Twilight Struggle has been a favourite of mine for many years. It simulates the Cold War struggle so well. Apart from having lots of historically accurate theme, it constantly has you second guessing what your opponent is doing.
“Why are they adding influence in Central America? Do they have the scoring card in hand? Maybe I need to add influence there as well!” This provides lots of opportunity for bluffs and double-bluffs and keeps the gaming feeling tense all the way through.
When I heard that Watergate was like a shorter, simpler, streamlined version of Twilight Struggle, based around the Watergate scandal, I bought it immediately. Does it achieve this? Can you really replicate the tense psychological manoeuvring of Twilight Struggle in a significantly shorter game? Let’s investigate…
In Watergate, one player plays President Nixon and the other player plays the Editor, attempting to piece together the evidence trail to impeach Nixon.
The first thing that strikes you about Watergate is that it has the same card system (more or less) as Twilight Struggle. You can play cards for “points” or play them for their action. Each card has a thematic action that links with an event or key figure surrounding the Watergate scandal.
If you play a card for the points, then rather than spending them vying for control of countries, you’re spending them in a tug of war to gain control of several key tokens each round. One of them is the first-player token. This is particularly important in Watergate because the first player plays 5 cards each round, whereas the second player only gets to play 4!
The second token is called the momentum token. If Nixon wins control of this 5 times, he wins the game. It’s the only way he can win so it’s a key token for both players to fight over.
Finally, there are several evidence tokens. Each evidence token won by a player at the end of the round is “pinned” onto the evidence board. The Editor is attempting to create a connected line of evidence tokens to two key witnesses around the edge of the board. However, when Nixon wins an evidence token, he gets to place it face down on the board, thereby blocking the trail.
The actions on the cards can be quite powerful, eg. moving several tokens at once or ending the round immediately (you win any tokens on your side of the track when the round ends so timing is critical). The most powerful actions result in the card being discarded from the game though.
Each player has a relatively small deck and you will see each of your cards 2-3 times. The cards with the best actions also have the highest point values on them so deciding when you play them (and lose them for the rest of the game) is tough!
You never seem to have enough actions to fight for all the tokens and as the evidence board fills up, the relative importance of different tokens changes. It’s dynamic and tense, all the way through.
As a game, it definitely provides a similar feeling to Twilight Struggle. It’s less complex and significantly shorter (you can easily play in less than an hour), but one of the things that Twilight Struggle did so well was capture the theme of the Cold War. Does Watergate manage that?
Unfortunately, for me, this was the main area the game is lacking in. The designers have clearly made a big effort with the theme: the cards contain photos and quotes from the time. The rulebook even has a large section providing the backstory for the key characters.
However, at the end of the day, you just feel like you’re moving tokens around and then pinning them on a board. The “evidence” itself is non-descript and many of the cards just represent unfamiliar people.
If I knew all the background to the Watergate scandal and was familiar with all the characters involved, I would find it much easier to engage with the theme, but they lack the iconic infamy of Fidel Castro or Margaret Thatcher. There are no landmark events like the Suez Crisis.
So if you want a shorter version of Twilight Struggle that provides the same tension, Watergate comes through in spades. Just don’t expect to engage with the theme quite as much.
Have you played it? What do you think?