Review: Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition)

Growing up, I was a big fan of 4X computer games such as Civilization and Master of Orion. In recent years I’ve been more into tabletop gaming, but I’ve always hoped to find a board game that adequately captures the feel of a 4X. It’s a tough ask to distill all those 1’s and 0’s into cardboard, maintaining the feeling of an epic scope while not getting buried in tedious upkeep. Some games have tried and failed (Civilization: The Board Game), and others have successfully taken inspiration from 4X without attempting to replicate the genre entirely (Scythe, Through the Ages).

So when I recently tried Twilight Imperium Fourth Edition, it was my first time experiencing a tabletop game that felt like a true 4X classic. I’d like to share my thoughts on what makes this game so special — as well as some caveats and potential shortcomings — from the perspective of a first time player.

What Impressed Me Most About TI4

One thing that immediately stood out to me is that TI4 is deeply thematic. The game features a full Lore Compendium longer than many games’ rulebooks, which provides a history of the Twilight Imperium universe, accompanied by stunning illustrations. On top of that, each of the 17 unique races has their own faction sheet with a full-page history of their people.

The differences between the factions are not merely surface level. Sure, you’ve got your “basic” factions, like the mercantile lions, and the fragile-but-brainy fish people. But you’ve also got ghosts who bend interstellar wormholes to their will, telepathic snake women, and a computer virus that is banned from all galactic council meetings.

IMG_0307
Faction sheet example: The Arborec.

So with that, the table is set. But this is no on-the-rails, prix fixe deal. The game mechanics offer you an endless buffet of options, allowing you and your five friends to dictate exactly how this veritable board gaming feast is going to go.

Will you focus your resources on research or infrastructure? Will you win battles with an armada that blocks out the nearest star, or streamlined fleets that exploit your enemy’s weaknesses? Or will you avoid conflict altogether, instead using the mere threat of your forces to tip diplomatic negotiations in your favor? You can adopt any leadership style you see fit – you alone tell the story of your people.

I especially appreciate the mechanics surrounding diplomacy in Twilight Imperium 4. Players can engage in “transactions” with their neighbors, exchanging tangible items like commodities and promissory notes. The promissory notes are a clever way to give weight to an otherwise unenforceable promise – like the Ceasefire card, which can later be cashed in to halt that player’s attack should they decide to break the truce. Players can also make “deals” with anyone at the table, which can involve whatever intangible terms the players dream up – however, these terms are only binding if they can be executed immediately.

I love this system of diplomacy, because it conforms so well to each group. There are no restrictions on what is considered a fair trade. You simply have to read your fellow players. It feels like… actual diplomacy.

Another favorite feature of mine was the “agenda phase”, unlocked once someone claims the central seat of power, mega-planet Mecatol Rex. (Side-note: Is it scientifically possible for a habitable planet the size of Mecatol Rex to exist? How much gravitational force would it exert? This seems like a question for Randall Munroe.) All the players send emissaries to a Galactic Council, where they use political capital to vote on two randomly selected agenda cards. Some of these cards are fairly innocuous, while others can turn the tide of the entire game. Here’s one such example from my game:

I was playing as the Naalu Collective and had landed on Mecatol Rex in round 3. A sizable portion of my forces were focused on the capital, while the Emirates of Hacan and Universities of Jol-Nar also had some fleets in surrounding systems. During the first Galactic Council, one agenda informed us that we had discovered an unstable Ixthian Artifact. We could vote to investigate it or leave it alone. If we investigated it, there was a 50% chance that everyone at the table would gain two free technologies. On the flip side, the artifact might just explode, destroying every ship on Mecatol Rex and heavily damage the fleets in surrounding systems as well.

Of course, I was against investigating the artifact, but I had little hope to persuade the rest of the table. So I made a desperate move, appending an Imperial Rider to the directive – I was recused from the vote, but if ‘For’ was selected, I would gain a victory point. My hope was that players would choose ‘Against’ to deny me the free VP.

My plan was almost foiled immediately – Jol Nar tried to sabotage my rider, which would have forced me to simply lose that valuable card. In a total bluff, I warned Jol Nar that if he played his Sabotage card on me, I’d vote FOR investigating the artifact. If anyone else was in favor of voting against, it had to be him. He was already flush with tech, and fairly heavily invested in the systems surrounding Mecatol Rex. My ploy worked, and he retracted.

