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How to Play: Twilight Struggle

How to Play: Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle is a two-player simulation of the cold war, at heart it's an event card driven, area control, victory point game with a few options for sudden death victory mostly around precipitating nuclear war.

There is a lot going on in the game, a lot of different things to consider every turn, in some cases the choices are fairly obvious, in others not, and there are a few pitfalls and traps that are possible to fall into.

I’m not an expert at Twilight Struggle, but I’m good and I can hold my own against most opponents, so along with a guide on how to play this game there will be a few hints and tips I have learned along the way.

Twilight Struggle Set-Up

Set-up for Twilight Struggle, by GMT Games, is fairly straightforward; place various tokens on the board in set places, space race to zero, Defcon to five, military operations to zero, the victory point token to zero, and so on, all of which is clearly laid out in the rule book. Then there is the fun bit, which can be done before or after the above, it really does not matter.

Each player gets eight cards from the early war deck, so shuffle the deck and deal out those eight cards each, with the Soviet player also getting the China card as an extra. Examine these cards carefully, they will help define your initial placement of Influence markers and your initial strategy. Then, the Soviet player gets to place 15 influence markers as per the rules, most are in set places, such as one in Syria, three in East Germany, three in North Korea, but then there are six which can be placed anywhere in Eastern Europe.

When the Soviet player has completed his set-up, it is the turn of the USA player to do so, following the rules for USA placement including seven anywhere in Western Europe.

There are a few things to consider in the placement:

  1. Each country has a stability number in the top right of the box. To have Control on a country, the player much have at least that number more of control markers than his opponent. So to have Control of Poland would require the Soviet player to place three Influence markers in Poland.
  2. Some countries have the stability number in a red box, others in a yellow box. The ones in a red box are battleground countries. Battleground countries are more important, Control of these is needed for scoring victory points, and carrying our coups or other military actions in these countries will lower Defcon.
  3. Normally (without using a card that allows placement of Control markers in a specific country) it is only possible to place Control markers adjacent to countries that already have at least one of that player’s Control Markers. In initial placement this is not true, so it becomes the one opportunity to perhaps for example place a soviet Control marker in Austria or Yugoslavia.
  4. The Early War cards. There are 35 cards in the early war deck (38 cards with the three optional cards that are included in all currently available copies of the game), after set-up there are 16 in-play, so a little under half of that deck. Where those initial control markets might be placed in Europe will depend on what cards a player holds, or sometimes more importantly what cards he fears his opponent might hold.
  5. The scoring cards. If you have one in hand, work towards making the most from it and remember that while it is possible to retain a card for future turns, scoring cards cannot be retained in this way.

Tips on Initial Placement 

It might be a bad idea for the USA to place control markers in France, the De Gaul Leads France card or Suez Crisis card could wipe them out. USA Control of Italy can be beneficial, but….Unless the Soviets have pressing needs elsewhere Italy becomes a very tempting target for an immediate coup.

If USA access to the Middle East is really important, then having influence or control of Turkey can help. The Soviets are less likely to bother with a coup in Turkey or for that matter Greece or Spain/Portugal. They are not the desirable target that Italy is.

Depending on what cards are in hand, the Soviet player may not want to spread influence markers around. Taking Control of countries in Eastern Europe might be safer and more desirable.  Poland should be priority because it is a battleground country, Yugoslavia is useful to put pressure on Italy, but there are risks.

The Event Cards

These are divided into three decks; Early War, Mid War and Late War. Player aids list the cards, make use of this, photocopy the aid if need be especially if you want to use a pencil to record which cards have been played. Tracking these cards can be really helpful, especially during the Early War when play is with a smaller deck of cards.

These cards drive every action a player can make. With the exception of Scoring cards, each card has an Operations Point number and an Event, those with a red star are Soviet events, those with a white star are USA events. Cards can be played for the event, in which case the event happens, or for the Operations number, in which case operations to that number can be made. Operations could be placing control markers on the game board, attempting a coup, attempting realignment and so on.

Bear in mind that if the Soviet player plays a USA specific event then the event must happen and the Soviet player can only use it for Operations, and that the Soviet player gets to decide in which order these two things happen. Also bear in mind that if the USA played that card the Soviet player gets nothing, this is why sometimes it is better to have opponent’s cards.

Oh and bear in mind that if Defcon is at two and the Soviet player plays a card that allows the USA player to do anything to drop Defcon to one during the Soviet play of that card, then the Soviet player loses. I’ve seen a few games won and lost in this way, and it is a good reason for not having Defcon at two.

Uses of Event Cards

  • For the event – In which case carry out what is said in the event text.
  • To place control markers – Markers can only be placed in countries that the player already has markers in or countries adjacent to one the player has markers in.
  • Coup – To attempt a coup in any country that the opponent has control markers in. Coups in battleground countries always lower Defcom. Coups count towards Required Military Actions
  • Realignment – To attempt to realign control markers. Multiple rolls can be made with one card, up to the operations value of the card.
  • Space Race – This is where to play opponent’s cards that are really not desirable as events. If you are the Soviet player it is where things like Marshall Plan might go, because when a card is played on the space race the associated event does not take place.  Progress on the space race has its own benefits including victory points.

