Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Imperial Instruction

I'm going to follow on from my previous blog post and tell you a bit about a game I played recently, and what I learned from it.

The game in question was Twilight Imperium 3. It was the first time I'd had the opportunity to play the game face to face and although it was an all day gaming event with plenty of time I was still anxious to keep playing time low so I could get to play some more games later on! Also I'd be teaching the game to new players and I didn't want it to overwhelm them with complexity. So I used my limited experience with the game to try and pick options to keep play time and learning curve to a minimum.

Well from the base game I picked the "Age of Empires" option which lays out all the objectives from the start. This helps play time by allowing players to focus on actions which allow them to get VPs every turn and helps the new players because they're not going to be at a disadvantage from never having seen the objective deck. I was using the conflict-oriented objectives from the expansion in the assumption that more conflict is a good thing but in retrospect I'm not so sure that's a good assumption. Firstly more combat means more dice and that means more randomness in the quest for VPs - you may or may not like this and I'm pretty on the fence about it myself. From a play time perspective though it actually slows things down as people keep on throwing in ships and then building more - plus combat is fairly slow to resolve. In the event the actual objectives dealt included virtually every non-conflict one from the conflict deck so it was kind of a moot point, but I might try mixing the two decks for another game.

Next choice was what strategy cards to use. I chose to use the "II" variants from the expansion for all the cards that had them and the original ones for all the rest. I did this for two reasons. Firstly to use the variant "Bureaucracy" card with Age of Empires requires a house rule, which would be further annoying things for new players to remember and contrary to the text printed on the card. Second using "Imperial II" gives the game another source of potential VPs to speed up play without having to resort to the dull original Imperial card.

What else? Well, artifacts were an obvious choice to put some more VP in the game although I declined to use the "voice of the council" option since no-one ever seems to bother with it. A pre-set board was used to speed up play, avoid having to teach the rules for laying out galaxy maps and to ensure balance since new players are notoriously bad at constructing a "sensible" galaxy when left to themselves. I also left out the Winnarian Guardians as that slows the conquest of Metacol Rex and thus the rate of VP gain. As a final shot I took three races out of the deck before we started - the Saar for complexity, the Xxcha because they clash with "Diplomacy II" and would have meant more differences in play from the text on the card and the Yssaril because the pass ability helps slow the game down.

In the event we had four players - Saardak N'orr, Letnev, Mentak and myself as the Winnu. The opening rounds went as one might expect with people expanding their empires and claiming the first couple of easy victory points, with two players getting a head start through artifact planets. One thing I didn't forsee was that with the low level of trade agreements on offer and the inability to use political cards as resources it took several rounds before people had enough resources to start building big ships and regularly claiming tech advances.

Anyway, after the initial stage I got dealt a "flank speed" card and from this I formed the basis of a plan. I took some newly-minted carriers and ground force from my home system and using the card and the XRD transporter tech I'd previously acquired, landed a bunch of troops on Metacol Rex. I saved my resources that round and built a space dock on my last move, allowing me to complete my secret objective which was to hold MR, have a space dock there and have two tech advances in three different colours. This put me up to 5VP. I was hopeful I'd get at least one from the Imperial II card next round and I'd bought red tech to put me in a position to gain another 2VP from a "five techs in one colour" objective without needing further prerequisites and for the other two I was confident I could keep the Rex for a few rounds and milk it for VPs.

Sorry for all the quotes.

I did get my VP from the imperial card the following turn but then odd things began to happen. The Mentak built a huge fleet ready to strike at Metacol while the Sardak, oddly, was obsessively building PDS units on the planet next door. The Letnev player seemed to be entirely out of it by this stage, being last in VP and not having any obvious ability to claim more. So I got my War Sun tech and built one of the big ships right there on Metacol with the aim of scaring off everyone else - it worked and I held it for another "Imperial II" VP the following round, although the Mentak had used some of their by now immense fleet to take away a couple of my planets, leaving me in something of a resources blight.

