18th Apr2018

‘Twilight Struggle’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

twilight-struggle-box

When it was first released in 2005, I can’t imagine that designers Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews would ever have expected that their debut game, Twilight Struggle, would hold first place on Board Game Geek for more than five years. There have now been several revisions, printings and special editions of the game, leading to the version I have sat in front of me – the 2016 Deluxe Edition.

The game itself is a clean, focussed experience that is shared between two players acting as the USSR and the USA respectively and it takes place between 1945 and 1989. For those who didn’t already know what the theme is, you’ve probably guessed by now; Twilight Struggle is a faithful recreation of The Cold War.

The game takes place over a deceptively brief sounding ten turns, although each of them is split into either seven or eight rounds of card play. Each of these rounds will take something like five to ten minutes to resolve, so a single turn can take upwards of twenty minutes even with moderately experienced players.

I say moderately experienced because I’ve played the game about ten times now – but considering that Twilight Struggle has a professional, competitive scene, I can hardly say that I am even competent by comparison. Regardless of what might happen at the highest level, what really makes Twilight Struggle great is perhaps how it is not only deep, but also very accessible and incredibly thematic.

I found pitching the concept of Twilight Struggle to non-core gamers to be virtually impossible, but every time that I just set it up and asked someone to play it, it was easy. The board is huge, good looking and stylish, the tokens deceptively simple and the cards rich in historic detail both written and photographic.

Most of my friends are in their thirties or older, so the majority of them have a level of understanding about the events leading up to (and especially surrounding) the fall of The Iron Curtain in 1989. Once the game begins, the theme just builds and intensifies in mechanically simple, historically relevant ways that are just as relatable to those who don’t understand the context.

Take the space race track, for example. Well informed players will be able to directly link the progress of each Superpower towards putting a man on the moon to the real life political struggle that it represents. Players who don’t know or care will simply recognise the in game value of reaching certain milestones.

The aim of the game is to accrue twenty victory points (or have the most at the end of ten turns) whilst avoiding nuclear war. The game features a tug-of-war scoring system that begins at zero and swings towards either player based on the strategic use of scoring cards. A defcon countdown tracks progress from defcon five down to the outbreak of nuclear war.

Even more interesting is the deck of cards that drives the game. There are three stacks of cards, split into Early, Mid and Late War. Each of these decks is introduced at different points in the game and unsurprisingly, there are different historic events depicted on each. The deck is shared by both Superpowers and each of the players draws eight cards at the beginning of the turn (nine from turn four onwards.)

On every card, there is an Operations Value that is shown on top of a blue, red (or multi-coloured) star and then an event is described, along with how it affects the game. Events can benefit either side (red stars for the USSR, blue for the USA and multi-coloured for neutral) but because of the shared deck element of the game, these cards can end up in the hand of either player.

Beginning with a so-called “Headline Phase” and throughout every complete turn, the players will each use all but one of their cards. Sometimes, the nations will be forced to play cards that they don’t strictly want to. The players both play their chosen card at the same time and the one with the highest Operations Value is resolved first. If a player happens to play a card that benefits their opponent, then the event it describes must be resolved – either before or after the player has used the Operations Value for whatever they intend.

On that note, the Operations Value of cards is most commonly used to undertake one of four actions:

  • Place Influence
  • Attempt a Coup
  • Realign a Country
  • Advance the Space Race

Whilst I don’t want to go into detail about each of these (because I am sure the manual does a better job) each of them does do what it indicates, variously modified by the Operations Value of the card used. As an example, placing influence is simple – the player adds their own influence to one or more countries up to the Operations Value, which can, in turn, place them in control of a country (or remove opposition control.)

Attempting a coup also affects influence, but rather than just placing friendly it influence, it both removes enemy influence and (potentially) adds friendly influence based on the outcome of a dice roll which is, again, modified by Operations Value. Coups also decrease the Defcon value, which is a key consideration for both players. Country realignment and Space Race Advancement are also dice based, so players who appreciate a little bit of calculated luck are well catered for.

Events are the most interesting and thematic things to consider when playing cards, whether they are friendly or not. Most will affect influence in a number of individual countries, or across an entire region, for example. Others might remain in play, adding enhancements to future Operations Value ratings, for example.

The deck also contains scoring cards that enable the players to tactically score regions based on how much control they hold. Scoring cards have no Operations Value or event effect and so they take place after the opponent has resolved their card, which adds an element of risk to the scoring. It’s all well and good assuming that you have control of the Middle East – but what if Russia decided to play the Nasser card in the meantime to remove key influence?

Twilight Struggle features a number of other rules and components that continue the theme. The China Card, for example, which sits outside the normal hand limit and passes from one Superpower to the other when played and offers an advantage to the player holding it at the end of the game. The Military Operations track, which ensures that each Superpower thematically shows enough force each turn to remain a potent threat to the other.

Ultimately, it’s hard to articulate why Twilight Struggle is such an important and exceptional game in a single review, but take it from someone who plays a lot of games, it is both of those things and more. It’s a history lesson in bite size chunks, a tour-de-force in linking game play mechanics with theme and a modern classic.

I’d even go so far as to say that Twilight Struggle is the true definition of an essential purchase for any serious board game fan. If you’re a casual gamer looking to move into heavier games, or a history buff wondering where to start – you’ve found the place. Whilst I shouldn’t have been surprised about it thanks to its reputation, I admit that I was – but take it from me, Twilight Struggle is superb.

****½  4.5/5

A copy of Twilight Struggle was provided by GMT Games for review purposes. It can be purchased from almost any friendly local game store, or online.

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