The Scoring Cards

In the early war there are only three scoring card, Europe Scoring, Middle East Scoring and Asia Scoring. More become available later in the game. Work towards gaining victory points from these or make sure to limit the number of points your opponent might make.

Players may have Presence, Domination, or Control and score the points as indicated when scoring any region, with the exception of Europe where Control is an instant win. Remember, scoring cards must be played in the turn they are dealt.

Turn Structure

All turns in Twilight Struggle operate in the following way:

  1. Improve Defcon by one (if not five).
  2. Deal Cards – To the number required in hand, eight in Early War, nine in Mid and Late War.
  3. Headline Phase – Players must select one card as a headline event. These are revealed simultaneously. The highest card goes first, if tied the USA player goes first. Scoring cards can be played and are considered to have a value of 0. Unless the card specifically refers to the availability of operations points neither player may get operations points from a Headline Card. The China Card cannot be played as a Headline card.
  4. Action Rounds – Soviet player goes first, playing one card, the USA player plays a card, then the Soviet player and so on until the required number of actions are reached. Cards are played as events or for operations. Those cards played as events, where there is text saying they are removed from play if used as an event, are removed from play, all others are put into a discard pile for later reuse. Note, if a card is played and the event would normally be triggered but that event cannot take place – NATO for example by the Soviets when Marshall Plan or Warsaw Pact are not in effect – then NATO is not considered to be played as an event and the card goes to the discard pile rather than being removed from the game.
  5. Check Military Operations – A certain number are required each turn, equal to the Defcon rating at this point. If these have not been achieved then the deficit is made up for by removing an equivalent number of victory points.
  6. Reveal held card (optional). Players normally have one card more than they need to play so one card can be held in hand.
  7. Flip China Card. If the China card is played, it is then handed face down to the opponent.  At the end of the turn at this stage, it is flipped to face up and may be used in the subsequent turn by the player no possessing it.
  8. Advance the turn marker.
  9. Final Scoring – After turn 10, score all regions (not SE Asia since this is part of Asia).

Winning in Twilight Struggle

If any player manages to establish Control of Western Europe this is an instant win in Twilight Struggle. If any play precipitates Nuclear War this is an instant loss, note the player who played the card precipitating nuclear war loses, not the player who might have used to card to that effect.

If a player ever reaches +20 victory points in play this is an instant win. There are some other sudden death victory conditions in Late War. If none of these occur then after turn 10 score all regions and the winner is the player with the most victory points. If the Victory Point marker is at zero the game is tied.


Notes on Early War, Mid-War and Late War

Early War

During the Early War there are a limited number of cards and scoring is only possible in Europe, Middle east and Asia. When there are no cards remaining in the draw deck, shuffle the discard pile and continue to deal until players have eight cards each in hand (excluding the China Card). What this means is if you have kept rack of the card played is that you should know three or four of the cards your opponent holds.

Because victory points are only available in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, this is where the action is going to take place, although the Soviets, if they have nothing better to do, may well stage a coup in Panama – Panama controls easy access to South America

In Europe, the USA may shy away from France until De Gaul is out of the way and be wary of a Suez Crisis. Italy might be tempting to hold, shoring up West Germany might be a tactic. Austria is always a safe place due to the high stability number. The Soviets may be wary of spreading influence thinly, may initially concentrate on Poland and East Germany.

Yugoslavia is sometimes a good option but beware the Independent Reds card. Europe Scoring is unlikely to have a great effect in the Early War so don’t worry too much about it, especially if Soviet and you control East Germany and Poland.

In the Middle East the USA is unlikely to move towards Egypt until the Nasser card is out of the way.  The action is likely to centre around Iran and Iraq.  A Soviet coup in Iran is likely, if successful it blocks USA access to Asia.  Jumping into Jordan may shore up scoring and obviously the Soviets may have interests in Egypt and then Libya.

In Asia (sometimes called the land war or the race for Thailand), if either side can get control of Pakistan they will be happy, it’s a great springboard. The Soviets will probably regard Japan as a lost cause. Personally, if I’m playing Soviet and I end up with the USA/Japan Mutual Defence card (a USA card) I’ll play it. The USA can have Japan, and I’ll get four influence markers closer to Thailand. The USA may try to move toward Thailand from Australia, the Formosian Revolution card may be of great interest to the USA, and no matter what happens Asia is going to be a hot bed of coups and revolutions.

Finally, if the USA player can hold onto the Warsaw Pact Formed card until the last turn of Early War and then discards it on the Space Race, it gets shuffled with all the rest of the Early War cards into a larger draw deck containing all the Mid War card – effectively burying it. Of course, the Soviet player can do the same with USA centred cards.

Mid-War and Late War

In Mid-War things are much more flexible and less predictable. There is a far greater number of cards and hand size is one larger. Scoring cards for Central America, SE Asia, Africa and South America are now in the deck along with those for Europe, Asia and Middle East.

In Late War there are even more cards plus some sudden death victory conditions which should make players hesitant to keep Defcon low. I’m not going to talk more about Mid and Late war, this guide is long enough and there is fun in learning things in-play, rather than reading about them.