Twilight Imperium II – 4x Because XXX Is Simply Not Sexy Enough For It

One of the quirks about being human is being able to look back at our history and reflect upon it analytically. If you’re a dog, you don’t remember that I left the house 10 minutes ago, so when I come home, that dog is going batshit crazy as if I had been gone six years. Us, we remember, and we analyze. So, when I look back on our history, as a species, I can honestly say that we are a sad lot of murderous barbarians, by and large. I mean, in every era, you can find us beating their contemporaries over the heads with whatever was at hand since the beginning of time, generally for resources. Thus, it’s not a far stretch to imagine that during an era of faster-than-photons travel, not only humans, but myriad species, will be doing the same shit. This is why wargames are popular, I suspect: at our core, we are only outwardly civilized, harboring a savage, barbarous creature within who is screaming to be unchained and set upon conquest, whoring, and plunder.
Enter Twilight Imperium, Second Edition (TI2), a game that is about several races attempting to control the galaxy as Imperium Rex, the galactic emperor, by scheming or genocidally decimating other races into subservience or oblivion . The game is a very open political wargame system where the goal is not only to decimate the opposition, but to own ten planets, develop nine technology improvements, and through the ownership of planets, have both thirty resource points and political influence points. Each planet has resource and influence values, and thus taking over planets affords you the ability to develop forward operating bases, or strike bases, as well as allowing more production of weapons systems, allowing you to pursue your machinations.
The magic of the game is that planets are randomly selected and then placed by players during setup, and have wildly different values, so becoming the emperor will require more than a little bit of wet work. On top of that, there’s cardplay, which allows you to bend rules, get free things, and most importantly, forge lucrative alliances with others. Even more interesting is a truly clever political system that, each turn, asks players to vote on galactic laws that change the game for the duration, and the votes you cast for your species are tallied using your collected or earned political points. Thus, a smaller empire with more political clout is effectively better at controlling the laws of the galaxy than a militarily strong and wide empire with less influence.
Thankfully, TI2 came out before FFG decided to over complicate everything it touches, thereby requiring umpteen pages of errata and an additional umpteen pages of FAQ. This game has precisely ONE (read: 1, uno, jeden, een, un…) entry in the FAQ for the base game. One. Not pages, but one ENTRY. That’s 8 PAGES less than Twilight Imperium Third Edition (TI3). So, suffice to say, TI2 incredibly playable, there’s very few things to quibble about, and is hands-down a superior 4X game in virtually every aspect than its offspring in spirit alone, TI3.
TI2 comes in a normal sized box, and was sold at a reasonable price at the time of its release, another sign that the game is a throwback before FFG decided that more plastic trumps playtesting and editorial oversight. The majority of the components are serviceable and pleasing to the eye, although the cards are minimalist at best, which is really one of the only two flaws in the production value of the game. The ugly ships are all made of plastic, in six colors, and the illustrations on the tiles that make up the universe are quite appealing. All in all, the only two problems I have are the cards, which look like home jobbies printed on 100# card stock, and the tiles, which are a little too small to hold the vast space armadas you’ll be deploying. Other than those, the game is dynamite.
The star of the show, even more than the wee plastic warbirds, is the least flashy of them all: the rulebook. In one read, you can know everything about how to play, with the barest of reference back to it during any given game. I play with a group that doesn’t like long games, doesn’t like overly complex games, and doesn’t like to read a lot, and even with that, this game was very enjoyable and playable game. In my opinion, which is not all that valuable, this is the gold standard with which all other 4x games are to be judged. It only has one expansion, and I’ve never been able to play it, but my understanding is that it adds a few new quirks and a couple of new races, but is not the new standard FFG “expansion = fix” expansion concept. In short, it’s nice to have but not required to fix the game.
Now, I’m waiting for the cacophony of “oh my God, how can you say that TI2 is better than TI3?” and I’ll tell you straight away that you’re entitled to that belief. You’re also wrong, if you’re looking at it from a 4X perspective. TI2 is superior, in that light, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it takes two or three hours to play with six experienced players where TI3 will take around six hours for six experienced players. Maybe four if the stars are aligned perfectly and a couple people get knocked out quickly. God forbid that you have new players, because you’re talking about eight solid hours then. But, if the game is great, then it’s worth an extra four hours to play, right? Oh, HELL no, it’s not four hours per game better. Not remotely. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a worse game that takes an order of magnitude longer, if you’re looking for a 4X game.
TI2 is a very simple game, mechanically, and the design really moves gameplay along. The best part is that the vast majority of the actions taken in a turn are done simultaneously, with only the movement and combat portions of the game being individual affairs. This alone makes the game far shorter, and ultimately, more enjoyable. Even if you are surrounded with five of your closest friends, it’s not as much fun playing a game where you’re continually having to fiddle with things at odd times, and where you’re doing lots of little things all the time. TI3 is that game.


