Classics: Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle

I buy virtually all my games from my local boardgame café: The Dice Cup.  Prior to it opening, I bought my games from one of the owners, David Smith, who ran a small boardgame and comic shop at the time.

The first game I ever bought from David was Twilight Struggle.  It had recently cemented itself at the number 1 spot on BoardGameGeek (BGG) and it had an air of mystery around it.  I never saw anyone playing it and those who had played it spoke about it with knowing looks and nods of approval, the way one might speak of the old martial arts master who lives up the mountain: with reverence.

Nothing about the game appealed to me.  The cover looked dated and uninteresting, the subject matter (The Cold War) didn’t exactly say ‘excitement’, and for a supposed ‘war game’ there was practically no fighting.  And yet, it was number 1: the highest ranked game in the world.  Surely it would be good.  Surely.

So I bought it.  And honestly, it’s ranking on BGG was about the only reason I did.  I wouldn’t say that that’s necessarily a bad reason for buying a game, but I can think of much better ones now.  I wasn’t really old enough to have experienced The Cold War firsthand.  By the time I started caring about what was happening in the world, it was over.  So at the least, I might learn something about that period of history.

I think my wife temporarily lost control of her faculties when she agreed to play it with me.  In hindsight, I must have lost control of mine as well, as it wasn’t a game she was ever going to enjoy.  But we played a few rounds before her eyes completely glazed over and I suggested we call it a day.  It was just enough to whet my appetite though.

It’s essentially a two-player war game, but it’s card-based.

Before I ramble on any longer, let me explain roughly what’s going on in the game in case you’re not familiar with it.  It’s essentially a two-player war game, but it’s card-based.  A turn consists of playing a card from your hand to do one of two things.

Your first option is to spend the card for influence points, which you use to add influence to countries where you already have influence or to countries adjacent to these countries.  The second option is play the card for its event.

Many of the cards have photos of major events during the Cold War and a corresponding effect that you can trigger.  Eg. The USSR player might play the ‘Fidel Castro’ card, which will remove all US influence from Cuba and add USSR influence instead.  These can be particularly powerful if played at the right time.

What does influence do?  Well, if you have enough of it, you ‘control’ the country.  You don’t get to do anything with the country, but when a scoring card is played, you get points for controlling countries.  Whoever has the most points at the end wins.

It was strange.  I’d never played a card-based based war game before.  I liked the events, but the scoring was a bit… hard to grasp (more on that in a bit).  I quickly found another victim to play with me though and gave it another shot.

This time it was a friend who was into games, but we didn’t manage to finish it this time either.  The problem is, if you’ve not played before, you have to read every single card in your hand carefully to work out what it does.  It really slows the game down.  I can look at the ‘Fidel Castro’ card now and instantly know what it does, but the first couple of playthroughs are sloooowwww.

The key to the whole game is understanding the scoring cards.

Something about it kept drawing me back though and my gaming friend was happy to give it another go.  The more we played it, the more we got it.  The key to the whole game is understanding the scoring cards.

Each scoring card represents a region (eg. Europe or Central America) and you never know when one player might have one in their hand.  If you have a scoring card in your hand though, you have to play it within a certain number of turns.

This really adds pressure.  If you’ve drawn the Central America scoring card, and you don’t control any countries in Central America, then you need to get a lot of influence down there – and fast!  This immediately alerts your opponent though.  You can see them thinking, “Why is he putting all that influence in Central America?  He must have the Central America scoring card!  Quick!  I need to get lots of influence there too!”

It simulates the Cold War tension so well!  You might have no interest in gaining influence in a particular area, but as soon as you see your opponent doing so, suddenly nothing could be more important than gaining influence there.

It simulates the Cold War tension so well!

The other really interesting mechanism is the event cards.  Some of them are neutral, but many of them favour one side or the other.  If you play a card that favours your opponent, you can use the influence points, but you have to trigger the event as well!  This can be really bad if you’re not careful.

Why would you ever choose to play an event that favours your opponent?  Well, each round you have a hand of cards and you have to play all but one of them.  So if you draw several of your opponent’s event cards, you are going to have to play at least one of them.  A lot of the strategy comes about from trying to minimise the damage caused by these events when they come out.

It might sound unfair if you happen to draw lots of your opponent’s events, but remember, there are an equal number of each side’s events and nearly all the cards come out eventually.  So if you have a lot of your opponent’s event cards, there’s a good chance they will have a lot of yours too.

If they don’t, it means this round will heavily favour them, but in later rounds your cards will come out and you will have the advantage.  You need to learn how to make the most of your events when they come out and mitigate your opponent’s events in order to do well.

It’s very strategic and very thematic.  It offers a very unusual kind of strategy as well, which I’ve not seen in other games.  Trying to adapt to the real historical events as they come out really puts you the shoes of the leaders of the day.  I love it!

Twilight Struggle isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but I’ve yet to meet a gamer who likes deep strategy games who didn’t really enjoy it.  If the political theme appeals to you at all, I’d highly recommend giving it a go.  Just be prepared to read a lot of card text in your first game!

Have you tried Twilight Struggle?  Would you recommend it?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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