Impulse is a new game by Carl Chudyk (Glory to Rome, Innovation, Uchronia) published by Asmadi Games. Chudyk is known for thinky, stripped-down designs that focus on intricate mechanisms. In the past, Chudyk’s games have not had dazzling artwork, focusing instead on just what needs to be there to play the game, and this one is no exception. The look of the game is cold and sparse (see image below). Impulse came into this world, then, with a pedigree that preceded it. It was also billed as a “4X game” reduced to its bare essentials. It’s been done a great disservice, and I’d like to help rectify that.
First, a little about the game. Briefly, Each card in the game is a planet with three pieces of information on it: the ability it confers, its color, and its size (number of icons, from one to three.)
In this image, this is a size 3 (the third icon on the left in the photo has been cut off but you can see a bit of it) blue planet with a “Refine” action. The map is made up of these cards, face-down, which are revealed as players move on them. Players have two kinds of spaceships: cruisers and transports (actually the same tokens, but if it’s standing up, as in the above photo, it’s a transport. Lying down it’s a cruiser.) Transports activate planets, cruisers are for combat. A turn consists of adding a card to the Impulse (more on this in a moment), using a tech, executing the Impulse, using a plan (a sort of personal Impulse a player can have), and drawing cards. You’re trying to be the first to get to 20 points. The cards are the heart of the game and each contains one of ten different actions. They aren’t important here; but they are things such as moving, mining, building, research, and so forth. They’re what you’ll use to get points and expand your reach. The Impulse is the neat thing here: it’s a row of actions that each player executes in order. At the beginning of your turn you add a card to it, and at the end you trim the oldest card off of it. It’s a conveyer belt of actions, and you have to make sure you’re adding cards that help you out without helping your opponents, since they’ll get a chance to use them as well. That’s the basics of the game. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.
I have to admit, I was a little intimidated by the game. When I saw it at GenCon I really wanted to try it, but I just was not sure how good it would be, and it looked really tough. I thought about just buying it a few times but was all, “Well, I don’t know.” My pal Matt got it and taught it to me and I’m sorry I was put off at first, because I really like it. So I’m here to tell you to not be afraid and to not go into it the wrong way. I believe there are two things keeping Impulse back and I want to set the record straight.
First, I the comparison to a 4X game is inevitable, but incorrect. (For those who need to know, a 4X game means “eXplore, eXploit, eXpand, and eXterminate.” It’s a genre of game in which you start out small but gradually increase the size of your faction through gathering resources, developing technology, and warring.) There’s a lot on the surface that makes it seem like a 4X game, but the way in which it isn’t like one trumps those. The point of a 4X game is that it’s a long game; not just in actual, physical length, but in the inherent strategy. You’re not looking for what works now, you look at what is going to work later. Impulse is called “Impulse”. It’s not geared for the gradual buildup of an empire. It’s a shorter game with a steep arc; the action will come quickly in both speed and acceleration. You can not start out thinking, “I’m going to do mining this time” because there are a lot of cards and you don’t know what you’re going to get. Once you see what you’re working with you can develop a strategy, but you’re at the mercy of the draw until then. And once you decide on a direction, things are going to move quickly. 4X games can be a tug-of-war, with one faction rising in power, then being eclipsed by another, and so forth; Impulse games can be decided in a moment, when one player’s machine kicks into gear. If you are looking for an epic, sprawling game, which is what most people think of when they think “4X”, you will be disappointed, because Impulse isn’t that game and doesn’t want to be.
Yes, it’s true that the technologies available are 4X ones: Build, Refine, Research, etc. But there are ten different ones and you won’t necessarily use or even see all of them. “Trade” isn’t automatically something you’ll occasionally do as part of your plan; “Trade” more probably IS your plan, and if it is, you’re not going to be focusing on much else because you’ll want to trade early and often. So although you have what seems like a bewildering array of options, the trick is to focus only on what is going to get you points and do so quickly without helping your opponent. If Mine + Refine is your thing this time, then get rid of the orders that aren’t contributing to that. This is part of why I like it, as opposed to most 4X games. I’m not a “long game” kind of person, and I don’t have the patience or skill to make plans for eight turns down the road.
The second problem is that I think the “bare-bones” look of the cards is causing even those who are reviewing it favorably to approach it as an industrial affair, as though it’s a collection of cold metal parts and not a game. There seems to be a lot of, “one certainly has to admire the craft of the construction”, making it sound like a tech demo than a game. But here’s the thing; it’s fun. It’s full of cool combos, sneaky plays, moments where you cheer or curse. The design is minimal, sure, but it’s not cold and impersonal. In fact, having played Glory to Rome and Innovation, I prefer Impulse the most because I find it more straight-up fun and less of a mechanical exercise. (I personally like the sort of retro look of the cards and plastic spaceships, and I love that a cruiser is just a transport on its side.) Impulse games are short, as they should be, and each one of them is a little story of building tension until that snowball moment when everything falls into place. You only play to 20 points, and you can often score six or seven in a single turn. It’s all forward momentum, and the action is fast and steep.
To be fair, Impulse has hurt itself with its rulebook, which is not written that well and which is laid out in an irritating way, making it difficult to look up questions. To fit in its small box the book is smaller, but thicker, both giving it more pages to have to flip through to find something and making it look more fearsome.
I’ve mostly played it two players, for which it’s good, but it was great with three and probably four as well. I think if you go above that then the random element will take over and the Impulse itself will change too quickly and make it less fun and interesting (I’d like to try it, though). Three might be the sweet spot for it. In the first game I played, ship combat ruled the day and we never even saw some of the actions. In another, it was all about the Sabotage action (though we were playing it wrong.) I made good use of Plan cards in one game, even though we’d gone other games without them coming up. The variety is great.
Don’t let the well-intentioned but ultimately incorrect hype fool you. Impulse is a short, sharp shock, not a slow build. It’s more akin to Race for the Galaxy than Twilight Imperium. And it’s a lot of quick, exciting fun.