|Twilight Struggle (2005)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Heavy [3.61]
|Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews
I’m old enough to remember the Cold War, but not old enough to have understood it at the time. To me, the Cold War was just the sinister background music to the much more immediate fears that the tensions of the time drizzled into my developing brain. I was consumed by fears of Russian tanks landing from the River Tay and visions of the nuclear missiles that were likely streaking overhead whilst I stared terrified into the early morning darkness. I spent a surprising number of nights as a child just waiting for nuclear incineration. Culturally, the Cold War was embedded into the genetics of our entertainment and even if I wasn’t particularly politically aware, paranoia was a fever you couldn’t help but catch.
When I was a very young lad, my mother gave me a video cassette to watch. For those of you too young to know what that was, it was like an analogue version of a DVD made from magnetic tape. God, I bet even that’s too old a reference for the Internet generation. A DVD was like a downloadable movie that you would buy in the form of a shiny disc and keep on your shelves. Ask your older siblings about DVDs, and get them to ask your parents about videotapes.
Anyway, this tape contained a movie called When the Wind Blows. It was by the same gentleman (Raymond Briggs) that was responsible for the charming, albeit heartbreaking, The Snowman. Presumably my mother was under the impression it was more of the same family friendly fodder, and she sat me down in front of the TV to watch it one wet and windy day.
It wasn’t more of the same family friendly fodder.
When the Wind Blows is an intensely harrowing look at the very personal impact of nuclear Armageddon on a public still naively trusting of government survival advice. It combines gorgeous, haunting visuals with evocative, haunting music, and ends with the harrowing, haunting spectacle of an old couple succumbing to radiation poisoning in the post-nuclear apocalypse of rural England. Did I mention it was haunting? It haunted me, and still does.
It wasn’t for kids, and seeing this for the first time is perhaps the most vivid memory I have of my childhood. It was brutally formative. For me, the phrase ‘four minute warning’ wasn’t comically ridiculous political pantomime. It was, during the darkest nights, the time-length by which I measured my mortality.
The Cold War burned itself into a lot of psyches even when many of us were too young to really appreciate what was going on. It’s useful, as an adult, to return to that time of tension and brinksmanship and appreciate the depth and complexity of unfolding events. That’s where Twilight Struggle comes in.
I’m going to start the review proper with a confession – I am dreadful at this game. You’re not going to hear me banging on about effective game theories, or ‘the Turkey gambit’, or the ‘Argentina Escalation’ or the ‘Nicaraguan Pre-emptive Strategy’. Not just because those are names of scenarios in the movie Wargames and not actually (as far as I know) game theory positions within Twilight Struggle. All I can really talk about is how the game feels to play. It feels intense. It feels important. It feels like the weight of history is on your shoulders. It feels like it deserved to be the number one game on Boardgame Geek for over five years. I would be hard pressed to say Twilight Struggle is a fun game but it’s certainly one that that is deeply, hypnotically absorbing.
Everything about the game evokes the theme, from the Wargames style game-map to the Soviet austerity of the box-art. This is a game that wants you to understand the import of what you’re doing and the tension of the decisions you’re going to be making. Twilight Struggle is not trying to fool you – it doesn’t hide any of its sharp edges in an attempt to be approachable.
Even the manual is like a parody of a Civil Defence pamphlet. Look at this:
Not only are the paragraphs numbered in the way you’d expect from a Yes Minister sketch, they cross-reference other sections throughout. ‘Section eight, paragraph one, subsection five. DEFCON’. The instructions read like parliamentary legislation. They even come with a table of contents at the front:
The ironic thing is that Twilight Struggle is not as complicated as it first appears. It’s as deep as a grave, but you won’t often find yourself needing to reference the manual. The game mechanics themselves are easy to pick up, and that’s partially because much of the subtlety and nuance is spread over the cards that form the engine of interaction.
We’ll get to that soon enough. Twilight Struggle on the face of it is an area control game driven by highly thematic cards. You could explain every important element of the game and never stray away from those definitional shallows. Dig down a bit deeper though and you find there’s something more substantial that defines the game – area control is an element of play but at its heart it’s a game of ideological momentum. It’s about the two dominant economic philosophies of the 20th century circling each other like wary snakes, each waiting for the opportune moment to strike. You don’t control territory in Twilight Struggle – you control the rhythm of play.
You each begin with influence spread around various countries. Each country has a stability index, which indicates the degree to which you need to out-influence your opponent to have control. Some countries are battleground countries, and control of these is especially important. France, Italy, West Germany, and East Germany are the battleground states in Europe. Each theatre of operations (god, how cool is that to say?) has its own unique distribution of key battlegrounds.
