Twilight Imperium: 4th Edition Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2017
Players: 3-6 (8 with expansions)
Playing Time: 240-480 Minutes
Well, this is a treat. There was a time when I wasn’t sure I’d get enough plays of this game to be able to review it with any clarity.
To be clear, I have a minimum threshold for plays before I’ll review something. I usually like to race well past that threshold before creating a writeup, but will make exceptions when I feel as though I’ll have something meaningful to say after only a handful of plays.
I didn’t doubt I’d eventually reach a reasonable threshold of plays for Twilight Imperium, 4th edition (TI:4), but if the sessions are spaced far apart, that’s another issue. For reference, my first and second play of it were two and a half years apart. I can’t write with any authority with that sporadic level of play.
So it was with relief and excitement that one of my regular gaming groups eventually got this to the table enough, and I supplemented that with a couple Con games, that I felt confident in putting my thoughts to (digital) paper.
Levels of Investment
I also say all of that to preface this review: I’m not a hardcore TI:4 player. I’m not poring over strategy articles, playing in tournaments, or subscribed to weekly strategy podcasts. But I can call myself a semi-regular player now.
If you are hardcore about the game, that’s awesome. But this review isn’t for you. You already know where you stand on this game, which has one of the more entrenched, committed fanbases in all of board gaming.
This is for those wondering whether or not to invest – both financially and in ways less tangible – in this game.
“Investment” is also the theme of this review, for reasons that I hope will be clear by the end.
Twilight Imperium (this review focuses on the 4th edition only) rewards investment, but it requires a significant amount of investment.
To take a small step back, though, before we move forward, TI:4 is a space opera that plays out over a series of rounds, wherein powerful factions will claim planets, collect resources, bargain with one another over territory and resources, eventually engage in political negotiations over new rules or restrictions in the galaxy, and inevitably go to war at times in a fight for dominance.
It’s a long, intense, complicated game with a somewhat infamous reputation.
For example: No game, perhaps, is as notorious in the modern hobby for taking a long time to play. I’ve heard claims that a game of TI:4 will take you 12 hours to play if people are learning the game. Fortunately, I’ve found that claim to be quite erroneous. Even with some new players (or those needing rules reminders), my 6P sessions have topped out around seven hours, and the shortest were around five and a half.
But think that through for a second: I’m saying “don’t worry everyone, it ONLY takes 5-7 hours to play.” If that’s the low end, it’s going to have to justify that commitment of time.
And does it justify such commitment? The game’s continued popularity and following means that for many, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Why is this? Several reasons…
It packs a truly staggering number of options for you to explore. This exploration takes the form of strategic options, exploration of the numerous races (and their corresponding abilities), the tech trees, alliances and deals with other players, and more.
Despite the strategic depth, it’s a deeply interpersonal game, and there’s never a moment where you can focus solely on your own plans without accounting for the aspirations of others.
The best thing I can say about this game is that many 6-hour sessions of TI:4 have felt shorter to me than 2-3 hour sessions of some other games, because there’s legitimately less downtime for me.
Or rather, there’s downtime, but whatever’s happening in the downtime is worth paying attention to and incorporating into my plans. Literally any action by any other player could have direct implications for me, whether they’re activating their strategy card (which will give me the option of performing an action) or maneuvering around the board.
4X Strategy Board Games
TI:4 is known as a “4X” game, which stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate.
I’ve written before about how board games, frankly, aren’t the best medium for bringing 4x to life. Historically, the term began in video games. The Civilization games are probably the most iconic. However, these games had the luxury of being played out over dozens (sometimes hundreds) of hours and multiple days. They often showcase the grand sweep of history and produce epic, inspiring narratives that emerge slowly as a result of player actions.
Distilling what we think of as 4x is daunting, even for a game as long as Twilight Imperium. The fact that TI:4 manages to pull it off convincingly is impressive.
Punishing Lack of Investment
If investment is rewarded, the game is punishing to those who aren’t as invested. This is due to two primary factors:
- Complicated rules
- Volume of content
You might think of those as synonymous, but I’ll draw a distinction.
Complicatedness in Twilight Imperium
Play a game of TI:4 or watch a rules overview, and you’ll know the basics well enough to play. But you know what modifies those basic rules? Pretty much everything.
