A comparison of Throneworld and Twilight Imperium
Recently I have had the opportunity to play two new strategic space conquest games, Prism's Throneworld and Fantasy Flight's Twilight Imperium. While I can hardly claim to be an expert after a couple playings, I do have a few thoughts regarding both games.
Similarities between the gamesThe two games have some interesting similarities:
- In both the old imperium is dying, and several races
-- each with its own unique abilities -- are vying to
seize the imperial capital and become the new hegemon.
- Both are hex-based, with relatively few hexes
(Throneworld has 71; if I remember
correctly, Twilight Imperium has 37), the
imperial capital at dead-center, and the different
homeworlds on the outer rim.
- Both have varying terrain -- in Twilight
Imperium through the use of a geomorphic board,
Throneworld through the use of randomly
selected chits which define each hex in play.
- Both have combat sequences that involve moving one or more fleets of troop-carrying ships into a system, winning control of local space by destroying the defending ships, dropping ground forces onto the planet, and then engaging the ground-based defenders.
Differences between the two gamesWhile there are many similarities, there are also many differences, both in the mechanics of the game, and in the philosophy behind the approach.
Politics and tradeFirst, Twilight Imperium is much more oriented towards politics and trade. For example, it has a separate Market phase, during which players can sell Action cards to each other. During the Politics phase, wars are declared (there is an Influence penalty for surprise attacks), and a card containing a proposed law/rule (e.g. "Arms control -- certain weapons are outlawed, reducing the combat rolls of all dreadnoughts by -1") pulled from the top of the Politics deck, and the players vote on the proposal, with the votes weighted according to the current Influence levels of the players.
When I played, one law proposed that the price of purchasing technological advances be decreased by 5. Since one of my races special abilities was that I already purchased tech at a -5, this was a relative gain for everyone else. Combined with another player in a similar situation, an Action card that increased my Influence by 10, and a bribe to another player to vote my way, we managed to get the law defeated.
Among the many Action cards are some that create trade agreements between mutually willing partners, which have the effect of adding 1 credit per turn to your income for each of the planets controlled by your partner. Overall, there is a lot of wheeling and dealing.
Throneworld, on the other hand, is a lot more oriented towards miltary and development. Unlike Twilight Imperium, almost all Throneworld systems are occupied, and must be conquered to be incorporated into the expanding regime. Trades and agreements are possibile, but are not emphasized. Throneworld combat system is more developed, with a greater variety of ground units.
TechnologyA second area of difference is in the use of technology and the method of technological development. Throneworld has four technology tracks (Comm, Jump, Ground, Space wherease Twilight Imperium has three (Propulsion, Weapons, Industry), but they are developed and used in much different ways. In Throneworld, technology tracks affect either the range or movement ability of certain units (Jump, Comm), or they function as die-roll modifiers in combat (Ground, Space). Technological progression is faily straightforward -- you start at tech level 1 or 2 (depending on race), and through a series of die rolls, can theoretically progress to 6 or 7. A COMM level of 4, for example, means that your can issue commands which involve the COMM rating over a distance of 4 hexes, whereas a JUMP level of 4 means that your space units can move to a hex 4 hexes away from their current location.
Technology in Twilight Imperium is much less consistant. Each tech track has a list of abilities in an arbitrary order, with no logical progression from one to the next. Why is the WEAPONS progression from "carriers can now carry 10 units (up from 8)" to "cruisers get +1 to all combat die rolls"? No one (except perhaps the designer) knows. Technology in Twilight Imperium is also purchased outright, with the only limitation being that only one purchase per turn is allowed.
CombatA third area of difference is the combat system. Space combat shares some superficial commonalities, mostly in the type of ships available, and all combat in both games occurs in a series of alternating rounds, with fire being (in most cases) simultaneous. The mechanics of both space and ground combat, however, are far different.
Throneworld units in general fire a number of six-sided hit dice, dependent upon the type of unit, whether it is attacking or defending, and (in the case of ground forces) the presence of certain other units with which it interacts in a synergistic fashion. Hits are determined by rolling "6s", with the side having the greater tech level receiving a DRM equal to the difference in tech level. (One or both sides will always hit on a "6".) This gets very dice-intensive -- at the beginning of one battle, for example, the attacker was rolling 35 dice, the defender was rolling 29.
Twilight Imperium, on the other hand, uses a "1 d10 per ship system", with hits being achieved by rolling equal to or above the base to hit number. Carriers hit on a 9+, cruisers and ground units on an 8+, and dreadnoughts on a 4+. Some Action cards allow for experimental or "hero"-type units with a positive DRM modifier. The ability of the unit doesn't vary based on offensive or defensive posture, except that attacking units may elect to retreat, while defending units may not.
The difference becomes even more pronounced if one focuses solely on ground combat. Throneworld has 4 different types of infantry units -- Light, Heavy, Assault and Drop -- plus Command Bunkers, which also provide defensive fire in addition to acting as command posts for COMM and JUMP orders. Each of these units has varying capabilities on offense and defense. Twilight Imperium, on the other hand, has the ubiquitous "Ground Unit".
Overall assessmentOverall, I enjoyed playing both games, and I plan on buying Twilight Imperium at some point, but I must admit that to date I have a marked preference for Throneworld, for three reasons:
First, I generally prefer military/economic games over political/diplomatic games. All the wheeling and dealing is entertaining on one level, but I never really could get into Diplomacy, and this is a very Diplomacy-like game.
