Wednesday, August 22, 2012

ACTA: Star Fleet - Boldly Going Where Many Have Gone Before, But Doing It Better

For almost 25 years I've been playing Star Fleet Battles and its derivatives, and while I'm still no expert, I know as much about them as anyone who has played them for any length of time. Ironically, it's not that I'm that enamored with Star Trek or the Star Trek universe, but more that I'm fascinated by the level of detail that Amarillo Design Bureau (ADB) has put into the game, as well as the idea of big, cool-looking spaceships chewing through one another with energy weapons. Some of  the mechanics that they developed back in 1979 are still far superior to those used today, such as their impulse-based movement and firing versus the benchmark "I go, you go" turn system that is a standard for so many con-sim games today. Of all the other games I've played, only Car Wars uses a similar impulse system to allow the simulation of simultaneous moving and firing.
In Star Fleet Battles, each ship moves 1/32nd of their movement per micro-turn, or impulse, and during each impulse they choose to do several things, most of which revolve around managing the ship's power. What makes it an incredible game is that, to this day, it is the only system that I believe accurately represents the second-to-second decisions made aboard a vessel engaged in combat, in real time. The only problem with that system, though, is that a battle between two equally equipped ships can last a couple of hours and requires an immense amount of detailed bookkeeping. The focus is more on resource management than anything, which makes for a slow slog of a game. As much as I once loved the game, it is simply too much of a simulation and not enough of a game when all subsystems become involved.
The core game, though, with just power allocation, movement, and shooting, is actually not as complex as many would have you believe, but it still takes an awful long time for two cruisers to vaporize one another. And honestly, not using transporters, shuttles, and other subsystems makes the game really dumbed down so much that it's no longer much fun. So, to get the full experience, you need to read a lot, play a lot (ideally with an experienced player), and invest a lot of time to simulate two star ships in combat, and if you want the full experience, you need to really learn about all of the subsystems' roles in the game, which is incredibly daunting even now that I'm a more thoughtful, reasoned adult. Suffice it to say that while I still own Star Fleet Battles', I will likely not play it for a long, long time.
In 1983, FASA came out with Star Trek III: Starship Combat Role Playing Game which evolved over the next 3 years into Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator (ST:STCS). This had most of the same concepts of Star Fleet Battles, but with easier bookkeeping, removal of the "impulse" system, and much more "game" than "simulation." ST:STCS was, in essence, a modified version of BattleTech rules designed for space, and they worked surprisingly well. The real draw for ST:TSCS is that it amounts to a shorter, more streamlined version of Star Fleet Battles. I really liked this version, and FASA had some bad ass miniatures to go with it, which added quite a bit to the fun of the game. Even today, there's a good following and a wide array of websites that have new ships, new rules, and lots of user-created content, as well as an online adaptation. There were also a series of PC games which are obviously descended from this ST:TSCS, the Starfleet Command series, which are both well loved and collector's items.
The one major flaw with ST:STCS is that there is a tremendous balance problem between Federation ships and other races' ships. A Fed frigate versus any other races' frigate is almost guaranteed to win, assuming equal die rolls and equal between both players. Since the Federation has always been "the good guy" faction, it makes sense, but when you consider that the economy of the Romulan and Klingon Empires has always been geared toward warfare, one would think that their ships would be more powerful than the Feds. Paired with the fact that any two smaller ships will outmatch one larger one. Thus, it is difficult to build balanced scenarios in many cases, which can make it a bummer for anyone who isn't playing the Feds. Additionally, playing more than one ship per side is a little daunting, although not as difficult as Star Fleet Battles.
Between Star Fleet Battles and its subsequent offshoot, Federation Commander, there were several rule sets that could be played using the Star Trek series, the most prominent being Full Thrust which, when played with the unofficial Star Trek variant, is called Full Trek:
