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Twilight Imperium and the 21st Century View of Warfare

Just this past weekend I had the privilege of playing one of the world’s biggest, best boardgames, the monstrous Twilight Imperium (4th Edition). For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is a massive game involving the founding of a new Galactic Empire and the political, military, and economic machinations of the numerous aliens species vying for hegemony. It costs $150 to buy, weighs as much as one of my kids, and takes about 8 hours to play.

We’re talking *big,* here.

But OH MY GOD is it good. So, so engrossing. Just the exact right amount of complexity – at no point was the game tedious or pointlessly fiddly – and even after playing for about 9 hours straight, we all looked around the table at each other and realized we were not actually tired of the game itself. We were tired because it was late, but I, for one, could have sat down happily the next game and played it all over again. I think a lot of my friends felt the same way.

I will decline to summarize the blow-by-blow of the game (though I probably could), but what struck me most about playing it was how the game treated warfare. Now, it just so happens that we drew objectives that weren’t *explicitly* martial – they were mostly technological and political type things – but even with all the more militaristic objectives being drawn, fighting wars in Twilight Imperium (while tons of fun) doesn’t seem to be a great way to win the game. Fleets are expensive to build, both in resources and opportunity cost, and can get destroyed rather quickly. Going to war often doesn’t secure the strategic goals it seems to and, in any case, there are often ways to secure those goals without blowing up your neighbors. This struck me as an immensely curious thing for an ostensible wargame (all those little plastic ships? Yeah, those are for waging interstellar wars.) to include.

But, is it? Twilight Imperium was first published in 1997, but three of its four incarnations have their roots firmly in the 21st century. This is interesting because, well, the history of warfare in the 21st century (and even the late 20th) has not been one of glorious conquest or territorial expansion or even real victory, exactly. War in our era is long, almost interminable. It never seems to achieve what it was meant to (and we wonder whether it actually can or even ever did). When wars happen, we don’t expect a clean resolution. There will be no surrender and not even any declaration – one minute we’re bombing somebody for (reasons) and the next…we aren’t. Did anything change? Not that we can tell.

This is distinct from the military victories of the early 20th century – World Wars that came to thunderous (and bloody and exhausting) conclusions in which the USA was victorious and filled with the optimism and self-righteousness that such victories can cause. From this comes an ocean of games where battle is the inevitable consequence and victory at war the goal. Axis and Allies, Risk, even Diplomacy ask the player to marshal their forces, outwit the enemy, and secure power by naked force and deadly cunning alone. Scorched earth tactics and untrammeled war-mongering are the hallmark of so many games, and I might suggest the appeal of such games is firmly rooted in that 20th century outlook – if we have the brains, the will, and the technology, our armies will secure out goals and benefit our civlization (at the expense of others).

But TI isn’t like that. Indeed, there are lots of games running around these days that reject that principle. Warfare is a regrettable end in Twilight Imperium that may seem like a good plan at first, but then later on, when nothing has improved and nobody has really “won,” you realize how foolish you were. That is, in the end, how I won the game. I didn’t go to war very much at all (only once, when the opportunity was there and my opponent was building Death Stars with abandon) and, while my forces were not the most powerful by far, they were more than sufficient to defend myself and enable me to win a diplomatic and economic victory. Second place came very close using scientific research alone.

If only the real world used such means over and above violence. Then maybe we’d all be better off, yes?

Anyway, this is the stuff I was thinking about while my collectively intelligent tree-aliens slowly gained control of the galaxy.

Narrative Boardgaming and Me

A lot of my friends are pretty serious board-gamers. They own more board-games than they do individual dinner plates or even, possibly, individual pieces of flatware. Some own so many board games that it is extremely unlikely they will ever manage to play them all. They keep buying more, though.

Zzzzzzzz...huh? What? Oh, yeah, I buy coffee or something. Whatever.

Zzzzzzzz…huh? What? Oh, yeah, I buy coffee or something. Whatever.

While I do like games and will usually try any game once, I’m discovering that my tolerance of such games is somewhat limited the more and more game nights I attend and the wider variety of games I play. I find I get bored easily with a lot of games and, while I can appreciate the strategy involved and often admire the elegance of the rule design, the actual act of playing the game generates the same feeling I get while doing my taxes.

I’ve been trying to isolate my criteria for what makes a good board game, and I’m finding it’s surprisingly difficult. As a basic rule, I despise almost any game that makes the acquisition and management of resources a major gameplay component – Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Monopoly, and their relatives. Then again, I really enjoy Illuminati and Innovation, which aren’t too far off such resource management games, so that’s not quite the rule involved. Likewise, while I find deck-building games to be more frustrating than interesting (every game of Dominion I’ve ever played has wound up being a brief, perplexing, and disinteresting experience), I think Thunderstone sounds like a lot of fun. Furthermore, while I no longer have the attention span or endurance to tolerate massive strategy games like Axis and Allies (and its billion spin-offs), I love History of the World and will play Diplomacy anytime someone suggests it. I don’t like Risk, but I do like Risk: Legacy.