What’s worse is that you really have to observe most of what your opponents are doing on their turn, because it will affect your play. Add to this the fact that the TI3 rules can only be characterized as Byzantine at best, with logic gaps that require one full dual column pages of errata and seven more pages of FAQs just to make the game playable in full. I mean, the rulebook is literally 38 triple column pages long, with an additional several pages of indices which detail the massive, fiddly clusterfuck of rules. And thank God for the indices, because without them, you’d be looking up rules 5 times longer during the game. Even people I know that have played it many times are caught referring back to the rules.

But let’s dispense with what might be construed as hyperbole. Let’s talk specifics. First, TI2 is a game of money, war, and political power. Money buys everything, and is earned by taking over planets and getting trade deals going. Political power influences the galactic council, and planets, aside from earning you cash, produce Council votes. In TI3, there is no coinage, and planets can only do one thing at a time. In order to build things or flex political muscle, you have to “expend planets” which amounts to saying that the entire planet devotes its resources to building something or expends its entire combined efforts to get political influence. This is, and I say this wholeheartedly, straight up bullshit. It’s like saying that the State of Maryland can’t build ships at Bethesda and have Congressional representatives. Really, one has absolutely nothing to do with the other. It’s ridiculously contrived for the purpose of serving itself and it’s “gaminess”, not to make a better game. And that’s just my first bitch of a great many.

I mean, not having things bought with money is retarded by itself, but having planets that can only either produce something OR have political influence…it’s ridiculously contrived. Now, there is a “sort-of money”, which are trade good counters, but these are interchangeable with political influence (which is too stinging and honest a criticism of politics for this particular article), and can be used for bribes or deal sweeteners. That said, these counters are a pittance when contrasted with the resources spent via planet activations, so my argument still stands. There’s no real money in the game, and that goes against everything a game with an economic aspect is about. Now onto the politics of Twilight Imperium, because that’s a big change and a big deal, in my estimation.
What really chaps my ass about this whole new TI3 political system is that the theme, on its face, seems to be telling you that the empire is a representative democracy or republic with autonomous nationalities represented therein, but the fact that you can only spend your planetary resources either building things or waxing diplomatic, but not both, crushes that concept. It’s what made TI2 so unique and made the planets interesting; the more planetary influence points you have, which I always construed as delegates representative of the populace of a planet, the better you fare politically. But in TI3, it just seems so contrived that it loses all meaning; the labor pool and political corps are mutually exclusive, so therefore there’s no real meaning. A planet not being able to cast votes because it built a spaceship? It makes absolutely no sense.
Next up is the fact that you can’t simply move a fleet, attack with your fleet, or do pretty much anything without expending limited “command counters”. What the shit is that? It’s like saying that the Allied Command couldn’t effectively manage the war in Europe and in the Pacific theater because they didn’t have enough radios. And this is supposed to be in a time when faster-than-light travel is possible? In TI2, you can deploy, move, and attack with anything that they have available. You know, like a war. As with many things in this game, they’ve taken a shortcut by abstracting things, and these command counters are the epitome of this conceptual error.
Even the “feel” of the game has changed considerably. TI3 feels like the decision was made that, “since TI2 is straight up Ameritrash, how about we put a Euro mechanic in the box to make it more German friendly in the next iteration?” That’s right, Chris P. managed to squeeze his personal homage to Puerto Rico into TI3 with the advent of “strategy cards”, which are, in essence, a special power that you can use during your turn, while in many cases gives others a weaker version of it. It’s EXACTLY like Puerto Rico. One lets you become the Speaker, or “first player”, which allows you to pick strategy cards first next turn. One allows you to pick an enemy player and stop that player from activating certain planets.
All in all, the strategy card mechanic is a bunch of bullshit just like many of the other “improvements” made in TI3. It adds “gaminess” for the sake of adding more rules to create artificial depth. More abstraction, more bullshit. How my empire could manage to completely stop another empire from utilizing several entire planets’ worth of political influence or resources is beyond me. I guess you have one hell of a CIA sabotage group which magically is only capable of affecting one enemy, and can only be utilized at certain arbitrary times when nobody else’s awesome CIA is sabotaging stuff. In short, the strategy cards alone are reason enough to not want to play this ever again when paired with the God-awful length.

