Jonathan Davis
United States
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Before yesterday, I had never played Twilight Imperium in any of its iterations nor any of its board game ilk such as Eclipse, Proxima Centauri (Scythe may be the closest that I’ve played). I have played numerous PC games in the 4X genre (Civilization, Endless Space, Total War, etc. currently enjoying Endless Legend). When our epic games group posted a sign-up for Twilight Imperium 4th, I decided to buckle-up and play this game and so we scheduled the game a month or so out. The game has a legendary/notorious reputation for how long it is which definitely made me do a bit of soul searching as to what I wanted out of a playthrough of game that I would rarely (if ever) play again and also if I was going to sit there for 6 or more hours with 3 acquaintances (not my close friends/core group, 2 of which I had not met).

I knew wanted to definitively cross TI4 off my gamer geek bucket list and have that “space opera” experience that it’s fanbase raves about. In order to do that I felt like there were a few sticking points that I saw from the outset that might ‘sour’ my experience. If I was going to sit down and play a 6 hour board game, I knew there were a few things that I did/did not want:
d10-1I didn’t want to be the player playing a totally blind ‘learning game’.
d10-1I didn’t want to be wrestling with the core concepts of the rules and mechanics while at the table.
d10-1I wanted to be excited to play.
d10-1I wanted to be competitive and not a pushover.
d10-1I wanted to enjoy all aspects of the game (trade, haggling, negotiations, war, etc.)
d10-1My personal emphasis with most games is fun first. Winning is nice too.

So how did I prepare ahead of time? What did I find useful? Here are my suggestions:

Preparing for your first game:
d10-1Read the ‘Learn to Play’
You can probably gloss over the Agenda phase.

Learn to Play book
Rules Reference book

d10-1Read the ‘Learn to Play’ again, but this time use the ‘Rules Reference book’ to look up those niggling concepts that you find yourself stumbling over (“Wait, Move->Attack->Invade->Produce? How/When do I produce?” “Space cannons, huh?” “Bombardment, huh?” “Secondary action, huh?”)

d10-1Find yourself a copy of the faction species cards. Take a break, enjoy the lore elements. Some people may find this to be the most interesting and enjoyable element of the game. I had a real “Aha!” moment when I read the L1Z1X faction’s fluff after having played as the Lazax in ‘Rex’.

d10-0The faction cards are the only place where ‘starting tech (back/fluff side)’ and ‘faction abilities (front/play side)’ are listed.
These are not in the Learn to Play/Rules Reference books. You’ll have to browse the web or ask your friend to read their set or find a cheat sheet with all the faction specific abilities and starting setups.

d10-1Listen to a Space Cats Peace Turtles podcast while you knock out your chores/bus ride
Podcast:Space Cats Peace Turtles:Race/Faction Overview:
Ep: 006:

This episode is called a ‘theoretical tier list’ but you can ignore that. Take the opinions with a grain of salt. At this point in the podcast’s life, the hosts have not played 4th edition and have only studied the faction abilities and are using their TI3rd experience/knowledge/meta to interpret and describe the factions. This is a great discussion of what every faction should ‘theoretically’ be good at. You’ll get a good overview and leave knowing things like Jol-Nar = tech, Clan of Sar = nomadic, etc. Then you’ll begin to grasp possible counters and possible scenarios. Plus this is a good way to nerd out. The factions and their special abilities are undeniably the best part of Twilight Imperium.

d10-0I listened to about 6-8 of their podcasts but the above was the most useful to me. They do an episodic breakdown of all of the strategy cards and that is useful also, but may be overkill.

d10-0One of my basic strategic takeaways for turn 1 is that most likely you’ll want to have two ships with capacity 2 with 2 infantry each to conquer 2 planets on 2 tiles. Once I grabbed onto that idea I could really picture tactical actions in my head.

d10-1Watch a round or two of a YouTube play session:
The reason I suggest this, is that reading rules can only take you so far sometimes. Sometimes it is good to SEE what a tactical action might look like. SEE what the strategy phase looks like. I would only watch long enough for you to gain some notion of what the game looks like in motion once it starts walking on its space legs.
I cannot honestly recommend a specific video. I was hoping the DiceTower guys had a play session since their personalities are tolerable and light-hearted enough. If you have a favorite YouTuber, I’d just go with one of their plays.

d10-1Watch this video: “Twilight Imperium (4th Edition) in 32 minutes”

d10-0I’m sure many people will watch a video like this and feel like they’ve done their prepwork. Maybe that works for some people. I watched this video right away and while many facets stuck with me, I felt a lot of core concepts would bounce off of me because I was unfamiliar with the rules as written.

