Last night I got a phone call.
You'll recall from my last entry that my most frequent gaming partner is a guy called Graham. Turns out that his wife, Emma, had gone away for a week with the kids and that he'd invited two of our other game-playing but not-gaming-collecting friends over to watch some football (the game where the ball is kicked with the feet, not the weird rugby-for-cissies variant that you play in the US). Not only that, but they'd taken the time to set up the Twilight Imperium 3 set I'd left behind at my last visit, ready for play.
Obviously, regardless of the fact it was a weeknight, I jumped at the chance. Gaming twice in a week is something I've not done in a long, long time and the fact it was one of my favourite games was just the icing on the cake. Myself, Graham, and one of the other guys he had there, who rejoices in the nickname "Bob Tway", have also just started out in a game of TI3 PBEM, run by Malloc, and this seemed a good opportunity to teach them the rules.
When they'd called, they were in a snooker club and since it's a half-hour drive from my house to where Graham lives they assured me they'd be back by the time I arrived. Inevitably, in spite of the fact I left 15 minutes later than I meant to, there was no-one at the house when I arrived. Turns out they were still in the snooker club, having another round of beers. So they arranged to meet me at the local supermarket to buy more beer and they managed to be late for that appointment as well, and then were further delayed when the fourth member of our party, who we'll call "Brucie Bonus" (don't ask) managed to wander off and get lost amongst the frozen vegetables. Before we started the PBEM game I did warn Malloc that my friends were a bunch of useless bastards - you could wish for no more practical demonstration.
By the time we'd bought beer and pizza, got back to Grahams, opened the beer, put the pizza in the oven, thrown the cats off the gaming table and undone the damage they'd inflicted on the setup what should have been a nice early start had become a 9:30pm kickoff. Not a good start point for a long game but there we go. I attempted to explain the rules. Graham, who has played games like this before, grasped the basics pretty much instantly. Bob and Brucie seemed to struggle a bit more, so I suggested we just launch in and play, picking it up as we go along.
I was the Jol-Nar, Graham had the Hacan and Bob had the Muaat, which are the same races we're playing in the PBEM game. Brucie had the Yin, which are being played by another absent friend in the PBEM session. We were playing with the original set of strategy cards but with Diplomacy II, Tech II, Trade II and Imperial II swapped in and Age of Empires was in play.
One of the objectives was "claim 3 planets" which everyone went for in the first round. Lacking initial ground forces, I had to use Diplomacy II to get it. The only person to miss out was Bob because he was obsessed with building more spaceships instead of Ground Forces. However, Bob had the Logistics card and he used the bonus counters and his racial special ability to spawn fighter and destroyers with strategy conters and by the end of the round he had forces galore.
The second round saw most of the unconquered systems in the galaxy colonised. Bob had been allowed to get Logistics again and now had a large fleet, including his War Sun, camped on a system from where it could literally attack anyone thanks to the presence of a wormhole. There was much frantic negotiation to try and persuade him to use it to "attack them, not me" in the following turn. I'd bought XRD transporters the previous turn and had Diplomacy II again and was able to use this combination to take early control of Metacol Rex, although I had no forces there to defend it. At round end I claimed a "control metacol rex" objective. The other stage one objectives were all sacrifice ones, and the Hacan claimed one. The Hacan and I both had artifact planets as well, putting us on 3VP each while the other two players had one.
The action card I got that round was a massive boon - "transport" which allows me to suddenly move troops on to a distant planet. I took the initiative card that round and played it first up to put 3 troops on Metacol Rex. Later in the turn I used another action card which permitted me to duplicate the effects of a discarded card to put another 3 troops there, making my hold on it virtually impregnable at this point in the game. The Muaat meanwhile seemed almost paralysed by the choice of targets - the Hacan were on his borders with a big fleet but the Yin and I were both militarily weak and ripe for picking. So in the end he decided to attack ... no-one. This hesitation cost him as the Hacan gobbled up the last remaining unclaimed planets which, with his huge pile of Trade Goods, gave him a huge build capacity. Both he and I got War Suns this turn and we both built one of the monolithic things. At end turn the Hacan and I both claimed sacrifice objectives putting us up to 4VP, while the Muaat finally got the claim three planets objective (systems close to his home) for move up to 2VP.
