Twilight Imperium: Friendly Space Race

By Bob and Lizzy

Brutus rating: 9 zingy lightsabers in the back out of 10
Pairs Well With: Slurm! Romulan Ale! Anything pumped with sugar and caffeine

Look at this magnificent shit. You know you’re in for some intense game-time when the box art is this expensive and epic.

The story of the Misery Farm and Twilight Imperium begins with Bob and Christmas. Bob spends every Christmas with her family and a number of close family friends (as South Africans the lot of them are constitutionally incapable of negotiating ‘small, quiet’ events). There’s lots of food, wine, dogs, excited children and merriment.

It’s hell.

Initial plans were to go from family home to Reading for new year’s eve with the friendly robot boyfriend (FRB) before looping back round to the blessed isolation and wonderful silence of home in Southampton. Then the kids got an honest-to-god noisemaker as a Christmas present. The electronic kind, which plays loud, tinny jingles and farty sounds at the push of a button. Far from being a form of passive-aggressive punishment inflicted by child-free friends on their parents it turned out that their mum (!) had actually bought this thing (!!) herself (!!!) as a gift for her own kids (!!!!).

Naturally, Bob wanted to leave as soon as humanly possible. Unfortunately there wouldn’t be room for her at the FRB’s house until the late in December, and he had planned an all-day Twilight Imperium 3 game on that day. But there would be a constant supply of tea and biscuits if she was interested. Sold!

She had no idea what she had gotten herself into.

First port of call if you need a game overview is of course the blog Shut Up and Sit Down. If you are living under a rock and are somehow reading this without having heard of them, then know that they are nice young men who combine informative game reviews with a quirky and funny presentation style (so pretty much the opposite of us). Their review of the game as fun, complicated but not arduous, and epic in both scale and style was encouraging, and Bob proceeded to download the rules with a view to getting a rough idea of the components, win conditions, and what a turn generally looks like (the holy trinity of basic game understanding).

Here she hit a snag. Having only recently become the kind of special, habitual nerd who can visualise a game to any sort of degree just from reading the rules, these presented something of a challenge. It wasn’t the length of the rules which intimidated her, nor their complexity, poor structure, or incredible, gasping dryness. It was more that better things to do than reading them seemed to repeatedly crop up. Taking a nap, for example. Eating all the Christmas jelly beans. Re-watching Star Trek, Frozen, and the Muppets Christmas Carol (with all the scary bits fast-forwarded so the kids wouldn’t have to hide behind the sofa). If she weren’t under strict instructions from supervisors to Chill the Fuck Out and Take a Holiday then some work might even possibly have gotten done. Maybe.

This wasn’t entirely unfair, in hindsight. TwImp heralds from an era of Fantasy Flight games (i.e. their entire history) when writing down the rules was considered an unfortunately necessary afterthought to game creation. The amount of text in the FAQs on their website exceeds that of the written rules by a factor of about fifty, and even the super handy-dandy cheat sheet on board game geek (second port of call for the game explorer) is twelve pages of tightly-packed and colour-coded terror. Bob refused to be deterred though, forging bravely ahead. It was either this or another day of confiscating her mum’s 11am gin and being forced to watch a ten-year old play Pokemon Platinum* on their shiny new 3DS**. To some long-term gaming buddies this mission to Read the Damn Rules seemed one step away in terms of desperate foolishness from considering a career in crippling heroin addiction. Eventually even Bob had to admit defeat at page 14, and instead downloaded the TI3 app***.

Game day rolled round with an inauspicious start. Bob arrived late and without all the necessary supplies of crisps, cigarettes and sugary beverages that would make a ten-hour game bearable. Luckily the FRB has excellent friends. Ones complete with mandatory nerdy graphic Tshirts and an exquisite layout of appropriate snacks including Gagh (gummy worms), Slurm (Mountain Dew), and a handy supply of delicious codeine and Marlborough Reds to alleviate the crampy terror brought on by driving. FRB did his part by making Bob two whole cups of tea without complaining more than 6 times.

Delicious caffeinated sugar water.
Delicious caffeinated sugar-water.

