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On the weekend, my friends and I got together for our first ever game of Twilight Imperium III. We all enjoyed ourselves and would play it again, but I wanted to explore what did and didn’t make it work as an instructive tale for others.
As background, most of us are pretty regular gamers. Some have more experience with wargames, others with euro’s, and many of us had heard of the game before. Most of us are also fans of games with significant negotiation / bargaining elements, so we were looking forward to the political element as much as anything.
Organising six people for what can be a 8-12 hour session is a daunting task, so I knew it was important to build and maintain hype leading up to the event. Once we sorted out who was coming, I set up a private Facebook group to dump background material, rules explanations and YouTube links for how-to-plays. This worked a treat, particularly as I could track who’d viewed what to gauge interest levels and answer any queries over the six or so weeks between locking down the date and the game itself.
Having people own their race selection was, I felt, critical to enjoyment on the day. So, once I had given them enough background, I privately messaged each of the players and gave them a choice of four of the ten starting races. We settled with Mentak, Yssaril, Xxcha, L1Z1X and Letnev, with Jol-Nar for myself. Once players settled on their faction, I sent them an edited-down version of the strategy guides for their race so that they could get an understanding of strengths, weaknesses and what Strategy Cards to chase in the early game.
Next, my (second-hand) copy of TI3 is a first edition that has a couple of errors on the player sheets. I wanted the sheet to be as accurate as possible, so I mocked up a detailed replacement sheet, plus accompanying guides to include tech trees, leader abilities, etc. I also knew that this was a frequently house-ruled game, so I combed various groups to build my knowledge of what did and didn’t work with the factions and RAW. As I was introducing everyone to the game at the same time, I could easily introduce modifications to the custom sheets rather than having to re-explain how our house rules differed from RAW or the game’s race sheets. The variations I introduced were as follows;
Set-Up / Turn Sequence:
* During the status phase, the player(s) with the most VPs gained a Trade Good.
* All players get to draw 2-3 Secret Objective cards and then choose which one they want to keep (the number being based on the order in which you sit, and thus the potential advantage you’re gaining from information on your neighbours)
* Attempting to balance the spread of VPs and removing any semi-random ‘end the game’ condition that’d deflate some players, I chose to remove Imperium Rex completely and swap a Stage 1 Objective with an additional Stage 2 Objective. I felt this’d create more opportunities for high scoring without making anyone feel robbed of a victory. (Spoiler #1: this didn’t help!)
Noting how keen everyone was for political interaction, most of my changes here were intended to beef up the use of that deck;
* The Political Strategy is tweaked to let you draw a Political card into hand, then play a Political card from your hand. This means that if you can plan ahead to play strong and timely effects, rather than drawing from a mostly random stack. All other effects on the card remain identical.
* All players begin the game with 3 cards in hand (a mixture of Political and Action cards). These were moderately random, but I threw in some thematic cards to certain factions (e.g., Flank Speed for the Mentak seemed like a good fit). There wasn’t any concern about in-game knowledge biasing me here, as I did this pairing of cards and factions about a month before the event and promptly didn’t look at them again.
* During the status phase, players can choose to draw either a Political card or an Action card (once players saw how strong some Actions were, they invariably choose an Action card).
* Political cards can be discarded for 1 Influence in a vote.
* You can discard 2 Political cards can be discarded to draw a new card (either Action or Political).
* Mentak’s TG-stealing ability is a Strategic Action, limited to once per turn
* Yssaril have 1 fewer Cruiser in their starting fleet.
* Xxcha needed a buff, so their upgrades included a) being able to flip Resources and Influence on their planets during a vote, b) being able to choose from an additional Secret Objective at the beginning of the game, c) being able to retreat at the beginning of the first round of a space battle (after Mentak ambush / anti-Fighter barrages) unless the opponent paid 10 Influence.
* Dreadies get one re-roll per Space Battle.
In terms of other optional effects, we added Leaders into the mix but steered clear of the rest. I did consider adding in Age of Empire, but decided against it. (Spoiler #2: this was probably a mistake.)
