Type: Empire building
Suggested Ages: 13+
Play Time: 2-10 hours
Play Style: civilization, negotiation, war, development
Learning Curve: Moderate to Steep
Similar To: Puerto Rico, Masters of Orion (video game)
Links: Board Game Geek
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Twilight Imperium is a vast game of galactic expansion involving colonization, politics, trade, research and warfare. If you love games like Masters of Orion or Civilization, this game is Christmas in a box.
The galaxy is laid out as hex tiles representing star systems. In the center is Mecatol Rex, the ancient homeworld of a huge, extinct civilization. Players start at one of the six corners with a home system for their race, which gives them unique special abilities, and a set of starting ships. The goal is to meet various shared and secret objectives to gain victory points.
The game is broken into large rounds, and smaller actions. At the start of each round, players each select a Strategy Card such as Diplomacy, Politics, Trade, or Warfare. Each Strategy card allows a special action during the round, and has a number indicating the initiative order. Players go in this order taking one action at a time. Actions can include activating a star system to move ships into it, build or start a battle; transferring ships between systems; or using their Strategy Card action. Whenever a player uses a Strategy Card, all the players participate in that action as well. For instance, when a player uses the Politics Strategy, everyone can vote on a new galactic law, committing planets to provide influence.
The game has two basic currencies to “buy” actions, Strategy Counters and planets. You begin each round with a handful of Strategy Counters, which you then spend on each action you take. There are a few pools to assign these to at the start of the round, so you have to plan ahead. Each planet you colonize provides resources and influence. Resources are spent to build ships and troops or research new technology, and influence is spent during politics. Whenever a planet uses its resources or influence, it is “exhausted” and flipped over until the end of the round.
The game is also rife with negotiating. At any time players can make (or break) deals to gain the best systems, sway a political vote, broker better trade deals, or make wartime alliances. There’s no set rules; players simply offer or request deals for favors as they see fit. Likewise, deals can be broken at any time. It creates a fascinating tension between need and trust.
I’ve played twice now, and had a blast both times. I wasn’t sure how the victory point track would work, since it didn’t seem directly tied to my expansion. That ended up being the most brilliant design decision in the game. My first game, I expanded rapidly and had a huge empire generating massive resources, dominating in fleet size, trade and politics, but I finished in last place for victory points. In my second game I only picked up a few key systems and really played the victory point strategy, and won by a wide margin. The beauty is that the dominant player doesn’t automatically bully his way to victory. Everyone can contend for victory points, even if they’re getting steamrolled by some strong-arming empire.
One caveat must be made. This is a long game. You can control the length by setting different galaxy sizes and varying the number of victory points required to win, as well as removing other time-consuming options. Any way you slice it though, you’re probably looking at a minimum of three hours. Our long-form game with the biggest galaxy and lots of options took 10 hours, and we actually ended a round or two early (the store was closing for the night).
One criticism I’d make is the learning curve. The basics are very easy to understand, but there are a lot of smaller rules that get overlooked on a first playthrough. We accepted early on that some rules lawyering and double-checking was in order to make sure everything was fair. I think this nuisance will fade by the third or fourth game.
Another is the Strategy Cards, which don’t feel entirely balanced out of the box. This is where the expansions really shine. We played with both in our second game, Shattered Empires and Shards of the Throne. The experience was elevated tremendously. I really can’t recommend using at least one expansion enough. They come with alternate Strategy Cards, which can be mixed and matched with the originals to tailor-fit a group’s preferences. They also add new space tiles, races, race-specific options like flagships and unique technology, political representatives with special abilities, and more.
If you like massive empire building games like Masters of Orion, or even more complex resource games like Puerto Rico, I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s a rare game that gives you such an expansive, thoroughly realized experience for such a huge theme as galactic civilizations. Just be warned, you will want an expansion fairly quickly.