Ever since its first edition was released almost 20 years ago, Twilight Imperium has been one of the most massive propositions in tabletop gaming. Over the years, it has only grown bigger with expansions and revisions. A flawed work of folly and genius, its absolutely titanic third edition (known as TI3) is loved and feared in equal amounts, a base game that comes in a box that’s two feet long and nearly a foot across. Confused beginners need 10 or more hours to play.
The game’s proposition is simple, but the execution is fearsomely complex. Between four and eight players—but ideally six—build a galaxy and lead alien races who want to conquer it. Along the way, you research military technologies, colonize planets, subvert the galactic senate, and smash dozens of small plastic space ships together in generally futile attempts at becoming EMPEROR of SPACE. Think of it as the cardboard version of classic video games like Master Of Orion or Homeworld. When it’s good—with six people who know what they’re doing—Twilight Imperium is one of the best games there is. When it’s bad—after seven hours with only two people left who can possibly win and everyone else going through the motions out of politeness—it’s horrid.
Including the many options introduced in two expansion packs, which are each the price and size of most other premium standalone games, TI3 had begun to teeter under the weight of its ambition. It is after all quite hard to gather six or eight people around a table when players can be knocked from contention a couple of hours into a game that lasts all day. Combine that with roughly 80 pages of rules and hundreds of cards that break them—sometimes in ill-defined ways—and you have a game in which players are battling against each other’s mental and physical stamina as much as against any attack ships off the shoulder of Orion. It was always designed to be too much, but it quickly got, like, too too much.
Enter the fourth edition of Twilight Imperium—it’s more of the same, but it’s also better in almost every way.
A huge amount of thought has been put into what was wrong with Fantasy Flight’s flagship interstellar leviathan, and so many of the game’s rough edges have been expertly bevelled. With these changes, the designers have clawed back a solid hour or more of play time that would have been previously lost to the finicky rules of the previous edition.
TI4 is very much an evolution, but enough of the systems have changed that veterans can’t sit down and play it without a thorough read of the rules. And everyone I’ve seen do this sits there for 10 minutes making appreciative cooing noises or remarking on whatever clever rewrite of some cumbersome older rule they’ve just noticed.
The fundamentals haven’t changed. The galaxy is still three rings of hexagons placed around Mecatol Rex, a central capital planet, and it contains plenty more planets, asteroid fields, wormholes, supernovae, etc. Players still start with different racial abilities, a few meager technologies, and some wimpy ships, and they’re still expected to leave the confines of their homeworld in order to smear angry coloured plastic bits across civilized space. The game’s lore is the same and so are the races, though these have been tweaked for balance and interest (in a stroke of generosity, all 17 races from earlier expansions are included).
Gameplay proceeds in the same basic way: there’s the strategy phase in which everyone picks one of eight “strategy cards,” which provide a unique power to be used once that turn, along with one secondary, related power that everyone but the picker can use. Then there’s the tactical phase, where stuff happens, followed by the status phase, where scoring and other bookkeeping happens. And here’s the first of the really big and really good changes: once Mecatol is captured, a fourth phase begins, the agenda phase, in which politics happen.
Before, politics were an afterthought, a part of the game that could easily be ignored if players disregarded the relevant strategy card. There were dozens of dull agendas that changed little about the game state, and many which were rather too exciting and changed too much. In TI4, things are formalized: politics happen every round, and the mechanics feel meaningful. Two rule-altering agendas are voted on per phase, and players can use influence—one of two resources produced by their planets—to vote on agendas. Only the player that picked the new politics strategy card knows what’s coming, though, so the minigame becomes more about being the person to load the deck and goad the others to commit too much of their influence to the first vote. The agendas have been significantly whittled down and there’s far less filler, meaning each vote will make a difference to the game, which can often represent a useful check and balance on a runaway leader. It’s a simple, common-sense change that’s no harder to learn but which unfolds brilliant new vistas.
There are tons of other changes like this, every single one of which makes the game materially better. The trade goods of the previous version were designed to be used as bargaining chips in pan-galactic (non-) aggression pacts, but too many players just hoarded them as extra currency for more dreadnaughts, because the mechanism by which they were acquired was haphazard. Now, when someone activates the trade strategy card, everyone generates “commodities” (if the activator permits it). These are trade goods that your own empire can’t spend; they represent goods your empire produces in droves and thus are worthless to you but have value to other races. So to make them useful, you are forced to swap them with someone else. Once again, this blows the hinges off the diplomatic game. Suddenly everyone’s a wheeler-dealer, and commodities become exquisite bribes to play opponents off against one another. I have already made more deals (and far more complex multilateral ones) in the handful of games I have played in TI4 than I ever did before—and it’s utterly thrilling.
Added to this are “promissory notes,” a concept half-implemented in an old expansion that’s now absolutely integral to badgering another player to do your bidding. Everyone has four of these, plus a unique racial one. You hand them to another player to make a binding contract—if they do something you ask them to do, they get a card that, say, lets them cancel one of your attacks or shuts you out of a vote or grants them a whole damn victory point for their help. The racial ones are even more amazing—powerful curveballs that practically force players to make outlandish deals. It sounds like such a small addition, but it prevents turtling and boring neighborly non-aggression pacts, and it makes for a much more open, much more competitive game.
For instance, at one juncture, I was playing as the “Embers of Muaat,” a race of sun-dwellers who invented the War Sun (an off-brand and legally watertight Death Star). In order to encourage someone who had zero interest in getting involved in a local dispute to attack my nearest rival, I was able to hand over a card that he could redeem for the blueprints to a War Sun of his own. Coercion and bribery were rarely previously possible on this scale, and when you pull it off, it feels good, man.