Buzzworthiness: Impulse

Thanks to Asmadi Games for providing a review copy of Impulse.

Back in January, I set a goal for myself to review 50 games this year.  Well, consider that goal accomplished!  Technically, this is my 51st review, but I’m not really counting my April Fools “review” of Tic-Tac-Toe.  All the others are legit, however.  On with the review!

image by BGG user angelkurisu
image by BGG user angelkurisu

Impulse is a 2014 game by Carl Chudyk, designer of such fabulous games as Glory to Rome and Innovation.  This game was published by Asmadi Games, is playable with 2-6 people, and takes 30 minutes to play.  It is a 4X game set in space.  In case you don’t know, 4X stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.  This puts it in the same category as games like Twilight Imperium and Eclipse, though much more compact and shorter.

Impulse comes with 108 action cards, a sector core card, a color blind aid, 2 general references, 78 plastic ships, 6 command center mats, a space prestige board, and an Impulse marker.  The board is laid out with the Sector Core in the middle, and other cards in a hexagon shape – the rows have 3-4-5-4-3 cards.  Each player takes 12 ships of their color and place the 13th on the prestige board.  Each player also gets a player mat, which tells the name of their race and starting techs.  You begin the game with a hand of five cards and a home sector in one of the corners of the map (the specific corners are defined by how many players are participating).  You’ll pick up the card in your home sector, add it to your hand, then replace it with a card from your hand (it could be the card you picked up, or could be a different card).  You’ll begin with two Transports (standing up) and one Cruiser (lying down bridging the gap between two gates and pointing at the sector core).

On your turn, you’ll follow a specified order of actions.  First, you will add one card to the Impulse.  The Impulse is basically a row of actions that everyone will be able to take.  It will never be more than four cards in length.  Your card will be added to the end of the line.

Next, you may use one of your two techs.  These are printed on the bottom of your player mat.  Each player has one tech that is unique to their race, and another that is common to all races.  As the game goes on, these may be covered up by new techs.  It’s basically an extra action you can take that you don’t have to share, as you do with the Impulse.

Next, you resolve the Impulse.  Beginning with the first card, resolve the actions one at a time.  I’ll describe the possible actions in a moment.  Use the included marker to remind you what you just did because it is possible to chain combos.

If you have any cards in your Plan (again, I’ll define that momentarily), you may either resolve them one at a time, or delay.  You cannot delay if you have four or more cards in your Plan.

You end your turn by scoring one point per fleet in the Sector Core, drawing two cards, and trimming the Impulse down to three cards.

Now that you have a basic idea of game flow, here are the possible actions.

  • COMMAND: This allows you to move ships from one point to another.  You may be able to move single ships, or fleets of ships, depending on the action you use.  Transports move from card to card (occupying), while Cruisers always straddle two cards between gates (patrolling).  If you move a Cruiser or a Transport through an unexplored card, pick it up, add it to your hand, then replace it with a card from your hand (as in the beginning).  When a Transport lands on a card, it activates it, taking the written action.  Every two ships that land there can boost the action, which means that you can increase the printed number by one.
    • You cannot move Transports into zones where an enemy Cruiser is patrolling, and but a Cruiser can move through a zone enemy Transports are occupying as long as there is no enemy Cruiser present.  Your Cruiser automatically destroys those Transports, scoring one per ship destroyed.
    • If an enemy Cruiser is present on a card, the only move your Cruiser can make is to attack.  This is resolved by players adding cards from their hand, then revealing.  You may only use cards that match color and size of cards in the Impulse, your Techs, or cards in your Plan.  You can bluff with cards from your hand, but they won’t be used in battle – they’ll go back to your hand.  Each player will also draw one card from the deck per ship they have in the battle – these cards do not have to match anything.  The player with the most symbols present wins the battle, destroying the other fleet and scoring – one point for the battle and one point per ship destroyed.  Ties go to the defender.
  • DRAW: Draw cards from the deck.  Every once in a while, the action will tell you to draw specific cards (such as Red or size 2).  If the card you draw is not what was specified, you discard it and don’t get another.
  • BUILD: Build a ship at the designated location(s).
  • RESEARCH: Add a tech to one of your tech slots, covering up the basic ones or discarding a previously researched card.
  • EXECUTE: Perform the action of a card from your hand once and discard it, or activate a tech.
  • SABOTAGE: You can sabotage enemy ships on cards you occupy or patrol.  Draw the indicated number of bombs from the deck (cards).  For each size 2 or 3 card drawn, destroy a ship in the fleet, scoring one point per ship.
  • PLAN: Add cards to your Plan.  These are ordered, and will be resolved in the order placed in your Plan.  Remember that they must be resolved once there are four or more cards there.
  • TRADE: Turn in a card for points equal to the number of symbols present.
  • MINE: Add cards to your minerals.  Every two symbols you have in a certain color will boost a card of that color by one.
  • REFINE: Turn in minerals for points equal to the number of symbols present.