Racial abilities will override or circumvent the rules. Action cards will allow you unforeseen bonuses or abilities that aren’t covered in the basic structure of the game. That ability that worked against a dreadnought might not work against your opponent’s upgraded dreadnought, or perhaps against the dreadnought that’s thrice upgraded: once by an actual ship upgrade, and two more times by something in the player’s technology tree that gives them additional abilities.
The result is a lot of rules fiddle. Unless you’re playing regularly or really, really trying to learn all the exceptions to rules that can exist, you can (and will) play a dozen times and will still lose a crucial combat or vote not because you didn’t plan ahead, but because you had no idea that a particular ability combo was possible. What you don’t know will hurt you, and there’s a lot to know.
This is why me playing once every couple years wasn’t conducive to a review, and is why I’m writing this in 2023 instead of 2018 back when I first played. It’s also why it’s not conducive to playing infrequently. But when the game requires a lot of people (ideally 6) who are equally invested, and—to be safe—an 8-10 hour chunk of time, many gamers will be lucky to get this to the table once a year.
That’s not a situation in which you’ll ever get the most out of this game. So if you’re thinking of purchasing this aspirationally—as in, maybe you can pull together a group who will want to play and will have time to devote to learning and playing semi-regularly—you may want to think again.
Volume of Information in Twilight Imperium
Similarly but slightly different: even once you’ve internalized most of the sub-rules, at any given moment, there’s a lot to take in.
I’ve taken to reviewing every card I have at least twice a round, just to remind myself of all the cards and abilities I have. If you’re not careful, it’s incredibly easy to simply forget to use a special power, card, or ability…and that’s even when you know how they all function mechanically.
This is especially true late-game when I have, say, 8 techs, 4 action cards, three upgraded ship types, two secret agenda cards, and a strategy card in front of me, and all of my opponents have similar arrays.
The effect is that it occasionally takes me away from the otherwise immersive action, so that I feel like an accountant or librarian, dutifully cataloguing my possessions instead of putting my attention toward the main board and the other players.
Applying a bonus can be fun, but in the aggregate, keeping track of all your potential actions and modifiers can just feel like work. It’s all a bit exhausting, and inevitably frustrating when I look down at my action cards and realize, oh right, I should have cancelled their PDS units during the invasion in that last fight. But I was too busy with about 10 other things in the battle that it never crossed my mind. Or that the last trade good I need to complete an agenda should be in my supply, but I forgot to apply my Sarween Tools tech two rounds ago because I nudged some cards when I got up to get a drink and they got covered by accident.
These might sound like minor things, but in a game where you’re clawing for every advantage and don’t want to feel “out of it” for hours on end, they matter.
Epic in the Macro, Uneven in the Micro
I enjoy this game; let’s make that clear. My love for games isn’t an uncritical one, though. Thus those sections above, and a few points below.
But I love it as a whole. It produces sweeping, epic narratives like few games I’ve ever experienced. And it’s all the more powerful because we’re creating that narrative together. It’s like a great science fantasy book, but you all are the protagonists.
Zoom in to the micro level, though, and it produces some uneven moments. For example, some agendas that you’ll be voting on will shift the course of the war profoundly, and fierce negotiations will dictate their outcome. This is awesome. But others will be duds that nobody has a vested stake in. I’ve played entire games without an agenda that I’d consider to be momentous. As a result, this phase can occasionally drag. And when my group has played games inspired by TI:4, we’re openly thankful that there’s no voting on such agendas, and we’ve also considered house-ruling this phase to remove certain cards that generally end up being anti-climactic.
Somewhat more dangerous is the fact that while there’s a self-balancing aspect to the game, where players will police each other so that no one runs away with a victory, this system isn’t always perfect. Sometimes completing an objective is easiest when you’re picking on the weakest player, for example. If you draw a lot of military objectives, someone who receives a couple bad beats early on might be in for a long, brutal game.
There are ways for players to adapt and come back from setbacks, so this isn’t necessarily a typical issue. But it’s also not just a hypothetical issue. In the games (usually 6P) that I play, there’s usually one person who, about halfway through, is pretty clearly not going to win. And I have yet to see an exception to this. Many in this position have had productive second halves, but have never seriously had a chance to claim victory. And when you realize this fact after 2 hours of a 6-hour game, it’s a very unpleasant realization.