Pre-game set up:
To streamline set-up, everyone got their own bags with coloured mini’s, matching tech decks, a semi-random starting hand of cards and randomised system tiles. This definitely helped.
We were due to start at 2pm with a 30-60 minute rules explanation, with plans to play through to around midnight. As it was, while everyone was up to speed on their faction and general background, only a couple of players had dug into the how-to-play tutorial and we had to go through more detail than anticipated. This wasn’t a huge problem as one player was running late with car troubles, but it meant that we didn’t kick off until 4pm.
The board was laid in the usual style, with players in the following order: Purple Xxcha > Black Mentak > Blue Letnev > Yellow Jol-Nar > Green Yssaril > Red L1Z1X. The board layout kicked off concentrated special systems near Xxcha and L1Z1X, with two asteroid fields and a Nebula (the last tile placed) creating a semi-porous barrier around that region. Alpha Wormholes were positioned between the Mentak/Letnev boundary and the L1Z1X’s backyard, while Beta Wormholes linked Xxcha territory with a planet on the edge of the Letnev/Jol-Nar sector. Multi-planet systems were generously scattered in the second and third rings. Mentak and Letnev started in the strongest positions, with five planets within 1 hex from their home systems. The weakest starting position was L1Z1X, who started with only two planets, a nebula and a wormhole within 1 hex.
The game itself:
Mentak started as the speaker, and claimed Imperial. Letnev took initiative and the Speaker token, while I (Jol-Nar) wanted to Trade. My Yssaril neighbour went for Political, and L1Z1X and Xxcha grabbed Logistics and Technology. Trade and Political strategic actions were great fun, with players wheeling and dealing, swapping TGs for bribes and drawing political alliances. For my part, I used my trade agreement to broker a deal with Letnev that’d peacefully carve up the galaxy nearest to us, and gave my other agreement to Xxcha for general friendliness on political matters.
The turn lasted for around 90 minutes (our longest turn), with players venturing out into adjacent hexes and claiming planets. I made a minor mistake by activating a dual-planet system near me to move my Dreadnaught out, before realising that all of my Ground Forces had already headed in the opposite direction. I got a Carrier and Fighter to accompany my Dreadie to absorb any hits, but was frustrated that I couldn’t land troops and take control of the planets. In the end, it’d be Turn 4 or 5 before I got sufficient free resources to send a loaded-up Carrier into that hex again.
Turn 2 was fairly uneventful, in that expansion continued without any fighting. The Yssaril ventured close to L1Z1X territory while Xxcha did the same to the Mentak. Jol-Nar, Xxcha and L1Z1X ventured out to the inner tier adjacent to Mecatol Rex with roughly equivalent forces. My poor combat rolls meant that I wanted to fight only weakened foes, so I dropped a PDS on a planet adjacent to Mecatol to take potshots at anyone wanting to activate that system. Then, I took advantage of the secondary effect of Warfare to send my Cruiser ahead to patrol the fallen imperial capital. By the end of Turn 2, Xccha was on 0 VP, Jol-Nar and Yssaril on 1 VP, and Letnev, Mentak and L1Z1X on 2 VP.
Turn 3 saw clashes along the L1Z1X-Yssaril front. In addition, an alliance between the L1Z1X and Mentak saw the space pirates emerge through a wormhole with Flanking Speed, use on-board diplomats to sail through L1Z1X-controlled space, and then on to an ambush of the goblinoids. For their part, although hemmed in with blank or special systems, the L1Z1X were tooling up with four Dreadies on the board and a large Fleet Supply. Meanwhile, I managed to successfully land on Mecatol Rex and promptly played an action card to add two PDS to ward off challengers.
At the end of Turn 3, Xxcha was on 0 VP, Yssaril and Mentak on 2 VP, Letnev and L1Z1X on 3 VP and Jol-Nar 4 VP. By this point, Mentak, Letnev and now Jol-Nar had claimed the two free VP from Imperial.
