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Twilight Struggle has been in the top 10 of BoardGameGeek, and for much of that time rated at number one, pretty much since release in 2005. So what is it about a complex, three hour, card driven, area control, two player strategic victory point based war game about the political conflict of the Cold War which earns it such high ratings?
For a start it is not the components; the cards are nice, the board is a bit dry, the counters are solid but nothing special. It does not have the production value of some games, but those components are deeply thematic and in play really invoke the tensions of the cold war.
It does not have a simple rule book: it’s 32 pages, though well written, illustrated, includes play examples, and details the many complex decisions which arise in play, decisions which mirror the real life events of the cold war, ones that perhaps Kennedy or Brezhnev faced. It is all about the play! It’s tense, engaging, deep, challenging, and one wrong step could lead the thermonuclear war. Start that hot war and you lose. It is all about winning the cold war, playing the global political drama and coming out on top.
At its simplest Twilight Struggle is a card driven, area control, victory point game. In play one player takes the position of the USA, the other the Soviet Union. Every turn each player is dealt a number of cards which they play, in turn one by one. These cards are the heart of Twilight Struggle, they depict events which occurred during the cold war, and each one has a power rating.
These drive all actions, but with each card it is possible to do various things, it could be used to enact the specific event on the card, or to expand political control through a coup or political realignment, to place control tokens, or it could be invested in the space race. The specific event on the card can belong to one side or the other which adds a further factor to consider in play.
The only other cards are scoring cards, these are covered later in this review. In each turn new cards are dealt and play continues. Barring any sudden death victory condition such as precipitating nuclear war, at the end of the game there is a final scoring round where all regions are scored. The winner is the player who is ahead on the victory track.
To reach that win is anything but simple.
Twilight Struggle - Looking Deeper
There is a mass of different things happening on the game board, all of which are determined by play of the cards. There are three decks of cards: early war, mid war and late war. Twilight Struggle starts with only the early war cards in play. As you can see from the picture in the top left hand corner of each card is a star, red or white, or red and white, and in that star is a number. Red means it is a Soviet event card, white a USA event card and red and white is a generic event card. The number is a power rating. Then there is the event associated with the card, described in the text. When a card is played it can be used to:
- Action the event, in which case apply the event to the board and follow all other instructions on the card.
- Place influence markers in which case the number in the top left specifies how many influence markers (there are specific rules for placing these).
- Mount a coup in one country on the board, again this uses the number on the top left, or for realignment which is another way of attempting to take over control of a country.
- Attempt an advance on the space race track, if successful the player advances his token along the space race track and applies the result.
A further refinement is that if a player plays a card depicting an event of the other player, for example the Soviet player plays Panama Canal Returned, the event automatically happens and the Soviet can take an action using the power rating. Furthermore the Soviet player gets to decide in which order these happen. Think about this for a moment; if the USA player plays Panama Canal Returned, he gets to choose one possible action.
If the Soviet player plays it, the event happens and the Soviet player get to take an action, so sometimes playing events associated with the opponent can be a good thing. On the other hand take a look at the Muslim Revolution card. It is a Soviet card, and one that if the USA player has, he is unlikely to want to see in play. This is what the space race is for, play that card on the space race and the event does not happen, at least not for a while.
Moving onto the board and many things are happening here. There are the turn and action round tracks which are pretty self-explanatory. An action round is the play of one card by one player, a turn is playing the hand of cards by both players. There is the space race which I have discussed. There is the military actions track, players are required to take a certain number of military actions each turn, usually coups or realignment rolls, if the player does not, then the opposing player gains victory points as defined by the track.
There is the defcon track, as defcon gets lower the risk of nuclear war increases, and the players become progressively more limited in where they can take military actions. On the map there are various countries, some of which are defined as battleground states, these are states which were in some way more central to the cold war. Israel and Cuba are for example battleground states, Ethiopia and Peru are not. If a player takes a military action in a battleground state then defcon is lowered by one. Lastly there is the victory point track, which swings from +20 Soviet to +20 USA.
Going back to the cards, there are also scoring cards which depict a region, Middle East Scoring for example. During a turn any scoring cards in the players hand must be played. These cards are the primary source of victory points through the game.