This was really just a rule set with some interesting inertia rules more than anything, and while it's fine as its own game, intertwining it with the Full Trek rules really was simply putting lipstick on a pig; it didn't have the "Star Trek" feel to it, and it was simply a very capable rules set that would be better suited to Star Wars or a less "deep" franchise.
Now, back in the mid 80's, ADB released a bunch of miniatures called the Starline 2200 Series, which were the first time that Star Fleet Battles could be played with its own miniatures. These were bad ass lead-pewter miniatures that were crisp and beautiful. In fact, the first hobby spaceship I ever owned was a Starline 2200 series, bought with my own money, in Philadelphia. A shame I still don't have it, in fact. Playing these kinds of games with miniatures makes the game far more fun, at least for me, because there's just something about actually seeing and moving a 3D representation of your ships that sparks the imagination. Anyhow, I only played Star Fleet Battles on and off over the span of many years, so when these came out, I was more interested in the ships than the game, since it wasn't until 1988 or so that I played again.
ADB released Federation Commander (FC) in 2005, with the Klingon Border box set being the initial release and followed by numerous expansions. FC is much like like Star Fleet Battles in terms of play, but the impulses were broken into 8 impulses with 4 sub-phases, and the bookkeeping is more on a more bird's eye level. The real difference is in the scale at which the game is usually played, though; where Star Fleet Battles is more playable in a one-on-one or two-on-two scale, the scale of Federation Commander is more squadron to fleet level, and it scales very well between those two. It's much less a hassle to play, although it largely has all of the same options and subsystem capabilities of it's kin. Along with Federation Commander came an update of the Starline Series miniatures to 2400, which are much nicer metal miniatures with fine details.
Now for what you've been waiting for: A Call To Arms: Star Fleet. Fast forward to 2012, when a joint venture was formed between ADB and Mongoose Publishing of Judge Dredd: Gangs of Mega City One fame (amongst others). Together, they created "A Call To Arms: Star Fleet" (ACTA:SF) which is the third entry into the 2005 series that started with "A Call To Arms: Babylon 5" and continued with the "Noble Armada" entry. The ACTA system is a hex-less, tabletop miniatures skirmish system that seeks to strike a balance between playability as a skirmish game while retaining the "feel" of the Star Trek Universe. If I were to use a familial analogy, Star Fleet Battles is the great grandaddy, Federation Commander the father, ST:STCS the bastard stepchild, and A Call To Arms: Star Fleet, the rugged and handsome Navy SEAL son.
ACTA:SF, as a product, is nothing more than a wonderful looking rulebook, but the game itself is much more when you look at the latest iteration of Starline miniatures, the 2500 series. These were originally meant to be cast resin but ended up reverting back to a lead-free pewter alloy due to production problems with the plastics, or at least so I've read. I acquired a couple of "Squadron Boxes" which represent 5 miniatures a piece and enough bases for them and to make some asteroids. I also got a couple of singles that looked pretty bad ass. All of my miniatures have spectacular detail, far greater than I had expected, but they were incredibly trying to assemble. After Frank Branham and others gave me some advice, I managed to pin them and that made the assembly much easier. It's shocking how much difference a pin vise and some paper clip sections can make! But seriously, if you've never worked with metal minis of this kind, you will need a file and some cheap tools.
Mongoose sells a huge variety of ships encompassing all of the major powers in the Alpha Quadrant such as the Federation, Romulans, Klingons, Knitzi, Gorn, Orions, and Tholians. All of the ships look amazing, and I mean truly amazing, and they sell faction-specific transfer decals so you don't have to attempt to hand-paint on registry numbers and ship names. Further, they are coming out with these bad ass little reference cards which allow easy book-keeping via dry-erase. As it rests, I simply made an Excel spreadsheet which is printable onto card stock and sleeved in a sheet protector which allowed us the same basic principle. There's a link at the bottom for anyone who wants to print one out.