Turn 4 was a blur. I think I grabbed Trade to bolster my waning TGs. Xxcha launched themselves through a wormhole into nominal Letnev territory. This may have been to grab a tech-specialty planet, or perhaps a desire to position themselves closer to two of the three VP leaders. I found out after the game that Xxcha’s secret objective involved invading their neighbours, so it certainly wasn’t to do with that. Other battles continued to reshape the board. Xxcha and Mentak clashed on Mentak’s doorstep, and Jol-Nar and Yssaril clashed on their border too. Despite numerous red tech upgrades, I rolled cursed dice and was effectively wiped out, much to Yssaril’s surprise. My focus was elsewhere though: I signal jammed the encroaching L1Z1X to prevent them invading Mecatol Rex, then built a space dock on Mecatol Rex and fulfilled my secret objective. This significantly launched Jol-Nar forward on the victory point tracker; at the end of the turn, Xxcha was on 0 VP, Mentak on 2 VP, Letnev, Yssaril and (I think) L1Z1X on 4 VP, with Jol-Nar at 6 or 7 VP. Xxcha then doubled down, playing an action card to claim the same Strategy Card again (I think Warfare?). This was, I believe, part of a quest to obtain sufficient upgrades to grab 1-point objectives. As it was, it disrupted the likely cycle of strategy card selection and indirectly lead to the game’s end.
Turn 5 started curiously, with L1Z1X passing on Initiative or Imperial to claim Logistics. Xxcha was already locked into their card, and Mentak went looking for Technology. This left Imperial with the Letnev, and I claimed Initiative. Some factions looked to the Jol-Nar home system and ensure they didn’t cement their lead. Xxcha threw themselves through the wormhole again and took on the Jol-Nar, decimating their fleet. With a single dreadnought, Xxcha managed to destroy a fighter, Carrier, Cruiser and an Admiral-carrying dreadnought. The Letnev also took on the Jol-Nar with similar success.
L1Z1X, meanwhile, claimed Mecatol Rex with minimal fuss (Jol-Nar’s two PDSs took out fighters and damaged a dreadie, but nothing else). L1Z1X had miscounted his fleet however, and was short by one ship of claiming his Secret Objective. Mentak continued to harry its neighbours and built a War Sun; the scene was set for a major showdown next turn.
Then, the first Stage 2 Objective was flipped and everything changed. The requirement was for 9 Tech upgrades – something which had Jol-Nar already met, but no one was close to doing. I can’t quite recall the VP situation at the end of this turn, but from memory Xxcha continued to be on 0 VP, Mentak on 3 VP, Yssaril and L1Z1X on 4 or 5, Letnev on 6 or 7, and Jol-Nar 8 or 9 VP.
The game promptly finished at the start of Turn 6; other factions were just too far away from Jol-Nar’s (weakly defended) home system to make a decisive difference, and Jol-Nar had the Imperial Strategy card in any case. The game was ceded to the university of space-blobbies after ~2 hours of explanation and Judy under 6 hours of play, including meal breaks.
The wrap-up / thoughts:
Players enjoyed themselves, but the sudden acceleration of Jol-Nar (doubling their VPs in two turns) disrupted the rhythm of the game. I’m the sort of person who enjoys playing over winning, and so this was as disruptive for me as anyone. We were all settling in for the long haul, and the one-two punch of claiming secret objective & a favourable Stage 2 objective moved most people into a situation where they were completely powerless to change the outcome of the game.
Even though players were reminded to chase VPs rather than territory, the lure of moving ships around the board and rolling handfuls of dice was a wee bit too strong. This was obvious to me in two ways. First, I won with Jol-Nar by launching myself onto planets for a turn or two to gain influence, resources or tech specialities, not to hold territory. Some players seemed surprised by my willingness to sacrifice units, and didn’t realise that the game requires you to have a shifting focus on achieving various objectives rather than a consistent, broad strategy around exploration or territorial domination. Second, the decision by L1Z1X, Xxcha and Mentak to pass on the Initiative Strategy in Turn 4 meant that Letnev and Jol-Nar benefited from a double-dip on Imperial. I understand to some extent why this occurred, in that Choosing Initiative/Imperial means you don’t get to do as much Cool Stuff, even if it does assist you in winning the game. Other players believed that doing Cool Stuff would help them win; a reasonable assertion in many games, but not this one.
