Here on our Earth, it’s so far been a relatively uneventful summer. But in the dark reaches of the internet a harrowing conflict rages, with sprawling, ageless empires vying for control of cardboard empires. It’s the annual Space Cats Peace Turtles Twilight Imperium Tournament, and it might just be the world’s largest tournament for the world’s longest board game.
Twilight Imperium, now in its fourth edition, is a 4X game, a shorthand that refers to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. In it, up to six players take on the role of powerful spacefaring empires dead set on ruling the galaxy. Games can take four or more hours to play, making the title synonymous with overlong, overwrought tabletop experiences. But Twilight Imperium has a dedicated following, and there are no more die-hard players in the universe than Matt Martens and Hunter Donaldson.
Martens (a veteran of the film and television industry) teamed up with Donaldson (a self-described “fourth-place regional stand-up comedian”) in 2017 to launch Space Cats Peace Turtles, a podcast dedicated to Twilight Imperium and similar strategy games. The name is a reference to two of the game’s most popular factions, the Emirates of Hacan (the Space Cats) and the Xxcha Kingdom (the Peace Turtles). Despite a series of novels filled with perfectly sensible background lore, Martens and Donaldson prefer to linger on the absurdity of it all.
“There’s a cat on the cover, and it’s a money cat,” Donaldson told Polygon. “The cat has a lot of money. The moneybags cat that likes to trade, OK? And it lives on a desert planet. These are all inexplicable things. This is just a list of things. [...] There are also turtles that enjoy diplomacy. Your standard diplomacy turtles. But honestly, when you look at a turtle, it’s not like you think, ‘Oh, this turtle would be good at discussing political negotiation with me.’ There’s nothing specifically about turtles that should mean that.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, the incongruities in the fiction, the Space Cats Peace Turtles podcast has developed quite a following. Among its most avid listeners is Dane Beltrami, the co-designer of Twilight Imperium’s fourth edition. He credits the podcast for breathing life into the game’s community — and with helping to make a case for the latest expansion, Prophecy of Kings.
“They’ve basically grown this community to be so huge to be able to support something like Prophecy of Kings, which is huge,” Beltrami told Polygon, “It’s the largest expansion for any game that we’ve ever done.” He says the pair were also integral in designing and testing it.
“Being so involved in the community in a way that I can’t be,” Beltrami continued, “they knew a ton of people — people who were really into the game, who could play 10 games a week and still be ready to go. They knew the people who were really excited about new content, the people who were so strategically minded that they there were 10 times better than I could ever hope to be at the game.”
The Space Cats Peace Turtles team showed up at the Gen Con tabletop gaming convention in 2018 to cover a 36-player, in-person Twilight Imperium tournament held by Rogue Judges. The finals, a four-hour, six-player game, were played on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium — home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. The video has since been watched more than 116,000 times. That success led them to launch their own online tournament in 2019 with 108 players, all of them members of the podcast’s Patreon community.
This year’s tournament, even with the ongoing global pandemic, is bigger than ever before with 336 players. Games are played online using Tabletop Simulator and a free-to-download community-made mod.
“We had 216 players sign up in five minutes,” Martens said, “which terrified us. [...] We try to treat it more like this is a gift and an event we do for our patrons — partly for just legal reasons. We don’t [...] do prize support or anything. It’s just a community event that you’re all coming to play in.”
“Every year we look at it and we go, ‘Well, certainly we’ll hit the ceiling,’” Martens continued. “‘There will only be so many nerds willing to take in this kind of content.’ And every single year we are wrong, and more people turns out are willing to watch this kind of stuff.”
The final game kicks off Saturday, Aug. 7 at 10 a.m. EDT live on Twitch. You can meet the finalists in the next episode of the Space Cats Peace Turtles podcast, which goes live on Aug. 4.
Correction: After the publication of our article the team at Rogue Judges, a tabletop tournament organization, reached out to Polygon to provide clarification. The video linked above features coverage of Rogue Judges’ own in-person Twilight Imperium tournament, which Space Cats Peace Turtles taped and provided commentary for. It has no relation to the existing online tournament hosted by Martens and Donaldson.