By this time I was well in the lead and the other players had started to gang up against me. My ground forces on the Rex went down to a plague card from the Letnev player and then the Mentak stormed in taking Metacol Rex and some more planets off me, leaving me 3VP short of my goal and virtually nothing to build new fleets with. I had the five tech objective pretty much in the bag - just one short and I'd got first pick of strategy cards the following round - so I needed another one. There was a 1VP objective out for "invade a planet containing at least one GF" and I had a far-flung carrier in a system with 2GF that had been there virtually since the start of the game. It was within reach of a Sardak planet with just 1GF defending - so in it went and my Winnu soldiers duly dispatched the enemy for the missing VP. Victory was within my grasp.

However, Letnev, who'd been quietly turtling away for the last few rounds, building forces and claiming virtually nothing and apparently out of the game had a plan as well. He took Imperial II as his first choice in the last round and suddenly pushed out, using the cards ability to claim multiple objectives and artifacts to gain VP at a most alarming rate. In the status phase he managed to creep up to 9VP while I just got in there with the ten, claiming the win even though I had virtually nothing by my home system left on the board to my name.

My plan worked fairly well - the 4 player game, with setup time and the inevitable learning curve for the new players - weighed in at 5 hours which isn't too bad. I can seem myself sticking with that set of speed options for future face to face games. The time passed like absolutely nothing - we'd got two hours in before anyone even bothered to look up from the board to check the time - which for me is always the sign of a really great game.

So what did I learn from this fantastic game session?

Firstly I'll chip in with the oft-repeated adage that it's better to play one brilliant five hour game than five one-hour rubbish ones. I managed to get in a game of Roborally afterward which took around 90 minutes. It was my first ever game and it wasn't bad but there's no way I'd have sacrificed that fantastic game of TI3 for three sessions of Roborally. Of course if you like short games for the mechanics and not just because they're short then good for you - but the moral is don't kid yourself that shorter games are better just because you can play more of them. Time spent having fun is time spent having fun whether the activities are varied or not. When we'd finished an onlooker asked how long the game had taken and, looking somewhat aghast at the answer, asked whether it was worth it. All four players gave him a resounding "YES"!

Secondly - and possibly controversially - I noticed a curious thing about two blokes at that game day who'd come to game with female friends or partners. Both had come with bags full of Eurogames and both had eyes popping out of their head when they saw the TI3 setup. Both asked their female acquaintances if they wouldn't mind stepping out of the Euros to spend the bulk of the day playing TI3 - one ended up joining in and the other didn't. This makes me wonder two things. Firstly it seems that AT games with their often violent themes and frequent backstabbing gameplay have a greater appeal to men than women. That in itself isn't surprising but the experience has made me wonder whether a number of guys who have game-philic partners aren't kept in the Euro fold by their women insisting that they play quick, low-conflict games and that given the chance they'd leap into the AT universe like a fish into water. I wonder also how much of the venom we get from some of the Euro crowd is caused by repressed envy from this sort of behaviour.

Thirdly it made me think long and hard about the diplomatic metagame. This is very much a feature of TI3 and can strongly influence the course of a game but I think my experience in this session showed that the TI3 design does an absolutely brilliant job of limiting it to just another set of strategic choices, thanks largely to the nature of objectives in the game. In other long, conflict orientated games this balancing mechanism isn't there and the metagame can completely dominate the play beyond and influence the dice or strategic choice can have. Paradoxically, having played a game which demonstrated how best to allow the metagame but limit it's influence I've finally decided that long games with dominant metagame themes aren't really for me. Except Diplomacy of course, but that's a special case in which the metagame basically is the game.

The fourth point is one of complexity. TI3 is supposedly a complex game yet my three neophyte players all knew what they were doing by the end of the first turn. This isn't a testament to my brilliance at explaining games but rather a testament to the fact that length and number of rules is only one aspect of complexity. TI3 has a system which is logically consistent both internally and with regard to the theme it attempts to portray - this is a hard concept to define but basically, when I read the TI3 rulebook by the time I was halfway through I was able to make good and accurate guesses about the way the remaining rules were going to work. Today I attempted to read two rulebooks - one for the wargame Paths of Glory and one for the euro Imperial - one was long and one was short but both left me utterly baffled about how to play the game. In the case of PoG this is because the rules are full of special cases and exceptions. In the case of Imperial it is - like many games slimmed to the merest essentials of rules - because the rules have little connection to the scenario they're trying to portray. So don't dismiss a game as being "too complex" just because of the length of the rules - read them first, or have someone teach you. Similarly don't go thinking you can jump right in and play a game just because it has short rules - they won't always reveal how the game plays and they may hide a dizzying depth of strategy.

