position to strike their systems, and thus struck first, their flagship leading the way and destroying the fleet. However, considering the growing number of Sardakk shock troops on the doorstep of Mecatol Rex, the Mentak could not bring any troops of their own along, and thus did not gain any territory from this action, nor did they qualify for the public objective that required an invasion of an enemy world. The Xxcha were free to make their maneuvers and enforce policies that benefitted them. Only by working together could the other three races oppose them politically, and accusations began from the Sardakk and L1Z1X calling the Mentak a ‘puppet’ of the Xxcha. With relations continuing to sour, and skirmishes breaking out, the possibility of a total galactic war began to grow. The Mentak’s occupation of Mecatol Rex qualified them for the Usurper secret objective, sliding them into the lead just ahead of the Xxcha.
The Xxcha fully emerge from their shell!
Needing the objective that requires invasion, the Xxcha began maneuvers against the Sardakk N’orr, as DMZs began to be declared in the neighborhood of Mecatol Rex. The forces of the Sardakk on Hope’s End continued to grow, with deadly insectoid warriors covering the planet, and now looking at both a loss of one of their systems and the continuing threat of the Mentak fleet orbiting Mecatol Rex. The Mentak abstained from a key vote in the Assembly, souring relations with the Sardakk and the L1Z1X even further. Perhaps in response to this, as the center of the galaxy saw warfare and tension, the L1Z1X quietly built a space dock at a world near the B wormhole. The Xxcha and the Mentak were now tied for the lead, with the Sardakk and the L1Z1X also tied at 3 VPs apiece.
Despite the continuing build-up of forces and advancement of technologies, the positions of the races remained static for the most part in this round. Instead of leaving the relatively comfortable position they had from occupying the capital, the Assembly action prompted the use of a political sanction that, after several discussions, wiped out the huge buildup of Sardakk forces on Hope’s End. While all of the fallout from this played out, the L1Z1X built more of their signature dreadnaughts on the Mentak’s doorstep, while the usurpers focused on protecting their ill-gotten gains. The Xxcha retreated from Sardakk space to allow the bugs to retake their world, keeping to the goals of the game and qualifying for another public objective.
The plan of the L1Z1X came to fruition when they made their incursion into Mentak space, destroying the fleet around their homeworld. The Mentak began to struggle to muster a response as the Sardakk surged towards the Xxcha, who are themselves shifting their forces towards Mentak space. After five hours of play, the players moved through their turns more quickly and efficiently, executing strategies to move towards Victory Points, with the L1Z1X and Sardakk working to catch up and the Xxcha nudging ahead of the Mentak by a single but vital point.
After hours of cordial relations, the Xxcha finally broke their treaty with the Mentak. With plenty of warning to their former friends, their forces entered Mentak space and seized the Tsion station to destroy the space dock there. As the Mentak reeled from the last few rounds’ incursions and geared up to retake their home world, the Sardakk aimed to push back against the Xxcha while the L1Z1X waited to take advantage of chaos to strike towards Mecatol Rex. However, the Xxcha executed the Bureaucracy strategy and played the public objective for which they had just qualified by destroying the Tsion space dock. This earned them their 9th victory point, ending the game.
The Xxcha Kingdom wins!
Twilight Imperium is not a game for everybody. While the mechanics of tactical actions are not in and of themselves complex, and make up the bulk of what you’ll be doing, they are at the core of what is a fairly complex and balanced system. Part of the game’s beauty is in its starting random elements. Unless a house rules system is in effect, no player can walk into a game of Twilight Imperium know who they will represent, what to expect, or how they will work towards victory. The game demands a profound commitment: not only will it eat up several hours, if not an entire day, it requires your full attention at all points. Our session lasted around seven hours, and at no time was I either bored or uninterested in what was happening, focused entirely on my forces and strategies. There were moments of confusion even late in the game, and smart players can take advantage of this. Just like in any political arena, like the noble houses of Westeros or the star-spanning Lansraad of Dune, confusion can be either your unspoken ally, or the final nail in your coffin.
While the commitments might be intimidating and the challenge daunting, the game is very fun to play and very intellectually stimulating. More than any Fantasy Flight game I’ve played, it is steeped in atmosphere, with everything from the nature of the races to the progression of technologies to the bickering in assemblies all creating a thick and lush tapestry of storytelling among the stars. And every story is going to be different! For what it’s worth, I consider myself hooked on the game. It requires planning ahead to play, a setting aside of time and a satisfaction of earthly commitments so you can play with a clear conscience, but if you can get a few friends to take this journey to the Twilight Imperium with you, and at least one of you takes the time to nail down the basics of the rules so nobody’s spending precious game time bent over a rulebook, the journey will be well worth the taking.