The Lazax Empire has fallen. Their loyal Winnarian stewards cower on the surface of a devastated Mecatol Rex, the former seat of galactic command. Following the Twilight Wars, the galaxy’s greatest factions emerge to fill the power vacuum and blah, blah, blah… space stuff.
All kidding aside, the background story is pretty good, but it is nothing compared to the narrative that is about to unfold around your table. Twilight Imperium, 4th Edition bills itself as An Epic Board Game of Conquest, Politics, and Trade. And epic is right. A single play can easily stretch to five, six, eight hours or more. But if you get invested in the taut, strategic puzzle before you, the game can be some of the most fun you’ll ever have lost an entire day to.
There’s so much to discuss in this game that it’s hard to know where to start. So let’s skip to the end. How do you win this sucker? By making it to the far side of the victory point track before anyone else. But unlike games where you build up an engine that lets you sprint past the opposition with a runaway combo, you will instead inch up this track one point at a time. Maybe two. Until you manage, after these many hours, to be the first to scrap your way to a grand total of… 10 points.
10. Lousy. Points.
10 points doled out stingily by a galaxy that wants to see how thin you’ll stretch yourself to erect a monument, corner an industrial sector, diversify your research, centralize galactic trade, or some other arbitrary goal. Each game, there are a total of 10 public objectives, randomly dealt during setup and revealed, one per round, throughout the game.
And while everyone jockeys for the same public objectives, each player will also have one or more secret objectives that could ask them to do something like construct a perimeter of space cannons, or maximize a certain kind of technology, or target and destroy an enemy’s powerful flagship. If the secret objective you have doesn’t fit your strategy or playstyle, you can, at somewhat high cost, press your luck by drawing a new one. Hopefully one that lets you eke out one more point along that victory track.
The genius of the game’s objective system is that it prevents anyone from locking into a rote strategy they read online. Players have to think on their feet as the goals swerve from rapid planetary colonization to quiet technological research to a demand for effective trade negotiations. While the objectives are varied, this isn’t a point salad so much as a neglected buffet with just a few croutons, three crushed chickpeas, and a single wilted spinach leaf. And everyone at the table is starving. So if you want to eat, you’re going to have to share the scraps.
Phases of play
The game plays in four phases: Strategy, Action, Status, and Agenda.
You’ll start by picking a strategy card for the round. There are eight to choose from. Everything from diplomatically protecting your prized systems to executing an invasion to enriching the economy with trade goods. But when you choose, you’re actually making a second decision: the order of play. Because each strategy card’s number determines your initiative during the following Action Phase.
Just like in Gloomhaven, the power of the card you choose balances against when you get to use it. You might pick one with a strong action but wind up at the end of the turn order, which could give your opponent enough time to stop the power move you’ve been formulating. And everything in the game follows this same tug of war (of attrition). Each time you pull ahead, you leave your outstretched neck square in the target of every space laser in the vicinity.
This is when you spend your collection of command tokens. These are divided among your tactical actions, strategic actions, and a fleet pool. The third type can’t be spent but it governs the size of your armada, since you can’t have more ships in a single system than you have tokens in this pool. Eventually, you can add more, but your initial limit is three.
Tactical actions make up the bulk of the game. You place a command token in a system you wish to activate, which allows you to move units into that system, fight anyone who was already there, claim any planets, and/or produce new units there. But each time you activate a system, you’ve glued any units to that spot for the rest of the round. So that move you’d planned where you’d produce a fleet of dreadnoughts, and then use them to bomb your neighbor’s home planet? That will have to wait.
Strategic actions relate to those strategy cards you picked last phase. Well, not the one you picked. You get to do that card’s primary action for free, but every other card has a secondary action that costs a strategy token. This is probably the secret to why TI can be a long game, but never feels slow. Because as long as you have a token to play, you can make important choices even on your opponent’s turn. So you’re always engaged in what’s going on.
For example, if someone plays Construction, they get to place a defensive space cannon and a unit-producing space dock on one of their planets. But if you’re willing to part with a strategy token, you can place one or the other on a planet you control. So every advantage a player gets from their chosen card still gives everyone (who can afford to) a chance to augment their own position.
PDS units (space cannons) let you take a pot shot at any would be invaders.
Play continues with each player taking strategic and tactical actions — building the power of their would-be empire with planets, technology, and combat units — until everyone has passed due to either a lack of command tokens or to take a strategic rest. This triggers the phase where most scoring occurs.
Every round, you can score up to one public and one secret objective. You can only claim an objective once, so scoring it immediately redirects your avenue to victory. This phase is also when the newest public objective is revealed, so you can start the gears turning on your next move. After some upkeep, you start over with a new round, or possibly go to the round’s fourth and final phase.