The game ends immediately when someone gets 20 points.  They win.

image by BGG user The Innocent
image by BGG user The Innocent

COMPONENTS: This is a card game, so the main component is the cards.  There are plenty of cards, and they’re fairly cleverly designed.  The back is all black save for the hexagonal ring showing the gates.  This represents space.  The other side has the necessary text and symbols with the same hexagonal ring.  The gates line up when the cards are right next to each other, but are a little off if you leave some space between the cards.  The cards are standard size, and rectangular, giving the board an elongated hex look.  I think square cards might have been a bit more aesthetically pleasing.

The plastic ships included in the game are nice and lightweight.  There are enough for everyone to have 12 plus a score marker.  There’s also a little white plastic tiddlywink that is used to mark where you are the Impulse.  It’s pretty flimsy, and we used a Romulan ship from Star Trek: Fleet Captains as a replacement.  I’m not criticizing Asmadi at all for the bit – I’m glad they thought of it as a good way to make sure you don’t lose where you were when doing combos.  But I’d suggest finding a replacement.

The box insert isn’t great, but it’s functional.  There’s a place for the cards, and you can even fit the ships in when bagged.  I don’t have my cards sleeved, but if you split them into two piles, there’s plenty of room, so that shouldn’t be an issue.  The rules of the game do a fair job of explaining the rules, but jump around a lot.  The explanation of combat is, in my opinion, fairly muddled, and you may need to get some help sorting out what’s going on.  Not that it’s difficult, it’s just a little wonky and not explained well.

Overall, the components in the game are pretty good, minor complaints aside.

THEME: This is a game that is set in space, but if you’re looking for an immersive evocative theme in your 4X game, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Yes, there are six different races in the game, but the only thing to differentiate them (other than their names) is that each has a different basic tech.  The ships are pretty cool, but that and the black cards are the only things that really indicate space flight.  There’s not even any art.  The rockets actually look kind of like missiles rather than spaceships.  Plus, the only difference between cruisers and transports is that one is lying down.  So no, I wouldn’t say the theme is strong with this one.  Not that it’s super strong in other Chudyk games, but I think Glory to Rome and Innovation both have a bit stronger thematic tie-in with the cards you play.

MECHANICS: There’s a lot of clever stuff going on in this game.  The game is a race to 20 points, and there are a lot of avenues to get those points – fleets in the sector core, battles, trading in cards, and refining minerals can all be used to great effect.  The trick is managing your hand and the cards you’ve been dealt to find those optimal avenues to scoring.

I find the map to be an interesting aspect of this game.  Granted, I don’t have a lot of experience with 4X games, but it seems that the exploration generally involves going to a location and discovering what is there.  This game has you going to a location and deciding what is there.  The cards that form the map in the beginning are not necessarily the cards that will comprise the map, just a framework so you know where everything will end up.  It’s like exploration is a draw action followed by playing a card that stays in play and can be accessed by anyone who lands a transport there.

As I mentioned, each race has a basic starting tech.  However, these are generally fairly weak and will often get covered up by other techs.  I’ve found that the common tech is more useful as it allows you to move an entire fleet by discarding a card.  I do find it interesting that this is a 4X game without a tech tree.  You simply play a card into the tech area, and then have an action that is only accessible by you for as long as it is in play.  There’s no building up – you don’t have to play a size 1 card before a size 2, though that might be an interesting variant to try out sometime.

I like the idea of the Impulse.  There’s no thematic explanation for what it is, but it comes down to a line of actions accessible to everyone.  So you have to weigh the benefit of playing an action there so you can maybe combine it with another action in the Impulse against the potential hazard of providing someone else with an avenue to score points.  It’s a pretty clever mechanism, and provides you with a great choice right at the beginning of your turn that will shape the rest of it.

The plan is also a pretty neat mechanism, as it allows you to set up what is basically a personal Impulse.  A lot of times, these cards are randomly assigned, and may not work, but it’s something extra you can do to mess with your opponents.