Anyhow, ACTA:SF does an admirable job of simplifying Star Fleet Battles down to the Squadron Commander level from the individual Captain level, so to speak. Instead of worrying about power allocation, this is a game about white-hot particle beams searing through hulls and vaporizing crewmen. The game is broken down into phases where each player takes turns moving a single ship at a time until all ships are moved, then they do the same thing regarding shooting. While the impulse system that I love so dearly is gone, this does an admirable job of simulating sub-light space battles. Each ship must move a certain distance forward before making a 45 degree turn, and since all weapons have firing arcs, positioning yourself to put your weapons on target is crucial, as I learned quite early when my D7 was literally cut to ribbons by my daughter's Fed dreadnought, the little turd.
There are no shield facings in ACTA:SF, but the weapon arcs are enough to make position really matter as noted. Instead of the normal six facings in every previous game in the Star Fleet Universe, this game boils it down to four 90 degree sections. Shields have a single value, so unlike the other ADB games, your shields are assumed to continually be fully powered when struck until they fail completely. There is a critical hit mechanic that allows your shields to be bypassed in some cases, either in part or in whole, and there's a further critical damage chart which causes internal damage which cripples your ships in meaningful ways, including destroying propulsion, killing the crew, and potentially, breaching the warp core resulting in an exploding vessel. A really neat mechanic is the "escalation" mechanic which causes critical damage to potentially get worse each turn, based on a die roll. In short, it mimics a fire on board or crewmen being trapped in an irradiated area and made ineffective.
Each weapon on your ships have an attack dice rating, which amounts to how many dice you get to roll for them. Each roll of 4+ on a D6 is a hit, but every six rolled penetrates the shields, allowing you to roll on the damage table. If you roll a 2-5, you simply do a single point of damage to the ship's structure, but on a six, you roll for critical damage. This doesn't even take into account that weapons have traits, and as such may also do other things, like do extra damage, cripple systems, or allow bonuses to hit at certain ranges. All in all, ACTA:SF most certainly captures the feel of having unique weapons systems. It also feels a lot like the JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot, from the perspective that there's a lot of shooting going on during each engagement, unlike the old Star Trek TV series. Very, very cool, in short.One of the most important things in ACTA:SF is the advent of defensive fire.
Because all weapons, including seekers like torpedoes and drones, have been abstracted to direct-fire weapons, you can assign almost all of your offensive weapons to defensive fire. But since your weapons can only fire once per round, generally, you really have to decide whether to use your phasers to shoot incoming torpedoes and drones or to let the shields soak up the damage and reserve your weapons for offensive volleys. We found that one of the hardest things to really master is the judgement of when to attack and when to withhold for defensive fire. In the end, you have a 50/50 shot of getting hit by any given attack die, plus or minus depending on bonuses, but some weapons can really devastate you so you need to be sure to stay out of range as best you can.
I have to admit, I do miss the impulse-based movement, which I think would've worked well if you were to simply combine the movement and firing phases to maybe 4 impulses, with a speed limit of 12, allowing 4 differing speeds of ships. As it rests, the "Roll for initiative, then move, then shoot" phase structure puts the person who wins initiative at a marked disadvantage as they get to move first but shoot last, meaning they are shot first and thus damaged first. When shields are up and ranges are distant, it's not as important, but when you're closer, and the shots are far deadlier, it becomes critical.
In short, ACTA:SF does what a lot of space games do but in a distinct, unique way, and this is the only simple, approachable one that truly gives you the Star Trek feel. The basic rules are very simple to grasp, and when you add in the advanced rules such as damage control, special actions, and the like, the game is simply superb. It makes the recent Wizkids Star Trek Heroclix (read: abomination) look like Rosie O'Donnell wrapped in pink Saran Wrap...just sad and pathetic in every conceivable way.
ACTA:SF is what I would characterize as "medium-light weight", from a complexity and options standpoint, and has several examples of skirmish rules as well as a nice set of campaign rules, complete with crew advancement, rules for planets, asteroids, nebulae and such. The campaign system even allows for tactical retreats of individual craft in case some of your ships are damaged and you'd like them to live to fight another day. So far, I've played 4 missions of a campaign and have found it quite enjoyable. We've had scenarios with planets, asteroid fields, and even a mission requiring shuttlecraft to retrieve survivors of a crash while under attack by Klingon battlecruisers. As I said, I miss the impulse turn system because it really did allow for real-time shooting and movement to coalesce, but barring that one niggle, this game is truly remarkable in how well it captures the Star Trek universe, how comprehensive the rule set is, and how much fun it is to play.
If you're a Star Trek fan or even simply a fan of ship-to-ship space combat in a squadron or fleet engagement size, this game really does the trick. I would even go so far to call this game the best-in-class based upon those criteria because it really covers all the bases and allows you so many tactical options and fleet configurations. The miniatures are solid and great looking, and the ongoing support at conventions such as GenCon and smaller local cons really indicates to me that this game has legs and will be around a long, long time.
Why This Game's Phasers Are Set To Fun:
- A great pairing of approachable design with tactical depth
- The miniatures are outstanding, although a bit of a pain to assemble
- The relatively low entry price makes this easy to get into, especially since it's not sold as a CMG
- Campaign rules really seals the deal
What Commander Spock Finds...Illogical:
- If you can't paint or don't like assembling metal minis, stick to other models
- The lack of the "impulse system" takes away from what made Star Fleet Battles epic
- There's some errors in the rulebook, corrected by errata after the fact
For me, this is the culmination of a long love affair with ADB and FASA regarding space battles. Star Fleet Battles was simply too unwieldy and put too much emphasis on power management. FASA's version had more emphasis on action, but was still too much a simulation. Federation Commander fixed a lot of my beefs with both the aforementioned titles, but was still putting too much emphasis on power management and filling in little boxes. In short, it was still too much detail, and it was adhering too much to being a power management game.
A Call To Arms: Star Fleet gets rid of the boring parts of all of its ideological predecessors while retaining almost all of the good stuff. I think, had they kept the moving and shooting impulse system, that this game would be the ultimate Star Trek space battle game. As it rests, it does what many other space battle games have done in the past, using the "initiative-move-shoot" turn structure, which is the only thing that I see as a negative in the entire affair. The short version is that it's a very capable, remarkably comprehensive take on a space battle game with a Star Fleet Universe theme, and I enjoy it quite a bit, as do my cohorts. My hat is off to Mongoose, to be sure.
4.25/5 Stars
You can see all there is to see about A Call To Arms: Star Fleet at the Mongoose Publishing site here, where you can also place an order:
My homegrown spreadsheet (in Excel and in PDF) for lamination and/or sleeving and dry-erasing are in this folder, along with printable hex-maps and all kinds of other crap:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Twilight Imperium II - 4x Because XXX Is Simply Not Sexy Enough For It

