Player of Games is about Twilight Imperium
Spoilers for Player of Games & Twilight Imperium below
I recently picked up Player of Games which is considered the best intro to the Culture series. The whole series is a space opera about an AI run, post scarcity society (the Culture) and how they interact with other societies. In Player of Games the Culture’s best game player, Jernau, is sent to a society where a game, Azad, determines one’s social standing, government position etc. All the way up to the fact that the Emperor is the winner of an Azad tournament.
The game mechanics are incidental to the story, but as an avid boardgamer my mind was continually trying to figure them out. Eventually the question became.
What real world game is most like Azad?
By the end of the book I was convinced it was Twilight Imperium.
Hardcore strategy gamers now have a clear (and accurate) feel for how Azad is described in the book. Some of them would like nothing better than to play it while others would rather be given the “physical option” from Azad. The points of congruence between Azad and Twilight Imperium are numerous.
Azad games can take up to a few days, I’ve never played a game of Twilight Imperium in under eight hours and have had at least one game last twelve hours before the game ended.
Azad has numerous minigames both before and during the main game. Twilight Imperium starts with choosing a race and placing the quadrants, which can cost you the game. It has a Galactic Senate phase that’s standalone while each battle is it’s own minigame.
The both take up a lot of space, Azad takes up a large room in the two player version and a 10 player version appears to take up an gymnasium. A four player Twilight Imperium takes up approximately an 8 foot by 4 foot table plus a side table. I’ve played Warhammer 40k on smaller boards.
The greatest Player of Games in a trillion person civilization takes 2 years to learn and truly grok Azad. The rulebook of Twilight Imperium is the size of a small novella. That’s not counting the racial abilities, planet cards, action cards, political cards, ship upgrades and expansions. Or the multitude of houserules. And while I’ve played Twilight Imperium at least a half dozen times and have read multiple strategy guides I still have no idea how to win.
I do know that in both games winning doesn’t mean conquering the entire board. In Twilight Imperium there are multiple paths to victory and actually conquering even the majority of the board is rare. You can also gain a victory through politics or scientific research.
Azad’s scoring system is never specified. but a key point in the book is that Jernau is playing in a Culture style, non-violent, non-hierarchical but ruthless. Jernau ends up winning all of his games with this style which infuriates the Azadians who play an attack heavy style.
Jernau is building up his tech tree while the Azadians are building War Suns.
In both games you can know you’ve lost hours before the games actually over.
Which can lead to a player being so frustrated that they just want to rage quit. Nothing is worse in a board game than knowing you have lost and needing to wait for the end of the game. I once played a game of Twilight Imperium where I knew I had lost and it took 3 hours for me to be eliminated. By hour 2 I wanted to burn the whole game down. Player of Game ends with the Emperor of Azad, realizing he’s lost, and that his culture has lost, attempting to do just that.
If you’ve played Twilight Imperium and want to see a society run on the worst type of board gamers read Player of Games. If you’ve read Player of Games and want to play Azad, and have four friends you want to spend nine and a half hours with try Twilight Imperium.