I believe I’m beginning to figure the metric out, at any rate. I’ve decided that, while the rules of the game are important, what is really important to me is whether or not the concept behind the game is fun. The prospect of building tracks across North America (Ticket to Ride) sounds unutterably dull to the point where I have no desire whatsoever to play the game unless I’m in a room full of people who want to play and I have nothing else to do. On the other hand, the prospect of being a corrupt politician in a small banana republic and attempting to overthrow El Presidente (Junta) sounds like hilarious fun, so I’ll play that no matter how tedious the rule set is. I’m in the game, ultimately, because it tickles my imagination somehow. I feel emotionally invested in the outcome, even if that outcome is completely random (Betrayal at House on the Hill) or takes hours and hours to finally realize (Robo Rally). The game has to make me laugh or encourage me to talk in a funny voice. If I can look at the board and say “that looks so cool,” I’m in, no matter how poorly the rules are laid out or how predictable the outcome ends up being (Monsters Menace America). On the other hand, a bunch of cardboard chits that explain to me how I’m the richest stock broker in Manhattan is not going to get me going, no matter how innovative and interesting the rules mechanics get.

This, ultimately, is probably due to my obsession with story. I am a storyteller; it’s just about the best thing I do and pretty much the only thing I want to do. Everything to me is a story and, if the story is boring, I’m no longer invested. This goes for almost everything in my life, but especially so for the games I play. This part of the main reason I’ve been playing Warhammer 40K for as long as I have, for all the foibles and flaws in their rule set: I love the world, I dig the story, and I like telling stories every time I play the game. That’s why I plunk down hundreds of dollars a year and spend countless hours building and painting miniatures – it tickles my narrative-bone. Sure the investment is pretty major, but the payoff far exceeds anything that can be accomplished on a Risk gameboard. Risk, meanwhile, has a much more interesting and tangible narrative edge than Fluxx, which, while mildly amusing, is unlikely to get me really invested in play as it is so abstract as to be no more interesting than, say, Crazy Eights or Uno.

So, if you’re trying to peddle a game to me wherein I get to grow crops and sell them in town for horseshoes, call somebody else. Let me know when the barbarians or zombies or zombie-barbarians show up and then I’ll be there with bells on.

Victory Conditions: Earth

Thank you for playing Planet: Earth. Thank you for sticking with us through the development process, since the game really is quite buggy at the moment. We promise to stop releasing new Errata and FAQ documents sometime in the next million turns or so.

Anyway, if you’ve gotten this far (turn 4.3 billion, or so), that means you’ve managed to build and sustain life on this planet despite numerous potential extinction events, including various meteor and asteroid strikes, pandemics, and so on. If you still have dinosaurs active in the game, congratulations! You earn +10 achievement points to be spent on new atmospheric events, including ‘fire rain’ and ‘rainbow lightning’.

The game, as you may have guessed, is nearing its final stages. If you developed Humans (which you should have, otherwise the odds of earning anything other than a draw are slim), they’ve now grown to the point where, within the next couple hundred turns, they will have consumed most of the natural resources left on the board. This, of course, is the Final Event. If you can manage to surpass this one, you will have won the game. There are, however, several victory options still available.

Option 1: Global War 

For every space on the board occupied by humans, you may draw one card from the ‘Violence’ deck and remove a number of population tokens as indicated by the card. If you can draw sufficient cards to manage to remove all Civilization tokens, you win the game. Bonus Points: +0

Option 2: Environmental Disaster

Trade in sufficient human tokens to draw from the ‘Meddling Humans’ deck. Keep drawing until you get sufficient flood, wildfire, drought, and tornado cards to remove civilization tokens as described above. Do this, and you win the game. Bonus points: +25

Option 3: Pandemic

This works similarly to all Pandemics, however you must generate sufficient Virulency points to overcome all human population centers’ Resistance Rating. If you can manage to make humanity Extinct, you win the game. Bonus Points: +15

Option 4: Multiplanet Species

Generate sufficient technology tokens to purchase draws from the Breakthrough deck. If you can play enough ‘Space Development Cards’ to create a Mass Migration event sufficient to reduce population tokens below the number of remaining resource tokens, you win the game. Bonus points: +100

Option 5: Pan-global Utopia (Non-Human)

Invest sufficient improvement points in non-human populations (we recommend apes, computers, extraterrestrials, or dolphins) to successfully gain Breakthrough draws sufficient to play the ‘Self Awareness’ card. Then, follow the procedure for Global War, above, but with non-humans fighting humans. Bonus Points: +150

Option 6: Pan-global Utopia (Human)

Invest sufficient improvement points in human populations to gain Breakthrough draws sufficient to play the ‘Limiteless Energy’ card. Then proceed to spend technology tokens as indicated on the card to move the human race’s Psychology Meter to a rating between ‘Languid’ and ‘Acquisitive.’ Then reduce population tokens to lower than resource tokens to win the game. Bonus points: +250

We realize that this is a bit unbalanced and we promise to work out the bugs in the retail version. Thank you very much for playing the Beta-test version of Planet: Earth!

