Twilight Struggle is a deep and strategic tabletop simulation of the Cold War released in 2005 from designers Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews. Two players go head-to-head as they take on the roles of the US and the USSR during the tense historical period from 1945-1989, jockeying for influence across the globe and making tactical decisions to turn the momentum of the war in their favor.
Twilight Struggle is primarily a card-driven game, with players taking turns choosing cards from their hand to play. What makes this basic mechanic much more interesting is the fact that certain cards are better for one player or the other (US or USSR), and players inevitably will need to sometimes play cards that help the other player. Every card specifies an operations value (1-4), an event (famous historical headlines from the Cold War era), and then a color specifying if the event belongs to the US or the USSR, or if it is neutral. When playing a card, the player must choose to either use the operations points to take actions on the map, or play the card for the event. The big catch is that if you use a card that has your opponent’s event, it is forced to trigger. So if you have one of your opponent’s really powerful events, you will likely be forced to play it eventually (there are some ways to avoid it, which will be discussed later), so it all comes down to controlling the timing and mitigating the negative effects that it has on your position.
There are a few ways that players can use operation points:
- Placing Influence – Every country represented on the map has spaces for each side to play influence counters in that country. Influence is the primary goal of the game: everything is about strategically getting a majority of influence in key regions on the map. Using a card to place influence allows you to add points of influence up to the operations value of the card, with a few key rules:
- Influence can only be placed in or adjacent to countries where you already have influence.
- If you control a country, or it is not controlled, you can add 1 influence per operations point. If the country is controlled by your opponent, you can only add 1 influence per every 2 operations points.
- Operations points can be split between countries; for example, you could use a 4 point operations card to play 1 influence in four different countries that you control.
What does it mean to control a country? Another key mechanic in Twilight Struggle, both in providing historical realism as well as interesting gameplay, is that every country has its own stability value. A very stable country like the U.K. has a stability value of 5, while unstable countries like Nigeria and the Sudan have values of 1. To have control of a country, a player must have influence in that country that exceeds his opponent’s influence by at least the stability value. So if your opponent had 2 influence in the U.K., you would need 7 influence there to gain control. Controlling countries is crucial (especially in scoring which is described later), because it forces your opponent to pay twice the amount of operations points to place influence in that country. So naturally, an unstable country like the Sudan is much easier to swing control, because there is a smaller spread to overcome in placing influence.
- Realignment Rolls – This action allows the player to use the operations points to make that many die rolls in an attempt to reduce an opponents influence in certain countries. Each player will roll a die and compare their results, with the player having the lower roll needing to remove that much influence from the selected country (so the player initiating the Realignment Rolls could have it backfire and remove his own influence). There are certain modifications to the die roll, such as having more influence in the selected country, controlling adjacent countries, and being adjacent to the player’s Superpower (the US or USSR).
- Coup Attempts – A Coup Attempt allows a player to try and reverse their opponent’s influence in a country in a more aggressive fashion. This is resolved by rolling a die and adding the operations points of the card used to the result. This value is then compared to twice the stability of the selected country. If the difference is positive, the player can remove that much of the opponent’s influence, and if there is still excess, he can add that much of his own influence into the country. Especially in a country with low stability, this can allow a player to completely reverse control of an opponent-controlled country. There are some consequences to Coup Attempts though. If the targeted country is a “Battleground” country, then the DEFCON track must be reduced by one, moving one step closer to triggering nuclear war. If the DEFCON track ever reaches 1 (it begins the game at 5), the active player immediately loses the game. Additionally, regardless of whether the country is a Battleground or not, the active player gains “Military Operations” equal to the operations points of the card used for the Coup. This is important because at the end of every round, players will compare their military operations for the round to the current DEFCON, and if the DEFCON is higher, they give up the difference in points to the other player. This ensures that there is a steady use of Coup attempts throughout the game, and that the DEFCON is constantly increasing the tension. The DEFCON track is increased by one at the start of every round, allowing for additional Battleground Coup Attempts throughout the game. Also, as the DEFCON falls, it begins to restrict which regions allow Coup Attempts, blocking such operations in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East depending on the current level.
- The Space Race – Once per round, a player can also choose to commit a card to the Space Race. This is an independent track that players need to manage throughout the game, as the first player to reach squares on the Space Race track is rewarded with extra abilities and victory points. More importantly though, is that committing a card to the Space Race is the one way to play a card without triggering the opponent’s event. This means that if you have a nasty opponent’s event that you really want to avoid putting into effect, you can strategically play it for the Space Race to keep it from activating. The card will get shuffled back into the deck, but you can at least delay the impact, and possibly keep it out of play indefinitely if you are able to draw it again later in the game.