One of the quirks about being human is being able to look back at our history and reflect upon it analytically. If you're a dog, you don't remember that I left the house 10 minutes ago, so when I come home, that dog is going batshit crazy as if I had been gone six years. Us, we remember, and we analyze. So, when I look back on our history, as a species, I can honestly say that we are a sad lot of murderous barbarians, by and large. I mean, in every era, you can find us beating their contemporaries over the heads with whatever was at hand since the beginning of time, generally for resources. Thus, it's not a far stretch to imagine that during an era of faster-than-photons travel, not only humans, but myriad species, will be doing the same shit. This is why wargames are popular, I suspect: at our core, we are only outwardly civilized, harboring a savage, barbarous creature within who is screaming to be unchained and set upon conquest, whoring, and plunder.

Enter Twilight Imperium, Second Edition (TI2), a game that is about several races attempting to control the galaxy as Imperium Rex, the galactic emperor, by scheming or genocidally decimating other races into subservience or oblivion . The game is a very open political wargame system where the goal is not only to decimate the opposition, but to own ten planets, develop nine technology improvements, and through the ownership of planets, have both thirty resource points and political influence points. Each planet has resource and influence values, and thus taking over planets affords you the ability to develop forward operating bases, or strike bases, as well as allowing more production of weapons systems, allowing you to pursue your machinations.

The magic of the game is that planets are randomly selected and then placed by players during setup, and have wildly different values, so becoming the emperor will require more than a little bit of wet work. On top of that, there's cardplay, which allows you to bend rules, get free things, and most importantly, forge lucrative alliances with others. Even more interesting is a truly clever political system that, each turn, asks players to vote on galactic laws that change the game for the duration, and the votes you cast for your species are tallied using your collected or earned political points. Thus, a smaller empire with more political clout is effectively better at controlling the laws of the galaxy than a militarily strong and wide empire with less influence.

Thankfully, TI2 came out before FFG decided to over complicate everything it touches, thereby requiring umpteen pages of errata and an additional umpteen pages of FAQ. This game has precisely ONE (read: 1, uno, jeden, een, un...) entry in the FAQ for the base game. One. Not pages, but one ENTRY. That's 8 PAGES less than Twilight Imperium Third Edition (TI3). So, suffice to say, TI2 incredibly playable, there's very few things to quibble about, and is hands-down a superior 4X game in virtually every aspect than its offspring in spirit alone, TI3.