When “halfway through” means there’s 30-40 minutes to go, it’s one thing. When it’s 3-4 hours, though, you better have players who are prepared for this eventuality. I hate seeing hours-long frustration from my friends (or experiencing it myself). And TI will occasionally produce these periods, even among more seasoned players.
The Turning Point
There are some definite negatives above. But those same elements can at least sometimes become huge positives.
The preponderance of cards, abilities and upgrades I mentioned earlier? When paired carefully and rolled out intelligently, you can accomplish unexpected, clever stratagems on a regular basis. Even better, when facing equally competent opponents, you’ll be able to sink into the strategic dance of the game that is equal parts cerebral and visceral.
And if you enjoy the epic whole, the session where you commit several blunders or roll badly and end with 4-6 points and no real chance to win will only fuel your desire to claw toward relevance, competition and, ultimately, victory the next time you play.
The different races and their corresponding abilities also provide new strategic avenues, either to simply explore the game, or to find a race that suits your play style. I love the Hacan, for example, because their special abilities encourage a lot of negotiation and trading. This compliments my preferred play style well, which has me searching the board for opportunities to make bargains.
And then there’s the next level of play. The level where you’re finding tournaments to play in and listening to dozens of hour-long podcasts to eke out the most from this staggeringly dense game. The game has enough depth to support this level of investment.
Recreating the Experience
Finding a stand-in for TI:4 is really hard in the hobby. You can get the same epic narrative arc in Dune, for example, and Dune will often play in less than half the time of Twilight Imperium. But there’s something missing of the broad strategic nuance in TI:4. Though, in fairness, opportunities for negotiations are perhaps even more robust in Dune. But would I want to play Dune over TI on any given game night? I don’t know that there’s a perfect answer to that.
There are also more streamlined 4X games, including TI-inspired games like Eclipse, but in streamlining some aspects, it sacrifices some of TI’s raw chaos. Further down on the complexity spectrum is a game like Scythe, in which you can see several core mechanisms adapted from TI:4 (and, actually, Dune’s combat wheel as well). Scythe is well-regarded. Again, though, it’s not scratching the same itch, and in Scythe’s case it cuts back significantly on combat elements and provides fewer upgrade options overall, among other design decisions.
Hardcore fans of TI blanch at some of the comparisons I just made. They offer different experiences, yes, but I’d argue that they do exist on the same spectrum. For many, the end of that spectrum where TI sits won’t be the ideal for them or the groups they play with.
So TI:4 isn’t unique so much as it’s the “most” of its type. If you want all that its type of game has to offer, this is it. But that won’t be necessary for everyone, especially those who either lack the time to make TI:4 happen regularly, or those who will have their conquering appetites sated by games that are a touch less dense.
For me personally, my groups have begun to gravitate to the more manageable titles on that spectrum like Dune and Eclipse, which are themselves incredibly dense games. But they end a bit more quickly, can be digested by newcomers a touch more easily, and so are easier to schedule for an evening, with a reasonable promise of everyone enjoying themselves.
But we still have a copy of TI in the group. Something like Dune can scratch the grandiose and thematic itch nearly as well, but not to the point where I want to retire TI:4. It’s simply the biggest game I’ve played. It might not be the biggest physically (though it may be that as well), but it’s certainly the biggest conceptually. And that means something.
Twilight Imperium: 4th Edition Conclusions
The best games, to me, are those you want to talk about immediately after the game ends, and stories about the session crop up again and again in the following weeks, months, or even years.
I remember the mistakes I made, brilliant maneuvers I pulled off, and climactic moments of sessions of TI:4 years after they happened. With some other games—even some I enjoy—I couldn’t tell you who won even a week after the game was played. This alone puts Twilight Imperium in a stratosphere with only a handful of other games I’ve played that can produce that kind of impact.
It’s also what allows me to tolerate its excess, rules density, and marginal flaws. Those exist, to my eye, but they are subsumed and washed away in the overall experience.
Twilight Imperium demands investment of several types in order to get the most out of the game. But it also rewards that investment. The commitment required may be too much for you to want to add it to your collection or try to put together a group to play it, but it’s hardly a fault to say that the game is perfectly catered to the audience who will want to work it regularly into their gaming routine.
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