Each country has lines connecting it to other countries, and these represent the channels through which influence can flow. You need to have a presence in an adjacent country before you can act within its borders. Each country then has a positional value to go along with its political value – the battleground states are important, but so too is the flexibility of applying doctrinal pressure.
When you start the game, you’re given a deck of eight cards. These represent historical beats in the Cold War. These cards themselves are broken up into three decks – the early war, the mid war, and the late war. As the game goes on, cards from later decks are mixed into play so as to represent the significant changing context of the global situation. It’s very neat.
Some cards represent events that are good for the US – Independent Reds for example. Some represent events that are good for the USSR – COMECON or the Warsaw Pact. Some represent neutral events that benefit the player making use of them. These cards are what you use to change and influence momentum through play.
Every turn, both players choose a headline card, and the associated event for each player is triggered in order of value. These are played down in secret (usually), and then you simultaneously reveal.
Usually here you want to headline something that’s going to let you control the agenda of the coming turn. This might be something that lets you gain early advantage in influence, or something that acts as a long term depressive effect on your opponent. The Marshall Plan for example allows you to place seven influence (one per country) in Western European areas. That might be what you need to take advantage of the USA’s comparatively strong position in the European theatre. The COMECON card allows you to add cosplayers in Eastern Europe. Wait, that’s COMICON. I always get them mixed up. Events are powerful, but you’re only likely to have a handful in your hand that are relevant, or even helpful, for the current geopolitical setup.
As influence ebbs and flows in countries, the two superpowers distribute their influence tokens. Once they have sufficient influence for control, they’re flipped over to give an easy visual cue as to who is dominating any given area. The USA has control over the UK, France, Spain and Greece. The USSR has control over East Germany. As with chess, there are certain fixed positions that are recommended for serious players – this distribution of influence shown on the map above represents none of them. As I say, I’m not good at this game.
Once the headlines have been played, each country goes in rounds (starting with the USSR) playing a card and resolving its effect. And here’s where things get bananas and Twilight Struggle becomes the single most intensely absorbing game I have in my collection.
See, you can play a card as an event, which causes it to resolve. Some cards, those marked with asterisks, are removed from play once they’ve resolved. Others are recycled back into the deck. If you’re the US player, you don’t want to play events that are good the USSR, and vice versa. However you don’t have to play cards as events, and in fact most of the time you won’t. Usually you play them to conduct covert operations to change influence. In the top left of each card is an operations value which you can spend on one of the game’s covert missions:
- You can launch a realignment, which allows you to attempt to remove enemy influence in a country.
- You can place influence, up to the value of the operation. Playing influence in a country controlled by an opponent costs two points, otherwise you get one influence per operation point.
- You can enact a coup, attempting to reduce enemy influence whilst bolstering your own.
If you play a card for its operation value, the event doesn’t trigger. As such, you can spend your best cards strengthening your position whilst weakening that of your opponent whilst still ensuring your best cards recycle into the deck for when the event may be the most opportune thing to trigger.
See, events don’t trigger when you play them as an operation, except when it’s an event that’s good for your opponent. This is where the genuine genius in Twilight Struggle can be found. Every single card play has to be weighed up against the opportunity cost of playing an event. That creates the context for control of momentum, and that in turn sets up the intense puzzle at the heart of the game. When you trigger the event of an opponent, you get to decide whether the event resolves before or after you authorise an operation. That allows you to either cede the momentum or control it. You might decide to see what your enemy does with the Warsaw Pact before you decide to spend the operations value undoing the damage they did. You might though want them to know what you do before they resolve it, because you want their attention focused somewhere in particular. There’s little more likely to draw the attention of the Russian bear than seeing the American Eagle laying eggs in an otherwise neglected battleground.
So, let’s say our American player has an event that works in their favour – the US/Japan Mutual Defense Pact. That’s a powerful card that straight-up gifts Japan to the USA. However, it is not always the most useful play in early stages of the game. Instead, our American Patriot looks at the USSR control of East Germany and decides to teach those filthy Commies a lesson. The card is played for its Op value (four) to initiate a coup.
For a coup, the player rolls a dice, adds the op value, and compares it against the doubled stability value of the country. In this case, a ten versus a six. That means the USSR loses four influence. Since they only have three to lose, it means the USA gains the balance of remaining influence to pay off, resulting in a US presence in the country:
It’s a bold play, made bolder by the fact that this is a battleground country. This aggressive move results in increased tension, and the DEFCON marker moves from five to four…
While the DEFCON marker is at four, it’s not possible for either player to coup or realign in Europe. That prevents the USSR from performing a coup of their own to claim the country back. The DEFCON level also determines how aggressive each country must be. Playing coups counts as a ‘military operation’, and each player needs to have conducted a certain number of these to avoid losing victory points at the end of the turn.