TI2 comes in a normal sized box, and was sold at a reasonable price at the time of its release, another sign that the game is a throwback before FFG decided that more plastic trumps playtesting and editorial oversight. The majority of the components are serviceable and pleasing to the eye, although the cards are minimalist at best, which is really one of the only two flaws in the production value of the game. The ugly ships are all made of plastic, in six colors, and the illustrations on the tiles that make up the universe are quite appealing. All in all, the only two problems I have are the cards, which look like home jobbies printed on 100# card stock, and the tiles, which are a little too small to hold the vast space armadas you'll be deploying. Other than those, the game is dynamite.

The star of the show, even more than the wee plastic warbirds, is the least flashy of them all: the rulebook. In one read, you can know everything about how to play, with the barest of reference back to it during any given game. I play with a group that doesn't like long games, doesn't like overly complex games, and doesn't like to read a lot, and even with that, this game was very enjoyable and playable game. In my opinion, which is not all that valuable, this is the gold standard with which all other 4x games are to be judged. It only has one expansion, and I've never been able to play it, but my understanding is that it adds a few new quirks and a couple of new races, but is not the new standard FFG "expansion = fix" expansion concept. In short, it's nice to have but not required to fix the game.

Now, I'm waiting for the cacophony of "oh my God, how can you say that TI2 is better than TI3?" and I'll tell you straight away that you're entitled to that belief. You're also wrong, if you're looking at it from a 4X perspective. TI2 is superior, in that light, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it takes two or three hours to play with six experienced players where TI3 will take around six hours for six experienced players. Maybe four if the stars are aligned perfectly and a couple people get knocked out quickly. God forbid that you have new players, because you're talking about eight solid hours then. But, if the game is great, then it's worth an extra four hours to play, right? Oh, HELL no, it's not four hours per game better. Not remotely. In fact, I'd argue that it's a worse game that takes an order of magnitude longer, if you're looking for a 4X game.

TI2 is a very simple game, mechanically, and the design really moves gameplay along. The best part is that the vast majority of the actions taken in a turn are done simultaneously, with only the movement and combat portions of the game being individual affairs. This alone makes the game far shorter, and ultimately, more enjoyable. Even if you are surrounded with five of your closest friends, it's not as much fun playing a game where you're continually having to fiddle with things at odd times, and where you're doing lots of little things all the time. TI3 is that game.

What's worse is that you really have to observe most of what your opponents are doing on their turn, because it will affect your play. Add to this the fact that the TI3 rules can only be characterized as Byzantine at best, with logic gaps that require one full dual column pages of errata and seven more pages of FAQs just to make the game playable in full. I mean, the rulebook is literally 38 triple column pages long, with an additional several pages of indices which detail the massive, fiddly clusterfuck of rules. And thank God for the indices, because without them, you'd be looking up rules 5 times longer during the game. Even people I know that have played it many times are caught referring back to the rules.

But let's dispense with what might be construed as hyperbole. Let's talk specifics. First, TI2 is a game of money, war, and political power. Money buys everything, and is earned by taking over planets and getting trade deals going. Political power influences the galactic council, and planets, aside from earning you cash, produce Council votes. In TI3, there is no coinage, and planets can only do one thing at a time. In order to build things or flex political muscle, you have to "expend planets" which amounts to saying that the entire planet devotes its resources to building something or expends its entire combined efforts to get political influence. This is, and I say this wholeheartedly, straight up bullshit. It's like saying that the State of Maryland can't build ships at Bethesda and have Congressional representatives. Really, one has absolutely nothing to do with the other. It's ridiculously contrived for the purpose of serving itself and it's "gaminess", not to make a better game. And that's just my first bitch of a great many.

I mean, not having things bought with money is retarded by itself, but having planets that can only either produce something OR have political's ridiculously contrived. Now, there is a "sort-of money", which are trade good counters, but these are interchangeable with political influence (which is too stinging and honest a criticism of politics for this particular article), and can be used for bribes or deal sweeteners. That said, these counters are a pittance when contrasted with the resources spent via planet activations, so my argument still stands. There's no real money in the game, and that goes against everything a game with an economic aspect is about. Now onto the politics of Twilight Imperium, because that's a big change and a big deal, in my estimation.