And it only took an hour to set up the game and go over the rules. Briefly: a central planet IMG_0414(Mechatol Rex), the seat of political power in the galaxy now mired in civil war and petty bureaucratic struggles. It is surrounded by planet and space hexes, which generate resources if you invade take them under your wing. You play as a race fighting for dominance according to certain objectives. First to ten victory points wins. You can usually get a point per turn, and a turn takes an hour. No joke.

Okay, so this game. This game, guys. It’s insane. No one playing it for the first time can
possibly have any idea what the hell is going on. Going over every single rule would be exhausting, and remembering them all on the first try is impossible. It’s entirely plausible that everyone was cheating the entire way through but the fact that we were playing with two extra expansions (and therefore a whole bunch of new and expanded rules) meant that no one noticed or really knew what was going on themselves.

Luckily it’s definitely the kind of game that can be played without a fully-fleshed strategy as IMG_0419long as you have a rough overview of what you might want to do on a turn, and there’s someone around the table willing and able to walk you through the fine points. Some things, like spending resources, invading planets, and building technologies and spaceships are very knowledge-dependent, unfortunately, and messing them up can really ruin your turn. Mercifully the sheer size and duration of the game makes it weirdly forgiving until the very last few rounds.

Some parts are refreshingly simple, such as the straightforward dice-rolling ‘pew pew’ of combat. On the other hand some elements, like playing a political action card in order to pass a law in the galactic senate, are almost like bizarre meta/minigames in themselves, as you try to bribe each other for votes while assassinating other players’ delegates. Sometimes, if another player is particularly annoying you with their piractical trading methods or pointed demilitarisation of strategic planets, you can even assassinate them twice*****.

Romulan ale, for when your girlfriend has passed a motion to have you executed by the senate. Again.
Romulan ale, for when your girlfriend has passed a motion to have you executed by the senate. Again.

The potential for greatness is there (and beginners can do just as well as experienced players with a bit of strategic placement and luck), but it is absolutely exhausting on your first time round. After having your ass solidly kicked across the galaxy by the Winnarian traders you might even swear off it entirely.

But then find yourself thinking, at odd moments, how you could improve your strategy to finally conquer Mechatol Rex and really show those damn space-lions who’s boss.

As you play and get comfortable with the rules (which can take several long, long games) it all starts seriously picking up in terms of mad, bonkers, shooty fun. Despite its enormity the strategic elements are reasonably flexible. Alliances are made and broken based on objectives and the layout of the planet hexes (ah, that nebula of hugs sure looks protective. Wait, guys, why are you launching that dreadnought? Guys…?). You learn the particular skills and weaknesses of your race and start to posture with great big spiny hedgehog death stars war suns.

This. This is what posturing looks like.
This. This is what posturing looks like.
See that weird little fish-looking guy in the background? Flagship. 'Pointing the wrong way' apparently.
See that weird little fish-looking guy in the background? Flagship. ‘Pointing the wrong way’ apparently.

Bob’s first race comprised spooky space ghosts who love wormholes and for some reason have a super-90s-wildstyle-graffiti-looking symbol/crest thing. They have the unique ability to build an enormous flagship which then acts as a wormhole itself, allowing fleets of warships to pop up all over the map (entertaining but not recommended for beginners). Incidentally the flagship looks an awful lot like a fish with antennae bits all over it. Bob assumed this was to streamline it so that it might effectively fly through the massive friction and air resistance of outer space, but it turned out that she did in fact have the ship flying backwards. Other races include incredibly combative swarms of cockroaches led by a shadowy matriarchy (who for some reason no-one trusts. Damn speciesists), clouds of fungal spores, lion-people with civilisations built on the backs of elephants slowly traversing their desert home-planets, cyborg remnants of the once-ruling race spreading their mindnet low-cost broadband internet through the galaxy.

All that remains of the galaxy after a number of mad alien races have tussled over it.
All that remains of the galaxy after a number of mad alien races have tussled over it.

This game is fun, and mad, but very very long. Set aside a full day for it, and don’t play it without an experienced player to guide you through.