Typically a turn starts with dealing each player a hand of cards, one more card than is required to be played, raising defcon by one and resetting the required military actions taken to zero.
Players then select one card from their hand as a headline event, these events happen and if applicable are applied to the board. Then in turn players play one card taking actions as described, the event, or placing control markers, or a making a coup attempt and so on.
Play continues until the required number of cards have been played at which point the turn ends, and the turn record marker is advanced one step. At the beginning of turn four the mid-war cards are shuffled into the deck, at the beginning of turn eight the later war cards are shuffled into the deck. After the conclusion of turn ten the game ends with one final scoring of all regions.
How to Win
At the end of turn 10 there is a final scoring round of all regions. At the end of this the player who is ahead on the victory point track is the winner. There are numerous other ways to win, these include:
- Having Control of Europe when the Europe Scoring card is played.
- The opponent triggers nuclear war. Important – if nuclear war is triggered the phasing player loses. The phasing player is the player who played the card which triggered nuclear war. So if the phasing player is Soviet, defcon is two and he plays CIA created, (a USA card). He places an influence token. The USA player then uses the card to carry out a coup in Venezuela, defcon drops to Nuclear War, and the USA wins because the phasing player is Soviet.
- If either player reaches 20 Victory Points.
Tips and Tricks
- Twilight Struggle can feel very random especially if a player gets a handful of their opponent’s cards. It is not random, it is about how the player uses those cards, and remember sometimes it is better to have opponent’s cards – at least there is some return on them.
- As tempting as it is to keep defcon at two, this is not always a good idea especially in the Late War. There are sudden death conditions.
- If your opponent goes ahead early it is probably because more of his useful for scoring event cards came out. Those event cards are now gone from the game, the deck is now stacked in your favour.
- If your hand is full of your own cards consider playing them for anything other than the specific action. This way they are not removed from play and get shuffled back into the deck at a later stage.
- There is a lot to be said for stacking the deck, this is more important than knowing what every card does.
- Although the game is complex and there is a lot going on, it is all visible on the board. The player aid cards help a great deal, and the turn sequence is neatly laid out on the game board.
Twilight Struggle is not going to be for everyone. It is a three hour strategic two player game, longer and more complex than the likes of Hannibal: Rome v Carthage which is in the same family. The theme, the Cold war might look dry especially since play is all about politics and not war.
Furthermore, it has a steep learning curve and for me even now, after having played this game a huge amount of times, I am still learning new tricks. If however you are looking for a two player game that is deep and immersive, with endless replay-ability, which will remain challenging even when deeply familiar with the rules and possibilities, and will remain tense as the victory point track swings back and forth, then Twilight Struggle may be what you are looking for.
So does a three hour two player strategic war game deserve the accolades and ratings? In my view, yes it does. Twilight Struggle is a masterpiece of tense and interactive strategic play.
Face trying your hand at the helm of a global superpower? Twilight Struggle is available from our Zatu Store right now.
- Deep and thematic.
- Endless replay-ability.
- Tense and interactive play.
- Three hour game.
- Steep learning curve.
- Can feel formulaic.
Some games need a huge, multi-paragraph, expositional backstory to ground their theme. Others don’t even pretend that the theme is anything more than a veneer equivocal to a thin layer of varnish. There are few games, however, that are so rich in theme, so well executed, that only a single sentence allows players to understand what the theme is and immediately engage with that theme on a personal level. Adrenaline is the latter, and the single sentence that describes the game (and is the one I use when teaching it) is:
“This is a 90’s FPS death-match, more Quake than Call of Duty, and you’re going to bloody love it.”
So, dig out your long-neglected copy of ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ and let’s get all 90’s up in this mutha!
Filip Neduk, designer of Goblins Inc, also published by CGE, returns with his second design in Adrenaline. His unique brand of humour is vibrant, irreverently referential and all over this box like sticky grenades on a Halo noob.
It’s the kind of humour CGE alumni Vlaada Chvatil made synonymous with the company in so many of his designs. Games like Space Alert, Bunny Bunny Moose Moose, or Galaxy Trucker are all laced with this kind of cynical, yet paradoxically innocent, humour and when it is applied to the normally hyper-masculine world of first person shooters, it’s as wonderful a mix as peanut butter and chocolate.
