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Space Operas in the Kitchen: An Evening of Twilight Imperium

My table buckles underneath the weight of an entire galaxy.

Supernovas. Nebulas. Ion storms. Dozens of planets. And spaceships. Lots of spaceships. Whole fleets of them, each of them in a shaky alliance with their neighbors…or at total war.

At the center of it all is Mecatol Rex, the capital of this war-torn slice of the universe, the home of the now-extinct royal family whose deaths created the power vacuum that caused this civil war in the first place. Holding Mecatol Rex is the key to winning the war…and Daniel’s forces are sitting pretty on the surface.

Daniel is my friend, the ally on my left flank who I have treated honorably since the start of the conflict. In his rush for the galactic capital, he’s left his home planets wide open for the taking. My massive fleet hovers nearby, en route to another corner of the war, but I have a sudden change of heart. If I don’t cut Daniel off at the knees, someone else will. And that may win them the war.

I feel my soul die a little as I turn my Dreadnoughts and Cruisers toward my ally’s home world.

Twilight Imperium Board Game Review 2

Twilight Imperium is one of the best board games ever made, but it’s also one of the most daunting. Its massive box (and its two expansions) house a tabletop spaceopera that’s unlike anything you’ve played before, a game that’ll ask you to not only war with you opponents, but to make strategic alliances, work together to pass laws in a governing assembly and make morally devastating choices. It’s also something of a marathon, with games often running 10-12 hours. There are few things as devastating as watching your longterm plan get crippled in hour seven, leaving you grasping at straws as your well-oiled space empire splinters apart.

You don’t play Twilight Imperium unless your skin is thick enough to withstand crushing disappointment and the betrayal of your so-called friends. You don’t play Twilight Imperium unless you’re prepared to think on your feet and rebuild your wrecked space empire after an invasion destroys your economy. Like a real war, Twilight Imperium tests your ability to out-think your opponents as well as your ability to physically out-last them. It takes a lot of nerve a big pair of balls to stay sharp over the course of a half day long game.

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The crew arrives around 7:30 for rules explanation, but we aren’t actually playing until close to 9:00. There are a handful of Twilight Imperium veterans at the table, but most of them are rookies, fresh meat to power the War Suns.

As I explain the rules, I see many confused faces and furrowed brows, even from some of the experienced gamers. Although there is no single rule in Twilight Imperium that is more confusing than your average game of world/galactic conflict, there are bunch of rules. Your fleets can be composed of many types of ships. Planets you conquer offer radically different kinds of bonuses. Each alien race plays differently and each player has a deck of technology cards that he can buy from as he pleases. At it’s core, this is a remarkably straightforward game — you just have to comprehend the dozens of relatively straightforward options.

With rules explained, we build the galaxy*, with each player taking turns placing hexes featuring planets, barriers and other spacey things around Mecatol Rex, eventually leading to the far edge, where they place their home planets and their starting fleets. Ready or not, the game has begun.

Twilight Imperium is not necessarily about warring. As tempting as it can be to start an all-out war, this is a game of collecting victory points and sometimes, getting embroiled in a conflict will only distract you from actually winning the game. Throughout the game, various objective cards become available and each of them have a point value. Can you upgrade four pieces of tech? That’s worth a point. Can you have eight spaceships orbiting Mecatol Rex? That’s a point or two. The first person to ten points win the game. That’s what separates this from thematically similar (and simpler) games like Risk. Having a lot of might may allow you to crush your enemies, but it may not allow you to win the game. A scalpel can be more effective than a sledgehammer.

The really wily Twilight Imperium players are those who convince their friends to battle each other while they secure points, turning the various cold wars around the table hot while surviving through diplomacy and/or threats. It’s hard to win if you insist on playing clean.

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Right off the bat, I make an alliance with my Daniel to my left and Toni to my right, even going to far as to draw borders where we’re not allowed to cross. Across the table, George, Seth and David form a three-way team (which seems destined to fail since all three are trapped behind a string of ion storms and the only way out if through each other). Tyler and Paul make nice as well, effectively turning this into a game of three alliances.

As expected, the first few rounds are quiet and the alliances hold. Each empire expands into the unoccupied planets surrounding their home space. My race of bug people push against the borders of Toni’s sentient stars and Daniel’s diplomatic turtles, but our alliances hold. Everyone tests the water, gathers resources and preps their economies.

No one fires a shot for an hour or two.

And then it happens. The George/David/Seth alliance, already strained by the limited amount of territory in their neck of the galaxy, shatters when David’s forces declare war on George, who has focused most of his fleet on defending potential offensive from Paul. The table buzzes with excitement as David’s space pirates stomp George’s defenses.

We label David an oathbreaker. The title sticks to him throughout the rest of the game.

I imagine it’s possible to play Twilight Imperium in total silence, but I also imagine that game would stink. The game may have a 50 page rule book and more tiny plastic ships, decks or cards and cardboard tokens than any other game I’ve ever played, but it’s up to you to supply the most vital component: the right people. A game of Twilight Imperium isn’t defined by the beautifully sculpted pieces or the gorgeous art on the cards. It’s defined by personalities inhabiting the board.

Sure, Toni could have plotted her secret invasion of Seth’s homeland by quietly upgrading her forces and moving them into a seemingly innocent position by herself, but she didn’t. She would turn to me and we’d plot together, with me wanting her to cripple Seth’s forces and her wanting to ensure that our alliance would remain intact if she left her empire open to invasion.

