On a planet dotted by large blue lakes and sweeping mountain ranges, the sky burns as drop pods containing Federation troops make planetfall, engaging the fungal armies of the Arborec. Meanwhile, light years away, plumes of smoke fill the air as the colossal manufacturing facilities of the cybernetic L1Z1K Mindnet toil endlessly to construct mighty warships to defend their borders against the hellish nightmares of the Nekro Virus. On another world, the brilliant minds at the Jol-Nor academies design schematics for new economic facilities while trade ships from the fanatical Yin Brotherhood and the entrepreneurial Hacan Emirates deliver goods from their far off colonies. And in distant corners of the galaxy, the ponderous Xxcha debate interstellar policy with the quiet Winnu in grand auditoriums, while the fierce insectoid warriors of the Sardokk N’orr cover their carapaces with tattooed symbols of war in preparation for the cosmic battles to come.
If this sounds like the summary of a sci-fi opera novel, well, you’re only partially right; this is actually the kind of stuff that goes on in Twilight Imperium, a grand strategy game of intergalactic proportions where players take on the roles of emperors, presidents, and dictators of star-faring races in the hopes of claiming the throne on Mecatol Rex – the ancient throne world that lies in the center of the crumbling empire – and ruling the galaxy.
What is Twilight Imperium?
Twilight Imperium was first released in 1998 by tabletop powerhouse Fantasy Flight and is currently in its third incarnation. If this is your first time hearing of it, think of it like if video games Masters of Orion or Galactic Civilizations were a board game. 3 – 6 players (or up to 8 with the two expansions) compete for resources, technology and political power, making and breaking alliances every round.
We here at the Escapist love big games of all stripes, and Twilight Imperium is one of our analog favorites. We’ve just started up another match here in the office, with several editors participating, when we decided “Hey! Why not write about our experiences playing this game?” Since Twilight can almost feel like an episode of Game of Thrones – rife with political duplicity and sudden but inevitable betrayals, we figured we’d give it a shot. We’ll give a weekly recap detailing the betrayals, trade deals and starship diplomacy that occur during our time playing the game.
As you can probably tell by the above photograph, Twilight Imperium is a complex game with a bunch of moving parts. Realistically, it’s not that difficult to play – it’s the interactions between players and how you use the rules to your advantage that make all the difference. After building the galaxy through randomly distributed hexes containing planets, asteroids and other cosmic phenomenon, players compete to be the first to earn 10 victory points. This is achieved through completing both secret objectives dealt at the beginning of the game and those revealed from a randomized public objective deck. Objectives range from the simple, like having a technology from each of the four colored branches, to the difficult, like taking over an enemy’s home world.
Gameplay is split into three phases, Strategy, Action and Status. The Strategy phase is where all the players in order pick from one of eight strategy cards that both determine the turn order of the round in addition to providing a very specific ability to the player for that turn (and a second, optional ability for other players). Then comes the Action phase, where players can use tokens called Command Counters to build ships and troops, move fleets around the galaxy to invade or colonize unclaimed planets, or activate their strategy card to use its special abilities. The Status phase is a simple wrap-up of the round, everyone resets the board, gets some of their Command Counters back, earn victory points by meeting objectives, and hand back their strategy cards for the start of the next Round.
But the real fun of Twilight Imperium is how players interact each other. You’ll be debating, threatening, begging and bargaining over all manner of topics in a single game. Whether it’s reassuring a neighbor that the fleet you’re moving around is harmless, or trying to convince other players to vote for you in the galactic senate during one of the game’s many political referendums, how you speak and the actions you take against or with other players can have an effect on who walks away the winner. Because no matter who you ally with, only one player can claim the title of Emperor.
The rulebook and two expansions for Twilight offer a multitude of extra tweaks and additions you can include to your game, several of which can drastically change the scale and the very nature of how its played. I won’t bore you with the details of every optional ruleset we’ve decided to use (though if you really want to know, we’ve got them in the forum comments), but we decided to go with as big and robust of a game as we can. There’s racial technologies, random events when colonizing worlds or exploring empty space, and special flagships… to sum up, there’s a lot going on, and it’s going to make for a very interesting saga.
