Back a few years ago the types of games we regularly played were far more casual in nature. We played (and still do play) a lot of Ameritrash, Eurogames, and held regular D&D nights. In my quest to find new and exciting games to play I had looked at Twilight Struggle a couple of times. The only reason I had looked at it was because it was #1 on BGG. I picked it up in one of our FLGS’s and frankly initially I was a bit turned off because it was just small carboard counters on a map of the world. So I belaboured buying it because it was pricey for what seemed to be a dull production quality, when compared to games like Five Tribes or Mage Knight, with their bright bold game pieces and colourful boards.
I finally took the plunge, after watching a few videos and reading almost every comment on the BGG game page. After playing the first time it was safe to say that all my preconceptions were thrown out of the window. There is nothing dull, or dreary about this game. It was #1 for so long for a reason, and it was immediately obvious after we got done playing. Our first game was a 3 hour ordeal, and I remember my brain feeling like it was on fire. The rules are actually fairly simple, you either do exactly what the card tells you, or you use the ops points on that card to place influence/perform a coup/perform a realignment. That’s the jist of it anyways. Whilst that might sound simple enough, each and every decision that you make will affect the game board, or the flow of the game in one way or another, and that’s exactly what I look for in a game.
This was the first ever Card Driven Game I played, so I use it as a point of reference for every other one. CDGs are either more complex than TS, or less complex than TS. That’s just how I’ve come to look at them. If you’ve never played a Card Driven Game (CDG), players have a hand of cards and playing a card allows you to perform a particular action/function on the game board. There are many different iterations of this idea, even down to the humble Memoir ’44, you draw cards from a deck, and those cards facilitate what and where you do things in the game. But Twilight Struggle is very much a few steps up from that, but don’t let it scare you. For the seasoned CDG players presumably you’ve already played TS, and if not then go out and do it. It’s easy, widely available and extremely good.
This CDG uses a single common deck that both players will draw from, so you’re likely to have a hand mixed with both friendly and enemy cards. Here’s where the fun begins: when you play a friendly card, with your faction’s symbol on it, great! You get to take that action or instead spend the OPs points in the top left to perform other actions on the board. But you will very quickly find yourself having to play enemy aligned cards. When you do this you can only utilize the OPs value, but before you can do that the event on the card triggers – for the benefit of your opponent!
This is the first big part of the game that makes it fantastic. You’ll assess your hand and often find yourself playing a damage mitigation style turn. Whilst at times that can seem discouraging you can always take solace in the fact that your opponent is agonizing over the same problem. Remember to bring your poker-face to keep your opponent honest. There’s nothing worse than betraying the fact that you have a bad hand and watching the other player be ultra aggresive and cut your throat because he knows you cannot respond in kind.
All of these events and OPs points are used to place, or alter influence in countries and regions on the global map-board. Not only is the game one giant tug-of-war, but each country is an individual tug-of-war, and trying to pull on 30 ropes without letting a few slip is pretty much impossible. For example, I play 3 OPs to place influence in Eastern Germany, then my opponent responds in kind. All the while other nations are going neglected and are ripe for the picking! So don’t get too caught up in focusing on one area, you have to spread out your focus a little and put pressure on your opponent. One basic principle in TS is that pressure used over and over again in the same region or country is not pressure, it is simply an annoyance. You must make your opponent focus on multiple areas in order to be effective.
Eventually Scoring cards will come up, these will score the number of contries in a continent you control and swing points to your side accordingly. Special emphasis is given to particularly important countries, referred to as battleground states. The unknown timing of the scoring cards means the game is always, always on a knife edge. You cannot neglect Africa and just gift your opponent points that way, for example. That being said, it’s often a good indicator that your opponent is holding a scoring card when he peculiarly shifts his focus to another part of the board. Beware of the double bluff though.. And now you can start to see the layers, and layers of strategy and thinking that this game causes. Hence my brain was on fire after the first play.
The scale of the conflict in this game is, as I said above, both grand tactical, as well as microcosmic. You might spend half a hand in a single turmoil for a tiny country, but the ramifications can literally be global. On the other hand you can, with things like The China Card, seemingly affect an entire subcontinent in one fell swoop.
Just as the Cold War was a war of words, threats, and indirect conflicts between the super powers, so is Twilight Struggle. You will spend your OPs points simply to ‘buy’ influence in areas, representing abstractly the deployment of deterant armed forces, or leveraging of political power. When not doing that you can opt to go for more aggresive options; coups and realignments. Coups are seen as very aggressive and carry a stronger risk factor than more peacful realignments. A coup in the wrong battleground state can also cause the DEFCON level to degrade, and in doing so lock out any other coups – so pick and choose wisely.
Realignments on the other hand give the a few more ‘attempts’ to affect change in the influence and control of a state. So if things don’t go well the first time, you can try again up to the number of OPs points spent. The flipside of realignments, is that they involve rolling-off against the other player, so it is possible that they go horrifyingly wrong and you end up swinging the alignment away from you. You can effect the odds by having control of adjacent states and a few other factors to try and make the rolls more favourable for you. Once again another layer of strategy added to the equation.
The best part of this game is that there isn’t open conflict in the same way that you find in wargames. Sometimes the progress is extremely slow going, if even at all. The level of frustration and tension that boils in your blood is a tell tale sign that Twilight Struggle is one the most thematic and well designed games of all time. Some parts of the map will escalate to unbelievable levels, and others will be so open that it’s like trying to put out a thousand tiny fires.Truly the conflict, such that it is, in this game made me take a step back to not only appreciate the depth in deisgn, but also reflect on how I viewed conflict in any game. I look at conflict in other games in the frame of reference of what it adds to the game, and how the conflict relates to the theme. For example, in Liberty or Death, and Fire in the Lake (both COIN games) the combat systems are wildly different but are oozing with theme and bring so much to the table as does TS. But there are other games where the combat systems are almost arbitrary and are just a mechanic to an end within the game.
Final Thoughts on Twilight Struggle
If you can’t tell I love this game. It can run a little long, but shorter than most other wargames, if you know what you’re doing the playtime really gets cut down though so when I play with Grant we can bash it out quickly. This is my second favourite game of all time, and it has a lot of staying power. I cannot envision a scenario where I would get rid of this game, that didn’t involve my house burning down. So my adivce to you is if you have even an incling of interest: buy it, and play it. Plain and simple. You will not regret it. Learn to play it with someone else who is new because there is a steep learning curve for people who haven’t played this style of game before. More importantly, if one player has played a bunch and has insider knowledge of the cards, they will crush you out-and-out. This is like chess, you don’t start off playing someone who plays at a master level. It’s no fun getting a game handed to you simply because you are new, so avoid that potential turn off by plunging in with someone else new to the game.
I realize that TS can seem daunting to some, and 2-3 hours is nothing to balk at when it comes to playing time. As an alternate, or a teaser, you can always pick up 13 Days, which is a form of TS Lite. It covers just the Cuban Missile Crisis and has a lot of similar mechanics and core ideas, but plays in under an hour. You’ll get a great thinky game where decisions are very important with a similar type of tension as Twilight Struggle. Make no mistake, however, that 13 Days will get your feet wet and you’ll want TS, because it offers so very much more. Greater depth, significantly more options, manifold more cards, and a greater level of palpable tension and stress.
Twilight Struggle, the honest to goodness Grand Daddy of all board games.
“Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…” – John F. Kennedy