Impulse is a Card Chudyk (Glory to Rome, Innovation) design. It is a 4X game built on cards.
This is your universe. Well, at least the part you will be fighting over or operating in. It is made of 19 cards arranged in a Settlers of Catan-like layout. The sector core is a special card which allows transport ships (the upright rockets) to score points by landing there, and cruisers (the reclining rockets) to score points by patrolling the paths leading to it. When you explore a face-down card (i.e. unknown space), you take it into your hand, and then pick a card from your hand to place face-up on that space (which can be the same card you just picked up). This is called exploration. Naturally you want to place a card with a planet that helps you.
Cards have three main features. The most important is the action - the written text. What you do in the game is mostly driven by such card text. In addition to that, every card also has a colour, and a value between 1 to 3 (the icons on the left). The colour is used when you perform mining, which is investing in a way to boost your future actions. The values, among other things, are used is a dice-like way to resolve battles. 50% of cards are of value 1, 30% are 2's, 20% are 3's.
You can do most of the things you do in 4X games - explore, build ships, fight, exploit the planets within reach. You can spend resources on mining, which will boost your actions in future. You can trade, which is sacrificing cards for points. Ultimately, your goal is to reach 20 victory points. This is a race. The sector core is a source of points, and everyone starts the game only one step away from it (your cruiser can reach it in one move). That's as good as having a countdown timer for the game. Players compete with a clock ticking in the background.
This is called the Impulse. It is a row of cards which every player plays cards to. On your turn, you must append one card to it. Then you may execute every action in it, in the specified order, and finally you must discard the oldest card from it. So the Impulse is constantly changing, and its composition depends on what players have collectively contributed. You want to play cards which allow you to do what you want, but you have to be careful lest they help your opponents even more. Ideally you want to play cards which are useful to you but are worthless to your opponents.
This is your player board. It lists what you do on your turn, and also the battle resolution procedure. One action in the game is to tuck a card below the left side. This is called Mining. The colours and icons showing indicate what action types you can boost, e.g. building more than one ship, moving more than one fleet, trading more than one card. One action allows you to place cards on the right side of your player board (no example in this photo I'm afraid). This is called Planning. You are basically reserving actions for a future turn. The lower section of your player board are two basic techs, or basic actions that you can always do. One of them is common for all, the other is unique depending on your faction. You can develop new techs by placing a card on top of the basic tech, like in this photo. Doing this overwrites your basic tech.
The game is all around managing cards and the actions they allow. Other than the basic techs on your player board, every action relies on the right card being available, be it in the Impulse, on the board as a planet, on the right side of your player board as a Planned action, or covering your basic techs as an advanced tech. You need to manipulate cards and try to make combos work for you. You end goal is hitting 20VP before anyone else.
Ivan taught me the game, and we did a 2P game. It was the first play for both of us, so we expected very much a learning / exploration game. Card Chudyk's designs are a little quirky and are not the sort of run-of-the-mill medium-weight games which you feel like you've already played before after hearing a 2-minute elevator pitch.
In the early game I found that I had some cards in my hand which could boost my battle strength, so I grabbed the opportunity and attacked Ivan's cruiser. The early victory gave me a small lead. However Ivan soon built more cruisers and destroyed my raider, and caught up in points.
The Impulse is the engine of the game. Every turn you get to do one basic action, and then up to four actions from the Impulse. Managing the Impulse is very important. It will drive the pace of the game. If everyone does similar things, the game can speed up because all the actions will always benefit everyone. If players go in opposite directions, the Impulse may become irregular and bumpy, with cards often being unutilised.
Our game escalated into a military one, starting with my early probe. Once the threat of war was in the air, neither of us dared to fall behind in military strength. I found a planet with a Sabotage action, and made use of it to sneak robot bombers onto Ivan's ships. Some even succeeded in their missions. That's 1VP per destroyed ship! I had two planets near my home world which allowed ship movement. That gave me much mobility. I could chain actions. When transport ships landed on these planets, they could trigger movement for other transport ships and cruisers, and those transport ships could again land on Movement planets to trigger further movement. Busy busy busy!
At this stage we had explored most of the sector.
In a nail-biting battle just a few turns before this, I defeated Ivan's fleet, and found myself having a free reign in the central area. I quickly built a bunch of cruisers and dispersed them to claim every path leading to the sector core. That's 6 points every turn! Ivan could not stop me in time from reaching 20VP to win the game, even though he tried to send a fleet of three cruisers to challenge me.
With just one game, we have only partially tasted what Impulse has to offer. There is still much we have not yet explored, like how to make use of the Planning action (to seed actions for future turns), how to Trade more effectively (selling cards for points), and how to Mine more effectively (Mining boosts actions). I think there are many possibilities to take advantage of the card mechanism and to make combos from the cards. This is what I like most about the game. It's like pouring out a box of LEGO and imagining all the things you can do with the many colourful bricks. It is quite strange how the dramatic and story-heavy setting of a space opera is represented using a bunch of essentially abstract card mechanisms. It is amazing how this works.
One thing left me a little uncomfortable - the military escalation. This seems to be a common problem with many civ games and 4X games. If one player decides to play the military game, no one else can afford to ignore military. Civilisation descends to violence. Impulse encourages players to interact because the sector core is such a lucrative source for VP's, and players are near one another. If every game becomes a wargame, then it can be rather dull. I need to explore more to see whether non-military strategies can be more efficient in scoring points, and also how well a non-military player can hinder or fend off a military one.
If you are a fan of Carl Chudyk, you must give Impulse a try.