With both expansions, there are a total of 17 distinct alien factions to play in Twilight Imperium, each with their own special abilities that provide unique advantages (or severe disadvantages) in many aspects of the game. The Hacan, for example, are a race of lion-like humanoids who are masters of commerce and trade, while the Mentak Coalition are a collection of outlaws and outcasts who get to steal resources from other players.
With a wide spectrum of choices available, there’s a certain temptation for players to just pick a particular faction to use, but typically that’s best reserved for more casual games. For our office match, we went with the tried and true method of shuffling up all the faction’s homeworlds and dealing them out randomly to the six players. (Though in the interest of full disclosure, I did try to dissuade other players from including one particular faction: The Nekro Virus. In my experience games that include this Borg-like astronomical horror usually have a tendency to result in one poor schmuck having to face them all alone while all the other players abandon them.)
So without further ado, the alien races vying for dominance on the galactic stage are:
The Universities of Jol-Nar – Led by Chancellor Greg Tito.
The Jol-Nar are a race of aquatic sapients in environment suits that also happen to have the most highly developed brains in the known universe. As such, they can usually research technologies faster than other races, but this comes at a cost – they’re not very good in a fight.
The L1Z1K Mindnet – Led by Integrated Turing Host Protocol Subserver Galactic Mindnet Advancement Algorithm Codename “Justin Clouse”
The L1Z1K claim to be the cybernetic descendants of a once powerful ancient empire, and with access to advanced technologies and manufactories can more easily build Dreadnoughts, one of the most powerful starships available in the game.
The Xxcha Kingdom – Led by Paul Goodman the Greater, Supreme Monarch of the Xxcha Kingdom, Protector of its Subsidiary Worlds, Emperor of the Seven Hosts, Lord of Pau-Pau, Master of Destiny, and Ambassador to the Galactic Races.
The Xxcha are giant walking turtles. Due to their long lifespans, years of constant debate, and philosophical discussions, they are excellent diplomats.
The Federation of Sol – Led by Commodore Joshua Vanderwall, Elite Inquisitor and Grand Commander of the Sons of Sol
The Federation (Namely, humans) may not have psychic powers or start with advanced weaponry, but since most of the human population is aggressive and suited to war, they are able to create large armies of ground forces with ease.
The Yin Brotherhood – Led by High Priestess Janelle Bonanno of the Faith
The Brotherhood are a theocratic collective race composed entirely of genetically modified clones, who through their fanatical devotion to their religion can, in many cases, convert enemy forces to their side.
The Sardakk N’orr – Led by Hive Alpha Louis Weber.
A race of deadly and aggressive warrior bugs, the Sardakk N’orr have the most straightforward ability of all, gaining a +1 to their combat rolls. All of them. All the time. Forever.
So now that we’ve met our contestants, let’s begin take a look at how the first three rounds went for our aspiring overlords…
Rounds 1 – 3 – Growing Pains
The first round of the game was simple, with players taking the first few steps out into a mysterious galaxy that had treasures and dangers around every comet. There was much posturing for control, successful (and failed) colonizations, but little surprisingly, little conflict between players.
King Paul of the Xxcha Says: The Xxcha have to accept that the random nature of the universe has given us a poor hand; with an ion storm and impassable supernovas blockading us on one side of our homeworlds, our options for expansion are limited, and only in the direction of our nearest neighbors, the militaristic Federation of Sol. The planets near us are poor in resources, but not uncolonizable, and despite encounters with a few foolhardy pirates, we have managed to obtain a respectable sphere of influence in our portion of the galaxy and have built up our fleets.
But as even as we draw up our plans for expansion, the galaxy is most certainly heading towards strife. Many of the galactic races have taken significant loans from the Yin to advance their own empires, but despite building a grand army and having proximity to many undefended worlds at her fingertips; my advisors highly doubt the Yin’s High Priestess will claim them as collateral if anyone fails to make repayments. Our only trading partners, the Mindnet, are encroaching upon the Jol-Nar, and the Federation of Sol appears to be advancing uncontested towards Mecatol Rex.