We connived. We lied. I helped convince Seth that Toni wasn’t a threat and that he needed to move his forces to defend against THAT GODDAMNED OATHBREAKER DAVID. He fell into our trap and Toni cut him off at the knees, taking his home planet and leaving his fleet in tatters.

Twilight Imperium Blog

It was glorious. It was beautiful. It may not have been my plan, but I was a part of it. I was a character in the drama around the table, a key player in the space opera being played out on my kitchen. Knowing what I was plotting with Toni made all of the glances and whispered exchanges between Paul and Tyler across the table all the more exciting. What the hell were those two plotting? And how could I convince Daniel to undermine their alliance?

At one point in the night, Paul realizes that he misunderstood a rule and had been building and moving his units at about half efficiency for the past eight hours. He’s too strong to cry, but I know his heart is weeping.

And here we are, back where we started.

Daniel occupies Mecatol Rex and I’ve let him. We have a deal. He holds it to squeeze a few points out of it and then he’ll relinquish control to me. But I’m worried. The game is speeding up. Points are being accumulated faster than ever. I’m not winning. By the time Daniel gives the capital to me, it’ll be too late. I know it.

I maneuver my fleet into his territory, promising that I’m using his turf as a shortcut to invade one of Tyler’s planets. Of course, I’m a lying bastard and Daniel, being a good ally and friend, does nothing while I amass a titanic navy on his border.

I strike. Daniel’s home forces are decimated and the bulk of his fleet remains half a galaxy away on Mecatol Rex. It’s not an easy fight and I take heavy losses, with at least half of my spaceships exploding in the skies above Daniel’s home world.

But it’s mine. I plant my flag, put my ships in a defensive formation and begin to taunt the table with stories of how I’m putting all of Daniels’ citizens in camps and destroying his culture.

In the next turn, Tyler takes advantage of my less-than-stellar hold on Daniel’s planets and annihilates me, effectively taking me out of the war.

It takes a special kind of crazy to agree to play a ten hour space warfare game, but it takes another brand of crazy altogether to play a ten hour space warfare game well. An eight player game of Twilight Imperium is an exhausting and draining experience and for many gamers, it won’t be fun at all. Strong empires slip and crumble as their leaders get sleepy and lose focus. Smart, quiet empires emerge in the final hours to win the game, having planted all of the seeds and waited for the perfect time to strike. You win Twilight Imperium by enduring. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Looking back on it now, I betrayed Daniel at the exact wrong time. I could have gotten away with it a few rounds earlier or a few rounds later, but I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I made a tactical decision so devastating that it left both of our space empires in ruins, letting Tyler and Toni sweep in to take advantage of the chaos. I spent the rest of the game desperately attempting to recall my reserve fleet from deep in Paul’s turf (where I was raiding his weakly defended flank and just being an asshole), but it was no use. My war was lost and it was my fault.

Twilight Imperium 4

It’s hour ten and David and Toni are neck-and-neck. Both of them are one point away from victory — the next person to score gets the throne. As both Toni and David’s forces prep for the final bloody onslaught, an assembly is called and George proposes a law from his political deck. Everyone at the table has to vote for a single player to receive a single victory point. Cue gasps. Cue exhausted laughter. Cue the snoring of certain players from the other room.

We all examine our war-ravaged populations and count our influence, the numbers (representing the population of our empires) needed to contribute the vote. It’s all come down to this: the conclusion of the war looks like it’ll be decided by a session in space congress.

No one wrote a screenplay for this session of Twilight Imperium, but the result is a perfect conclusion for our space opera. Toni snags the final point and secures victory, leaving David, the oathbreaker whose aggressive acts started this war in the first place, in the dust.

On paper, that may seem like an anticlimactic ending to such an epic game, but I can’t ask for a more fitting conclusion. For all of the tactics and all of the strategy and all of the rules and clever mechanics, the real joy of Twilight Imperium is the story your group ends up weaving. The order of our seating, the selection of our alien races, the shifting moods of the table and the randomly generated map all contributed to an epic tale of conquest and betrayal, of war and peace, of diplomacy and friendship. Every game of Twilight Imperium is a new story, a fresh experience that, by its very nature, feels like an epic book or movie.

Our story, our movie/book, told the tale of a great empire whose reach exceeded its grasp, with the mistakes of his past coming back to haunt him when the keys to victory were in the hands of the people he so boldly betrayed and battled. My personal rise and fall feels like an appropriate subplot: I attacked my friend and was punished for it. My mistakes in judgment stopped being poor gameplay choices and started feeling like thematically appropriate scenes in a gripping science fiction story.

I may be a loser, but damn it, my tragic tale is one for the ages.

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The sun is beginning to rise. The kitchen countertops are a mess of beer bottles and soda cans. The galaxy, disheveled and divvied up eight ways, sits on the table, a snapshot of glory and misery.

Everyone is tired. Some of us are disgruntled. Everyone looks ready to die from

And all I can think about is our next game of Twilight Imperium.

*Observant gaming vets will note that we accidentally broke the rule that says you’re not allowed to place two red-bordered tiles next to each other.



Next Time On Chairman of the Board: Watch us create a situation built on a pile of dynamite and light a match as we get ourselves involved in a Fiasco.