What really chaps my ass about this whole new TI3 political system is that the theme, on its face, seems to be telling you that the empire is a representative democracy or republic with autonomous nationalities represented therein, but the fact that you can only spend your planetary resources either building things or waxing diplomatic, but not both, crushes that concept. It's what made TI2 so unique and made the planets interesting; the more planetary influence points you have, which I always construed as delegates representative of the populace of a planet, the better you fare politically. But in TI3, it just seems so contrived that it loses all meaning; the labor pool and political corps are mutually exclusive, so therefore there's no real meaning. A planet not being able to cast votes because it built a spaceship? It makes absolutely no sense.

Next up is the fact that you can't simply move a fleet, attack with your fleet, or do pretty much anything without expending limited "command counters". What the shit is that? It's like saying that the Allied Command couldn't effectively manage the war in Europe and in the Pacific theater because they didn't have enough radios. And this is supposed to be in a time when faster-than-light travel is possible? In TI2, you can deploy, move, and attack with anything that they have available. You know, like a war. As with many things in this game, they've taken a shortcut by abstracting things, and these command counters are the epitome of this conceptual error.

Even the "feel" of the game has changed considerably. TI3 feels like the decision was made that, "since TI2 is straight up Ameritrash, how about we put a Euro mechanic in the box to make it more German friendly in the next iteration?" That's right, Chris P. managed to squeeze his personal homage to Puerto Rico into TI3 with the advent of "strategy cards", which are, in essence, a special power that you can use during your turn, while in many cases gives others a weaker version of it. It's EXACTLY like Puerto Rico. One lets you become the Speaker, or "first player", which allows you to pick strategy cards first next turn. One allows you to pick an enemy player and stop that player from activating certain planets.

All in all, the strategy card mechanic is a bunch of bullshit just like many of the other "improvements" made in TI3. It adds "gaminess" for the sake of adding more rules to create artificial depth. More abstraction, more bullshit. How my empire could manage to completely stop another empire from utilizing several entire planets' worth of political influence or resources is beyond me. I guess you have one hell of a CIA sabotage group which magically is only capable of affecting one enemy, and can only be utilized at certain arbitrary times when nobody else's awesome CIA is sabotaging stuff. In short, the strategy cards alone are reason enough to not want to play this ever again when paired with the God-awful length.

Not all of the new things that FFG dumped in the huge TI3 box are bad, though. The size of the ships are larger, which mean that you see more detail, which necessitates the larger tiles, which I think are prettier as well. But it's really kind of a loss in the end, though, because since everything's bigger, it's just as cramped, but now you need a full foot more per table dimension to fit the game. Pair that with all the new cards and stuff, and it becomes a mammoth game to table. It sure is pretty, though. The cards are a huge improvement, too, because these are the 3rd generation linen cards that we've all come to know and love. The counters are better, the cards, ships, and really, everything is improved in quality.

The only thing that I like almost as much in TI3 over its predecessor, from the 4X perspective, is the idea of hidden and public goals. Instead of actually being a imperial wargame, it's really now a Euro-style VP race. It's not seamless, and it's definitely an abstracted, contrived mechanic, but it works pretty well for the new style of game that TI3 is. This mechanic is reminiscent of Avalon Hill's Nexus Ops in that you have some goals that only you are aware of, and these are what give you victory points. I am still taken aback that this game that was once Ameritrash has been co-opted into what amounts to what feels almost like  a very complex worker placement Euro hybrid, with your workers (read: ships) who are moved and placed solely to take over opponent's plantations (read: planets) which are used as resources to buy more workers and technologies (read: granaries, roads...). Don't let the fact that there are dice in the game and that things die confuse you, either, because TI3 is a hybrid that is like a German U-boat chugging down the Hudson.

The cardinal sin of TI3 over TI2, the one that ensures that I will never again play it, even with the finest of folks who I adore, is that you are arbitrarily limited in what you can do by the strategy card you play and command tokens while forcing Star Fleet Battles style impulse-based, fiddly ass, micro-turns. It takes forever to play, and it in no way represents either a military or economic game due to the abstracting of virtually everything. Its as if FFG decided to make a game as fiddly as possible, as complex as possible, as long as possible, adding as many completely arbitrary devices as possible into one box so that it could capture existing TI fans, Euro fans, and still say that it's an Ameritrash 4X because it has plastic and some dice.