*Sidenote: Pokemon game names are really dumb and not-intuitively chronological. Dem crazy Japans amiright?

**Sidenote 2: This kid wouldn’t let Bob take a turn and had the bloody cheek to tell her that an Umbreon was a kind of Pokemon in a tone of voice usually saved for the hopelessly elderly and out-of-touch. Since being informed that we had in fact had Pokemon when we were kids it’s been non-stop Poketrivia quizzing of seemingly every Pokemon except the original 152. She calls them the Pokemon from ‘back in your day’.

*** More useful than the 12-page cheat sheet**** by a factor of about 300. It helps you keep track of what technology you’re building and are able to build, and keeps an eye on your various battle stats.

**** This is a ridiculous fucking thing anyway. It expects you to print out the pdf on legal paper and then fold and staple it into a booklet. What is this, 1963? It has the potential to be amazing but only if it were turned into a beautiful, easily-navigated hypertext doc. With a fucking contents page and some kind of fucking recognisable structure. One day. In the future.

*****Sorry Chris. That’s what you get for not letting me invade Mechatol Rex.

Photos courtesy of Nick Lanng and Chris MacLennan


Cthulhu Wars: Indescribably Tentacular

A Review by Bob, Lizzy

Number of dicks in ear: 8 inter-dimensional, squamous dicks/10.
Pairs well with: German beer, anti-psychotic medication.


You may notice that this game review is lacking in high quality Cthulhu Wars photos. That’s because none of us are insanely rich enough to own this game, so we’re relying on Lizzy’s camera from our time at Essen 2014. She hadn’t even realised that the lens was dusty at this point. Sheesh. Some photos have also been professionally recreated in a studio environment. See if you can tell the difference.

(Not actual game footage. Actors were used to recreate gameplay. Crocheted Cthulhu sold separately. Terms and conditions apply.)
(Not actual game footage. Actors were used to recreate gameplay. Crocheted Cthulhu sold separately. Terms and conditions apply.)

Fun fact: If it weren’t for Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu role-playing game we wouldn’t be here today. I don’t mean that in an existential sense, just that this blog wouldn’t be here today.

Powerful stuff.
Powerful stuff.

Back in the mists of time of 2011 our friend Emma brought me, Lizzy, and a select few others together to roleplay some eldritch misery, unwittingly creating a gang of powerful lady-nerds.*

It was my first RP experience and I’ve been hooked ever since.

I've got some army guys and some robots. That's pretty sci-fi right guys?
I’ve got some army guys and some robots. That’s pretty sci-fi right?

Now I don’t have much interest in games beyond playing them. I’ve very little idea of which companies make good games and I’m regularly surprised when a game seemingly tailored to my interests appeared (looking at you, A Study in Emerald) so I had no idea that the cool-sounding Cthulhu game being exhibited at Essen 2014 was by the same guy who wrote the original role-play adventure. I wish I could say that the only time I embarrassed myself was when Petersen himself had to explain to me that he did not just jump on the Lovecraft bandwagon, but did to some extent start it. Unfortunately I also proceeded to get ridiculously excited and fan-girlish about the whole thing (to the extent that his wife told me to calm down), and to address him as ‘Sandy’ (to which he did not respond until I sheepishly reverted to ‘Mr. Petersen’).

In my defence it was a very exciting experience, especially when combined with the chocolate-

Cthulhu card game figurine v. blind bag Pony
Cthulhu card game figurine v. blind bag Pony

covered-chocolate-ice-cream stall just around the corner. Petersen was there like a proud, balding Mormon Santa Claus showing off his game, and one of his sons (or possibly grandsons) had the dubious honour of patiently teaching the game to a parade of smelly nerd troupes** (I think we smelled lovely) in a course of fully-booked two hour slots over the four days of convention. By the power of sheer exuberance I even got to beta-test Petersen’s next game, Gods War, which was still in the sharpie-on-cardboard stage of development. Stay tuned for an extra sneak-peek review of that game at the end of this broadcast.

Hmm. Strategy.
Hmm. Strategy.