You and your friends are trapped in an arena together with a multitude of powerful weapons, some classic and some unbelievably creative. Your mission: to accrue the most points by dealing the most damage and/or securing the most kill-shots. On the board is a kill track, marked by several super-rad and extreme, but thankfully plastic, red skulls that count down to the end of the game. Once the eighth kill has been achieved, a final round called the ‘Final Frenzy’ is triggered after which final scoring takes place and the winner is announced.
You begin the game by selecting one of the five available miniatures, all of which are loaded with personality supplied by short character biographies in the manual. These biographies are brilliantly reminiscent of the fact boxes from the hardback magazine annuals of the 80’s and 90’s.
The characters are colourful and varied, from the smiling robot ‘:D-STRUCTOR’ to the uber-gruff and masculine ‘Dozer’ and the many-tentacled cephalopod ‘Banshee’. Thankfully, there’s actually a gender balance in the character choices; two males, two females and one gender neutral character.
It might seem like a small detail, but it makes a huge difference, especially if your group is gender balanced. There’s nothing worse than saying, “Hey Colin, here’s all the male choices, all eight of them. Oh, sorry Amanda, here’s the token lady.” Once you have selected your character, you take the corresponding blood tokens, player board and a stock of ammo cubes. Then, you spawn into the map by drawing two power-up cards, keeping one and discarding the colour of the area you wish to spawn in, grab some weapons and start shooting.
When you attack, you place one of up to three weapons card from your hand onto the table in front of you. As you always hit, after you place the card on the table, you give your victim as many of your blood drops in damage as the card dictates, which they will place on their player board. Once someone has sustained enough damage to be killed, their board is scored at the end of the current turn.
Whoever dealt the most damage will receive the most points and there are bonuses for drawing first blood, as well as overkill (damaging someone with one or more points of damage over the amount required to kill them) and if you’re smart or opportunistic enough to kill two people on the same turn you’ll get a bonus for that too. After their board is scored, a skull is placed on the killed player's board, covering the eight-point score marker, indicating that the next time they are killed, they will be worth two points less to the person who did the most damage on that board.
The person who fired the killing shot will place a blood drop on the kill track if they merely killed the dead player, or they will place two on the track if they over-killed the dead player. This counts for final scoring later.
Your turn works like this: you get two actions, which can be any of the following and in any order (you can even do the same action twice).
- Move three spaces.
- Move one space and pick something up.
- Shoot some poor fool!
That’s it. Oh, wait! It’s here that we come to the namesake mechanic; Adrenaline Actions. As you get more damage, the actions you have available are modified. At two different damage thresholds, you will be able to:
- Move two spaces and pick something up.
- Move one space then shoot some poor fool!
However, once you die, you will re-spawn, but with all the damage removed from your board (don’t worry you’ll get to keep your guns) and those nice Adrenaline Actions will disappear. I wouldn’t worry though, someone is bound to unleash all manner of bullet-hell on you soon. Once you’ve taken your two actions, you’ll pass play to your left, as tradition demands, until the ‘Final Frenzy’ is triggered by removing the eighth skull from the kill track. As soon as this happens, any boards without damage on them are flipped over and they will only award two points to the next person who damages them the most. Also, your available actions will change again, but relative to your position to the first player, but in the interests of time, I’ll let you discover that on your own.
Once the ‘Final Frenzy’ is over, you’ll score all boards and the kill track, tally up your points and announce a winner. Congratulations! You have just had an awesome time.
I’m going to do my best and remain calm here. Ask my friends and they will tell you that I tend to get very, very excited when I discuss things I love. In fact, we have accepted lexicon for this aspect of my character, ‘Full Sko’. Apparently, you should never go, ‘Full Sko’. So, with measured breaths and a steady pulse, here are my thoughts on Adrenaline.
This game is the very definition of what an arena shooter should be. The maps are tight, as in bordering on claustrophobic, meaning no one can simply run and hide from the onslaught. Line of sight rules are simple to explain, but at the same time, they’re very forgiving. Basically, if you’re in the room as another figure, you can see them, and if you are in a space containing a door you can see everyone in the room that door leads to. This is awesome, as it mechanically implies that you can peek your head round the door and snipe people, which is as I tend to say, bloody boss. The iconography on the weapon cards isn’t always the most intuitive but the weapons manual, which is an entirely separate book from the rule book, is clear and concise.