However, the largest issue facing the Xxcha now is our marginalization. We are not taken seriously during the meetings of the Galactic Assembly, and despite offering ample opportunities for trade, we have been all but shut out of the galactic economy. It is apparent that drastic actions must be taken to ensure that the Xxcha Kingdom will be taken seriously on the stage of galactic history, even if it may cost us greatly. For the Xxcha would choose to burn twice as bright for half as long, rather than slowly fade away, forgotten.
Chancellor Greg of Jol-Nar says: The sun has risen again without a sliver of sleep. Jol slumbers but I think still. My research must continue on the vagaries of the tools of sarween if our institution is to survive in this galaxy. As Academician of the University of Jol-Nar, my priority must be in learning the secrets of the universe. The other petty and warlike cultures will bicker over this planet or that – our goal is the eradication of ignorance. Only through penitent devotion to scientific method and research will we succeed.
A voice vibrates within the glass chamber in which my mind resides. “Teacher?”
“The expedition to Mecatol Rex was successful and they are sending back information on a large number of nearby systems. The planets are yet to be explored, but several of them appear to have ruins of ancient civilizations which may aid in our research.”
I immediately make a rash decision. “Send out the fleets to occupy these systems. Bring back the specimens immediately.” This could be wonderful fortune and expand our research threefold. We will need resources to construct more research facilities. I will reach out to the other races to open up trade with them immediately – it is the fastest way.
I hope my greed for knowledge is not our undoing.
The dreadnaught fleet discovered wonders on El’Nath beyond anything our young nymphs could imagine. A glorious ship was resurrected and placed in gentle orbit – a cruiser to supplement the Fleet of the Academy. As well, we uncovered incredibly advanced prototypes which we can apply towards research on new star drives and interstellar engines.
Initial trade negotiations also went extremely well. I met via videography with the leader of the Yin Brotherhood and she agreed to send a trade fleet to the University. The terrans of Sol were also agreeable and will bestow the riches of their numerous race to our sector momentarily. I also bought some time with the analytical yet aggressive algorithm L1z1x – we’ve agreed to not pass the large asteroid field between our two systems. It will be a border for now.
The systems nearby will need settlers to occupy them once the fleet enters their orbit, so I’ve ordered a mass conscription. The armies of Jol-Nar … such a phrase feels truly alien on my thin lips. Still, if our research is to continue we need to explore our surroundings lest we become a whisper of a subjugated race.
Our goal is already coming to fruition. Several scientist teams presented their findings to me this morning which we can immediately apply to the incoming resources via trade to increase their value. Micro technology and Nano technology are fascinating breakthroughs which will further support more research. Soon, the University of Jol’Nar will be the repository for all knowledge in the universe.
But I must not let that become a pretense for the Mindnet to invade our neural nets.
Second and Third Rounds:
The fleets have become stymied in their exploration. Many of the surrounding systems presented unique dangers which resulted in the loss of extremely valuable ground forces. We of the Universities do not create armies lightly, and to have them succumb to the radioactive fallout of Lesab was a blow. Still our fleets secured the planet and have begun spooling up the production of a space dock.
But disaster has struck. A sizeable fleet from the L1z1x Mindnet has landed on the planet we both agreed to avoid. If unchecked, the algorithm could invade the Universities of Jol-Nar easily and put our nymphs into the open air. I, as their teacher, cannot allow that to happen.
I have ordered our research facilities to increase the efforts at finding hard, applicable theories we can use to improve our fleets. The time for casual investigation into the metaphysic is ended; the only way we can persevere in the galaxy is to apply our research to practical effects. It has already yielded results – the cruisers and dreadnoughts of Jol-Nar are already improved, and our fleets can begin to move faster than our potential adversaries. This will be crucial in the defense of our systems.
An incoming call … it is the spokescode of the Mindnet. Interesting.
Commodore Josh of Terra Says: The Federation of Sol’s colonization efforts have finally begun in earnest. Production of new Carriers is underway, and the first two colony ships have set forth to our neighboring systems. The landing on the nebula’s planet Everra proved lucrative, as plentiful resources on the surface yielded trade goods which we earmarked for expedited production. Dal Bootha and Xxehan are both resource light, but their system neighbors resource rich planets, which we’ll target next.
