(Note: Twilight Struggle uses the words “turn” and “round” somewhat unintuitively. A round is one play by each player. A turn is comprised of a given number of rounds. In short, round is the micro-segment of the game, and turn is the macro-segment. Keep this in mind to avoid confusion.)
Generally when someone in the board game community talks about a “thematic” game, there is a particular archetype they’re referring to–the science fiction or fantasy themed game with minis, elaborate artwork, and the promise of action, narrative, and adventure. Twilight Struggle does not look this kind of game. It’s set in the Cold War, has a functional but not flashy art design, and provides cardboard chits instead of plastic miniatures. However, Twilight Struggle is perhaps the most thematic game ever made.
This two player game pits the United States and the USSR against each other as they vie to spread their political influence across the globe during the Cold War. Glancing at the board might not leave you particularly impressed at first. You’re given a map of the world with a handful of countries in each continent highlighted. Each country has a “stability” number that reflects how difficult it is to shift from one allegiance to another. In this ideological war, you’re trying to gain influence points in these historically important countries. Have enough influence above your opponent in a given country and you control it, making it much more difficult for the opponent to swing it back towards their side.
In this sense Twilight Struggle is a fairly simple area control game. However, in what will become a running theme of this review, there is more depth of strategy here than meets the eye. This is because of the absolutely brilliant card-playing mechanism that drives every aspect of the gameplay. Twilight Struggle is part of the genre of games called Card-Driven Wargames (CDG’s). This sub-genre was created by Mark Herman in 1994 with his acclaimed We The People. The system was further developed by a game called Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, which Ananda Gupda and Jason Matthews, creators of Twilight Struggle, credit as an inspiration for their design.
Here’s how it works. Each turn both players draw up to a hand of 8 cards. Most of the cards are event cards, which contain both an “operations” value (a number between 1-4) and either a US, USSR, or neutral event. As the players alternate playing cards from their hand, they must make a choice: either play the card for the event listed, or gain its operations value. The ops allow you to place influence, attempt to diminish the influence of the opponent through realignment, or take a risky die roll to attempt a coup. The coup action is one of the most dramatic parts of the game, as a good die roll can result in the influence of a country flipping entirely to the other side, and a bad roll can result in a completely wasted round.
Again, a very simple game of card-play and hand management. But there’s a catch. If you play your opponent’s card for its operations value, the event also happens. This is the significant innovation of Twilight Struggle that put it at the top of the Boardgamegeek.com rankings for so long. This one rule turns a tight game of area control and back and forth card-play into an exercise in crisis management. There is no way you will be able to get through a game without playing several events which help your opponent. Each new hand of cards presents you with difficult decisions, as you must figure out what is going to hurt you most, and how to mitigate those events as best as possible. Sometimes you will go through an entire turn of the game feeling like your actions only served to weaken your position. The game rarely gives you opportunities to discard cards, so the question isn’t which cards to play, but when.
The deck also contains scoring cards. The game is scored in such a way that if at any point in the game you have 20 or more victory points than your opponent, you win. Points are gained by establishing control of regions by controlling more battleground countries (historically significant countries like France, Iran, South Korea, Poland, etc) and more total countries in that region. However, unlike many similar games where areas are scored at predetermined times, scoring for each region in Twilight Struggle is just another card in the deck. This provides another layer of intrigue to the proceedings, as you never know when a particular region is going to become important. It also provides a tense psychological element to the game as you try to figure out if your opponent is holding a scoring card this turn, and conversely, as you try not to tip off to your opponent which scoring cards you hold.
If you have, for instance, the Europe scoring card in your hand this turn and need a little bit more influence in a couple of countries to gain European domination, it might be tempting to start throwing influence down there. But if you’re too aggressive that might clue in your opponent that you hold Europe scoring, foiling your plans to sneak in some points. On top of that, scoring cards must be played the same turn they are drawn. Holding a scoring card gives you tremendous power because you will be able to time when it’s played. However, playing a scoring card also robs you of being able to play a productive action card that round.
Twilight Struggle is packed to the brim with these kinds of predicaments. New players often get discouraged when they find that they’ve drawn a handful of their opponent’s cards. Experienced players often prefer this because they can choose when the card is played. For example, The Truman Doctrine card allows the US to eliminate all USSR influence in an uncontrolled country in Europe. This can be a devastating early war card for the US. But if the USSR controls it, they can often easily wait to play it until they don’t have any influence in an uncontrolled country in Europe, rendering it null.
Duck And Cover
Of course, no Cold War game would be complete without the looming threat of global thermonuclear annihilation. Twilight Struggle incentivizes both players to tiptoe up to the brink of nuclear war without actually triggering it. There is a DEFCON track from 5-1 that represents how close the world is to reenacting the end of Dr. Strangelove. If DEFCON ever hits one on your turn, you lose. That last part is tricky, because if you play a card that triggers your opponent’s event, and they choose to play the event in such a way as to trigger nuclear war, you still lose. So throughout the game you need to be aware if you are holding any of these “DEFCON suicide” cards and plan accordingly. On the other hand, the most significant type of action in the game, the coup, drops DEFCON down one point. The entire game becomes a ballet of potential destruction as players vie to get as much benefit as possible out of their hostile, DEFCON triggering plays, without ever actually pushing the button.
One of the most extraordinary qualities about Twilight Struggle is that it has the rhythm and feeling of a classic game like chess. The winner of the game is almost never the person who figures out a virtuoso move, but the person who, turn after turn, squeezes as much value out as possible out of their cards. It’s the marginally useful plays, the ones that force the opponent into a tough choice, the plays that shift the momentum of the game from one where you are reacting to your opponent to one where your opponent must react to you–those are the plays that quietly eke out a win. The lack of big moves doesn’t take away from the drama of the game, however. On the contrary, when even the most subtle of momentum shifts can cascade into a firmly advantageous position, every single action matters. Twilight Struggle perfectly emulates the paranoia, second-guessing, and brinksmanship of the Cold War in a real psychological way.
The lone exception to the hardcore strategy rule, of course, is the coup action which relies on a die roll to determine its strength. For the hardcore gamer who loves Go or Chess this might be frustratingly random. For the modern gamer who is used to euro/american hybrids that always include at least a sprinkling of randomness, however, the coup brings just enough of that randomization salt to keep the losing player from falling hopelessly behind. One of the strategic principles of any game is that high-variance play is relatively advantageous for the losing player, and the coup action opens the door for high-variance play.
Make no mistake, though. Twilight Struggle is a strategy game through and through. If a new player goes up against an experienced veteran, the veteran is absolutely going to win. The best way to experience the game is to learn alongside a partner so you can both be evenly balanced as you learn the cards and strategy. If you are being taught by an experienced player, it will take a couple of games to become remotely competent. There are easy ways handicap the veteran player to help smooth this introductory period out, but I can still see this being frustrating for some people.
Please don’t let this discourage you from trying out the game. Twilight Struggle is an absolute masterpiece and one of the pinnacles of game design in any medium. I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone who has any interest in board games. It captures the feeling of its theme better than any other game I have ever played. The way it utilizes multi-use cards to drive the action is brilliant. The way it brings you into the jaded mindset of a political leader by abstracting entire wars into a single card is extraordinary. Twilight Struggle is the best board game I have ever played.
+Multi-use cards create very difficult decisions
+Being forced to play events for your opponent was a brilliant innovation
+A classic strategic 2 player experience in the best possible way
-May not be visually appealing to some
-Knowledge of a the cards is significant, so an experienced player will beat a new player nearly 100% of the time