Not all of the new things that FFG dumped in the huge TI3 box are bad, though. The size of the ships are larger, which mean that you see more detail, which necessitates the larger tiles, which I think are prettier as well. But it’s really kind of a loss in the end, though, because since everything’s bigger, it’s just as cramped, but now you need a full foot more per table dimension to fit the game. Pair that with all the new cards and stuff, and it becomes a mammoth game to table. It sure is pretty, though. The cards are a huge improvement, too, because these are the 3rd generation linen cards that we’ve all come to know and love. The counters are better, the cards, ships, and really, everything is improved in quality.
The only thing that I like almost as much in TI3 over its predecessor, from the 4X perspective, is the idea of hidden and public goals. Instead of actually being a imperial wargame, it’s really now a Euro-style VP race. It’s not seamless, and it’s definitely an abstracted, contrived mechanic, but it works pretty well for the new style of game that TI3 is. This mechanic is reminiscent of Avalon Hill’s Nexus Ops in that you have some goals that only you are aware of, and these are what give you victory points. I am still taken aback that this game that was once Ameritrash has been co-opted into what amounts to what feels almost like  a very complex worker placement Euro hybrid, with your workers (read: ships) who are moved and placed solely to take over opponent’s plantations (read: planets) which are used as resources to buy more workers and technologies (read: granaries, roads…). Don’t let the fact that there are dice in the game and that things die confuse you, either, because TI3 is a hybrid that is like a German U-boat chugging down the Hudson.
The cardinal sin of TI3 over TI2, the one that ensures that I will never again play it, even with the finest of folks who I adore, is that you are arbitrarily limited in what you can do by the strategy card you play and command tokens while forcing Star Fleet Battles style impulse-based, fiddly ass, micro-turns. It takes forever to play, and it in no way represents either a military or economic game due to the abstracting of virtually everything. Its as if FFG decided to make a game as fiddly as possible, as complex as possible, as long as possible, adding as many completely arbitrary devices as possible into one box so that it could capture existing TI fans, Euro fans, and still say that it’s an Ameritrash 4X because it has plastic and some dice.
It’s clear that the strategy worked because the game is so well accepted, but in my book, all they did was manage to take a great game concept and fuck it up badly by making it overly long, overly complex, and the sin I spoke of before, incredibly gamey for the sole purpose of making it gamey. I always thought that mechanics should serve the design and the theme, not the other way around, and this is an example of the latter. It’s not organic in any respect like TI2 was, it’s all contrived and the fun is lost in the mechanical minutae. When I play TI3, I feel like I’m playing a kind of Intragalactic Agricola with a splash of combat.
Now, you’ll read the above and believe, perhaps, that I am saying TI3 is a terrible game. It’s not. It’s actually a brilliant economic and political strategy game. What it’s not is a brilliant spacey 4X game. 4X stands for “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate“, and TI3 has very little of the latter, if any. As I noted, it’s much more of a cold war game. You build up a shitload of ships for the sole purpose of having them, not using them. Very infrequently is it viable to have a rolling thunder style assault on an opposing faction because, in the end, it’s as much a loss for you as it is your opponents due to the fact that you can no longer hoard wealth. Thus, if you lose ships, it is harder to replace them, and most importantly, it leaves you wide open for major attacks. Tie that with the fact that command tokens are limited, and it takes virtually forever to prepare a sneak attack or large incursion into enemy territory.
Furthermore, this is not a 4X because you’re not looking to win via any of the four X’s. In TI3, you have widely varying goals, such as owning four planets with a certain technology specialty, having certain ships in each sector you control, or something as simple as spending 20 influence points in a turn or having a certain amount of technological advances under your belt. This is, without question, not the same kind of game as it’s predecessor was.

