Twilight Imperium has been capturing the hearts and tables of gamers for almost twenty years. It’s the game that launched Fantasy Flight Games and is so popular it’s now in its third edition. It’s also a galaxy-spanning monster. Many people have heard of this 8-pound opus, but far fewer have actually played it.
TI3 has a bit of a reputation. It’s got a lot of information to absorb. Actually playing the game isn’t as complicated as it seems, but it’s going to take a good hour to go over all the rules, systems, and the structure of the game. This is absolutely the wrong game to say, “let’s just start playing”. You’ll need to learn how turns work and the specific order in which you execute actions when you activate a planet. There are alliances to go over, tech trees to explain, and 11 different unit types used to dominate the universe. Then there’s the deck of laws that change all those rules when enacted and 17 different races that all bend and break everything you’ve learned. It’s a lot.
It’s also worth it.
This game is a space opera in every sense of the word. You start the game tucked away in your corner of the galaxy with a broad swath of options in front of you. Your goal is galactic dominance, your weapons are lasers, missiles, and a silver tongue. There’s always more going on than you can handle so politicking is necessary to accomplish anything. Teamwork is critical in this game; it’s part of what I enjoy so much. It’s also responsible for keeping things engaging. Alliances never sleep so there’s always something you can negotiate while Sarah is moving her fleet towards the capital planet of Mercatol Rex despite promising you she’d let you take it next round. Ahem.
A series of turns are nested into larger rounds. Individual turns go pretty quickly-relatively speaking-and each player has a unique Strategy Card they control for the entire round. These cards give you a leg up on the various theaters of war. While everyone will get a chance to act when you play your card, your action is much stronger and more desirable. For example, playing the Technology Card gives everyone the opportunity to purchases an expensive tech upgrade but it gives the owner one for free. This reduces downtime and keeps you engaged at all times.
Even when you aren’t actively playing, there is a lot to think about. Turn structure is very rigid and TI3 is as much about what you can’t do as it is about what you can do. When a system is activated a very precise list of options are resolved in order. Space Docks are needed to build units, but you can’t build a Space Dock and then produce units from it in the same activation. Systems can’t be activated twice during the current round-it’s a clunky way to emulate simultaneous galactic action-so achieving your goals has to be carefully mapped out turns in advance. While it might feel limiting initially, it’s key to giving you a chance to react and mobilize your forces in response to a threat. TI3 is a game of long term strategy, not necessarily immediate tactics.
That’s very important because I haven’t mentioned the biggest issue with getting Twilight Imperium to the table. It’s long. Really long. The average game clocks in at 8 hours and while it can run shorter, I’ve played in games that span 10 hours broken up across two nights because a bleary eyed player lifted his head up from the table and announced there was no amount of caffeine or candy that could keep them going. Again though, it’s worth it. That length also makes it perfect for something like International Tabletop Day.
There are plenty of space empire games on the shelves of your local game store, but there is only one Twilight Imperium. No other game sees you dominate planet after planet, laying their cards out in front of you for you to activate for economic resources of political clout. No other game will see your friends stand at the table, offering money and protection in a desperate bid to pass a law or stave off an assault.
Twilight Imperium defines the word epic. We still tell stories of games many years old. There was the time my fanatical cultists of the Brotherhood of Yin rode their starships on suicide missions (so shiny, so chrome) straight into my good friend’s back. He still won’t ally with me in games because of that. Or the time the pipe-smoking space turtles of the Xxcha Kingdoms dominated the political scene, bringing the game to an abrupt end by changing the victory condition. They won the war without firing a single shot. We pass out cell phone numbers before every game, allowing for silent and secret communication. In last year’s game of conquest I sat smiling like Varys, confident that I’d shortly be crowned emperor, when I realized that a flurry of messages were flying across the tables and I wasn’t receiving a single one.
Yes, the game is a little clunky. Yes, it’s very long. But it’s a truly unique experience. It’s the kind of game that’s worthy of an event like International Tabletop Day. Or maybe International Tabletop Day is worthy of Twilight Imperium 3. It can be tempting to fill all-day gaming events with as many titles as possible, but this year I recommend you look to the stars. Just make sure you collect cash for lunch (and dinner), battling for cosmic dominance is hungry business.
What is the most epic game you’ve ever played? Is 8 hours too long for any one game? Let us know below!
Image Credits: Tom Reuhl