Reviewed by Jon Waddington

(GMT Games, 2 players, about 3 hours; $57)


Nominally, Twilight Struggle is a wargame about the Cold War. For those too young or too distracted to remember, the Cold War was the conflict following World War II between the forces of capitalism (with the United States taking the lead for the West) and communism (with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics taking the lead for the East). The “nominally” is important: there are no units marching about on the map, no convoluted combat results tables, no nastily cumbersome rules (there are more examples and historical notes – a very nice touch, that – in the rulebook than actual game rules). Where Twilight Struggle fits in the gaming taxonomy isn’t quite clear, but it feels as much like a race as it does a boxing match, though there might be a black eye or two before it’s all over.twilightstruggle

A few “back of the box” facts to get out of the way: Twilight Struggle is a two-player game designed by Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta (both first-time designers) and produced by GMT Games in 2006, with a large cardstock world map divided in a point-to-point network of countries and regions, just over 100 cards and a rather larger number of red and blue counters, and rules and player aids. The game was unfortunately published with a number of minor issues; spelling gaffes are one thing, but there are also some significant (and generally unintuitive) clarifications that are close to required after you’ve spent some time with it and see the card interactions. These aren’t terribly troubling in this internet-savvy world, but forewarned is forearmed.

Twilight Struggle is, for the most part, an area control game. For those unfamiliar, there are regions on the map, and having more control over them than your opponent gains you points. This is complicated here by some countries being more significant than others and the timing of the accounting, but that’s basically it. Have more influence, get more points, win the game.

The manner of getting influence into play is where the game most closely ties into a taxonomy. Card-driven games (CDGs) were pioneered by Mark Herman in Avalon Hill’s W e The People (Spring 1994 GA REPORT), and continued in various forms, including the prestigious Paths of Glory (also published by GMT). These games feature cards with multiple but exclusive functions that drive the action of the game. In Twilight Struggle, each card has an Operations (Ops) value and an Event. Ops are used to manipulate the influence positions on the map in various ways, while Events tie to history and create special effects in the game. Events include the Marshall Plan, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arab-Israeli Wars, Fidel Castro, Solidarity, and so forth. You always have to make a choice between using the Ops value or the Event, and higher Ops values tend to be tied with more significant Events. A key point is that it’s a shared deck, and the Events are either pro-US, pro-USSR, or neutral. You would normally never wish to have your opponent’s Event occur, but the designers force a choice: if you play a card for Ops and it has your opponent’s Event on it, the Event occurs anyway. This clever, nasty trick creates some very enjoyable dilemmas.

Each turn, you go back and forth, with cards coming up in a loose historical order. Immediate concerns are dodging the worst of your opponent’s events, but you typically have to give in somewhere. Sometimes you’ll have scoring cards in your hand (these control the timing of the accounting for each region), which presents a thorny dilemma if you’re behind (or not far enough ahead) in a particular region. You can boost your presence in the region, but that betrays your intent, and your opponent may have unpleasant effects he can bring to bear if it’s clear where you’re headed. Grist for tough choices, though sometimes there’s nothing for it but to race for the region and hope you have more Ops than he does. Geography presents some challenges, as influence can only be placed where you already have it, or next to where you have it, effortlessly creating a very thematic “domino effect.” It also costs more Ops to get into countries your opponent controls, reinforcing the “get there first” mentality required. China factors in as the powerful and amusingly titled “The China Card” that operates a bit outside the normal parameters.twilightstrugcardsAnother interesting subsystem is the Defcon level, where the relative volatility of the world political situation is measured. As players conduct coups or play “war” Events, the world moves closer to the brink of nuclear holocaust. If a player trips up and pushes the world over the edge, he loses. In an interesting twist, though, players are forced to flex their military muscles or lose points, a nice balancing act. The other subsystem is the Space Race, a linear track representing various progress points from animals in orbit to the actual moon landing. Special effects and point bonuses are a strong incentive to keep ahead here, and this is also the one place in the game where you can play your opponent’s card and not suffer the penalty (the designers term this the game’s “safety valve”).

