Musings on Twilight Imperium

At first, I wanted to write a review of Twilight Imperium (TI) from the perspective of a person interested in military affairs. However, reviews are dime a dozen, many of them are incredible*. And I realized writing yet another review of TI was unneccessary. No need to reinvent the wheel.

However, what is the most important aspect of TI for military professionals? Strategy! Let’s talk about why we should not decry TI as a nerdy hobby and invest some time with our friends into playing it.

TI is the ultimate readily available easy to set up tool for understanding and practicing strategy. The game rules look complicated, but actually make a lot of sense. Once set up, which only takes a few minutes, and a few practice games that don’t have to take longer than an hour, most everybody gets the hang of it. The game looks beautiful, and like a good meal, looks matter. Humans are visual creatures and pleasing the eye means pleasing the mind.

The magic of TI is that even people who are not interested in military or political affairs whatsoever, who don’t even know how to spell strategy, start intuitively to think about strategy. People intuitively start asking themselves:

  • What is the current environment? (Understanding the current strategic environment)
  • What is the environment I desire? (Framing the desired strategic environment)
  • What is preventing me from getting there? (Problems)
  • How do I get there in light of these roadblocks? (Solutions)

TI highlights the importance of these four questions**. Those who struggle to state their desired end state realize that they have no idea what they are doing. Those who know what they want can quickly form different ways of how to get there.

TI is a case study in international relations and strategic thinking. You cannot be in the heads of other players, as much  as you can’t be in the heads of leaders of other states. You have to guess from their past and current behaviors what they are up to. And TI brings this guessing game to the table. When a player, after overextending and quickly gaining new uncontested territory, decides to focus on building his fleet in the next turn, in order to reinforce his borders, everybody gets nervous. His intentions are clear to him and not meant to be aggressive, however other players don’t know that. What is he up to? Is he planning an invasion? Can I trust him, or is he going to stab me in the back? And so negotiations begin.

TI can also be used as a teaching tool in a classroom environment. A teacher who is thoroughly familiar with the rules can quickly teach how to play TI. Hell, there is even a video on learning to play TI in 32 minutes here! Setup and actual play from there will be fluent with the guidance of the teacher. Actual situations in gameplay can be used to study historic cases of where this has happened: border disputes, misunderstandings, brinkmanship, etc. Just stop gaming for a little bit and talk about the case. Obviously, the teacher will have to have prepared a myriad of different historic cases and will have to remember them once a similar situation arises during gameplay. However, the price is well worth the result: a thorough understanding of strategic thinking and practice.


* Here is a list of good TI reviews:

(Photo Copyright Fantasy Flight Games)

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