It's clear that the strategy worked because the game is so well accepted, but in my book, all they did was manage to take a great game concept and fuck it up badly by making it overly long, overly complex, and the sin I spoke of before, incredibly gamey for the sole purpose of making it gamey. I always thought that mechanics should serve the design and the theme, not the other way around, and this is an example of the latter. It's not organic in any respect like TI2 was, it's all contrived and the fun is lost in the mechanical minutae. When I play TI3, I feel like I'm playing a kind of Intragalactic Agricola with a splash of combat.

Now, you'll read the above and believe, perhaps, that I am saying TI3 is a terrible game. It's not. It's actually a brilliant economic and political strategy game. What it's not is a brilliant spacey 4X game. 4X stands for "explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate", and TI3 has very little of the latter, if any. As I noted, it's much more of a cold war game. You build up a shitload of ships for the sole purpose of having them, not using them. Very infrequently is it viable to have a rolling thunder style assault on an opposing faction because, in the end, it's as much a loss for you as it is your opponents due to the fact that you can no longer hoard wealth. Thus, if you lose ships, it is harder to replace them, and most importantly, it leaves you wide open for major attacks. Tie that with the fact that command tokens are limited, and it takes virtually forever to prepare a sneak attack or large incursion into enemy territory.

Furthermore, this is not a 4X because you're not looking to win via any of the four X's. In TI3, you have widely varying goals, such as owning four planets with a certain technology specialty, having certain ships in each sector you control, or something as simple as spending 20 influence points in a turn or having a certain amount of technological advances under your belt. This is, without question, not the same kind of game as it's predecessor was.

The best analogy is that TI2 is a war game with economic and political goals where TI3 is a "cold war" economic and political game with a little skirmishing and varying goals. At the end of the day, it is a profound understatement to say that the only real similarities between TI2 and TI3 are in theme alone. If you're looking for a fairly deep 4X, space-based war game with a political and economic engine behind the curtain, TI2 is the clear choice between the two. TI3 is a stunningly overproduced and quite able hybrid, but it's no war game, and it's a rude bastardization, at best, of what made TI2 great.

Why Twilight Imperium 2nd Edition Is The Imperium Rex Of My Shelves:
- It's brilliant, and one of the last truly emergent designs to emerge from FFG
- The bits are splendid, plentiful, and well designed, by and large
- The gameplay is mostly very brisk, with much of the game's minutiae being simultaneously handled
- The political engine is one of the finest examples of FFG's imagination in history
- The cardplay in the game is integral, not tacked on
- The value of the game is simply unmatched these days; it's very replayable and very fun

Why Twilight Imperium 2nd Edition Should Be Voted Down In Council:
- It's a two to three hour game with six experienced players, and it really should be played with five or six
- The cheap cards are under produced as hell
- The tiles are too small for mid-game fleets

In the final analysis, I have to say that I love TI2, but not TI3. I don't wholly hate TI3, but it is really a step forward and five steps back, in my mind, from a 4X perspective. It's simply not the same kind of game. TI2 will be one of the last games I ever sell or trade away, ever, because it is everything I could possibly want in a deep, space faring 4X game. It is a wargame at its heart, with a Oscar-caliber supporting cast of a smart, simple economic engine and an incredibly rich and wonderful political mechanic.
TI2's singular flaw, in my mind, is that it requires some significant bookkeeping since the victory conditions are based on how many, and what kinds, of planets you own, so it's incumbent on the players to constantly keep a tally of their total production capacity and council seats.  There's also the matter of the the too-small tiles, and the fact that the ships look like something you'd get in a 1985 10th birthday party favor bag, but those are personal issues more than anything. Beyond those, the game is as close to perfect as one can imagine for a 4X game. The fact that I haven't bought or traded for the expansion after owning this for over a year is a hell of a strong indicator that it's not broken, and requires no fixing, which is rare these days, especially for a FFG product.

4.875/5 Stars

If you want to look back to 2000 when this was released, head here for the really empty forums...

And if you want to compare the rulebooks and FAQs, here they are:
TI2 Rules: