Updated: Aug 15
Rating: 5/5 Release Date 2022 1-8 Players
I am taking a foray into the legendary science fiction universe of Twilight Imperium for this board game review. "TI," as it is affectionately abbreviated among series veterans, has a long tradition of being a rather heavy game of galactic conquest, politics, trade, and intrigue. The series has quite the reputation among board game aficionados, famously for its complexity, massive scale, and delightful assortment of starship miniatures and alien varieties. This same reputation is also infamous, however, for the very same reasons. TI is turn-based and open to analyzing and over-analyzing, with some sessions lasting for six hours or longer to bring a game to completion.
Twilight Imperium's most recent edition (4th) was released in 2017, and represents the quintessential update for a game. As someone who has played close to a dozen full games of this version, I feel qualified in saying that this is as perfect of an expression of the game as has ever been released- the game is both as massive as ever but also streamlined and easier to comprehend, from ship movements and battles to understanding all of its various minutiae.
Nonetheless, this experience still may be daunting for all but the most dedicated board gamers. Enter Twilight Inscription: the newest iteration in the TI universe. Instead of slowly expanding across tile hexes representing the various systems of the galaxy and placing miniatures, Inscription has players writing on distinct strategy mats and allocating resources based on cards drawn and dice rolled- representing a new entry in the "roll and write" category of board games.
It was something of a stroke of fate that one of my earliest memories of Gen Con, the largest board game convention, involves playing my friend Adam's early access copy of Twilight Imperium more than five years ago. At this year's iteration (which was held August 3rd-7th), I had the good fortune of securing an early copy of Inscription for myself. It was exciting to be one of the first in the general public to assess the question: could the epic TI universe successfully translate to a roll and write?
After playing an eight-player game at Gen Con and a five-player match yesterday, I can say that the answer is a resounding yes.
To begin, the game durations were 2 1/2 and 2 hours respectively, minus a little outside explanation. This was a satisfying duration- not too brief but far from the imposing slog of certain Imperium sessions. Dice-rolling, while influential for shaping how effective a player's actions are, certainly does not dictate the outcome of the game- other resources are available for allocating on the different strategy mats, originating from event cards and being unlocked on the mats themselves. There was immediately a satisfying feeling between the balance of luck and strategy.
The basic concept of the game is to score the most victory points, which can be accessed on the four distinct strategy mats (navigation, expansion, industry, and warfare), only one of which can be activated on each player's turn. There is a gleeful freedom for each game- one could obsessively devote practically (or quite literally, all) of their attention to a single mat, or try to create a diversified strategy. I have witnessed both plans claim victory, which was reassuring that both routes seem viable (for now). Of course, whichever alien civilization a player is commanding will influence these decisions and make certain routes more lucrative.
The act of marking and drawing on the mats is itself enjoyable. The mats are cleanly designed, mostly in dark, "spacey" hues, to allow for marking and tracing with a bright orange marker. A particular highlight is the 'warfare' strategy mat; instead of having physical miniatures to represent starships, players draw shapes on a grid, the size and orientation (which may be rotated at will) being important for winning battles and maximizing effectiveness. This was a surprising and welcome change from the mechanics of the core games. In most of my Imperium games, I have borne witness to piles of miniature ships, often lying on their sides or upside down, being haphazardly pushed between tiles. This comes as a necessary reality once the armadas have grown into unwieldy clusters of pieces which the players don't care to keep tidy. Warfare is both a more limited and more deliberate enterprise in Inscription.
A noted difference of the Inscription experience is that there less interaction between players, a boon or a detraction, depending on who you ask. Players are essentially limited to a Seven Wonders style of comparing military strength against their neighbors and vote on three agendas during the galactic council each game, the outcome of which will affect all players. Far from the constant conflict and trade of the series namesake, Inscription offers a game of mostly autonomous management with occasional interaction with neighbors.
I found the net result of the experience to be positively delightful. Once again, Fantasy Flight games have succeeded in further streamlining and making their beloved franchise more accessible. There exists both a balance and impressive array of options to invest one's resources. The gameplay components, largely rendered on cards and mats, offer a sharp and surprisingly immersive presentation that keeps pace with the more elaborate pieces of games past.
Aside from pining for slightly better writing markers and significantly better erasers (it's easy enough to substitute these for more suitable ones), it is hard to find any fault with this game. This is a "must" for series fans and a great representation of what roll and write is capable of. This tour de force is easy to recommend, though it still is a hair toward the complex side for the average gamer.