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Twilight Struggle: Deluxe edition

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Twilight Struggle: Deluxe Edition is a strategy game for two players. Published by GMT Games, Twilight Struggle simulates the forty-five-year dance of intrigue, prestige, and occasional flares of warfare between the Soviet Union and the United States. The game begins amidst the ruins of Europe as the two new ‘superpowers’ scramble over the wreckage of the Second World Wa…
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Great For Two
Dice Tower


  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • Deep and thematic.
  • Endless replay-ability.
  • Tense and interactive play.

Might Not Like

  • Three-hour game.
  • Steep learning curve.
  • Can feel formulaic.
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Twilight Struggle: Deluxe Edition is a strategy game for two players. Published by GMT Games, Twilight Struggle simulates the forty-five-year dance of intrigue, prestige, and occasional flares of warfare between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The game begins amidst the ruins of Europe as the two new 'superpowers' scramble over the wreckage of the Second World War, and ends in 1989, when only the United States remained standing.

Gameplay is card-driven with some truly brain-crunching decisions to make. With 110 unique event cards, no two games will ever be the same. This deluxe edition features a new mounted board, cleaned up cards, and much more.

Currently ranked the best war game on BGG and 10th best board game overall! Twilight Struggle is an essential for any wargamer's collection.

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.

Twilight Struggle Review – Components (Credit: GMT Games)

Playing and Winning Twilight Struggle

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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.

Zatu Score


  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • Deep and thematic.
  • Endless replay-ability.
  • Tense and interactive play.

Might not like

  • Three-hour game.
  • Steep learning curve.
  • Can feel formulaic.