Sunday, February 20, 2005

Review: Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition

First, let me state that this is not really a review; it's a first impression. At this point, I've only played about two thirds of a game of Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition and therefore I don't feel qualified to give the game a proper review. What I can do is comment on my first impressions, the quality of the components, and give some general idea of what people can expect from the game.

Let me begin by saying that this game is big in every sense of the word. The first thing that you'll notice is the huge, hefty box that it comes in. It's nearly two feet long, a foot wide and four or five inches deep. It weighs in at around 12 pounds! Open up that huge box and you'll find it packed with delicious bits. There are roughly 350 highly detailed miniatures in this box, representing space ships, ground troops, and other military units. There are also over 400 cards, around 500 counters, and just under 50 large hexagonal tiles that are used to build the playing surface. All of the cards, tokens, counters, and playing pieces are high-quality, first rate pieces with exquisite artwork and an amazing attention to detail. This is truly a beautiful game.

One complaint that I have heard is that the cards are the mini sized cards (similar to the cards in Ticket to Ride); not full sized. I really can't see why this should be a problem though. Full sized cards would actually be a liability due to the way the cards are used. Many of the cards need to be placed face up in the player's playing area. With all these bits, the table is already quite crowded and using the smaller cards keeps the game playable.

TI3E is also huge in scope. Players are each randomly assigned one of 10 different races, scattered across a huge galaxy. Each race has special abilities that make it unique. Players begin in their home star system and, over the course of several turns, expand their areas of influence, build fleets of ships, conquer neighboring star systems, negotiate with other races, build and tear down trade agreements, enter into diplomatic alliances, pass laws in the galactic council, develop new technologies, and try to become the most successful race in the galaxy. Success is measured in victory points, which can be awarded for achieving any number of different objectives. The winner is the first to arrive at a pre-determined number of victory points (usually 10) or the one with the most victory points after a certain number of turns have expired.

Each game is played over a series of game turns (typically around ten or so). Each turn is divided up into a series of actions. At the beginning of a turn, each player chooses from among eight strategy cards. Each strategy card gives the player who chose it a special action, and every other player may choose to execute the secondary action associated with the card (somewhat similar to the way the roles work in Puerto Rico). Each action card also has a number which determines play order. Some of the actions associated with the strategy cards include making or breaking trade alliances, enacting political laws (which alter the rules of the game for all players), increasing the number of actions you can take during your turn, and developing new technologies (which alter the rules of the game for just you).

On each turn, players take turns executing actions until everyone passes. Players can choose to execute one of a standard set of actions, such as moving a fleet, producing units or attacking a neighboring system. All actions have a cost so sooner or later players are going to be forced to pass to end their turn. At some point during their turn a player must execute the special action granted by the strategy card they chose, at which point all the other players may execute the associated secondary action (assuming they can pay the associated cost). A big part of the strategy in TI3E is deciding when to execute your special action. Typically you want to do it when it will be most beneficial to you and least beneficial to your opponents. It's a very good system that adds a lot of strategy and enjoyment to the game.

Because each turn is divided up into so many actions (one player might easily execute a half-dozen actions on her turn) completing even a single game turn can take quite a bit of time. This is particularly true if players are learning the game and are unfamiliar with the plethora of options available to them. This contributes to what, for me, is the game's single biggest weakness: it's length.

This is an EXTREMELY long game. For our first game, we assembled a group of six very experienced game players. Each of us had at least skimmed through the 44 page rule book (which is available on line at so we were somewhat familiar with how the game worked. We started at around one o-clock and played through one full turn just to get a feel for how the game worked. Then we re-started the game and played until nearly eleven! By then, the leader had only accumulated around five victory points! At that point people had to leave so we were forced to quit. Technically we were only half way through with the game, however by then we had a better feel for the game, people had built up huge fleets that were ripe for invasion and it seems likely that the rest of the victory points would have been earned in only a couple of hours more. Still, over eight hours for only about two-thirds of a game is a huge time investment, to say the least. (I'm not counting the hour and a half that we spent setting up and playing through that practice turn.)

Here are some suggestions that I feel would help your first experience with TI3E be an enjoyable one:

First, play with only three or four players. Playing with a full compliment of six players dramatically lengthened the game for us. (Note that I'm not saying the game is better with fewer players; just that it's faster.)

Second, make sure that everyone has taken the time to really study both the strategy cards and the technology tree. Understanding exactly what the strategy cards do is essential to playing the game. If someone doesn't understand how they work then you're going to have to wait a long time while they decide what to do and how to do it. And if you don't know the tech tree then you're going to force everyone to wait a long time while you try and decide which technology (if any) you want to pursue and how to get there.

Third, play the regular game (10 victory points) instead of the long game (14).

Finally, no matter how tempting it seems, don't introduce house rules in the first game. There is a strategy card that gives two victory points to whoever chooses it. This seems like it's way too powerful and so, at the suggestion of many people on the internet, we changed it so it granted only one victory point. The net result was that it prolonged the game. I'm convinced that we'd have been better off playing with the original rule, at least until everyone was familiar enough with all the rules to feel comfortable changing them.

So finally, what's my overall impression of Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition? I think it's a great game. It's got an epic scope, an insane amount of replayability, lots of fantastic mechanics, lovely components, deep strategy, and it's a thoroughly engaging game. On the other hand, it's way too long for most people. Not many people can devote an entire day to playing a single game. So in the end I'm torn. There's so much that I love about this game that I'm really hoping I'll get a chance to play it again. At the same time, I just can't imagine setting aside that much time for it. This is the kind of game that it makes sense to set up on a table somewhere and play over a series of nights. If you played one or two turns each night, that would spread the game out over a week or so. I could see that working quite well.

So in the end, you need to be the judge. If you're a hard-core gamer with a lot of time on your hands and you're looking for a really deep game that does a lot of things and does them all extremely well, then this might just be your game. But if you're a casual game player who wants to play a game that comfortably fits into an evening and which doesn't require a lot of study and careful thought, then this game is most definitely not for you.


At 7:04 PM, August 15, 2007, Blogger jm said...

Isn't there an expansion to this?

At 7:37 PM, August 15, 2007, Blogger Steve said...

Not only is there an expansion, we carry it.


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