Why review Twilight Imperium Third Edition? It has been out for a long time, it appeals to a very select niche, and it’s unreasonably huge. This game is a monster. Remember how, as a child, you wanted your board games to come alive? You were playing Monopoly, and wanted to expand the game, add different rules, and make the game seem more alive? Maybe you played through other games and there just wasn’t enough there. You wanted that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game to actually FEEL like being a Ninja Turtle, and not just rolling dice and moving around a colourful board? I get the feeling that Twilight Imperium III comes from this line of thinking – someone wanting to create a board game that they could live in – a board game where it wouldn’t matter if you won or lost, what was most important was the story that you were creating- unless of course, you were winning!!
Twilight Imperium Third Edition is a space empires board game that takes approximately one hour per player to play, and the community generally agrees that it’s best with six players. You each have a home planet (every SINGLE planet in the game has a name and is different than all the other planets) and a starting fleet. The various ships do different things, from small cruisers to large Death Star like constructs. You move your ships across the galaxy, land on new planets and add them to your growing empire. Eventually you run out of space, and have to start expanding into your neighbour’s territory.
The first thing you’re going to do in a game of Twilight Imperium is pick a race. There’s a group of us that gets together to play it every quarter, and we’ve instituted the rule where you give everyone two races and let them select one. Each race in TI3 is unique, has about 4 paragraphs of backstory and all of them have a different mix of starting units, technology and abilities. For your first few playthroughs, it isn’t really going to matter which one you choose, but the differences between them can make or break your session. After your first game, I definitely recommend that you read some of the literature on the website about the strengths of the factions, how they are played, and what to avoid.
Once you’ve got your race, you build the galaxy. That’s right, it’s a modular board, and you take turns placing planets and supernova, voids and asteroid belts, and you get to screw over your friends and benefit yourself. Once the galaxy is built, you get down to the nitty gritty of actually playing the game.
The game takes place over a few phases, and I think I’m going to spare you most of the details. You pick a strategy card, play your command counters/strategy card, and then the turn is over. The middle of that is where EVERYTHING happens, but it’s probably best not to get into here since it’s a tad complicated, and not necessary to know at this point. If picking unique races, building a galaxy and creating a space empire sounds like it’s your thing, you owe yourself a chance to try this game out at least once.
BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUT, you may not actually like it.
Twilight Imperium is long. Unreasonably long. There’s a lot of downtime in TI3. The board is big and with 6 people playing, there are races you may NEVER even be adjacent to, let alone interact with. Your best friend may be on the other side of the galaxy, and the nitty gritty of their turns may be less important to you than your immediate neighbors. All of this is to say that while there’s plenty to do during the downtime, you really only get a chance to fully explore the full environment once you have a really good handle on the rules.
That brings me to my next problem with the game- the fact that in order to fully understand what needs to be done, you’re going to need to play it at least twice. That means that you’re going to have to dedicate about 10 hours to this monstrosity. If you’re the kind of person that enjoys rules, loves to chew on something big, or to whom the theme appeals BIG TIME, learning the game may not be that big of a challenge. However, if you’re not that kind of person, this is probably not going to be a game for you. Additionally, if you find that sitting down for 5 hours to do one thing REALLY intensely daunting, this MAY not be the game for you. You shouldn’t let the time estimates on this game scare you, but you should have a good idea of what you’re getting into from the start. The game FLIES by if you’re invested and loving it.
Player irrelevance in a game like this is criminal. Some people may say that it’s the nature of the beast, that a game about building a space empire is going to involve conquering other players and their territory, but these days, TI3 really shows its age. I expect modern games to have a solution to this issue, and dislike them when they don’t. A person should not play a game for 3 hours only to have to sit around for another 2 with nothing to do. This may have been good enough for games of yore, but not anymore, and we should seriously consider whether these games are worth our time, when they care very little for our own.
Position on the board and the opening turns are SO key that if you don’t get a good position, and play your opening moves wrong, you only really see your mistakes at the 2.5 hour mark, and then you’re looking down the barrel of another two hours of irrelevance. In my first ever game, I played the Federation of Sol. I didn’t have a great position on the board- my planets were VERY weak. I made a beeline for the great hive planet, the center of the galaxy- Mercatol Rex. I occupied it and tried to keep it for a single turn and got CRUSHED. After that, I was mostly stuck on Earth building ground forces but doing very little otherwise. I’m not one to get in a mood when I lose, so I happily played out the rest of my turns, having fun and making jokes, but I could see this going in a completely different direction with a different group of players. The worst part about this is that my position made me irrelevant. I invested my time and soul into a game for 4 hours, and at the end, had nothing to do. I wasn’t out, and quitting would be sore-loserish, but I was left with little to do, and no fun to be had. This happened to a friend of mine just this week during our quarterly game. He wasn’t even as badly beaten as I had been and his position made him basically irrelevant in the last hour of the game.
Do you have a regular 6 people with whom you play games? Incredible, you have achieved level 2 Board Game Status. If not, you’re constantly having to explain this game to new players who fill in at the game night. You talk them into it with dreams of space exploration and flavour, and they get shocked by the immensity of it all. Get a gauge for your friends- REALLY, not everyone is going to like this and you should have a firm grasp of who those people are before you start playing.
The other criticism I have of the game is that it’s a wargame that encourages turtling. The lesson I learned from my mad dash to Mercatol Rex in that first game was that I should take it MUCH slower this time around, and I did, and I won. I was in a better position overall, but no one attacked me all game because I had a fleet that was impossible to break through. While TI3 is not strictly speaking a wargame, it IS a game where the vast majority of every aspect is dedicated to creating objects for use in combat- and the combat is mostly just rolling dice and seeing what sticks. Combat is only ever exciting when something out of the ordinary happens.
I love this game. I hate this game. I’ll play it for hours and not regret a moment spent on it. I think that if you give this game your enthusiasm, and your time, that it rewards you richly, and that’s not something that happens with every game. Often, games lose their flavour after a few playthroughs because you start to see the matrix underneath it all. When you play something like Magic: The Gathering, with all it’s moving parts and flavour text and art, all of the bells and whistles fade away and you start only seeing costs and mechanics. This doesn’t really happen in TI3. You’re still trying to get to 10 points, but those points will be gained by building ships, or controlling a vital planet, or attacking your neighbour. Every aspect of the game is thematic. There’s a galactic senate with it’s own voting rules and laws affect everyone in the galaxy. The space battles can be affected by cards that you draw and tech that you’ve built. It doesn’t happen here because the game takes on its own life and you start to create a story. You’ll play differently if you’re an aggressive warrior race, or the peaceful space turtles, and you’ll start to feel an affinity with your race.
If you think you can get this game to the table 2-4 times per year, buy it. If not, why not go on Reddit or one of the message boards and see if anyone in your area is looking to get a game together? More than likely there’s a guy with a will to play and a lack of players. Go out and meet someone new, save some money and make some friends!