So, the war in Twilight Struggle is being conducted on a theatre by theatre basis, but also against the backdrop of looming annihilation represented by the DEFCON track. When the DEFCON track reaches one, the current player loses. It doesn’t matter who triggered it, if you’re the one currently controlling the global scene, it happened on your watch and you lose. Some cards permit your opponent to act on your turn, so you need to be very careful about what events you trigger…
Imagine! You’re at DEFCON two. You’re the USSR, and you play this card for its op value. The USA then says ‘I’m going to trigger a coup in Cuba’, and bam – you just lost the game! No matter how well you were doing! Comrade, it adds so much tension to play to know that you can’t even let your guard down. You need to know, with every card, to whom it gives momentum and agency – and some of that is dependent on what other cards have gone before. Oh God!
But say you don’t want to throw a lucrative event over to your opponent. What can you do? Well, once per turn (or twice, depending on your scientific muscle) you can play a card to advance the space track. Some other cards let you do this as events, but if you have an especially juicy card you want to deny your enemy this is the easiest way to ensure it doesn’t cause an immediate problem. It gets recycled into the deck, but the event doesn’t trigger.
Advancing the space track has other benefits – primarily, it also grants victory points. These exist in a constant tug of war between the two great superpowers. If either side gets to twenty, they win. If a player causes the other player to trigger DEFCON one, they win. If in the late stage someone triggers the wargames event under the right circumstances, they win. And If any player controls Europe when it’s scored, they win.
Momentum doesn’t mean anything if you can’t take advantage of it, and this is where the next genius element of the Twilight Struggle design comes in. Every so often, one of these things will thud into your lap like dead bird:
You have to play these before the turn is over, or you lose. However, when you play them is the heart to winning. You’re the only one that knows when a theatre you have in hand is about to be scored, so you’re perfectly positioned to be the one that benefits, right?
Scoring works like this – presence is achieved if you control at least one country in a region. Domination is achieved when you control more countries and more battleground countries than an opponent, and you need to control at least one of each. Control is achieved when you control more countries and all the battleground countries. You also get an extra victory point for every controlled battleground, and every country that is adjacent to the enemy superpower. So, all that influence you’re putting in place is to ensure that when a region is scored you’re the one that gets the points.
But here’s the thing – it is difficult to wrestle control of a region from someone that’s entrenched, and it’s difficult to be subtle about it within the time constraints of a turn. You’re going to have to either bite the bullet and cede points before the situation gets worse, or invest operation points by the bucketload to take control before the card is played. That will almost certainly trigger the paranoia of your opponent. If suddenly you’re spreading out across Africa like the Ebola virus (God, that’s horrible, I’m so sorry. Not sorry enough to delete the joke, but sorry enough to feel bad about it) your opponent is going to suspect the Africa scoring card is coming up soon. That’ll make them devote their efforts to undermining yours. You’ll find every country painfully swapping control with every turn, knowing that your cards are becoming less and less effective the closer you get to the final moment before scoring. Gnh!
But then! You turn around and play the Central America scoring card! What the what?!
Twilight Struggle is a game about feints and counterfeints, attacks and counterattacks. If you already have a strong presence in a region you don’t want your opponent to suspect you’re trying to consolidate your hold. So, maybe you invest heavily in a region you’re not able to score just to keep them off balance. After all, while they’re stopping you gaining control of Africa they’re not undermining your lead in Central America. In the process, you’ve also stopped them potentially advancing their agenda elsewhere. That’s great!
Until they slap down the Africa scoring card to reveal that all you did with your feint was let them consolidate control of a country you thought was unimportant. That’s your own fault for being a racist. Scoring is power, and such is the impact it has on play that you’ll each be watching the other player like a hawk, waiting for some clue as to what region is going to become important towards the end of the turn.
If no player manages to win by the end of the late war, a final scoring round is undertaken and the winner is the player with the most points. That’s relatively rare because every single play in Twilight Struggle is massively important. While a single mistake won’t lose you the world it can create the context for compounding mistakes you can never regain sufficient initiative to undo. You can find yourself going from a huge lead to a huge deficit with a few cards if you have been neglectful. This is not a game that tolerates your inattention – the soul of the planet is at stake. You need to be up to the challenge.
This highly adversarial setup creates some truly illuminating insight into the nature of the Cold War. You’ll spend most of your time hovering around DEFCON 2, despite that being the riskiest level for everyone. Why? Because the risk is asymmetrical and beneficial to the current player. As long as you’re careful, DEFCON 2 stops a player from enacting a coup on your carefully consolidated battleground countries. At DEFCON 3 You can sweep in, coup one of their key areas, and they can’t coup back! To do so would lose them the game! You enter this ongoing simulation of reckless nuclear brinksmanship that so precisely mirrors some of the most hawkisk behaviour during the Cold War that you can’t help but go ‘Ah! Now I understand!’