Agenda Phase isn’t unlocked until someone conquers the planet on the gameboard’s central tile: Mecatol Rex. Doing so represents establishing your faction’s seat of imperial power, letting you organize a kind of galactic United Nations who will establish the law of the game going forward. It’s a delicately balanced legal system, but let’s come back to that, because right now you’ll want to know more about Mecatol Rex.
The King of Planets
Mecatol Rex is a giant, unholy dump. Left desolate by the war brought on by the previous rulers, it’s a miserable planet with a poisonous atmosphere. And you’ll want to get there as fast as possible. For a few reasons:
- It’s worth a point.
If you’re the first to land troops on its surface, you just got yourself one tenth of the way to victory. Congrats.
- Centralize your strategy.
MR’s position in the middle of the map puts you in a good spot to plan your next tactical move. Whether it’s spreading out to conquer more technologically special planets or exploiting an unguarded path to an opponent’s home system, you now have a six-sided staging ground to launch from.
- It gives you six influence.
Let’s come back to this in the Agenda Phase discussion.
- Strategy card #8: Imperial.
If you manage to grab this card in the Strategy Phase, you can play it while you control Mecatol for a point — another tenth of the way to victory.
By no means will you absolutely need to control Mecatol to win the game. Obviously it has its benefits, but being there also makes you a target. And that can force you to dig in on your position, to the possible detriment of what you actually need to do to win. But nobody said these decisions were going to be easy.
Speaking of tough choices, let’s talk about deciding law. Once you unlock this phase, players will vote on two proposals each round, drawn from a deck of agenda cards. Some change the state of the game by either expanding or restricting military strength or movement or research or a number of other game basics. Others will elect a player to be the target of either a punitive action or an immediate bonus. If you’re wondering how many votes each player gets, that depends on how many planets they control. Because every planet has two values (beyond the sentimental): resources and influence. The former is used primarily to pay for new units, and the latter buys you more command tokens, as well as votes.
Agenda can easily be the longest phase of each round. And so it should be, because the whole balance of the game can shift on this moment of political theater. A player sitting on an imposing pile of influence (especially those six big ones from Mecatol) can stand to make a lot of favorable deals here. Especially because this is the one time in the game where every player can make trades.
New players to TI probably won’t engage in much negotiating, but veteran players will live and die by it. In addition to the currencies attached to each planet, there is a physical tender in the game called trade goods. They count as either resources or influence (but not votes) and can be used to buy safe passage, promissory notes, or really any agreements with other players.
Wait. What? Promissory notes? Yeah, this game has (almost literally) everything. Every player has four common and one unique promissory note they can trade, including one that straight up gives another player a free point. Others give you ceasefires or a chance to squash someone’s political power during Agenda. Brilliantly, the notes come on cards with non-distinct backing. So if you trade a ceasefire to your neighbor, and they trade a card to their neighbor, guess what? You don’t know if they just traded your ceasefire agreement to a whole other player, which could take the wind out of your space sails during a future military maneuver.
During Action, you’re allowed to trade with any player you share a border with, and they tend to be used to de-escalate direct conflicts. But during Agenda, everyone’s together, free to trade with anyone. So even though you only vote on two proposals, the bargaining around each can quickly turn into the kind of desperate pleas normally reserved for loan sharks, jilted lovers, or the other players in a game of Chinatown. “Please. Please vote for this. I’ll give you a ceasefire and three trade goods. C’mon!” you’ll cry, abandoning politics in the hope that simple groveling will preserve your delicately constructed strategy for the next round.
And proposals are rarely straightforward. Often, the cards they come from pose the choice at hand as a screw me now or screw me later. For example, one card limits all fleets to four ships, which is great if you’re sitting at a low fleet pool compared to your opponents. But if the law fails, every player gets to immediately expand their fleet pool. Good for you, but also your enemies. Or a proposal might elect a player who immediately scores a point, but if anyone invades their home system, that point just as immediately transfers to the invader. Every advantage comes with an equal and opposite disadvantage.
Now, you’ve picked a strategy, moved some ships around, claimed some planets, made some trades, scored a point or two, and voted on a couple laws. Congratulations. You’ve made it through one round of TI. You might be in the lead. You might even control Mecatol Rex. But there’s still a lot of game to play.
Establishing your space
Let’s take a look back at setup. There are two important choices for each player to make at this time, and we’ll discuss the second one first: the gameboard. TI plays on a modular board built of hex tiles which are assembled by the players themselves. Each player is randomly dealt a hand of populated systems, as well as a couple systems that are either empty or marked by anomalies. From asteroid belts and supernovas that restrict movement to singularities that either slingshot your ships across space or destroy them in the process, anomalies are your key to creating important choke points.
But more important is your hand of populated tiles. These form the economy of your game, due to the values attached to each planet. They also give you the opportunity to either set up your home area with abundant wealth, or strategically place rich systems for your enemies to fight over while you tiptoe your way to Mecatol.