The rule of diminishing returns is omnipresent in this game, and it is all the better for it. Often your opponents will think twice about damaging you when you’re only worth six or four points, and as a mechanic for stopping you getting constantly ganked, it’s very effective, nay, super effective! It also forces you to find combinations of weapons which synergise with each other for maximum damage and it asks you to be economical with your actions to make sure you’re always an impactful presence on the board.
Each turn is filled with agonising decisions, thoughts like, “will I go grab that ammo and then shoot so I can reload at the end of my turn, or will I just run into that room, empty my guns on these poor sods and hope to God that they won’t just use me for target practice?” are going to be running through your head constantly. You’ll have to stay on top of your ammo so you can reload those weapons too, so there’s a little bit of resource management on top of the tactical shooter elements. You must remain engaged with the game during other player’s turns or else you find that all the ammo you were looking to pick up will have disappeared and you’ll be unaware which targets will award optimal points. It’s a truly wonderful moment filled with ridiculous tension when you look at the other player boards and see that every single player at the table is literally on the brink of death, desperate for you to not shoot them dead.
I haven’t even covered the fact that there’s two other completely different game modes in this box, ‘Domination’ and ‘Turret Mode’. I shan’t go into them as they would take up more time than we have, but rest assured these modes add so much extra value for money that the £34 price tag makes this game a steal. You’ll be playing the main mode enough to justify the price anyway, that there’s two other modes just confirm this game as a must-purchase. I’m prepared to accept that being a child of the nineties makes me particularly emotionally susceptible to the evocations of this game.
I have countless fond memories of all the video games referenced in this box and it does take me back to those halcyon days of school holidays and Lan Parties, but there’s much more going on here. One of my favourite games is Tom Jolly’s Wiz War, a maddeningly fun, utterly stupid, wizarding death match with much of the same flavours listed here. Yet, while Wiz War now shows its age with very 80’s brutality and nihilistic rules regarding player elimination, line of sight and imbalanced spells, Adrenaline exemplifies modernity with its clean, simple rule set and above all, balanced play.
Player interaction is unavoidable, which is a good thing, it keeps the table alive with laughs abounding from almost every kill, even when it’s you at the end of a sniper rifle and rocket launcher combo. It’s hilarious, in the best way possible. In Wiz War, it is entirely possible to build yourself an impenetrable magical fort and just let everyone else kill each other while you sit behind conjured walls. Which frankly, sucks. Winning by turtling should be something all arena death-match games should disallow. It’s fantastic to see a designer take the issues that have arisen in so many of the games that preceded it and not only remove those issues but iterate on the positive aspects of those designs, creating something fresh and modern, yet familiar and intuitive.
The manual is expertly designed and laid out, the rules are clear and well-written, the minis are great quality, the components are excellent and it’s just wonderful to see a company like CGE reinvest the gains they made with Codenames into products like this. I sincerely hope that they go from strength to strength in the next few years, they truly deserve it.
Even though this game debuted last year, I only got to play it this year and it’s therefore in the running for my game of the year. It’s that bloody good. If I had to conjure up a complaint out of thin air, I’d have to say that this game is crying out for expansions. Not that there aren’t enough weapons in the box already, that’s simply not the case, but the design space seems so open-ended that the sheer amount of possibilities seems too good an opportunity to resist. Perhaps the theme isn’t as inventive as it could be, but seriously, if that’s a complaint it completely neglects to understand just how well executed the theme is.
Oh crap, I can see by my word count that I went full Sko. Now let that be a lesson to you; never go full Sko. Oh yeah, and buy Adrenaline. You won’t regret it!!
- Fast and clean mechanics that are easy to teach.
- Beautiful components.
- Modular board and the three available modes add massive replay-ability.
- Hilarious manual that makes even learning the game fun.
- No player elimination.
- For all the emphasis on achieving kill-shots, the winner will normally be the person who damaged the most players.
- Perhaps it’s in need of expansions to increase the variety of weapons.
- It's not already in your collection.