Routine is something some people strive to live within. They need it, crave it. You might say it's their only source of normality. It's not uncommon. Structure is what holds our society together, supposedly, and that structure can be found in routine. Others can take it or leave it, and some despise it. Whether routine for you is a blessing or the daily grind, it's also what keeps many board games in check. Although it doesn't necessarily help build theme directly, it ensure players know what needs to happen and when. Chaos is of course the opposite to this, and that's when routine goes out the window. Again, another key mechanic in some games, particularly those with take-that elements! For me, chaos is exciting compared to routine.
Impulse, by Asmadi Games, is a chaotic game of routine with an intergalactic flare for good measure. Madness, I know. Despite the heavy routine, it's a game I thoroughly enjoy because of the chaos within each step! It's a game for 2-6 players where you compete for victory points (VP). The first player to 20 VP wins, whilst a game should last around 45 minutes. This is dependant on your experience.
The game is a 4X - a game based around exploiting, exploring, expanding and exterminating. Most 4Xs are incredibly dense and thick in tactics and planning, often lasting whole days! Impulse is the baby version of that - a more approachable version. A 4X without the four hours+ commitment. Baby 4X or not, it allowed for all 4Xs to be in play and was a great taste of what the bigger 4Xs may offer!
The game, in its essence, is simple. Gain VP by meeting certain criteria during your turn. VP can be earned by:
- Fighting and destroying ships.
- Selling minerals.
- Trading cards.
- Patrolling or occupying the Sector Core.
To set-up Impulse, you place the sector core onto the table and then place six cards around in a hexagon face-down. Every card has six gates on it and these must touch an adjoining card's gate.
Then you place another 12 cards around that to create a large hexagon. This is the sector. Each player takes a player mat and starts with their ships at a different point of the sector. These starting points are as far as possible from one another to start. Six-player games would have each player on a corner and two-player games would have players on opposite ends.
All players start with two transport ships and one cruiser. Cruisers only ever go to gates (patrolling them) and transports are always in the centres of cards (occupying them). Cruisers are laid down and transports stay stood up. Finally, you create the Impulse track by placing three cards next to the draw deck. Each player then follows the same routine on their turn.
- Add one card to the impulse track.
- Use one of their techs.
- Use the impulse cards, in order.
- Activate or delay your plan.
- Score any Sector Core points.
- Draw two cards and remove the oldest Impulse card.
These are also on each player's player mat along with other helpful information.
The impulse is the lifeblood of this game. It will determine what each player can do on their turn and will evolve as turns go by. If it's full of one type of card then actions will be limited. For example, if it's full of Draw cards, you'll have lots cards but won't make much noise in the system. Whereas lots of Command cards will give you freedom to move and fight but will limit hand actions.
The ships in the game have specific things to contend with and specific roles in your empire. Effectively, transports explore and cruisers defend. Transports cannot move onto cards with enemy cruisers patrolling, but can join enemy transports. Cruisers that travel through enemy transports destroy them and gain points from them too, unless they end up with another cruiser to battle. If the cruiser wins that battle, the transports they passed are also destroyed.
Combat in Impulse is interesting as well, allowing for a bluffing element within it. Whenever two cruisers meet, a deadly battle ensues! Starting with the defender, they may play any number of reinforcements. These must match the colour and size of cards in the impulse, their plan or their tech to count, however they can lie! Then the attacker does the same and these are revealed!
Bluffed cards are returned to the defender's hand. Players then draw a card for every cruiser as reinforcements - not matching dependent. Once these are revealed, the winner is the player with the most symbols across their cards. All losing ships are destroyed and the winner gains a point per ship and a point for winning.
The moment anyone has 20 points, the game ends. If ever anyone has no ships they are out of the game. Obliterated from the system and without glory. If the thought of being erased and forgotten about worries you, you can play in teams. You can go 3v3, 2v2v2 or 2v2. Group efforts and working together like this is important, and communication is essential! Scores aren't cumulative though, and to win as a team any one played needs 20VP!
I spoke heavily about routine and chaos in my rambles to kick off, and there is a reason. You follow the routine of the impulse but will cause chaos through adding more into it! There is a small token to track which impulse card you're on for a reason - it's easy to get carried away and forget! The sector is thick in unrevealed cards and the only way to reveal them is to explore. Cards all do different things and have different criteria on them, allowing you to utilise the sector to your advantage!
All cards have specific effects and impact the state of play in different ways, but may vary in their criteria. If a card says draw two size one cards from the deck, you draw two cards but only keep any size one cards. This can vary from sizes to colours, and some generously just say draw.