In terms of my house rules, I think they largely worked. I made the most changes to Xxcha, and I believe that any struggles that player faced were more to do with playstyle rather than the faction. This is partly due to an understanding of the likelihood of certain tactics paying off. With the house rules for his faction and his seating order, Xxcha had four secret objectives to choose from yet had chosen one that required conquering neighbouring home systems. With the military might of L1Z1X and Mentak next door, I’d have grabbed something else! But, the Xxcha player hadn’t read enough about the game to understand that he was up against stiff competition.
The changes to the political strategy improved that aspect of the game, but it could have been amped up even further. Indeed, from a peak in deal-making in turns 1 and 2, most players ended up sticking with their wedge of the galaxy. Interactivity suffered as a result.
I don’t feel bad for winning, but I feel bad that the draw of secret objectives benefited me so much. Including the Stage 2 Objective, three of the six objectives related to technology in some way. It would have been a reasonable assumption for newer players to assume that the swings and roundabouts would eventually come back to them and they’d surge ahead in turn, but the order that the cards came out in meant they never got the chance.
As I said at the beginning, players enjoyed the game, but I think they were after a truly long haul experience and TI3 (weirdly, considering its reputation) didn’t quite deliver. I’d promised something that’d take 8-12 hours and had allocated 10 for, but after taking out our dinner break and rules explanations we were done in under 6 hours. What’s more, this was fairly unhurried; there was a lot of off-topic chat and at some points the play was so slow that I thought we wouldn’t finish before midnight.
So, what would I change? I still wouldn’t consider RAW. I think Age of Empire is a good option, but I’d vary it further to create a more dependably epic game. As a quick brainstorm, this could involve having only Stage 2 PO’s that come up in turns 4+, supplemented by Stage 1 PO’s that get given to individual players as bonus secret objectives. These could be allocated using a draft process, to give people the chance to control their own play a little more. Also (and this is unsurprising for what I’ve shared about our group), I’d definitely want to beef up Politics even more. There are a bunch of suggestions already out there on this idea and I’d probably something already out there, but my group’s stance is anything that creates greater interaction, particularly non-military interaction, should be embraced. (Removing or replacing Imperial is also on my list, but that’s no surprise considering the creators effectively retconned it out in the first expansion.)
This, right here, is why I use the Strategy Cards from Shattered Empire. It sounds like you would love them....
Barring that, you might want to try making the Imperial Card only give 1 VP. It would be a little less swingy.
Another option, depending on how much everyone liked to build the galaxy at the start, is to have a asymmetrical preset map. They can really spice the game up.
Politically, deal everyone 4 Political Cards at the start of the game. This gives them several political options to consider the whole time.
Also, you can remove uninteresting cards from the PC deck before the game starts. Some people pull out everything but the huge, game-changing ones. I don't do that, but I did remove all the PC that didn't have an affect when they are voted down. (I.e. For: [some affect] Against: Discard this card.) These are much less likely to raise emotions....often times, everyone will just vote against it because they don't care.
I think TI3 is a great fit for your game group....if they like alliances and maneuvering, and are disappointed because the game ended too soon....
THIS IS A GREAT GAME FOR YOU.
You just had a bit of a downer first game.
I would really try the Shattered Empire strategy cards, I think you would prefer them. Note, however, you will have to houserule the Assembly (Political) Card to improve the political game.
Kudos for your perpetration! Very good!
Keep at it. I think this game is a great fit.
Someone chose to be Xxcha?
I think you might consider not having so many house rules, since they aren't playtested, but then again, with all the expansions it's hard to tell the difference anyway.
I love the game, and usually play 4 player with most of the extras from the first expansion. 4 players helps with downtime and gets all the strategies in play, which we like. But really, find what works for your group.
I don't think you'll be able to prevent a swingy win here and there. But it does sound like the random draw gave that to you. Play some more! Love this game.
Stewart - I think you did a really grand job setting up your game! Bravo! All your pre-game work has always been the key for us in spending maximum time PLAYING vs other, less exhilarating, activities.
I do think you'd love the SE Strategy Cards with the official AoE Optional rule.