Twilight Struggle is also remarkable for the clever way it’s been balanced to be both interesting to play and respectful of its source material. In the initial stages of the game, the USSR is likely to dominate – it’s got more powerful cards that have more general use in the early war. As you make your way into the mid war, the advantage starts to shift towards the USA. This reflects the dominance American foreign policy had in the latter years of the 70s and 80s. As such, in short games the USSR tends to win but the USA is overall more powerful. It creates not only asymmetrical balance but asymmetrical motivations. In the early stages, the job of the USA is to contain USSR growth. If the USSR can’t achieve a dominant position in the early game, it’ll find it more difficult to win as advantage accrues to America. However, the nature of events and the order in which they are played and recycled into the deck means you can never be sure of anything. Ensuring a healthy recycling of powerful event cards is as important to overall success as how you use them when you play them. Sometimes, you might want to simply accept your opponent’s good fortune by ensuring it happens at a time of your choosing when the impact is not so great.
The worst time for Independent Reds to make its way into the game is when the USSR player has meaningful influence in one of the named countries. That can be a game changing event – many cards straight up gift countries to your opponent.
So if you’re playing the USSR and this card appears, you might want to play that early to make sure it disappears from the deck and it detonates when there’s no serious downside. Likewise if you’re the USA player, you might want to play ‘De Gaulle Leads France’ at a time when you have no influence of your own there, so that rather than it being a delta of -3 to your influence it’s a delta of -1.
That leads into the most significant element of Twilight Struggle – it’s not a game that is well suited for players of varying experience. Knowledge of deck and event composition is massively important. Imagine being a USSR player that invests all their op points into Japan, only to find the US/Japan Mutual Defence Pact straight up gives control to Japan to the USA. If you knew that card was in the deck, then more fool you. If you didn’t, well – it hardly seems very fair, right?
That’s especially true because it’s not as if you can work it out from game design principles. It’s not like Pandemic where the composition of the deck is equally distributed around the cities of the board. The cards in Twilight Struggle reflect the historical events of the time, and they did not cluster in a way that is particularly fair or equitable. That makes for excitingly varied gameplay, but it does mean some things are just going to turn around and bite you on the ass. You do get a crib sheet of the cards available in each era, but this is a game that massively skews towards experience. Having a reference doesn’t do you much good if every single turn has to become a tedious exercise in cross-referencing. A good player will crush a new player, and a large part of that is knowing the cards that are going to make an appearance, and where you want to avoid wasting effort and when.
That’s a frustration that will go away over time, but the larger frustration that is core to the game design is the extent to which the dice will screw you up. Playing enemy cards to the space track is great to keep them from detonating, but they also need to be accompanied with a successful roll of the dice if they are to advance you up the track. Similarly with coups and realignment rolls – the dice come into effect, and it’s entirely possible that you’ll end up making no progress through chance rather than poor strategy. Given that this is a game where a single bad turn can result in an opponent having the breathing room to dominate play that’s a structural problem. I have had games where I’ve never managed to progress anywhere on the space track despite spending five cards on the project. No-one said that the Cold War would be good for your blood pressure though.
Twilight Struggle is a good game. No, scratch that – it’s a great game. An important game. A deeply worthy game. It’s a game that you can pull out in mixed company and use to illustrate just how powerful game design can be for facilitating meaningful experience. I’m not 100% convinced it’s a fun game though – I don’t doubt you can have fun with it, but it doesn’t exactly go out of its way to meet you half way. Everything about it seems pitched as a dusty tool for a political science classroom rather than the viscerally tense experience of Cold War brinksmanship that it is. As such it is a genuinely hard sell, made harder by the investment it asks of players. Three hours is a not insignificant chunk of time to devote to something as intense as this. Your first few games are either going to be novice players flailing wildly at a complex system they don’t understand, or one experienced player steamrollering another (or transparently letting them win). The game demands you play on through the pain of this for future benefit. As such you pick up the box and you think ‘God, this looks like a chore’.
But seriously, if you can look past all of that and just get it to the table you’ll find it’s worth the effort. There is genuine genius in here, and if you dig deep you’ll find there’s also warmth, charm and wit to be found underneath the surface. If you make the effort, it’ll go out of its way to reward you for it.
Twilight Struggle then is not a game I’d recommend for everyone. It’s maybe not even a game I’d recommend to many people. For those though that have the right temperament, inclination, and willingness to master its intricacies, there is much to love within the box.