Twilight Struggle (GMT Games, 2006 - Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta) didn't really make much of blip on my radar. I assumed that it was "just another war game" and was really surprised when a well-known designer emailed me and stated that this was the best game of 2006 - in January! This, coupled with several other good reviews, got me interested - and the more I read, the more I was fascinated. The subject of the Cold War, something that was dominant in the news for the first thirteen years of my life, was something that I understood and could relate to. Twilight Struggle is a two-player game in which both players take the roles of the USA and the USSR and attempt to control as much of the world as possible - the Cold War from 1945-1989.
After playing Twilight Struggle, I'm a bit bemused that some refer to it as a war game. Sure, wars occur in the game, but they are simply part of the bigger picture, which is area control. The game is overly enjoyable, simply because the theme intermixes with the mechanics and generally dominates gameplay. Very few games I've played have such a rich theme that one can't imagine replacing it with any other. There is luck in the game, but it's rather well balanced by player knowledge and skillful play. While Twilight may never make my top ten games, it's one in which I think about the games well after we're finished playing. Every game follows a similar flow yet feels completely different. Let's examine several features of the game.
1.) Components: This may seem trivial to some, but I was extremely impressed with the artwork of the game, by Rodger B. MacGowan. It is tremendous - very invocative of the game's theme - and the box cover just gives one pause to reflect on the struggles of this time period. The board, while well designed, is simply a cardboard fold-out (I would have preferred a mounted board). There are a few spelling errors on the board that some have made a gigantic fuss about on the internet, but only one error has any bearing on the game (a setup error - corrected in the internet FAQ). The cards are well done - simply designed, with a picture from history on them, as well as clear instructions on how to use them. Some folk aren't satisfied with the tokens included with the game - to show who controls what country, and have added tokens, etc. to spice up the game. While that sounds like a nice improvement, I haven't found it necessary in games I've played; it seems fairly simple to tell who controls what territory at a glance of the map.
2.) Rules: A VERY nice rulebook is included with the game. I'll admit; I was rather wary of the twenty-four page size and the fact that it was done in the old Avalon Hill style (6.4.3, 6.4.4, etc.) But it really was done well, and I was easily able to determine how to play the game from reading them. First of all, the actual rules only take up nine pages, including examples. There is then a four page full example of play of the first four turns, followed by nine pages of history - explaining each of the cards, and one final page of Designer's notes. All of this makes for some fascinating reading, as well as explains both the theme and mechanics of the game. Two player aid cards are included, and I found that these help tremendously when explaining the game. Twilight Struggle is actually only a few simple mechanics combined together with a ton of theme.
3.) Theme: I've emphasized theme quite a bit in this review - and for a definite reason; it is rather immersive for players. Whether or not you've lived through most of the Cold War or simply read about it; it's an interesting period of time, unlike no other. The cards are the driving force behind this theme, and the way the game lays out follows a myriad of possibilities in history. Not once in my games did I ever feel like I was playing a set of mechanics, but always thought everything fit the theme extremely well. Every time a card is played, I imagine the events that are played out - and it certainly seems to promote role-playing. As the USSR player, I sadly smile and assure the other player that I only want to protect Thailand from the imperial aggressors, and chants of "I'd rather be dead than red" are heard from me when upholding the American way. Theme alone is worth buying this game for.
4.) Nuclear War: One thing I thought impressive about this game was how it actively discouraged nuclear war. No sane person would want to have nuclear war occur in their lifetime, yet many games seem to encourage players to launch missiles at the slightest provocation. In Twilight, the player who initiates nuclear war automatically loses, making players play more carefully. On the board is a DEFCON track, which is adjusted when small wars or coups are attempted. Due to a scoring mechanic involving military operations, players are encouraged to use their forces during the game; but using them too much can push the DEFCON to level one, ending the game. I thought this a clever mechanic, and it keeps the game focuses on diplomacy and area control, rather than outright war.