The game itself is impressive in scale, and bonkers in execution. It was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, and thanks to that can afford to take a stance of ‘Look mate, you’re either in this entirely, or you’re out.’ I can imagine the kind of board games nerds who get off on the fiddly tactile bits of games getting feverish over this baby. There is a $199 price tag for just the core game (expansions are $59 each), with no option for a less-expensive less-artisanal version. It includes 64 incredibly detailed miniatures of Old Gods, monsters, and cultists. If you look closely you can see everything from the relief outline of the death-masks on the tiny cultists’ faces, to the cleft in the King in Yellow’s butt. Even the marker by which you tally your power is a tiny, adorable tentacle. It must be said, though, that there is something a little bit odd about

Better share the tentacle beard.
Better share the tentacle beard.

monsters which are defined as being unknowable, unnameable, indescribable horrors (H.P. Lovecraft was terrible at detail) being cast in plastic to play with. Takes away some of the awe. We didn’t actually say this to Petersen though, as the whole thing was so clearly his beloved baby and I already felt silly.

The game takes place on a board illustrated with an approximate map of the world. This has lead some of our more soft-headed moon-faced friends to think that the game has completely left the realm of Lovecraftian epic fantasy and entered into Risk-style grognard territory. Now

So many dice.
So many dice.

I’m not going to lie, there are dice. A lot of dice. So many dice that you sometimes need two hands to cast them all as part of a mighty god-against-god battle (it’s awesome). And yes, there is strategy involved. But the game isn’t a simple struggle for physical space. Instead, it’s all about power. There are a number of ways to gain power (and yes, taking up more space is one of them), and gaining power will earn you more super-special doom points, by which you may win the game. The faction you play (Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Hastur/The King in Yellow) massively affects how you can most effectively gain and wield power, and is further specialised through your faction-unique spellbooks.

Tyrannids! They're monsters! They'll do!
Tyrannids! They’re monsters! They’ll do!

This is both great as it really absorbs you in the fantasy of the game, but also leads to the big, huge, massive, gaping flaw in the game. Namely, if you do not effectively figure out at least a starting strategy which integrates with your faction’s play style pretty fucking swiftly, then you are utterly screwed within the first two rounds of the game. The rules of the game and structure of a turn are hardly straightforward either, so you might need those two rounds to get a grip on what’s going on. This is something I usually hate in games (Terra Mystica! Why!?), and it does completely unbalance it. In our game, and in friends’, you end up with two players massively in the lead duking it out to be the first to flop their enormous eldritch cock across the board, and two players struggling to get out of their starting zones.

In fact we played this game with Emma (of previously-mentioned Cthulhu GM-ing glory) and she never stood a chance. We were merciless, and with good reason.

It's a warzone.
It’s a warzone.

Way back when, during our time as Cthulhu role-players we were very attached to our characters: Smokey Peterson the jazz musician, Old (insane, phenomenally rich) Trewilliger, Prudence and her gin, coquettish Mabel and… Jeff. Oh, Jeff. The only real good guy in the team. He loved corn, kindness and photography. Jeff!

One day something happened to Jeff that we don’t like to talk about. It had wings.

Then, in Essen 2014, just as Cthulhu Wars was starting, Emma picked up one of her pieces and said “Hey… this is the one that took Jeff!”


And hell did Bob and I avenge our comrade. This also, unfortunately, proved that if one or two people want to gang up on you in the game then there’s not a lot you can do about it. Definitely a whole bouquet of dicks in ear.6D-31- 286

Nonetheless, this game is shamelessly fun. It’s complex but not impossible, with lots of juicy details to get stuck into/drive you into hellish pits of insanity. The rule book  comes with hints and tips toward getting the most out of your Elder God which apparently really helps to solve the balancing problem if you haven’t got a member of the Petersen family handy to keep you on track. Of course this is a moot point because I can’t afford it and this makes me sad.

 PS: Lizzy won.

Extra bonus game review: Petersen’s new epic-style game Gods War!

… It’s the same fucking game.

*This was before she abandoned us to get married and live in the frozen north. Now she makes adorable nerdy crochet guys at

** Don’t get butt-hurt, we were smelly. It was hot in that convention hall, and full of fried foods and bodies.