My smugness was short-lived, as the table overwhelmingly voted in favor of investigating the Ixthian Artifact, content to give me a victory point in exchange for decimating my fleet. I held my breath and looked on helplessly as the die rolled out of the speaker’s hand and came to rest on the table. The result showed that the artifact did not explode. The Naalu lived to fight another day, with one extra victory point to show for their troubles.

The above is just one example of how Twilight Imperium is sprinkled with pivotal moments. Like a well seasoned dish, these are the tastes that stick in your mind, the memories by which you will describe the meal long after you leave the table.

A look at the final board state.

The Caveats

Of all the games ranked in BoardGameGeek’s current Top 100, Twilight Imperium Fourth Edition has one of the highest barriers to entry. First, there’s the high price point ($150 MSRP). For the full experience, you’ll want to find five friends ready for an 8-10 hour all day marathon. That’s how long one playthrough can take — if everyone studies the rules ahead of time. And don’t forget the setup, which alone can take over an hour. For anyone who’s not pretty deep into the hobby, those are some fairly serious hurdles to clear.

If, like me, you and your friends are new to Twilight Imperium, then you may also have the concern that some of them may end up having a less than optimal experience and feeling like they wish they had spent their day some other way. Any other way.

To that concern, I would first advise that TI4 is not a game that your new-to-the-hobby friends are likely to enjoy. Invite your five most avid gaming friends to play this one. And if you don’t have five friends who are avid gamers, your best bet to play TI4 might be at a convention or a local game group. And maybe you’ll make some new gaming friends!

Secondly, if you’re the one organizing the game day, I think that etiquette dictates that you should take some measures ahead of time to help improve the chances of a good experience for your guests. Here are the steps I took:

  • I shared the Learn to Play manual and the RTFM how to play video as required prep materials. At the bare minimum, having everyone review the manual is a must if you want everyone at the table to get the most out of their first game.
  • Additionally, I did some more in-depth research of errata and common rules questions, so that I could be ready to quickly resolve any uncertainties that came up on game day (or at least know where to look for the answer).
  • I randomly assigned each player three factions to choose from — one recommended first-time faction and two others (note: with only 17 total factions, one player only got two choices, and as compensation he received the Speaker token). I didn’t want any player to feel like they got stuck with a faction they didn’t like for 8 hours, so this was my way of trying to give everyone a bit of agency in their decision.
  • I set up the game ahead of time, using the recommended 6 player map layout for beginners and distributing the home worlds randomly among the six starting locations. Alone, the setup took me roughly 2 hours, but doing this ahead of time helped ensure we could finish in a “reasonable” amount of time on the actual game day.

Even with all of this preparation, I do feel like fatigue was beginning to set in by the time we reached the 8 hour mark. Fortunately we finished shortly thereafter, and everyone unanimously agreed they enjoyed it and would like to try it again sometime (which in my opinion is glowing feedback for a game after having just played 8+ straight hours of it). However, without all of the preparation I put in, it is likely that we would not have finished the game.

The TBD

Having only played TI4 once so far, there’s a lot about the game that I’ve yet to form a concrete opinion on. For one thing, we did not see a lot of actual combat in our game. This was likely because we were all nervous beginners, playing fairly defensively and avoiding too much risk. In fact, I managed to win the game without winning a single combat victory.

This was not necessarily a problem – the game was replete with brinkmanship and tense diplomatic negotiations from start to finish, and there were no shortage of memorable pivotal moments. However, I do wonder if the prevalence of combat increases as players develop more familiarity with the game and how quickly it can end. I managed to score my final five victory points between the end of round 5 and my first turn of round 6, and I’m sure that if others had seen it coming they would have tried to knock me down a rung or two.

Would increased combat lead to longer games, with greater levels of animosity? Or would it make things even more exciting? I feel that this could go either way and it could change my opinion of TI4 either positively or negatively.

Additionally, without a second play, it’s hard to know how much my enjoyment of TI4 was affected by the novelty of this first time experience. On the flip side, maybe a second playthrough with the same group would flow even more smoothly and make for a perfect 6 hour game, avoiding the fatigue toward the end.

Conclusion

From the perspective of a first-time player who loves board gaming and 4X, Twilight Imperium 4 is a singular gaming experience. I loved the rich theme, the wealth of diplomacy and player interaction, and the way that the game lends itself to pivotal moments that you and your friends will talk about for years to come.

Twilight Imperium 4 certainly features a high barrier to entry, but if this game sounds like it’s up your alley and you’re willing to put in the necessary time and effort, then you’re in for a one-of-a-kind board gaming feast.

 

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