Second, I think Throneworld simply handles certain issues -- technology, for example -- better. Technology in Throneworld is a direct progression from one stage to another; each step on the tech track is better than the one before and not as good as the one after. Since technology is operationalized by requiring an ever-increasing die roll to move to the next box on the track (meaning it gets harder and harder to advance), there is just enough uncertainty to prevent tech from being too predictable. In some ways I would prefer it if the research process was somehow tied into the resource expenditure process -- purchasing the die rolls, perhaps -- but I'm willing to consider the military R&D process to be funded by a separate account.
The technology track in Twilight Imperium, on the other hand, manages to be both too predictable and too arbitrary. It's predictable in that, given sufficient cash reserves, you know almost exactly when you you will be able to reach a certain technology level, because it is simply a matter of buying one tech level per turn until you get what you want. Sure, there are some variables -- if someone plays an Action card that dissolves all trade agreements, for example, you may not have sufficient cash reserves -- but they involve either a disaster of some sort occurring, or a conscience decision on the part of the player not to pursue that option.
The system manages to be too arbitrary by forcing you to wade through a series of acquisitions which in some cases are just plain irrelevant. I don't have any problems with lower level technologies not being as useful as the higher technologies -- that's to be expected, after all. The problem is that the technologies aren't really linked, and could arguably appear in any order. I came away feeling that there wasn't any reason to research more than the seven tech levels necessary to meet the victory conditions.
Twilight Imperium, in effect, combines the arbitrary and random technology acquisition process of Twentieth Century Renaissance's Gateway to the Stars with the methodical technology grind of Avalon Hill's Stellar Conquest. [For a review of Gateway to the Stars, please click here.] In fact, I would suggest that Twilight Imperium is worse than Stellar Conquest in this regard; at least with the latter a given level of technology was a multi-turn investment.
Another issue which I think Throneworld handles better is combat. As a result of the combat mechanics, there are a lot of decisions to be made about your force structure. Do I buy Drop troops (which can actually start the ground battle before the space battle is finished, possible forcing the defending warships to retreat when their bases are overrun), or Assault troops (which are powerful offensively, but much weaker on the defense), or Heavy troops (which are somewhat deficient on the offense, but very powerful defensively, and hence good garrison troops)? On the naval side, do I buy Protectors (which have both combat and transport capability), or do I buy Blasters for space combat and Motherships as transports? Most of this thinking appears to be absent from Twilight Imperium, as capabilities are the same on both offense and defense, and ground units are all fungible.
The third and final area where I prefer Throneworld over Twilight Imperium is in the area of physical components. Both games have components of high physical quality (meaning they are very well made) -- with one exception: Twilight Imperium's Action and Political cards are made of the same flimsy cardstock, and come in the same hard-to-shuffle size, as most non-CCG card components. Throneworld uses a chit-based system for essentially the same function, and while this may limit the amount of printing that can go on the card (and hence, I suppose, the diversity of options), it does make them much easier to handle.
Another area of difference in physical components is the players aid sheets, and here Throneworld is unquestionably superior. The Throneworld player sheets are 8.5x11 inches, and list the race and its special abilities, a Unit Summary table with prices/capabilities of the various units, four fleet boxes (complete with boxes for embarked gound forces), an Empire production total (which tracks income), a Homeworld Treasury (which tracks savings), and the technology track. All in all, it tracks virtually everything that a player needs to know at a glance, and the only thing it doesn't track about the player -- the number of systems held -- is tracked on the board, which allows all the players score to be seen at once. All-in-all, this sheet is a model for the right way to do a player aid.
Not so the Twilight Imperium's player sheet. It is about the size of a small envelope and contains solely the race, its special abilities and starting production, and the technology track. There is no location to track production income (from holding planets), trade income (from trade agreements, which is collected in a different phase), or total savings. As a result, I found myself losing track of how much I was getting in each phase each turn. I think that there might be some way of tracking savings using chits, but the people I played with used Monopoly money instead.
In addition to not tracking the things it should, the one variable it does track -- technology -- could be done a lot better. Each tech level for each technology has a cute little name assigned to it, and this name is printed on the tech tracks. What isn't included, however, is an explanation of exactly what this cute little name means. Sure, I imagine that eventually I will remember that the "Xircon Assault Barges" allow me to attack two planets within a system at the same time, but until I remember that, I need to keep checking the chart on the back of the main rulebook.
CostThroneworld retails for $50 range, and I think it is worth every penny. Twilight Imperium, retails at $45 or so for the basic game, plus another $18 for the Borderlands expansion, which adds two new races and some advanced rules and counters.
ConclusionI enjoyed both games, but I enjoyed Throneworld more. This also matches the experienec of other players -- my last game involved four experienced Twilight Imperium players, and the two who expressed a preference preferred Throneworld. Whether you agree with this assessment or not will largely depend on whether you like games with a strong diplomatic/political bent; if you are nuts about Diplomacy, for example, you might very well prefer Twilight Imperium over Throneworld. If you prefer a little more detail on the military simulation side, you might very well prefer Throneworld.
Then again, you might just like both equally. Or you might like neither. Your mileage may vary.
For more information on Throneworld, please click here.