The majority of the gameplay involves players using operations points to perform the actions listed above, but there is also a steady flow of events being triggered. These events are the catalyst for a variety of game effects, and really provide another dimension of strategic interest and thematic flavor. Everything described so far details what a player might do on a single turn, but I have yet to describe how those turns fit into the larger gameplay arc.
An entire game of Twilight Struggle is played over 10 rounds, with each round consisting of a number of turns that changes slightly depending on the point in the game (Early War, Mid War, Late War). At the beginning of each round, the DEFCON is improved (one closer to peace), players are dealt a hand of cards, and there is a “Headline Phase” where each player must simultaneously select a card from their hand to play strictly for the event. Once those events have been resolved, players begin taking alternating turns beginning with the USSR player. At the end of the round, each player compares their military operations to the DEFCON level to see if any points should be scored based on the difference, the “China Card” (a special card that is under the control of one player at any given time, switching control whenever it is used) is flipped face-up, and the turn marker advances.
If the turn marker moves into the Mid War or the Late War portion of the track, the deck for that time period is shuffled into the main deck, throwing a ton of new cards into the mix. There is no guarantee that the game will reach the Mid or Late War though, as a game of Twilight Struggle can actually end at any point, which is a great segue into how scoring works.
Unlike most games where players score points and compare their totals at the end, Twilight Struggle is all about a tug-of-war with a shared scoring marker. At the beginning of the game, the victory point marker starts neutrally at zero, and whenever a player scores, they move the marker that many spaces in their direction. If a player is ever able to reach 20 on their side of the scoring track, they immediately win the game. This provides some fantastic tension as it is no longer viable to simply focus on a long term strategy, because immediate action is required if your opponent is starting to pull the marker further in their direction. If the ten game rounds end without either player reaching 20, a final scoring round takes place, and then the player with the victory point marker on their side is the winner. There are a few secondary ways to score points: specific card events, military operations at the end of each round, reaching certain spaces on the Space Race track; but the primary source of points comes from the Scoring Cards that are shuffled into the deck.
Scoring Cards, when played, immediately score a specific region (Europe, Asia, the Middle East, etc.). Players then score points based on whether they have Presence (at least one controlled country), Domination (more total controlled countries and more controlled Battleground countries than their opponent), or Control (Domination, but controlling every Battleground country in the region). Additional points are scored for each controlled Battleground country or country adjacent to the opponent’s Superpower. Since the scoring track is shared, only the difference in points scored will move the victory point marker. What makes the use of these Scoring Cards so interesting is the fact that you don’t know when, or in what order, regions will be scored. For example, during the Early War, players know that only the Scoring Cards for Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are in play. It is possible that all three could be drawn in the first round. Or none could be drawn. Is my opponent holding a Scoring Card? Or is he bluffing to make me think he has a certain one? In addition, the player holding the Scoring Card can control the timing of when it gets played in the round (as it is played like any other card). If I am holding a Scoring Card, I have to decide: do I think I can improve my scoring position in that region before playing it, or should I just score it now before things get worse? How can I improve my position without giving away that I am going to score that region? The decisions introduced by the Scoring Cards are one of the primary drivers of the tension and strategy found in a game of Twilight Struggle.
In the Mid War, the Scoring Cards for the rest of the regions are added to the deck, and suddenly the entire map opens up requiring players to juggle their influence all around the globe, trying to make progress while not giving up ground in other key areas. Should players hold each other off until the end of the game, every single region gets scored one final time, and the game is finished.
What Is It Like to Play?
If there is one word that describes what it is like to play Twilight Struggle, it is “tension.” There are so many different sources in the gameplay that contribute to an overall tension that only escalates as the game moves forward. Namely, here are some of the main contributors:
- The Shared Scoring Track – The tug-of-war scoring immediately pits the players directly against each other by using zero-sum scoring. Every point scored is essentially a point taken away from the other player, and threatening to push your score to 20 puts the pressure on your opponent to score points in some way, even if it is at the expense of their long-term strategy.
- The Complex Juggling Act – On any given turn, there are a wide variety of important areas that a player wants to make progress on. Do I improve my position in the Middle East now, or do a Coup Attempt in Asia while the DEFCON still allows it? Do I commit to the Space Race now to get the next bonus before my opponent, or do I play the Africa scoring card in case my opponent decides to play there? There is constant tension around choosing which initiatives take priority, and knowing that your opponent is going to put the pressure on additional areas as the round plays on.