5.) Luck: There certainly is a lot of luck in the game, both in the dice rolled during coups and realignments, and in the cards drawn. This might be initially off-putting to some folks, but in reality, the luck is something that players must work with, and skillful play seems like it will trump luck every time. Every move that involves dice is a calculated move on the aggressor's part, and you must accept the fact that coups can end in disaster, no matter how good the odds. I've played games in which I've tried to capture West Germany several times, only to be continually beaten back by those "filthy Americans"! Again, this fits into the theme of the game, and I knew the risks going in, so I wasn't too upset (too much, anyway). Luck itself is mitigated the most by my next point, however, which is…
6.) Knowledge: An experienced player has a HUGE advantage over a player who is playing for the first time. For example, a veteran USSR player knows to not put too much influence in Japan until the US/Japan Mutual Defense Pact has been played, because it basically negates it. There are 103 cards included in the game, and many of them can be rather powerful if the opponent does nothing to prevent them. This would cause for a game with Chess-like moves to a couple of experienced players, if not for the luck mentioned above. I believe that knowledge of the cards and the luck balance one another out. I do think that playing the game for the first time is an experience that should be savored, because the cards that appear are surprising and new. Perhaps the first game is the most fun because of that?
7.) Cards: I've mentioned the cards, and well I should - because they are the driving force of the game. Even though I found games such as Paths of Glory to be a bit drawn out and complicated for my tastes, the idea of using cards for multiple options is a great one - and in Twilight Struggle, it's the main focus of the game. Each card can either be used as operations (coups, placement of influence markers, the space race, and realignment rolls), or an event on the card. What is interesting in this game is that the players use a common deck - with the cards' events helping only the USSR or USA player. If a player uses a card for its operations value (1-4), and the event favors the other player, they must play the event anyway. This can lead to some agonizing moments when you must allow your opponent to do a powerful effect simply so you can operate a critical coup. A player can "throw" away a card in the space race, which keeps any event on the card from happening, and thus puts more interest in the space race than might be there originally. The cards are split into Early War (used from turn one on), Mid War (added to the deck on turn four), and Late War (added to the deck on turn eight). When a card is played for the sake of the event on it, most of them (marked on the card) are removed from the game. Usually, a player will play most of the cards in their hand on each of the ten turns; so although this limits a player's choices at first glance, the order in which cards are played is of incredible importance. Playing the wrong card at the wrong time can lose you the game - I know!
8.) China: The USSR starts with the China card, which they can substitute and use instead of one of the cards in their hand. China has an operations value of "5", which makes it a useful and powerful card to play. However, whenever a side plays the card, it is given face down to the other side, so that they can use it on a future turn. I've started games as the Soviets, determined to never use the card - but it just sits there, tempting you - and it's so useful - but at what cost? Great, great mechanic.
9.) Coups and Realignments: At first, every player I've seen who plays the game (including myself), thinks that coups are far superior to realignments, since they can have more dramatic effects. But knowing when to do a realignment can be more devastating, as I've found out to my chagrin. A player can reduce their opponent's influence in key spots, and using the die rolls in certain places can swing the entire game over to their side.
10.) Scoring Cards: There are seven scoring cards in the deck, one for each of the six regions on the board (Europe, Central America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Mideast), and one one-time scoring card for Southeast Asia. Whenever a player draws one of these cards in their hand, they MUST play it at some point during their turn. This gives the person who draws them some useful information, since they have advance knowledge of the reasons being scored. And this brings a bit of tension to the game, as players wonder what cards the other person has. Bob just put several influence markers in Africa - does he have the Africa scoring card? This leads to bluffing and wondering, which really adds to the theme - as nations warily watch one another. One can't afford to allow the other player to completely control any single region - but you simply can't control them all - so where do you put your forces?
11.) Complexity/Time: The game is not nearly as complicated as its brothers in the card driven genre - I was able to understand it after only one turn. At the same time, even though I think fans of "Eurogames" may enjoy it - it's heavier than much of their fare. Fortunately, the theme helps ease one into understanding the game, and anyone who enjoys the theme should easily work their way through the intuitive and simple mechanics. The game can easily take two to three hours on first plays; but once players know what they are doing, the game could conceivably take only an hour, although mine usually clock in just under two.
12.) Fun Factor: For me, when you look at my top ten games, it's fairly obvious that great theme = fun. And I think that Twilight Struggle has a great, immersive, theme - one of the best ones I've ever seen tied to a mechanic. So do you think I consider it fun?
If you are someone who likes the theme of the Cold War, wait no more - this game does a perfect job of simulating that era. For those of you wondering what this "card driven war game" is all about, this game can act like a primer to that mechanic. This game has the potential to be a mediator between war gamers and "Eurogamers", as it seems to attract players from both genres. I don't think it will cause me to explore card driven games any farther, since I'm completely satisfied with the level of Twilight Struggle. As a child, I never knew how the Cold War would end - and I still don't know, every time I play this game. Best theme of the year!