So that'll do for the day. I just wanted to add a short note to the blog readers to say that I'm going to be moving jobs in a few weeks and my ability to make regular posts is going to dry up, at least for a while.

21 comments:

the red phantom said...

A great review, Matt! I like the game, but do you have any problem with being able to win with basically no empire to speak of? Several of my friends were disgruntled when another friend won this way, even losing his home planet in vanilla TI3.

I also hope you'll expand on your thoughts about the diplomatic meta-game. Did you mean to say that there was no diplomacy, no need for diplomacy, or something quite different?

Thanks!

Surya said...

I can tell you that my GF likes conflict games more than I do, but we've both had it with AT games (at least for now). I returned to Eurogames faster than she did.

Ken B. said...

Variety is important. Take some time off, play some clean n' fast Eurogames, and doubtless the urge to play some AT games will return in time.

This is the part where the wizened hag speaks the prophecy about "balance" (while obviously high off her mind on Death Sticks).


Good report, Matt. TI is just an incredible game, the only thing that pisses me off is that it wasn't around when I was in high school and had endless weekends with my friends to play it. We would've worn the cards threadbare as much as we would've played it.

Now we plan TI3 at least a month in advance. But it's always worth it.

Pat H said...

A eurogame or two during weeknights and good 'ole AT action on the weekends does it for me. I must say that there are some games where the diplomatic metagame can certainly take on a life of it's own.

I am still deciding if it is worth buying this game or not. How do you rate the complexity in terms of teaching newbies? I don't mind as I've always been the buyer/teacher of most of my games, I just don't want to try to play something that might be tedious (after spending $50).

Will the average AT gamer pick this up quick enough and does it move along well.

Shellhead said...

I have not had the chance to play Twilight Imperium yet. I'm very interested, but my friends generally fall into two categories: not interested or didn't like it. Until I can find interested players, I'm not going to buy it, as much as I want to.

The not-interested responses came from one of my regulars who just doesn't like anything that resembles a big wargame, and several players who just don't have the attention span for anything over two hours long. We have the time, because my AmeriTrash days are always scheduled for noon to midnight on a weekend, but most of my players want to play a bunch of shorter games instead of one or two long ones.

I do have a couple of close friends who are pretty much willing to play any board game. One of them owns TI3 and both of them have played it. The non-owner has played twice and refuses to ever play again, because he said it was too slow. The guy who owns TI3 is lukewarm about it, but could probably be persuaded to try again.

At times like this, I miss my old high school and college gamers. Those guys had no problem sitting down for an 8-10 hour game of Divine Right or Civilization. These days, most of them are married and have kids, so they probably can't play the big games anymore.

Fellonmyhead said...

I am so sorry I missed that one, Matt; I hope there will be future opportunities.

Matt Thrower said...

I also hope you'll expand on your thoughts about the diplomatic meta-game. Did you mean to say that there was no diplomacy, no need for diplomacy, or something quite different?

The latter. Diplomacy does play a big part in TI3 but the nature of the objectives means it's not allowed to dominate. Making an alliance with one neighbour so you can tear chunks out of the other one might net you a few VPs but it won't win you the game. As such it becomes just another tactical choice in the game - just as it should be.

Matt Thrower said...

I am still deciding if it is worth buying this game or not. How do you rate the complexity in terms of teaching newbies?

It's surprisingly easy to learn and to teach given the size of the rulebook. It's a 1-play learning curve game - you won't get everything right straight off the bat but you will after just one session. In that sense it contrasts favourably with allegedly "simple" games like C&C:A where I find I'm still looking things up after ten games.

Matt Thrower said...

I am so sorry I missed that one, Matt; I hope there will be future opportunities.

I was looking forward to meeting you :) But hey, there will be future opportunities. You've been leaving interesting comments on the blog for a while now but I had no idea you lived fairly close to me!

