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.
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.
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.