4 Lessons from Twilight Imperium for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Twilight Imperium is among the greatest board games of all time according to BoardGameGeek. Within that notoriously hard-to-please community, it holds a staggering 8.7/10 rating.

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It’s also got an absurdly high complexity rating of 4.2/5 and a play time of 4 to 8 HOURS. Oh, and it costs over $100 on Amazon in the US.

Today, we must ask ourselves how this extremely long, extremely complicated, and extremely expensive game captured the attention and undying affection of the hardcore hobbyist board game community. There are a hundred good answers to that question, but today, I’ll give you four based on my own experiences with Twilight Imperium.

But first, let’s talk about what exactly Twilight Imperium is. I’ll borrow the description from its Board Game Geek page since I think it says it best:

Twilight Imperium is a game of galactic conquest in which three to six players take on the role of one of seventeen factions vying for galactic domination through military might, political maneuvering, and economic bargaining. Every faction offers a completely different play experience, from the wormhole-hopping Ghosts of Creuss to the Emirates of Hacan, masters of trade and economics. These seventeen races are offered many paths to victory, but only one may sit upon the throne of Mecatol Rex as the new masters of the galaxy.

No, dear reader, I did not copy and paste a whole passage from Frank Herbert’s Dune just then. Twilight Imperium is that rich and complex in premise alone. I won’t even attempt to get into the grittiness of the rules, because this is going to be 1,000-word article, not 10,000. Nevertheless, there are great lessons we can learn from this game with even a casual analysis.

1. For very long games, you want very high-quality components.

Board gaming is a very tactile experience. Components are a large part of why people choose to play board games in person in the year 2019. Video games are extraordinary these days, as are options for playing board games online.

All that is to say, if you’re going to get people to sit down for 4 to 8 hours to play a single board game, you have to bring great components. And, Twilight Imperium…oh, there are no words…

Photo by W Eric Martin, CC BY 3.0.

There are very, very few board games that have this many tactile parts. There is a wide variety of shapes and colors, making the game have a table presence that is nearly unrivaled. Look at the photo above – it looks like something that can be played for eight hours at a time.

If your ambition is to make a heavy, lengthy game, you have to deliver on the physical experience. Twilight Imperium is a perfect example of how to do that.

2. Nothing inspires awe like sheer scope.

If you’re going for light fun, your game needs to be less than an hour. For something more complex, but still approachable, you need to keep it to three hours max.

But what if your ambition is to make a massive game? You can’t just rely on fun or challenge. No, you have to make people feel a sense of awe. That is the only emotion strong enough to keep people sitting up in chairs for 4-8 hours at a time.

Everything in a game must build toward that sense of awe. In Twilight Imperium, think about the experience you have as you get ready to play:

  • You lift the heavy box and take out all the pieces.
  • Good grief, there are a lot of pieces.
  • You painstakingly set the whole thing up.
  • The rulebook is really big.
  • The run-time is long.
  • The story is told on a galactic scale and covers SEVENTEEN different types of characters.

All of this repeats the message “buckle up, this is going to be a wild ride!”

3. Twilight Imperium is an example of how to succeed at complete immersion.

Twilight Imperium doesn’t just promise a wild ride, though. It succeeds. Check out the Board Game Geek reviews. You will see, over and over again, words like “immersive” and “epic.” Time flies by when you’re playing this game.

This largely ties into sheer scope and the awe factor. However, the awe you inspire early in your design has to maintain players’ interest throughout the whole game. The only reliable way to succeed in a task so big is to play-test specifically around immersion. It has to be the benchmark by which your design, should you decide to make something as heavy as this game, is measured.

4. No two games should be the same.

So many of the great games that I find inspiring from a game design perspective share this quality. You can call it replayability or variance. No matter what, whether you’re playing Terraforming MarsTwilight Struggle, or Twilight Imperium, tough-to-learn games must have this quality.

When designing a heavy, complex game, bear in mind your players’ reason for playing in the first place. Why choose the heavy game over several lighter ones? The heavy game bears a great burden – it has to provide opportunities for creative gameplay so that the game stays fresh over its entire runtime. This will also have the effect of making it to where no two games feel the same.

Final Thoughts

Twilight Imperium is a fantastic game. It is the prime example of how to make an ultra-heavyweight game that never alienates its players.

From the very start, players need to be wowed by the game. Its physical presence and sense of scale need to reassure gamers before they ever even take the first turn. These qualities are like promises to gamers that it will be worth their time.

I strongly encourage you to play Twilight Imperium yourself so that you can experience what makes it so immersive. Even if you only have the opportunity to play once, you will be able to appreciate just how many different ways the game can unfold.

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