- Needing to Trigger Opponent’s Events – Not very many games force you to explicitly make moves that help your opponent. But in Twilight Struggle, there are many times that you will make a move that clearly improves your opponent’s position more than yours, simply because you could not avoid it. It is very possible to draw a hand that only contains events of the other player, in which case you will be sweating as you try to find a way to make it out of the round alive with minimal lasting damage. The flip-side is that your opponent is often feeling the same way, and you can count on getting some help from them triggering your events throughout the game as well. But at the beginning of each round, you will be looking at a new hand of cards trying to figure out which cards you can avoid playing (through the Space Race, and the single card you usually get to hold between rounds), and how you will time the negative effects that you do indeed decide to play.
- The Scoring Cards – I already touched on this, but oh man do these cards add tension into the game. You might draw the Scoring Card where your opponent is clearly ahead of you. You might draw no Scoring Cards, and be extra suspicious that your opponent is holding one. Especially once the Mid War hits and all Scoring Cards are in play, you have to be ready for anything to be scored at any time. It may be that neither player has a Scoring Card, and yet both players are desperately trying to keep every region in balance because, as far as they know, their opponent could have that Scoring Card. Really a brilliant way to keep players on their toes and cause the game to unfold differently each time.
It is also worth noting that while players have the same core options available to them from turn to turn, the game is very asymmetrical between the two Superpowers. Most obviously, each player starts with influence in certain countries, giving advantages to each side in specific regions right from the start. But another key distinction between the sides is how their advantages shift throughout the game. In the Early War, the deck is slanted towards the USSR, and it is very common (though not guaranteed) for the USSR player to take an early lead. As the game progresses into the Mid and Late War though, powerful cards begin to appear for the US that can often swing things in their favor if the game drags on. It isn’t a scripted advantage (the USSR player can certainly win in the late game, and the US player can manage to pull ahead in the early game), but it is a dynamic that players need to be aware of and adjust their approach based on the side they are playing.
It is common for confrontational two player games to have a lot of anticipation and guesswork around what other player is going to do, and Twilight Struggle has those mind games in spades. Each player has, literally, been dealt a hand of cards that dictates their strategy for that round, and you really have no idea what the other player is dealing with. Do they have scoring cards in their hand or not? Did they get a hand with high operations points or are they not able to match your influencing rate on the map? Did they get mostly their own cards, or do they have a bunch of your events that are going to help you this round? You never want your opponent to know that you are in a bad position, so there is a fair amount of bluffing and playing it cool even when things are looking dire. It all comes together in a mosaic of tension, but that tension and the interlocking systems are what make the game so satisfying to play.
Every game starts with the same setup, with players making a few choices about their initial allocation of influence in Europe. But then, the first hands of cards are dealt. And at that moment, things are going to begin unfolding in a different order than any previous game. Sure, the events will become familiar and there will be patterns that show up from game to game, but the overall tactical landscape will always be fresh and exciting. If anything, the game becomes more satisfying the more familiar the two players are with it.
Twilight Struggle belongs to a family of card-driven wargames (though some hardcore wargamers wouldn’t classify it as such) that will share a lot of familiarities: Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?, 1989: Dawn of Freedom, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, etc. Some other designs that may have some overlap include 1960: The Making of President, Memoir ’44, and War of the Ring.
Pretty quick, as players simply need to put out their starting influence and then deal out the initial hands from the Early War deck. Up and running in a few minutes.
This is kind of complex question. At the game mechanic level, Twilight Struggle really isn’t that hard to teach. There are just a few basic actions that players need to know, and most everything else is described by the events on the cards. That said, understanding the strategy is a whole other matter. A new player playing against an experienced player is likely to get crushed, and it could very well be early in the game given the nature of the scoring. But as far as getting a new player up to speed with the rules, I believe Twilight Struggle is a lot easier to teach than the strategic weight of the game would seem to suggest.
Things to Like
Twilight Struggle really comes down to hand management and how to best prioritize the cards to make the biggest impact and minimize the downsides. Every card is essentially multi-use, as they not only have both operations points and an event, but the operations points themselves can be used in four different ways. Every dealt hand is a new challenge, and also makes sure that the game plays out differently each time.
Players need to balance every single scoring region on the map, their progress in the Space Race, their military operations for the turn, as well as managing the events that they trigger from their hand. All of these interlocking systems provide endless situations where you have to make tough tradeoffs about what is more important to focus on during the current turn. Ignoring any of the systems is a sure way to let your opponent take control. Decide to give up in Asia because things are looking bad? Your opponent will quickly move from Domination to Control and score a ridiculous 15 points if the Asia Scoring Card gets played. Want to ignore the Space Race? Your opponent will start piling up special abilities in addition to grabbing the points for reaching the spaces first. Want to ignore military operations this round? Your opponent will not only get their pick of Coup Attempts on the map, but they also will pick up some easy points from your insufficient military operations. It is all important, and it is fascinating how it all comes together.