A note on pre-set maps, you can always make your own and make starting home system selection part of the pre-game (that's what we've been doing for 6+ years), have everyone weigh in on the map before HS selections are made.
We've been doing a lot of things you did for quite awhile, and we're still going strong (gonna play our 61st game in Nov'16).
a. Great Race and player color selections before game day
b. Pre-set map, all quibble and adjust (takes us literally 10 minutes or less)
c. everyone arrives at 11am, and we're generally done (6-7 game rounds) by 8:30pm...and we play with 7-8 players, and play TLW to  VP's!
Again Bravo Stewart!...all that pre-game work you did makes for a fantastic TI3 game experience.
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne & Wear
I'll add my vote for the Shattered Empire Strategy Cards; even if basically just to replace Imperial. +2 VPs (or even just +1 if you nerf it with Age of Empire) for doing nothing but choosing a card at the beginning of the round is overpowered; more importantly, it's dull and prescriptive. If you can take Imperial then you must, or you're going to lose; if you cannot do so then you take Initiative, in order to take Imperial next turn; and only if you can't take either of those is it even worth considering any other option. In Imperium Rex, base game plays you!
I'd vote for using the Shattered Empire set of objectives as well, because they encourage conflict; however that might not be ideal, if your group favours non-military interaction. But it can be a bit galling to see the Jol Nar run away with the game purely because she's got more technologies than the others; they should be their own reward.
Unfortunately, Shattered Empire's Trade and Embassy SCs are pretty weak, so you may want to consider house-ruling them, especially for your group. Trade Agreements in SE are too easy to break, so neither enforce nor encourage diplomacy. And most folks grab Embassy for the bonus cards over the option to call a vote, so I'd probably want to give the Speaker a bit more clout.
Thanks all for the comments. I only have the core set, but will definitely consider picking up SE for the new strategy cards (although as per Camo's comments, we'll probably either house-rule them further to drive up the interaction or mix and match with core cards). I had initially resisted the asymmetrical maps as I liked the visual appeal of the classic setup, but I think that it's a useful way to drive interaction beyond a pie-wedge of the galaxy.
As for politics, I noticed that most players blew any stockpiled political cards in their hand during the first couple of turns. More cards could be an option, but I think I'd look to go down the line of some variants I've seen that introduce multiple political cards each turn, or make it a semi-mandatory part of the round.
Dan, my Xxcha player fell in love with the concept of Henry Kissinger as a ninja turtle, but even with the tweaked faction abilities he couldn't make them work. I wonder if part of the weakness there is as much to do with the under-utilisation of Diplomacy as anything else. I am tempted to give them a whirl myself, but I think if I am grabbing SE then I think the Yin Brotherhood will be in my sights...
We always do a random draw of races, so I would play Xxcha if it was dealt to me. But they do seem a little underpowered.
We play with a variant that seeds the universe with more planets, which to e everyone more resources to work with.
Mr. Axle can do all for you.
The Xxcha do best in a 4- or 8-player game, where their abilities that are tied to Diplomacy and Political (Assembly) are able to be used every turn. At other players counts, they become tougher to play well.
Even though players were reminded to chase VPs rather than territory, the lure of moving ships around the board and rolling handfuls of dice was a wee bit too strong.
Twilight Imperium isn't a wargame, and anyone who tries to play it like a wargame will lose. I've won before while engaging in only two space battles the entire game. It's a typical new player mistake to see all the plastic ships and try to play TI as a wargame.
I’m the sort of person who enjoys playing over winning
When playing TI you have to be constantly aware of victory points. Since the whole board can gang up on a player who is at 8 or 9 VP, it's common to win by manipulating your position so as to be able to score 4-5 points in one round. When someone gets to 6 VP, look out. If you get to 8 VP and don't win, everyone is going to pummel you and someone will likely take your home system, preventing you from winning even if you reach 10 VP.
Not grabbing Imperial every time it's available is another greenhorn mistake. TI is all about victory points. You have to play with a single-minded devotion to scoring, otherwise (a) you won't win and (b) the game will go on forever. It's kind of like Talisman in that inexperienced players can view the game as a sort of psuedo-RPG and try to harvest the experiences that are possible instead of trying to win.