Card management in Twilight Struggle is enjoyably difficult. You must factor in not only the Ops/Event tradeoff, but also the fact that some cards return to the deck, some have persistent effects, some allow downstream cards, and so forth. Navigating this minefield is tense and challenging, but it sometimes exposes the underlying instability of the system. It’s possible to have significantly fewer palatable choices than your opponent, even over the course of several turns, and when this occurs it’s more disheartening than fun. Probabilities dictate that a bad run now usually means a good run is coming, but it’s far from a sure thing, and it can have a souring effect. More consistently engaging are the geographical chokepoints and hotspots, and the palpable level of tension over the control of various countries (and by extension, various regions). There is also some psychological and deductive interest, as you attempt to divine your opponent’s intentions and capabilities from their often-misleading actions.

Since I’ve harped a bit on instability, let’s turn to the impact of dice. Coups, Realignments (a way of reducing opponent influence), several Events, the Space Race: all are decided by die rolls. A series of unlucky card draws can be mitigated somewhat; indeed, making the most out of what appears a lousy hand is often a great pleasure. But having a run of high or low rolls feels more capricious, and it can have an unsettling impact given just how few rolls occur. While I agree with the goal of uncertainty around the results, there are only a few cases where you can work with the probabilities by using higher Ops cards or setting up favorable map conditions. The Space Race is a particularly noxious offender, where your investment does not carry any feedback: if you fail a roll, you get the same odds next turn.

In terms of usability, the components are generally quite nice, but one quibble is it’s not easy to see the current status of regions at a glance, leading to some tedious counting and recounting; it may be worthwhile to bring in some red and blue pieces from another game (perhaps an old Risk set) to make this accounting a bit easier.
Somewhat quirky rules for regional control and a few notable absences on the player aid make for a bit more rules consultation than was necessary, but it’s quite manageable after a few turns.

Due to the historically-grounded card distribution, the USSR is favored in the early stages, and the US later. Riding out the early USSR surge is tricky, but possible, and leads to the very intricate and tense mid-game. There will be some similarities in the first turns from game to game, but the system creates considerable variety as the game progresses. As in all card games, knowledge of the deck is crucial for competitive play; this is exacerbated here by a handful of very powerful cards. One ends the game prematurely with some surprisingly trivial conditions, another gives the control of the order of your entire hand over to your opponent, and there are a few others that will raise eyebrows and may decide the outcome during the draw rather than during play. Being aware of all cards before playing helps considerably, but the high tension and “period feeling” of the volatile cards will occasionally lead to truncated or unsatisfying “gamey” endings, especially when you’re inexperienced.

The theme of the game is very strongly felt (though sticklers for historicity should note that Events may occur outside of any reasonable chronological or political context). The events of the era quite naturally create a lot of this mood, but there is also the tug-of-war that plays out on the map, where the USSR meddles in some area of the globe, and the US feels compelled to respond. You build and counter-build, watching red and blue spread all over the globe, only to sometimes have things undone by the (sometimes rather intentional) vagaries of fate. Time and again you bring the world to the brink of disaster. Certainly those familiar with the era–and here, unlike many historical games, this includes just about anyone–can find a lot to resonate with here.

At the abstract level, as a contest of wits, you’re tasked with finding the optimal card sequences, getting the most efficiency out of your actions, navigating the randomness by setting up contingencies, and understanding your opponent’s psychology: all allow a role for skill. It is a bit longer than I’d prefer, but this is definitely a game that gets faster–much faster–with experience. Slow play is more attributable to getting your head around the cards than it is to any systemic bottlenecks.

I cannot quite give Twilight Struggle an unqualified recommendation, and yet I consider it one of the best games I’ve played in the last few years. It’s the sort of game you think about for days afterward, with a nice dramatic arc, a lot of tension and turnabouts, escalating consequences, high replay value, and a host of challenging and interesting decisions. However, I do wish a few elements were more deterministic, as the occasional one-sided beatings can be disappointing investments of precious gaming time. It must also be said that the game is a bit sloppier than one would hope, the largest impact being situations requiring clarification beyond the scope of the rules or cards (and I should note that the authors have been very generous with their time in internet forums). But when everything is clicking, when rolls and cards aren’t too polarized and you don’t hit a critical snag on an interpretation, the game is simply outstanding. – – – – – – Jon Waddington

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