Things you probably shouldn’t waste too much energy on:

d10-1Action cards: Know that there is a ‘Direct Hit’ card. Know that there is a ‘Sabotage’ card. Know that you’ll probably want to have some Action cards up your sleeve. Know that some are dumb and you’ll never use. Otherwise, I wouldn’t spend time memorizing all of these. You’ll have time to read them during the match.

d10-1Public Objectives/Secret Objectives: I didn’t spend any time researching these and I was glad for it. Public Objectives are things you can gain simply by playing the game (Amassing technology, holding X total of planets, spending X total of influence/resources during the status phase). Secret Objectives are more situational (Build 3 space docks, position yourself next to anomalies, hold two wormholes, etc.). If you have a grasp of the game mechanics, you can read the objectives on game day while your at the table and simply steer yourself towards those objectives for VPs. No need to memorize these for your first game.

d10-1Tech cards: For your first game you’ll have the weight of a pile of rules in your head so memorizing techs will be a tough pickle. Honestly, this was my weakest area during my play session so I didn’t have a ‘build order’ in mind. I think it is more important to know how you gain tech and how you can reduce the prerequisites by exhausting certain planets. People like Sarween Tools, maybe read that?

Things you can’t/shouldn't prepare for or worry about until game day:

d10-1Strategy token management: There’s no proper way that I can envision to prepare for this. How many tactical tokens should I have? How many should I keep for next round? I think it’s most important to understand the Strategy cards and how you can gain tokens. Spending/manipulating your strategy tokens is the hefty bulk of decision making you’ll be doing during play.

d10-1Agendas: No one is going to read all of these before their first game. Hopefully, your drawn agendas will be interesting considering your current galaxy state so it might even be a spoiler if you read them ahead of time.

Was all of this time spent overkill?

I obviously spent more than 6 hours prepping for a 6 hour game. Sure, listening to a podcast on the bus isn’t a lot of time that could be spent doing something else. But I could’ve listened to This American Life, Serial, Heavy Cardboard, Punching Cardboard, etc etc. But sitting down to read the rules. Downloading them to my tablet. Watching videos on the weekend, etc. Is it overkill? If you’ve ever played a pen and paper roleplaying game, I think you’d quickly agree that player prepwork isn’t overkill. A large amount of RPG enjoyment is being immersed in the hardback world of the game and it’s ruleset and I think the same conclusion can be drawn here. Some players aren’t like me, though, but I think it would be somewhat rude to show up to a hefty game like Twilight Imperium with zero familiarity with the game and expect the table or host to teach you. That is, of course, not a big deal if your group is playing a true ‘learning game’ or your host has offered to teach you the game from the ground up. And if your host has the patience to do that, may the ghosts of Rex be with them.

How was my first game after all of this prep time?

Overall, it was a great session. I played a 4 player match with 3 other players very familiar with Twilight Imperium 3rd Ed. Our host had a nice plexiglass cover to hold down the galaxy map as well as third party clear platforms for our fleets. I took my tablet with all my downloaded cheat sheets but rarely referenced them.

I think only one player had played 4th edition (and only once). The players were all helpful when I needed clarifications for actions. Honestly, we all had to look up the occasional rule since Twilight Imperium is inarguably fiddly at times. Of course, I couldn’t remember the secondary actions of each Strategy card by heart, but quickly caught on to the fact that that one gives tokens, that one gives PDS, that one gives x etc. etc.

I was the first to claim Mecatol Rex and held it for a few turns before leaving it. It was a very satisfying and thematic objective grab and the highlight of the game for me. We traded promissory notes. We traded goods. Another player and I made more than one binding deal. Our agenda phase was underwhelming (although, two separate planets were voted to have boosts to yellow tech and then influence and both planets were traded back and forth through conquest). Honestly, there were no major upsets or any of those “holy mackerel” moments in the game. Although, the closest to one of those moments was probably when one player jumped up from behind in points. We finished the game at 10-8-8-5. If I had had one extra tactical token I could’ve finished out the game with a win as I held the Leadership card and end game scoring is done in turn order. The table seemed to agree that player 4 (in turn order) (who had jumped up from behind) was the winner and unstoppable. They had even stood up to pack the game away but I made the host read the rules on scoring. The table was wrong in their conclusion. We played out the status phase and player 2 (the host) won. What is the lesson here? Don’t be scared to call for a rules clarification. Don’t trust that the table has interpreted a rule correctly from memory. I literally changed the outcome of the game by asking someone to read the rules.

In the end, I am very satisfied that we had a close, competitive match, with strong player interaction. Although I now know that this game is not “for me” I’m glad that I put in the time and effort to learn the game so that I could functionally PLAY the game. I hope this information proves useful to any new players that are thinking about dipping their big toe into Twilight Imperium’s galactic waters. I’d say skip the toe and jump right in. At least when it comes to learning to swim. Whether you decide to come back for another swim after your first dip. That’s up to you.

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Jonathan Barth
United States
New Mexico
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Excellent post!

I found this tutorial to be excellent when I was learning how to play and teach this game. Its in three parts.

I would also recommend if you are teaching it, read through and understand all of the action cards. To many times did we have to look through and find "timing" clarifications.

Start with the recommended factions. We made the mistake of drafting.

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