I’ve heard people talk about “grail games” before—typically out of print, rare, and hard-to-find games they’re determined to get their hands on. I had something kind of like that that. The difference is I actually owned the game.
Seven years ago, I walked down the road from my dorm to a little nearby game shop. I enjoyed browsing, but I had a purpose and soon enough I found what I was looking for—Twilight Imperium, a science fiction game about exploration, politics, and war, and one of the biggest and most colorful games around. I paid for it and carried the eight-pound box home.
And that was the extent of my relationship with the game. It was a giant box reminded me that, at one point, I had hundred dollars.
Until late last month.
Up to that point, I had never played a game that I couldn’t figure out at the table. Twilight Imperium threw up a whole set of barriers. For one thing, requires a particularly large table. Even if you have the space, the rules are a dense collection of interdependent mechanisms. Even if you have deciphered the rules, the game takes a long time to play—six hours is not a conservatively long estimate.
Try as I might, I just could not play that game. I had to accept something—Twilight Imperium isn’t like most games, where you can bring them out more or less on a whim. It’s an event.
And so I prepared.
I read all the rules beforehand, and encouraged the other players to do the same. The trouble with Twilight Imperium isn’t that any single part of it is particularly complicated—it’s just that most of it doesn’t make sense out of context. You have to learn most of it before any of it makes sense. Once you do, the rest is easy. Even if I spent most of the first few rounds of the game staring at the rulebook, I had a comforting sense of vague familiarity. If I didn’t remember a rule, I at least knew, basically, where it would be found. Should be found. Wait, hold on…
Well, it could have been worse—and it was, on previous attempts.
I also had to deal with the sheer amount of stuff. If you just throw all the pieces in a bag, it’s inevitable that a new player will shut down in response. It’s hard enough explaining the different units without the bag looking like some kind of tiny monochrome junkyard from the future. So I organized everything. I had a system, and I’m a little embarrassed by how much I enjoyed doing it.
It shaved off some time, and we needed that. We met at eleven in the morning (in true New York fashion, two people, independently, decided to bring bagels), started a little after noon, and we finished around midnight.
I could, in the interest of full disclosure, mention that we took breaks to play lighter games, eat, get coffee—but that would be misleading, too. This is a game that required intermissions.
So, was it all worth it?
Absolutely. For all I’ve talked about how difficult it was to wrangle this beast of a game, it’s remarkably efficient. Not elegant by any means, but it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go, so long as you can keep up.
The game was loaded with color, right off the bat when we were dealt our random alien race—the whole back of the sheet is packed with juicy details. Chris T played the Barony of Letnev, jack-booted thugs of the galaxy imposing their order on the galaxy from an icy planet chaotically drifting through space. Alex got the Sardak N’orr, a warrior race of giant insects. (Okay, that one’s a cliché, but it is a popular one.) Evan got the Mentak Coalition, a ragtag group of pirates, mercenaries, and sundry outlaws on a galactic scale, based on a former penal colony established by the recently deceased race that used to rule the galaxy. And I got the Xxcha, a race of space turtles with a name that seems absurd by design. They get a bonus to defense, presumably from their natural tendency to retract into their own bodies.
Everyone had fun skimming the sheets for those fun details—or, in my case, desperately trying to find them. Turns out one of my home worlds was previously taken over by the Barony of Letnev, until they were successfully driven out by… diplomatic negotiation.
One of the neat things about this game is that the map isn’t preset or random—the players are dealt random tiles, and take turns laying them out. I put defensive barriers around my section of the board, hoping to exploit the defensive nature of the Xxcha, though there was an alternately convenient and worrisome wormhole nearby to the other side of the board.
Evan made a mad dash for Mecatol Rex, sacrificing some early expansion for the sake of holding on to valuable territory. Alex went with a more horizontal strategy, expanding left and right to grow his nightmare hive. Chris did the same, with some focus on technological development. I also put my hope into tech, as those defenses I set up also left my with fewer valuable planets in easy reach.
Evan held Mecatol Rex for about half the game, despite a barrage on both sides from Alex and Chris. I tried to lay low as I beelined my research towards developing War Suns, huge ships that—oh, who am I kidding, I should just say they’re Death Stars. They even have optional rules for sending fighters in to try and blow them up.
Unfortunately, Chris had the same idea. We both completed our research on the exact same turn. That shifted the power dramatically—there were now, essentially, two nuclear powers on the board.
Mecatol Rex eventually—perhaps inevitably—fell, but not to the War Suns of the Barony of Letnev, but to the horde of the Sardak N’orr. (Yes, that is in fact one of the nerdiest sentences ever written, but if it tickles something in your brain and in your heart, this might just be the game for you.) The Barony was well on its way.
Now, I spent most of the game minding my own little corner of the galaxy, and for the most part being left alone—but attentions were divided now. I held cards that would grant my ships the brief advantages of flanking speed and evasive maneuvers. I quietly moved them into position, and in one play I sent some ships barreling through an oft-forgotten wormhole, past a fleet on the brink of war, and took over the Barony of Letnev’s home.
Chris didn’t change his plans. Mecatol Rex, seat of the galactic empire, was almost his. The War Suns proved too great a force, and the planet was his.
Well, almost. To take over a planet, you need to land ground forces on it. Evan’s troops fended off the invaders, though they were eventually annihilated by constant barrage. Remember, this is a game about stories—we imagined the surviving skeleton crew of the Mentak coalition watching as their brothers and arms were annihilated by the Sardakk N’orr, who were in turn destroyed by the Barony of Letnev. The sky erupted in two kinds of fire, and they were just trying to scrape by until the cavalry arrived—but with the uneasy truth that, most likely, it would not be their own.
The game ended a few rounds later. Mecatol Rex was surrounded by the Sardak N’orr and the Xxcha, but it held. Chris sent in a small ground force to clean up, and the planet was his.
…But not the galaxy. Throughout all this, Alex accomplished more objectives, and that’s how you win the game. It’s not, strictly speaking, about warfare, though the objective can push you in that direction. The other races of the galaxy realized that, for all they had done, the creeping menace of the Sardakk N’orr had simply grown too great to vanquish, and were our inevitable overlords.
Sure, I was one of the losers and, with the fewest points, chief loser. But I don’t care. The game is about brutal competition, but it tells stories along the way. I was, and am, just thrilled that I took the home of the bastards that devastated one of mine.
The game’s a mess, I’ll give it that. It took a lot to set the whole thing up, and we all left absolutely exhausted. We got some rules wrong, and I think they might have made the game just a bit longer on top of the time it took to get most of the rest of it straight. Next time will be faster, that’s for sure—and I’m sure there will be a next time. Like I said, Twilight Imperium is an event, a daytrip among the stars. That may sound overblown, but with a lick of imagination it’ll sure feel that way.
I had a blast, and I can’t wait to do it again—well, once we’ve all recovered.
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