- Command cards allow players to move ships from one card to another. Moving ships together is allowed and is done as a "fleet", but they can't separate whilst moving.
- Build cards let players build more ships. Where the ships are built is dependent on the card. Some say to simply build in your home sector (starting point). Others allow for grand tactics and let you build on specific cards if you occupy them.
- Plan cards are interesting in themselves as the cards chosen aren't played immediately. Planned cards go next to your player sheet and track your "plan". Your plan is an extra set of actions you can take once, allowing you to make big moves. Plans can be any size but must be executed when they are four or more cards in size.
- Research cards allow you to place a card from your hand onto your tech spaces. All players start with two default techs, one unique and one standard. Playing a research card allows you to have a new tech that you can freely play over the standard ones.
- Sabotage cards are nasty but invaluable. They allow you to destroy ships on cards you patrol or occupy without combat. Drawing size two or three cards count as hits and you score points according to kills.
- Mine cards allow you to place a card from your hand and place it in your minerals stock on your player card. These have two uses. To refine for quick points. The other is more tactical; you can boost a card with corresponding colour to increase numbers. If a card has a number in a white box, you can boost it up using minerals. These are not spent making them highly sought after cards!
- Trade cards and refine cards allow you to effectively sell cards you own. Traded cards come from your hand and score points based on size. Whereas refined cards come from your minerals but score the same way.
How It Handles
When you get going and understand it all, it handles really well! The routine is there but you have that freedom to trigger cards by occupying them or to kick your plan into action. Whether you're solo or a team, the goals are clear and how to achieve them makes sense.
Impulse is great and doesn't allow room for much error. The rulebook, however, can be quite tricky to grasp. It's robust, in depth, and covers everything, however it does so in a roundabout way. To guarantee a first play without error, you'd need to have read the book back to front. Once we'd got it, we only needed a few references for card specifics.
Combat makes the game worth being aggressive. It's unusual to go on the attack without a plan, however having matching size three cards can serve excellently to take out an enemy fleet. On the flip side of this, defending and bluffing well will deter your enemy from playing cards and guarantee you a win. It isn't the most refined or perfect combat system I've seen. However, for the way Impulse plays and works, it works well.
The quality of the components is varied. The ship minis are awesome and look really cool. You won't be breaking any of them anytime soon, either! The cards are of a great quality and have clear explanations on them including a picture for access at a glance. The player references, however, leave something to be desired. They're printed on card and don't feel as robust at the rest of the game! They'll last, but I will be laminating mine. The choice of which reference card will matter though! As mentioned, all players have one standard starting tech and one unique one. Although you may immediately replace both, that starting tech may very well give you an early edge if used correctly!
Despite there only being two types of ship, they have clearly thought out purposes and require a good balance in numbers. Anyone can command an army of cruisers, but they'll never trigger any cards. And an army of transporters will have cross hairs all over them! Having a balance and a good spread over the board will mean holding onto dominance. Nobody won a 4X by just doing one of the Xs them. You've got to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate!
Impulse is great for ensuring you're engaged and know what you're wanting to do. Being rash and acting on impulse can be dangerous (ironic I know!). Because you play a card to the impulse, you effectively choose your first action. But that's also someone else's second action, and someone else's third... Playing smart may mean holding onto a card to have as tech instead of using it as impulse, but you've still got to drive the game. If no one ever plays a command card to the impulse, it's going to be a long game! The big thing you'll want to remember is that your plan needs to be triggered when needed, not by force. Having four cards will mean four extra actions, but poor planning them will mean wasting an opportunity!
Final Thoughts on Impulse
Impulse is a baby 4X. A good one at that. Despite its hiccups, the quality of play does shine through and it is a really enjoyable game. It's a great taster into what the bigger, scarier and longer games may play like. The game allows for some really big plays through the use of the plan - triggering cards in the sector can be used equally as tactfully. The rules are tricky and can get you hung up, but I'd really recommend powering through and learning the game through other means should you need to.
Because Impulse has so many different mechanics, you'd expect it to fall short in areas. It isn't uncommon for games to cram too much into them and run thin in areas. However, with how short and sweet Impulse is, it all falls into place beautifully. The routine of Impulse, combined with that chaos of free choice, ensures that the mechanics are used as necessary and keeps them nice and tidy! So suit up, aim for the sky! Exploit weaknesses, explore uncharted sectors, expand your empire, and exterminate your friendships!