Your space race
Of course, your single most important decision all game will be the first one you make: what’s your faction? There are 17 to choose from, each with their own special abilities, unique starting planets, specialized technologies, and a singular promissory note. Some have unique unit types, but all have a flagship with a proprietary ability. There are trade goods-stealing pirates, and telepathic sirens, and spy networks, and warrior bugs, and actual ghosts, and even friggin’ humans (although Earth is called “Jord” now, for some reason). Plus 11 more. I’ve never played any previous editions of TI, but from what I’ve read, Fantasy Flight has done a very good job of balancing each faction for Fourth Edition. So no whining about OP factions.
You can choose one that suits your playstyle, or just explore the abilities of each from one game to the next. But every combination is going to form its own unique galactic ecosystem, as some natural alliances will form, and interesting power dynamics will take shape. Which is the main ingredient in the game’s chemistry.
A universe of conflict and resolution
If you’re a fan of sci-fi, there’s no shortage of things to love in TI. The culmination of 20 years of iterations as both board game and RPG, the Twilight Imperium lore is rich and detailed in unique world building. Every faction sheet has several paragraphs of backstory for you to peruse in early turns, learning about your race’s particular stakes in this fight. But, importantly, even if you’re not so enchanted by sci-fi, the game’s complex and connected systems — as well as a freedom to find your own path to victory — means every session sets the stage for your own legends to be made around the tabletop.
It’s common for strategy games to encourage alliances, but most are going to be naturally tenuous because everyone is playing for the same objective. Eventually, for you to win, you’ll have to stab your partner in the back. TI, with its varied objectives, opens the way to true partnerships. For example, you can focus on trade while your ally goes for conquest. Both can be valid tracks to a win, and they can complement each other. It’s perfectly possible that you’ll let your neighbor take over a nearby system, simply because it’s not important to the game you’re playing. Or you can lure them into spreading their forces too thin and turn heel because that’s just space business, baby. But it’s not the game dictating this narrative. It’s you.
And with six people shaping this complex dynamic, the soap opera around the table will have everyone talking long after a winner is decided.
Why TI might not be for you
I don’t have much to offer by way of criticism. Nothing’s too fiddly. There are a lot of rules, but they tend to stick in the brain due to repetition and thematic logic. The production is great in both design and artwork. As random as the dice combat can be, it’s actually a smart power limiter that keeps anyone from steamrolling the game into a boring slog. I do find the faction logos easy to get mixed up, but that’s a pretty minor issue to have in a pretty major game. That said, it’s definitely not for everyone, and with an MSRP north of $100, you should know about the factors that might kill it for you.
Now, while I don’t think a love of the genre is prerequisite to a love of TI, if you plain don’t like sci-fi, there’s no real ignoring it here. This is a game that, despite its rich drama and tense politicking, might not enchant you at all. If cloned zealots fighting sentient plants fighting a technological virus fighting plasma golems in space doesn’t get your hyperdrive engine running, you might look elsewhere. And it should be noted: this is a game where there are only two female-presenting characters — one of which is, naturally, topless. Even if you’re inclined to look past a theme that doesn’t interest you for a game that does, keep in mind that you’re likely to spend an entire workday’s worth of time in this universe. So, just be sure you’re ready for…
The time investment
Boredom isn’t the problem here. If you’re at all interested during turn one, I don’t think there’s a reason you would lose it by turn 20. Probably the opposite: you’ll likely become more eager as time goes on. This is where fatigue becomes a real factor. You may find yourself snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the (perhaps literal) 11th hour because you forgot to play a useful card. Or you miscalculated battle odds. Or whatever other thing slipped your exhausted mind. It’s stressful and frequently frustrating, especially since the late game demands every move goes just right. And of course, as you build up to your coup de gras, you don’t want to lose it to a mistake, or worse, to…
Because of how the game is scored, it is possible to look at the victory track, do the math, and realize you just don’t have enough moves to win. And you can sit back, play your best game, and score as many points as you can. Or… You can keep being an important cog (or wrench) in the gears of the great machine. Because it’s a game of alliances and betrayals and revenge, the late game is frequently defined by struggles between entire coalitions. Or by dirty deals. It’s just part of the game that if you can experience the golden glow of a meteoric rise to glory, you should also be ready for the painful sting of an out-of-left-field power grab that crushes your shot at the throne. But there’s no doubt it hurts. Especially after an eight-hour day, when you were certain you deserved that win. Space is a cold place.
Of all the games I’ve played, Twilight Imperium is, far and away, the most discussed and argued over after each session. It just gets under your skin. How one move you made had you feeling like a genius, while another made you feel real life guilt for its ruthlessness.
This also makes it a game that, despite having lost an entire day to it, I’m usually eager to play again soon. Maybe with a new faction, a new strategy, or a new alliance. But always coming back to Jord, or uhh, Earth with a new story to tell.