The last two designs from Carl Chudyk were both, in their own way, brilliant. Glory to Rome built on the groundwork laid by San Juan to create a nuanced production game, probably one of the best card games of the last ten years. Innovation was even more extraordinary, a game that spoke to how ideas and inventions unbalance and dictate the flow of history. Now Chudyk turns his eye toward a broader genre of hobby games: space empires. The most visible entry into this genre is the enormous Twilight Imperium, but recent years have brought other entries like Eclipse and the well-received reprint of Cosmic Encounter. But the new game, Impulse, is a different animal altogether. Even while it fulfills we expect from the genre, it breaks countless design rules to create something fresh and interesting, if a little difficult.
Like sports movies, space empire games are often not different in their broad strokes, but in how those strokes are executed. There will typically be a board with planets that the player explores with different kinds of ships, technology to research, opponents to go to fight, and an economy to kickstart. Impulse covers all of these elements, but almost all of them are done in the most unorthodox way possible. The entire game is played with a deck of cards that do all of the mechanical lifting. Several of them are laid out as a board, where they can be explored. But each player also has a hand of cards which can be played in various ways to execute their actions. The card actions themselves have a broad range of possibilities, allowing the player to move ships, research new tech, draw cards, and a host of other things. Each action also has one element that can be “boosted,” meaning there is a way to increase its effect. This is done through exploring with lots of ships, but also by “mining” cards to use them specifically for boosting. And then there are ways to convert cards directly into victory points, which can be effective in a game that only goes to twenty points. Of course you can also do battle to get closer to victory and to hassle your opponents.
Like other Chudyk games, the actions you take in Impulse can often be taken by the other players. This is through a mechanic appropriately referred to as the impulse. It’s a line of four cards that works a little like a conveyor belt. The oldest one drops off each turn, replaced by a new one from the next player. As long as it’s on the belt, it will get played by each player until it falls off. This represents the one time you can play a card directly from your hand, but you have to consider how useful it will be to the next three players.
Did you get all that? If not, sorry. The truth is that I could spend this whole review explaining how Impulse works and still not really do it justice. The components are just a deck of cards and six colors of spaceship tokens. Those cards play the role of planets, technologies, battle reinforcements, and minerals, not to mention the obvious role of just a basic card that you play. Even the spaceship tokens can be one of two different kinds of ships, depending on their location and orientation. This makes Impulse a hard game to grasp, but it also allows for enormous flexibility in strategy. There’s not really such a thing as a bad hand, just a hand that will require more creativity than another. This part feels particularly like Glory To Rome, where a card could be one of four or five different things.
The different possibilities for every card gives Impulse a scope that far outstrips its 45-minute running time. There are so many different actions, and so many ways cards can be used, that there is pretty much no way for you to be good at everything. You have to pick a couple of specialties and hope those pan out for you. Maybe you’ll lean on exploration and combat, or on mining cards and refining them into victory points. The variety of actions and card uses also mean that in some games it might just happen that some actions will be in short supply. In my first game it was very difficult to find a way to research new tech, and in a four-player game this weekend I was caught with no way to build new spaceships. Some people will find this frustrating, but it gives the game a multifaceted appeal that makes me want to play again and again. And yet the cards also serve to constrain the player and keep things sane. There are maybe ten different possible actions from the cards, but those depend greatly on what cards you actually have. This reminds me of Innovation, where you might find yourself unable to score points for turns at a time. There are usually ways around luck like that, but not always. It’s the sort of “deal with it” luck that I wish more designers embraced. It also has the added bonus of limiting the range of what a player can do at any given time, which thankfully keeps the decision tree to a reasonable level.
Of course this all makes Impulse a tricky game to learn, and an even trickier game to teach. I think I’ve gotten there with about four or five tries, but this is the first Chudyk game where I find myself frequently saying, “Wait, I forgot another thing.” It doesn’t help that each turn is divided into several steps that must be followed, which gives the game a lot of places to insert additional actions and slow down turns. I’m fine with a game that’s tough to learn, but if Impulse has any big fault it’s this complexity combined with lots of steps that causes the game to lurch forward fitfully until everyone knows what their doing. It doesn’t move nearly as cleanly as Glory to Rome or Innovation. Neither of those are particularly clean games, but at least felt like they were precisely where they wanted to be. Impulse has a hard time escaping the requirements of space empire games, even if it executes all of those requirements in creative and exciting ways.
This could be because, rather than a game that borrows from established mechanics or unified around a specific theme, Impulse feels consciously designed to be a riff on an established genre. Expectations are the essence of genre, and Impulse sometimes feels like it’s going down a checklist, looking for a completely new way to do something that’s been done a lot of different ways. This isn’t something that keeps me from enjoying the game, but I do think it makes it feel like an exercise, almost as if Chudyk designed it as a challenge to himself.
But of course there’s nothing wrong with a genre exercise, especially one that bears the fingerprints of its designer as strongly as Impulse does. And anyway such concerns are largely abstract. When it’s on the table Impulse is a challenging game, but one that has ended up being highly rewarding the more I play. It takes the scope of the space empire genre and puts it all in the realm of the strategic, rather than the realm of game length. It doesn’t replace larger games like Eclipse or Twilight Imperium, so much as it stands next to them and makes a case for itself alongside them.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.