May 14, 2018

Let's Play Twilight Struggle

I was reading something on last year, and came across a link to their article on designing the best board game in the world, which turned out to be Twilight Struggle. Since we were making a trip to Stockholm in January, I took the opportunity to visit the Science Fiction Bokhandeln, where board games are consistently cheaper than in Finland, and pick up a copy.

Twilight Struggle is a card-driven board game that covers the global Cold War. The board is a map of the world, divided into countries where you place influence, mount coups and generally vie for control and thereby victory points with the opposing superpower. Whoever reaches 20 victory points first wins - unless DEFCON drops to one, in which case the game ends in global nuclear war.

Everything is done by playing cards. Here's an example:

The red star in the upper left corner tells you that this is a Soviet event. If the Soviet player plays it, they can either have the event happen, or play it for Ops, which are used to spread influence, mount coups and that sort of thing. The number inside the star is 2, meaning Liberation Theology is good for 2 Ops. If the US player finds this card in their hand, they can only play it for Ops - but if they do, the event occurs as well. Therefore, one of the key skills in the game isn't just figuring out when to play your events, but how to time your opponent's events optimally for yourself.

The other kind of cards are scoring cards, which, when played, score their region in victory points. Below, an early victory in the Mid War from a judiciously played Africa Scoring.

Much as in other card-driven games, like War of the Ring, for instance, the cards direct gameplay. One way is structural: some scoring cards, for instance, only show up in the mid-war, and while the Soviet side is considered to have an early advantage, the late war cards tilt toward the US. In a recent game, I found myself with a hand of powerful enough Europe-focused cards, like Suez Crisis, Socialist Governments, and Europe Scoring, that a blitz on Europe seemed like a worthwhile shot. This is as far as I got:

One key thing new players should know is that in the Early War period, the only scoring cards in play are Europe, Asia and the Middle East. This tends to focus play; while I was mounting my assault on Europe, this is what Southeast Asia ended up looking like:

You can believe I did poorly when my opponent drew Southeast Asia scoring! However, Africa and the Middle East went my way, somewhat evening the odds. Finally, late in the Mid War, while my opponent's attention was focused on Latin America, I used Willy Brandt to break his control of West Germany, and snuck in enough influence to grab it, leading to a victory through controlling Europe.


All in all, Twilight Struggle is a tremendous game. Not only is it great fun, but it also does a brilliant job of evoking the Cold War mentality of a superpower game of geopolitical brinksmanship, where all other countries and actors in the world are just pawns and battlegrounds for you to utilize to get the upper hand in a zero-sum battle against your opponent - all while staring down an imminent nuclear holocaust. That all the events are actual Cold War people or episodes gives the game great thematic strength, but it's not tied to the historical constraints of the Cold War, but can unfold very differently indeed. As a history teacher, I very much appreciate the little historical vignettes about each card provided in the rulebook; they add a very real educational dimension to the game.

If you want a better handle on how the game works, head over to Twilight Strategy; I especially recommend one of the annotated games.

So, simply put, Twilight Struggle is great fun, and does a wonderful job of capturing the Cold War mentality. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it the best board game in the world - that's a much bigger conversation - I will say that if you're at all into board games, it's definitely worth experiencing.

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