Getting the Gaming In

This game cover is, as KatieHal put it, 80s-tastic.

Twenty years ago or so, I was given a copy of the FASA strategy game Succession Wars. It’s basically Axis & Allies, but in the Battletech universe and with a less confusing ruleset. I think. I don’t know for sure because I have never gotten anybody to play it with me. This is not the only game I own that is in this category. I can lump in the FASA games Centurion, Leviathan, and Aerotech. I own a copy of Junta I’ve played twice and a copy of Diplomacy I’ve never actually used (the only games of Diplomacy I play occur via e-mail or online). That list isn’t even counting the RPGs I’ve bought but never actually run (including ones I wrote myself), the multiplayer video games I’ve never actually played with another human being.

I’m not actually complaining, believe it or not. Life is full of more important things than playing games and a great many of them are significantly more fulfilling and enjoyable. It is a point of regret, though, that I never have gotten around to having fun with these things. Other folks have garages full of badminton sets and cross-country skis they never use; I’ve got shelves full of games.

I’m not the only one with such a shelf, either. Many of my friends are significantly more weighed down with tons of boardgames they’ll never actually get around to playing (well, perhaps once), have shelves full of video games they’ll never really play, and have stacks of RPG stuff they’ll never have time to run. Rare is the gamer whose eyes aren’t bigger than his or her free time, particularly now that gamers my age are getting older, have more and more real-world commitments, and many more significant responsibilities to take their time and attention. Gone are the halcyon days of our late teens and early twenties, when we could devote entire 36 hour periods to orgies of nerdery the likes of which would shame Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

Well, what are a group of adult nerds to do about this? Are we to go silently into our middle age and regretfully pack up our Piles of Shame, resigning ourselves to a period our lives where the gaming is infrequent and mediocre? No! We must establish a plan to stake out our game time! We must requisition basements and attics for our use! Others have their ritual trips to the bar and inviolate Sunday sports sessions – why cannot we gamers have our time? So, to that end, my suggestions for how to address this issue:

Be Realistic: You and your friends are adults with families and jobs and responsibilities. You are not going to be able to spend six hours every single Sunday playing boardgames or RPGs and expect everybody to show up all the time. When planning out RPG campaigns or boardgaming sessions, keep this in mind. Those games that take ten hours to play and require massive amounts of time and attention are going to be difficult to schedule.

Be Specific: When you invite your buddies over to game, have a specific game in mind (e.g. “We are going to play Succession Wars”). Don’t just say ‘games’ or you’ll play either the same old stuff as usual or get caught up in everybody having different interests and never actually agreeing on what game to play (and then you wind up playing the same old game everybody can agree on).

Plan In Advance: You can’t really call up your buddies on a Friday night and expect them to be free Saturday afternoon. Plan a week or two in advance or have a fixed schedule that everybody’s aware of (‘the first Friday of every month’ or ‘every other Sunday afternoon’), and that way people are more likely to be able to make it.

Be There: If you say you’re going to go, go. Make it a priority. Yes, it comes in behind work and family, but don’t blow off one social engagement (which is what games are) for another social engagement. Barring rare exceptions, blowing off your gaming buddies to go drinking with your work buddies is pretty insulting on the one hand and takes away from the enjoyment the rest of the gamers will derive from the game on the other. Blowing people off is especially rude in the case of RPGs, where, in most cases, your presence is required to play your character and the lack of your character can derail whole adventures.

Keep Your Mate in the Loop: For those of you who are married or in long-term relationships, make certain you let your girlfriend/boyfriend or whatever know when you are gaming and where and so on. Let them know that this is important to you and your friends (even if they think it’s stupid themselves), and you’d really like to make it. Provided your spouse is a decent person who values your wishes, doing this kind of thing will prevent unfortunate double-bookings that prevent you from Being There. Also make clear that he/she has the ability to override gaming time if something obviously more important comes up (this includes things like illness, sudden familial obligations, etc., etc.). I could go on, but I’ll stop here, as we are starting to delve into me giving people relationship advice, and this blog is not the place.

There are other tricks, too – setting up RPG campaigns with rotating character rosters that don’t require the same people to be there every time, for instance, or playing board games that have short play times, and so on. Those five rules, though, ought to make it so that you can enjoy gaming well off into your golden years where, presumably, your time will free up all over again.

Retirement homes of the 2050s are going to be goddamned gamer paradises, I kid you not.