The granddaddy of all space-empire sims, Twilight Imperium (opens in new tab) retails for over $100 and is delivered to your house in a cardboard coffin. It is huge, meticulous, stocked to the gills with itty bitty rules, and it takes a solid eight hours to finish a single game. Twilight Imperium sessions begin when you invite your friends over for breakfast, and end when you've ordered pizza for the second time. Nothing in the tabletop games industry is more unreasonable, and nothing is more fun. If you think board games are boring, you've never watched in horror as a former mate gleefully goes back on their word then conquers and colonizes your home planet. This happens in hour number six, and you react by swearing vengeance til the day you die.
Shattered Ascension (opens in new tab) was originally a set of house rules invented by a Twilight Imperium fan named PsiComa. He loved the game, but identified some nagging imbalances in the design, and started work on a remix. Soon enough, PsiComa's pet project emerged as a full-time hobby: he Photoshopped new cards, theorycrafted new mechanics, and dreamed up a brand new rulebook. His variant (originally called Ascendency) proved popular, and he found a small contingency of adherents who were similarly disillusioned with the base game. Together they continued to work out the kinks of PsiComa's design, and by 2011 they had a fully working module.
The problem with Shattered Ascension is that it was difficult to play. Sure, it used a ton of the components packed in with the Twilight Imperium box, but as a homebrew variant you also had to print out reams of PsiComa's updated components on cardstock. Tabletop Simulator was a godsend. The moddable board game physics sandbox meant that the Shattered Ascension playset could be available to anyone with a PC.
"How cool would it to be play the game seamlessly with friends, and perhaps more importantly with the online community that had discussed and theorycrafted the game for so many years?" PsiComa says over Discord. "How cool would it be to have a definitive, fully updated digital version anybody could play, without spending dozens of hours cutting and gluing new replacement Shattered Ascension components?"
PsiComa and the rest of the Shattered Ascension community had to import literally hundreds of assets into the Tabletop Simulator infrastructure. Some of that was fairly straightforward—he already had high-quality jpegs of the custom cards, which scanned into the game with ease—but the other stuff, like the plastic miniature ships, required a defter touch. That didn't matter, because PsiComa was dedicated. He learned the 3D modeling application Blender, and spent endless weekends prototyping his spaceships. The results were beautiful. He managed to render a suite of miniatures that were even crisper than what you find in the physical game.
PsiComa ran into a similar issue with the planetary tiles that make up the Twilight Imperium board. Originally, he planned on importing them with a high-quality scanner, but he couldn't quite get it to work without annoying pixel interference patterns. So PsiComa resolved to build his own tiles from scratch. Decisions like that are what he thrives on: rather than recreating the art from the base game faithfully, he took inspiration from the flavor text associated with each of the planets and created in his own take on the existing fiction.
"I wanted to make each of the planets unique and distinct, with enough details to capture the concept described on each planet card," says PsiComa. "The redux tile project felt like a task with no end to it—working night after night making a few more tiles, and looking back at it now, I can hardly believe I managed to find the time and energy to pull it off."
This also helps with any potential questions of copyright infringement. Shattered Ascension has its own unique look to go with its updated rules, which PsiComa believes distinguishes his product as its own unique entity.
Shattered Ascension will always be PsiComa's baby, but there have been plenty of quality-of-life improvements thanks to the community at large. One of the programmers, who calls himself Cyrusa, tells me that the project comes equipped with 1,100 lines of custom code, including DNA for automatic dice rollers, pre-set map generators, and a specialized script that cuts through Twilight Imperium's set-up phase with ease.
"The hardest part about developing the scripts, besides the technical aspects, is that due to the way it is designed, Tabletop Simulator itself knows essentially nothing about what happens from the point of view of the game," he explains. "For example, it knows that object number 123456 was moved to position one, two, or three, while what really happened is that the Sol player activated his Home System. This makes it challenging to design scripts to assist the players."
One of the key perks to playing Shattered Ascension on a PC is the fact that you don't have to dedicate an entire day to playing a single game. Tabletop Simulator allows players to effectively freeze their board states in carbonite, which means you and a group of friends could play for two hours a night over the course of a month without being forced to leave the game unpacked on some kitchen table.
Honestly, even the most dedicated Twilight Imperium fans usually only get in one or two plays a year, because it's difficult to conquer a galaxy while remaining gainfully employed. That's different now. The Shattered Ascension Discord is home to multiple sessions every week, with newcomers stopping by all the time. In 2018, you can play the world's heaviest board game casually, and that's a genuine revolution for this hobby.
You can learn more about Twilight Imperium by watching SU&SD's great documentary on it.
"This mod has definitely given legs to the community by attracting newcomers to the scene and allowing members to play the game with old and new contenders with no hassle to it." says PsiComa. "It made the game easy and accessible. Because of this it has indeed made the Twilight Imperium scene flourish, and we hope for it to become even bigger in time."
Last year, Fantasy Flight released the fourth edition of Twilight Imperium, which introduced some smart refinements to their 20-year-old design. PsiComa tells me that right now, the community doesn't have any plans to adapt the company's new concepts to Tabletop Simulator, though he won't rule it out. "Any worthwhile aspect of fourth edition will be considered and potentially incorporated into Shattered Ascension in some way, shape or form," he says.
After all, the work is never finished. Shattered Ascension was amorphous and modular back in 2007 when it was a series of verbose PDFs on a lonely homespun website, and as a mod it's evolving faster than ever thanks to the steady pulse of the Discord channel. The obsession necessary to get knee-deep in a homemade rule-set for a classic board game is being rewarded by technology, and the creation of a cult of print 'n play fanatics has found a second life.