Most games have very predicable patterns around when points are scored. As a result, you can usually plan to make sure that you have things how you want when the time comes. In Twilight Struggle, the Scoring Cards can come at any time and in any order (other than some being in the Early War deck and some in the Mid War deck). This means that you have to be paranoid about every region that has the potential to be scored in a given round. It may not be, but one slip up could result in big points for the other player. This makes every turn feel like it really matters, and the game stays exciting throughout instead of just at key scoring points.
The structure of three stages of the war gives the game a large sense of scale and progression. At the beginning, all the action is in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Once the Mid War rolls around, the entire map starts opening up as places like South America can now be scored. By the time you hit the Late War, players have influence across the globe and it is usually at this point that I back away from the board and think, “wow this game is crazy.” And that is crazy in a good way.
To be honest, the theme of the Cold War is not all that interesting to me. I was born in 1992, and I am ignorant on that time period as well as most historical events. That said, this game exudes theme, and “tension” may not only be the perfect word to describe the gameplay, but also to describe the time period that is being portrayed.
Things to Dislike
Players will definitely get better at Twilight Struggle the more they play (which is a good thing), but there are some things that just require being aware of cards that are in the deck. For example, the Mid War deck has a card called “Sadat Expels Soviets” that removes all USSR Influence in Egypt and adds one US influence. Simply knowing that card exists will change how the USSR player approaches adding influence in Egypt moving into the Mid War, but a player that is not familiar with the card may waste time and have their progress completely taken away. Another example is the card “Wargames” in the Late War deck. This card essentially allows the player to instantly win if the victory point marker is at least at 7 on their side (and the DEFCON is at 2). Knowing that this card is in the Late War forces players to be really intentional about keeping the victory point marker neutralized if possible. Neither of these card effects are detrimental to the gameplay, but it does increase the learning curve and punishes players for simply not remembering certain cards.
Several game effects require players to roll a single die to determine the results. In most cases, the difference between a 1 and a 6 is absolutely huge in how the card resolves. For example a coup attempt could fail miserably with a 1, but completely reverse control with a 6. Or a player might play “Olympic Games” which has both players roll with the winner gaining victory points, but the active player gets to add 2 to his roll. A bad roll could mean giving your opponent points despite having the clear advantage. Now I appreciate the inclusion of luck as I feel it is more representative of the unexpected nature of war and how, in the real world, things don’t always happen according to the odds. It makes for more interesting tactical situations, as players need to find a way to overcome what chance has given them. That said, it never feels good to have a huge swing in the game just because a player rolled a 1. You can always come up with thematic justification and it can tell a good story about how “he had the advantage going into Haiti but was held off against all odds!” for example, but in a game as long and strategic as Twilight Struggle, you generally want to feel that the winner was the player who played more effectively.
Game Design Perspective
I spend a lot of time thinking about how there are essentially two ways that game mechanics get designed: either the game mechanic was designed first, and then a theme was attached (or not in the case of abstracts), or the theme came first, and the game mechanic emerged out of the theme. In Twilight Struggle, I think you see a beautiful marriage of these two approaches scattered throughout the game. Having a DEFCON level that goes down with Battleground Coup Attempts and restricts aggressive activity on the map to avoid the risk of nuclear war? That emerges entirely out of the theme, but the resulting mechanics have a fascinating impact on the strategy and gameplay. Having cards that can be used for operations points or events, but must trigger the event if it belongs to your opponent? That is really a non-thematic mechanic, but it works brilliantly in providing tense decisions and keeping a steady flow of thematic events activating throughout the game. No doubt did the designers set out to create a game about the Cold War (and succeeded on all levels), but I applaud the ability to allow theme to drive the mechanics, while also being able to view the game as a non-thematic system of game mechanics and player decisions, keeping the playability as the primary goal. The reality is, if this game had the theme stripped off completely, and all the events were just nameless cards with mechanical effects, and each track was just a dry spreadsheet without any thematic justification… the game would still be FUN. The fact that the designers were able to achieve that level of excellence in game design while keeping it all so strongly tied to the theme is an impressive feat. In my mind, Twilight Struggle is the near-pinnacle of thematic game design.
Twilight Struggle is certainly not for everyone. It is a heavy, strategic two-player game that takes upwards of three or more hours to play. But for those looking for a thematic and tense head-to-head experience that is full of rich decision-making and is epic in scale, you would be hard-pressed to find a better option than Twilight Struggle.
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