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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.