Monday, June 29, 2015

Imperial Weekend

On Saturday, I got four other friends together and played my first game of Twilight Imperium (TI). I've heard some call TI one of the greatest boardgames ever made. Those are big words, but after just one playthrough, I can at least see where they're coming from.

Twilight Imperium is basically the daddy of all empire-building boardgames, figuratively in scope, literally in that it was Fantasy Flight Games' first release, the game that literally built the company back in 1997. In Twilight Imperium, you take one of ten alien races through an epic game of conquest. Starting from just your home system, you strike out across the galaxy, absorbing new planets into your empire. You conduct trade, research new technology, vote on the intergalactic council, and wage war with and against your fellow players. The goal of the game is simple: get ten victory points, by fulfilling the requirements of the publicy-available objective cards and/or the secret objective card you're dealt during the game's setup.

In the hobby's current environment of kumbiya/cooperative/semi-cooperative/multiplayer solitaire gaming that lasts an hour or less, TI is something of a throwback. Our game lasted almost exactly eight hours, from setup to takedown. Though we all went as long as we could without sending out the warships, myself and my buddy next to me (Red) eventually had to go to war, as he noticed that I was running away with the lead and would easily win the game if I weren't stopped. My other friend (Yellow) noticed this, too, and before I knew it, I was waging war on two fronts, with the other two players (Purple and Blue) quietly and tensely positioning themselves for the fallout. Red eliminated me, revealed that eliminating a player was his secret objective, and won the game. Had he failed to eliminate me that round, I would have won. It came down to literally one battle, one massive battle that I had little hope of winning, but if even one unit would have survived, I would have taken it all. Alas, it was not meant to be. A Shakespearean ending, for a boardgame.

I've only ever gotten to play games this epic just a handful of times in my life, and each time, it's a landmark experience. I spent Sunday doing my laundry and playing WoW, and in the back of my mind the entire day, I kept thinking about that game. How it could have gone differently so many different ways. That's always one of the great things about an empire builder; they're games built on moments, some of them so subtle you don't even realize how earth-shaking they were until you look back. At one point, Yellow stole a substantial amount of money from Purple. Purple was barricaded by empty space and relatively isolated, so it didn't seem like a big deal to me at the time, but Yellow was able to use those stolen resources to build the dreaded War Sun, which he used to raze the systems along my border. Had he not made that seemingly-petty move, I might have been able to hold him off, fight Red to a standstill, and win the game myself.

I was getting ganged-up on for almost half the game, but it was my own fault for jumping to a lead so aggresively. I had seven victory points while everyone else had 2 to 4. I should have known advancing so quickly would put a target on my head, but my strategy was reckless and simple: race to a quick lead and get so far ahead that I'll win before anyone could stop me. And it almost worked.

As far as rules go, there was a lot of bumbling through the game (as is natural of a first play of a game so epic in scope), but we caught most instances of shenanigans and were able to correct them on the spot, so I feel confident that we were, for the most part, playing correctly. There are two issues I ran into though, so if you, Dear Reader, know the answer, I'd love to hear it:

1. When a player is eliminated, does it happen immediately or during the end of the turn? Ultimately, this didn't matter, but it almost did, and it'd be good to know for the future. I assume the elimination is immediate, but some ambigous language in the manual makes it sound like that's not necessarily the case. Also, I wonder if it would break the game too much to allow an "eliminated" player to remain in the game, just unable to have a board presence (still able to select strategy cards, however). I think this would be interesting in that the "eliminated" player could still exert substantial leverage over the game, and possibly even still win.

2. Speaking of winning....objective cards (public and private) appear to be the only way to score points. Yet playing the Imperial strategy card appears to be the only way to bring out objective cards. Is that true? If that is true, I guess that means the game only ever moves forward when people select the Imperial card. And if that's the case, then it seems pretty damn important that every round, someone selects the Imperial card, or else the game will not progress.

I think it speaks to the quality of the game that I could go on and on and on about this one game, but I'm going to stop here, for now. If you have a chance to get Twilight Imperium to the table, absolutely, positively do so. It'll take your entire afternoon, but it'll be worth every single minute.

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