At this point several things became clear. Brucie as the Yin wasn't enjoying the game much at all and was very bored and very drunk. In fact he'd taken to trying to gross everyone out by eating a raw beef burger and complaining about the "gristly bits" - I insisted he wash his hands before touching any more game components. It's worth noting that of the group, Brucie is the one with the lowest tolerance for complexity and the one most prone to Analysis Paralysis and TI3 wasn't turning out to be a good game for him. It’s also worth noting that this man is a well respected University lecturer, which is something any student should remember next time they’re being told off by their course tutor for a late essay – academics can behave like party animals too! Bob's grasp of the rules, though better, was shaky and this was obviously hampering him. The game was clearly going to be a race between me and Graham although Bob said he was really enjoying the game and, now that he had some handle on the rules, was hoping to be more competitive in the PBEM.
In turn 4 I grabbed Imperial II for the bonus VP it provides to the controller of Metcol Rex. Then all hell broke loose. Bob decided he didn't trust the huge fleet the Hacan had built up on his doorstep and waded in with his War Sun and everything else, guns blazing. There was a massive flurry of action cards between the two and then a whole lot of dice rolling which resulted in the Hacan, who had a slightly bigger fleet, loosing, although only narrowly. The Hacan immediately counterattacked and reclaimed the system. After all this action, Brucie apparently went to sleep in his chair. I moved my War Sun up toward Metacol Rex - I was planning to build a space dock there and wanted to protect it - and Bob decided he didn't like that on his doorstep either and attacked me with his other fleet. However, the presence of a War Sun proved decisive and although I lost my supporting fleet, the big nipple of doom remained. I prodded Brucie awake for long enough to play Tech II and completed a suite of five yellow technologies, allowing me to claim a stage 2 objective. At end round that gave me two points plus I was able to use Imperial II to claim another stage one objective and the bonus point from Metacol Rex put me on 8VP while no-one else was able to claim anything.
There were clear options enabling me to get my final VP over the next turn or two - a stage II objective requiring the defeat of two different planets with GF was perfectly gettable since I had a stash of troops on Metacol Rex and a War Sun - so since it was 1am and Brucie was already asleep I was declared the winner and we decided to call it a night. Graham and Bob both disagreed with my assessment that TI3 wasn't "that complex" and expressed considerable sympathy for the fourth new player in our PBEM game who was going to have to learn the rules from the book. They'd both really enjoyed the game though, and Bob had got on top of the rules. I didn't ask, but I'm not sure Brucie would play again.
This game taught me several things about TI3. Firstly, I'd always felt it was a fairly intuitive game in spite of the number of rules. However, that assessment is now clearly wrong. TI3 is uninhibited about borrowing mechanics from a whole slew of other designs and I think the "intuitive" feeling is perhaps something only fairly experienced gamers - who've probably seen these mechanics in action elsewhere - get about TI3. To everyone else, even part-time game enthusiasts like Bob, it's pretty impenetrable. The second thing is that I've managed to maintain my record of manging to get games lasting around 60 minutes per player even with new and relatively slow players at the table. This game lasted three and a half hours and "proper" victory at 10VP was well within sight for me, and I doubt it would have lasted much more than another hour at most. With the right options chosen and at least one experienced player in the game, it's reputation for monstrously unmanageable play times is undeserved. I suspect it gets that reputation from first-time games where everyone is new to the system and the wrong options are in play - that could last an awfully long time, and I can see why peopel might get disillusioned with the game after that one, painful session, which is a shame. The final, very important lesson, that I learned was that trying to pack away TI3 in the early hours of the morning when you're tried and drunk is ... unfortunate. In the end I just slung everything into the box and left it with Graham in case he wanted to teach his kids to play.