Gary Sax said...

Stick with POG. When you play for the first time do your best with the exceptions but don't sit there trying to make sure to get everyone perfect. You'll get them in time.

POG is a pretty unique experience in terms of gut wrenching tension for me.

Mr Skeletor said...

I'm going to be moving jobs in a few weeks and my ability to make regular posts is going to dry up, at least for a while.

Guess I better pull my socks up and start posting articles again.

Loved your observations - you could have wrote a seperate article about each one!

Ken B. said...

*cracks whip*


Frank, get back to work.


Matt, I don't recall seeing a "time-off" permission slip. Yousa goin' to da bosses.

Casey said...

It's surprisingly easy to learn and to teach given the size of the rulebook. It's a 1-play learning curve game - you won't get everything right straight off the bat but you will after just one session.

Are you sure about this? I really want to give TI3 a shot, and think it would be a good game for some old Axis and Allies buddies of mine. However, some of them are a little slow on picking up rules. Even after playing A&A for years, one still couldn't remember how tank blitzing worked.

Pat H said...

Sold, thanks Matt.

Pat H said...

I'm assuming the slow down in content over here has more to do with the summer than you folks leaning on the might of my comments....

All kidding aside keep it up, this is a pleasant diversion from work. I like the snapshot section - any requests I can attempt for a cartoon? Not sure if my style suits you however I can give something a shot before the school season starts again.

Ken B. said...

Much like War of the Ring, no individual rule in TI3 is even remotely complex. Combat, for example, is the good ol' "roll target number to score casualties, owner chooses unit destroyed/damaged."

The only tricky thing is teaching activation of systems. Not because it is complex but it runs counter to how you expect it to work. After a few examples it does become quite clear, then it just takes a little reasoning to see how you should do it (how you should be moving ships from a system before you want to build in that system, as a common example).


We found the rules to TI3 exceedingly easy to assimilate. And I'm not a big fan of huge complex wargame rulesets, so I'm not even using the "relatively easy" routine.

Anonymous said...

"I took some newly-minted carriers and ground force from my home system and using the card and the XRD transporter tech I'd previously acquired, landed a bunch of troops on Metacol Rex. I saved my resources that round and built a space dock on my last move, allowing me to complete my secret objective which was to hold MR, have a space dock there and have two tech advances in three different colours."

Not too sure from the narrative if this was done in the same round or not, but are you aware that you can't build a space dock on a planet which you just conquered in the same round? Thus, the only race able to achieve the MR secret objectives in a single round are the Saar. This also means that you have to wait until the second turn after you land on MR to build new units there, as you can't build units at a space dock on the turn it was built.

Megamaniaco said...

Great review; TI3 is nowadays my fav game (besides Avalon Hill's Civilization and Age of Renaissance).

I played my first game of TI3 3 or 4 months ago, and since then I've managed to play...around 15 times, with 3,4,5,6,7 and 8 players. I've loved every single one of them, and just hope FFG keep on doing expansion sets for this universe.

Lately, I've heard they may do a "Dune" system game, but in the TI3 storyline...I just hope its true, the introductions at the beggining of both manuals are great (I've even checked to see if there were any scifi books about it XD)

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

G'day Matt - I was trying to make it as well after given a heads-up of this meet from Tony, but school holiday responsibilities reared its non-negotiable head :-(

I'll add my voice to the relative ease of picking this up from scratch, Tony hosted a session last year for five newbies with only himself having the experience of a 'dry run' and everyone clicked in pretty quickly and the game went well ... but slooow - although that was probably us.

Matt Thrower said...

Not too sure from the narrative if this was done in the same round or not, but are you aware that you can't build a space dock on a planet which you just conquered in the same round?

Having just told everyone how the game is relatively easy to learn, I feel I have to say that I did indeed know this, stick to it and that the fact it took two rounds was just unclear from the narrative :) That's the problem with trying to post sessions from week-old memories.

Bubslug said...

Matt: Interesting session report and comments. I too am in the process of introducing a new group to this game and I appreciate your approach. Did you consider the "fast start" option to move the game through the obligatory local expansion phase a little more quickly?