Combat in this game is a little wonky, and not explained terrible well in the rules.  It comes down to a guessing game – how many cards should I add, knowing that I may get some help from the deck?  It hasn’t happened in either game I’ve played so far – I think people were being a little conservative.  I also got a rule wrong, having people score points for every ship patrolling the sector core rather than every fleet.  If you’ve got five ships in one fleet scoring one point per ship, you’re not really looking for trouble.  However, if you’re only scoring one per fleet, you’ll be wanting to get those extra points by picking on smaller fleets.

Overall, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on here.  It seems like a lot, but turns tend to go pretty quickly once people know what they’re doing.  The game flows well, and does not feel terribly clunky, though it will for the first play or two.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This is a pretty high strategy game, though it does have a significant luck factor.  You can’t choose what you draw, but you can choose what you play. For the most part.  Many of the actions have you draw a card from the deck that must meet a certain condition – size 1, red or green, etc.  If you don’t draw what was required, you discard it and the action is over.  The actions themselves are varied, and provide lots of options for the type of game you want to ply.  You might want to set up a bunch of commands in your corner of the galaxy so you can travel easily between mining and refining.  You may want to build lots of ships to overpower your opponents.  You may want to trade, or invest in research so you always have a nice stable of techs to choose from.  Many choices are available, and if one strategy is going nowhere, there’s always another path.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not a game I would try to teach to newcomers.  Because of the amount of stuff going on, I’d probably recommend it as an advanced strategy game, though I’d say it’s not as heavy as most 4X games.  I don’t even think it’s as heavy as Glory to Rome or Innovation, both of which I’d put on the lighter end of advanced strategy.  I think it can be learned by an inexperienced player, but it’s one that needs a few plays to really get a grasp on.

REPLAYABILITY: This game can go a ton of different ways.  I’d be surprised if any two games ever played out the same way.  The way cards come into the Impulse, techs people use, and the layout of the map all affect how a game can go.  Additionally, the game is relatively short – it says 30 minutes on the box, and that may be true for experienced players, but my 4-player game took an hour.  Still, it’s a lot shorter than the Twilight Imperiums of the genre.

SCALABILITY: This game plays from 2-6, but I have to say that there’s no way I’m playing with 6 people unless all of them knew the game really well.  It’s a turn-based game, and has nothing to do between turns unless you get attacked.  And with so much going on on your turn (a tech action, up to four Impulse actions, a possible plan, and all the extra actions you get to take by landing on different sectors), it can take a while.  I think 3 is probably the sweet spot for newbies, though my 4-player game went pretty well.

FOOTPRINT: This is a fairly small game, especially when compared to other 4X titles.  You need space for the map, and each player needs space for their mats and all the cards that will get tucked beneath them (oh, how that Carl Chudyk loves his mats).  You probably should plan on using a medium sized table for this one.

LEGACY: I have to compare this to Glory to Rome and Innovation because they are two games that I absolutely love, and both were designed by Carl Chudyk.  The one thing that sticks out to me about this game is how you can see his hallmarks all over it, and yet it’s completely different than either of the other games.  GtR is probably the best of the three with a large group (I think it plays just as well with 5 as 2), while Innovation is a fantastic 2-player game.  Impulse is one I think I’d rather play with 3.  All three use mats to store cards, though I think the Impulse mat is used less than the other two.

Speaking on the issue of balance, I think it’s pretty amazing that all three games have a ton of different cards that all seem pretty well balanced against each other.  GtR has cards that all seem ridiculously powerful, but there are so many of them that they balance out.  Innovation scales up the power of the cards from age to age, and each age is pretty well balanced against itself.  Impulse has three power levels of cards that are all mixed in with each other, but circumstances mean that the 1s are often more valuable to you than the 3s.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  I was initially worried that Impulse would be Innovation in Space.  I’m very glad it turned out to be its own thing.  I don’t think I like it quite as much as Glory to Rome and Innovation (yet), but it’s definitely one that I want to explore more.  I enjoyed it, found a lot of clever new mechanisms, and am very glad for the opportunity to play it.

Before I wrap up this review, here’s a video I took during one of my playthroughs.  A couple of disclaimers: I found out after posting it on BGG that we had been playing by scoring ships in the core rather than fleets.  This was pointed out by Mike Fitzgerald, game designer extraordinaire and apparently a big fan of Impulse.  The other disclaimer is that I added some text to the video, and didn’t find out until after I uploaded it that YouTube had zoomed in and cut off part of it.  Sorry about that.  But here are the impressions.

Thanks again to Asmadi Games for providing the review copy of this game, and thanks to you for reading!

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