The best analogy is that TI2 is a war game with economic and political goals where TI3 is a “cold war” economic and political game with a little skirmishing and varying goals. At the end of the day, it is a profound understatement to say that the only real similarities between TI2 and TI3 are in theme alone. If you’re looking for a fairly deep 4X, space-based war game with a political and economic engine behind the curtain, TI2 is the clear choice between the two. TI3 is a stunningly overproduced and quite able hybrid, but it’s no war game, and it’s a rude bastardization, at best, of what made TI2 great.

Why Twilight Imperium 2nd Edition Is The Imperium Rex Of My Shelves:
– It’s brilliant, and one of the last truly emergent designs to emerge from FFG
– The bits are splendid, plentiful, and well designed, by and large
– The gameplay is mostly very brisk, with much of the game’s minutiae being simultaneously handled
– The political engine is one of the finest examples of FFG’s imagination in history
– The cardplay in the game is integral, not tacked on
– The value of the game is simply unmatched these days; it’s very replayable and very fun
ONE FAQ ENTRY. ONE. UN. ICHI. NO ERRATA. LET THAT SINK IN.
Why Twilight Imperium 2nd Edition Should Be Voted Down In Council:
– It’s a two to three hour game with six experienced players, and it really should be played with five or six
– The cheap cards are under produced as hell
– The tiles are too small for mid-game fleets
Overall:
In the final analysis, I have to say that I love TI2, but not TI3. I don’t wholly hate TI3, but it is really a step forward and five steps back, in my mind, from a 4X perspective. It’s simply not the same kind of game. TI2 will be one of the last games I ever sell or trade away, ever, because it is everything I could possibly want in a deep, space faring 4X game. It is a wargame at its heart, with a Oscar-caliber supporting cast of a smart, simple economic engine and an incredibly rich and wonderful political mechanic.
TI2’s singular flaw, in my mind, is that it requires some significant bookkeeping since the victory conditions are based on how many, and what kinds, of planets you own, so it’s incumbent on the players to constantly keep a tally of their total production capacity and council seats.  There’s also the matter of the the too-small tiles, and the fact that the ships look like something you’d get in a 1985 10th birthday party favor bag, but those are personal issues more than anything. Beyond those, the game is as close to perfect as one can imagine for a 4X game. The fact that I haven’t bought or traded for the expansion after owning this for over a year is a hell of a strong indicator that it’s not broken, and requires no fixing, which is rare these days, especially for a FFG product.
Rating:
4.875/5 Stars
If you want to look back to 2000 when this was released, head here for the really empty forums…http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/26055/twilight-imperium-second-edition
And if you want to compare the rulebooks and FAQs, here they are:
TI2 Rules:
http://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/16110/twilight-imperium-2-rules-pdf
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5 thoughts on “Twilight Imperium II – 4x Because XXX Is Simply Not Sexy Enough For It”

  1. I can’t say from personal experience, but from what I’ve heard, Eclipse is like TI3, but shorter, with no politics, and a little more conflict.

    So, TI2 would likely be superior (for me) because the politics is really a differentiator, and the fixed objectives of having a strong economy, strong political influence, and having a large stellar empire make it a “real” 4X.

    People forget that “exterminate” is one of the 4x’s.

  2. While I agree with most of what you said, I think you are a touch crazy when it comes to the bits. The plastic in TI2 is some of the worst I have ever dealt with.

    The key reason that TI2 is superior, to me, is the political model. It’s fun, impactful and crazy. The debates about laws are my favorite part of either game.

    Eclipse is quick and fun, but dry and passionless. It’s the board play with all the clever crazy of 4x removed. I liked the game, but I will never love it. There isn’t much of a story arc – just growth and VP totaling.

  3. “The ugly ships are all made of plastic, in six colors”

    “The ships look boochy”

    “bits are servicable”

    Not exactly glowing…..

    Yeah, there’s a fuckton of flashing on the parts, and clipping them would’ve been a bitch had I not got my set used. :)

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