A diplomatic mission allowed us to annex a resource rich planet near Dal Bootha, freeing up our carrier to continue expansion in the direction of Mecatol Rex, which is the Federation’s ultimate goal. We must be first to Mecatol, and our researchers are hard at work to make that a reality.
Funding our research with a high-interest loan from our neighbors, the Brotherhood of Yin, we have completed upgrades to our Carriers, which will allow us to take Mecatol from its defenders and establish ourselves firmly on the ground. Additional weapons and construction technologies have improved our fleet support infrastructure as well as improving the combat potential of our fleets.
Host Protocol Justin Says Status: Retrieving directory
Offsets: Server: 0. Local system: -010110. Galactic Variance: +010110
Response: Connected to Galactic.Mindnet.Advancement
Status: Initial fleet movements to pacify sectors 010110, 010111 and 011000. The estimated planetary pacification falls within acceptable parameters. Mindnet advancement will achieve swift galactic expansion in the coming cycles. First landing yield native intelligence of neighboring system. Planet New Albion automated defenses detected, flagship constructed to eliminate threat. Diplomatic measures were deemed statistically appropriate to acquire sector 011100. Unstable wormhole detected and Mindnet research team dispatched to neutralize. Planet Tempestra peacefully pacified now that accelerated particles are no longer firing down on the planet. Extreme radioactivity rapidly corroding ground forces on planet Sakulag, adapt neighboring garrisons and transfer. Multiple sectors claimed with limited casualties.
Pending: Contact with rival coalitions for Galactic Mindnet Advancement. Initiate aggressive diplomatic subroutines. Begin fleet movements to claim The Universities of Jol-Nar space.
Log out: Integrated Turing Host Protocol “Justin” Subserver Galactic Mindnet Advancement Algorithm
Janelle Says: Darien is dead. Even though decades have passed since, we continue his work. Our flesh is of his flesh, and with it, we carry his secrets. Not even the Yin, our mother and the only influence of female among us, could quell the inner fire and ambition our father bequeaths us. But, this must not be ours alone. Darien used his greatness to give others what they could no longer have – a life. The sick and dying, as far as the eye could see, would come to him. And for what? To be cast out as an outlaw for cloning. He would not let them stop him. Each one that came to his door, he would heal. And so must we. No longer can we live hidden on this mountain, our knowledge stripped from the rest of the universe. Intent and unified, we must spread Darien’s legacy amongst the stars, so others may bare witness and be blessed with true knowledge.
After building our first exploratory fleet, we look towards the stars and see our future waiting for us. Once colonizing the closest planets within our path, we meet our neighbors, the Universities of Jol-Nar and the Federation of Sol. Both have extended open arms of friendship upon our meeting — and open hands begging for trade goods to help fund their own expansion. We graciously and humbly accept their kind words and loan them what they need. We are all too familiar with the vastness of space and the rarity of friendships within interstellar dust. The Brotherhood shares a single hope that their friendships springs eternal, casting out the loneliness from the dark.
Hive Alpha Louis Says: The Sardokk N’orr could not have a better location in this hostile galaxy of horrors, our nearest neighbor – the melodramatic Xxcha – are blocked off by impassible galactic terrain, and the Mindnet are separated by vast empty space on our other flank. Worlds with bountiful resources that can benefit the Hive’s scientists lie nearby, within easy reach of our colonization fleets.
However, despite plenty of resource intense worlds nearby, colonization efforts are difficult – many of these worlds are ravaged by radioactive storms and virulent plagues that prove fatal to even the heartiest of our warriors. After several cycles, after seeing the aggressive expansion of the Mindnet towards Jol-Nar and the Federation of Sol’s aggressive moves towards Mecatol, it becomes clear that the N’orr need to consolidate and rebuild – we may be a military force unmatched in the galaxy, but prudence is often the mark of a great warrior, and we are losing too many of our finest.
Through her colonization efforts, Janelle managed to take the lead at the bottom of round 3 by completing her Secret Objective of owning six planets outside her home system, netting the Yin Brotherhood 2 points. Other than that, most players kept the focus on colonizing nearby worlds and teching up for the long game ahead.