Making Twilight Imperium a bit less random

Twilight Imperium is a marvelous board game introduced to gamedev by Hagan Koopman (“King Koopman?”) some time ago. It is ridiculously complicated, has a 60 page dense rule book, and takes 15 hours to play if everybody already knows how to play. I used my roommates’ TI parties as an excuse to go on hikes with Jenn.

But after months of my roommates tirelessly raving about it, my interest was piqued and I played the next two games (you need one game to “get it”… quite a learning investment). And it is excellent. It’s plays as the strategy of every game you’ve ever played mixed into one: economics, politics, military, alliances, short-term deals, bidding, deception, pedantry. The complex social networks that emerge are something to behold.

But I have a problem with it: the combat sucks. You spend all this money and effort over many turns to build a massive army and decide to invade someone else’s space. And it comes down to dice rolls. Hundreds of dice rolls. There are some decisions to be made, but mostly they are trivial and can be described with an algorithm in half a page. You might as well be playing on a computer and say “resolve!” and it says “Luke wins!”. Combat! In a space warfare game!

Tonight at gamedev we did a tactical strategy game jam, and our group (Travis Offtermatt, Jude, and I) attempted to create an alternative that was more strategic. After some playtests, I think the game is quite a success. Fast-paced (by design, lest we yet lengthen this hideously long game), enjoyable, balanced, and quite in harmony with the outcomes of the dice if both players are playing at the same level (namely: noobs, since we just invented it).

It is played on a chess board, or any grid for that matter, with the TI combat pieces: Fighters, cruisers, destroyers, dreadnaughts, carriers, and war suns. Players begin on opposite sides of the board, and arbitrarily configure as many pieces as they like from their fleet in the two rows closest to them. Players take turns moving a single piece and then shooting with it if possible. After each turn a player may place more pieces from his fleet in the closest two rows.

Each piece has a “movement” attribute, which is the number of spaces that can be moved in a single turn. Movement is horizontal and vertical, not diagonal, not ever through a space that another piece is on, and backtracking is allowed. Furthermore, a piece is facing in the direction that it last moved; i.e. opposite the direction it came from. Pieces can only change orientation by moving, there is no in-place rotation.

Each weapon also has a range, which is the distance it can shoot. For range-1 weapons, the piece has to be directly horizontally or vertically adjacent, and also in the correct orientation. Things generalize naturally to more range: it has to be in the same line as the orientation of the weapon (which, for example for dreadnaughts, is not always the same as that of the ship). For example, fighters can only shoot in the direction they are facing, they can not move and then shoot in a different direction than they were moving.

Finally, war suns and dreadnaughts have an additional hit point. When you shoot one of these, it is turned on its side and continues to fight as normal. If you shoot one that is already on its side, then it dies. All the other pieces die immediately when shot. Shots can fire through friendly pieces without doing harm, but must stop and detonate at the first enemy piece on their path.

The characteristics of each of the pieces follow:

Unit Type Movement Weapons Hit Points
Fighter 2 Forward range 1 1
War Sun 1 3 shots, each to any space in the surrounding 5×5 square. 2
Cruiser 3 Forward range 1. Can shoot (once) at any time during motion, not just after motion 1
Destroyer 3 Forward range 1 or, once per battle (turn on side after this is done), an “anti-fighter barrage” that destroys all fighters in the 2×3 rectangle in front of the unit 1
Dreadnaught 2 Forward range 2 or on both left and right simultaneously with range 2 2
Carrier 1 Forward range 1 1

A few technical notes: since keeping units off the board can be a way to hide, if your unit gets to the other end of the board it may fire “off the edge” of the board to attack any of the pieces that are not yet in play. Further, it is only legal for any player to have 10 fighters on the board at a time, since that’s how many fighter pieces there are. The others must be kept off the board until some of the ones on the board die.

Enjoy your newly enhanced ludicrously long game!

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4 thoughts on “Making Twilight Imperium a bit less random

  1. Sounds cool, I’d love to play a game of TI trying out this change. First of all, does it have much strategic depth, or is it fairly easy to achieve optimal play for a given situation? Also, how does it interact with the various combat oriented action cards?

    Furthermore, how does it take into account technology upgrades or action card bonuses? I would suggest that combat movement be directly tied to ship movement ratings on the galactic board. If a unit shoots another unit, do you still roll dice according to that unit’s combat rating in order to determine a successful hit? Maybe you could tie combat rating into range and/or shots for a given unit type and do away with dice rolling altogether.

    Also, it seems that this modification predicates the printing of two colors of fighter tokens to be used in combat. You can’t be pulling all a players fighters off the board just to have a round of combat (since a player can have many more than 10 fighters using generic fighter tokens). If included fighter tokens were two sided, with a different color on each side, they could be used in combat.

  2. It is hard to say whether it has strategic depth. My guess is that it does, because the best move is not obvious at any point, though there seem to be a large number of roughly equivalent moves. I can imagine a master seeing a series of decent moves that look about the same as a moderate player’s moves, until six down the line when you realize his fighters are positioned just right to take out a war sun.

    We’re still not sure how to incorporate mods, that is the next big task. Correspondence between the speed of units in battle and in the game I don’t think is going to happen, it’s actually fairly brittle in the speed respect. Because of the war sun’s range, we basically think that anything with a speed of 3 or higher breaks the game (and have consequently nerfed the destroyer to have speed 2).

    I think what is in order is a well-playtested, hand-crafted mapping between mods on units and behavior mods in game, making a larger table. This makes it rather different than games we’ve designed in the past, making it a “gameplay content” game (which is what the rest of TI is all about).

    I suspect playing on a larger board than a chessboard would allow us to balance the game in a way that is not so brittle.

  3. Oh, and I’m not too happy with the whole “max ten fighters on the board” thing either. I would rather introduce orientable dummy tokens (to solve the problem you mentioned) and also allow as many fighters as possible, rather than some arbitrary limit.

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