I've been stalking this site for some time now, gathering tons of precious data. I've never been active on any of the forums, rathering playing through my collection and gradually acquiring my own taste for games.
And all of a sudden a voice in my head commanded me to share some of my thoughts on particular titles in form of a review - as if there weren't hundreds of them already... Still, maybe someone will find this information meaningful when making one of the most important decisions in life - whether or not to buy another game...
Oh, and please don't kill me for any awkward sentences and other lapses as English is not my native language. Let's move on...
For my first review on BGG I chose my definite #1 - the Twilight Struggle. It's a game I discovered about 1 year ago - encouraged by high ratings and a lot of praise. Back then it was unavailable in Poland, but fortunately I was able to buy a used copy from the US.
Me & my wife already had quite a lot experience in gaming at that point. We owned many euro classics like for example Puerto Rico, Agricola, Tigris&Euphrates or TtA: a Story of Civilization, we tried card games (MtG, Dominion) and a couple of "ameritrash" titles like Arkham Horror or Talisman - the former we like very much.
Thus, the expectations were high. After exploring so many good games we thought that the first title in main BGG ranking should be absolutely mind-blowing. Did it live up to the hype? For us it definitely did... So maybe our feelings about the game will somehow help you decide if it's worth buying.
SO WHAT'S THE STORY?
TS is a strongly themed 2-p strategic game. Each player controls one of the post-WW2 empires - the USA or the USSR - struggling to gain world domination in the dark and tense cold war era. The most important historical events are represented by cards - there are over 100 in a deck separated into 3 periods: early war, mid war and late war, many come with a black and white photo, all are very thematic and create a great atmosphere.
Just to summarize the rules briefly - each player is dealt a fixed amount of cards (8, later 9) at the beginning of a turn. Then he is supposed to play all but one of them during his action rounds & the headline phase which occurs first. A card can be used to trigger an event or to gain operation points, which can be spent on activities such as placing influence in countries, removing opponent influence by realignment rolls or conducting coups. If you decide to go for operation points with a card which contains opponent's event, it is automatically triggered, so often you will be forced to use some of those points to repair the damage, at other times you will have to sacrifice particular countries or regions in order to spend ops somewhere else. Most events have serious consequences so you are constantly presented with difficult trade-offs. A particularly nasty event can be discarded to advance your nation on the space race track, but you can do so only once per full turn (twice under certain circumstances). Some events are discarded permanently after being resolved once, other can be reshuffled when the deck for a particular era runs out, so they might come back and haunt you. Managing pesky opponent events is one of very important aspects of gameplay.
The common deck also contains a number of scoring cards which are of great importance. Whenever you draw such a card, you are obliged to play it by the end of your turn - you can't send it into space or retain it in hand. After a scoring card is triggered, both players are awarded victory points for presence, domination or control in one of 7 regions - Europe, Asia, Middle East and so on. You're never certain when a scoring will happen so better be prepared...
There are several ways of winning the game. The most obvious are: gaining 20 victory points at any point of time or surviving to the end of turn 10, when final scoring of all regions is conducted. You can also obtain total control of Europe which gives you automatic victory when Europe scoring card is played - this rarely happens but still it's possible.
The last and probably most interesting endgame condition is forcing your opponent into degrading DEFCON level to 1, which means a nuclear war outbreak and a loss for the responsible player. DEFCON can be degraded by coup attempts in crucial countries or modified (both up and down) by card event. It automatically increases by 1 before a new turn begins. If your opponent has a card which reduces DEFCON and he is unable to 'space-race' it, then he's in for some serious trouble.
Overall, the rules are not at all difficult and by the end of your first game you should be comfortable with them. And that's just when the actual fun begins.
But there are things you should be warned about...
NOT EVERYONE WILL LIKE THIS GAME
TS is difficult. It requires some serious skill. As a beginner when you play against an experienced opponent don't expect to win. Expect to be wiped out completely and without mercy.
Knowing the cards is a must - some of them can result in sudden death by triggering defcon 1, others can destroy your influence in a particular country, so plan accordingly. You also need to be aware of many intricacies, know which countries are important and why, learn some cunning tricks that your opponent may and will launch against you. Only after a couple of plays you begin to realize how incredibly deep this game is. Some players might be a bit discouraged by such steep learning curve.
TS is tense. It's not a game best suited to play on a lazy Saturday evening. In most board games I know there's room for expansion, there's a possibility to slow down and take a turn where you just peacefully consolidate your empire. Not here. In TS you're constantly on the edge, knowing that a single mistake might cost you victory. Either you are aggresive and create dillemmas for the
opponent or you lose ground, there's not much in between. The fact that scoring cards can appear at almost any moment means that you always need to anticipate the worst scenario where you lose a domination and give a large amount of points to the other player. Casual gamers will not feel comfortable... A full session with a worthy opponent feels like the mental equivalent of running a marathon and leaves you totally exhausted.
TS is very competitive. The theme itself suggests a lot of negative interaction. Two empires are struggling for power in one of the most interesting periods in history and each is only waiting to claw at other's throat. Your goal is to inflict as much damage on your opponent as possible without giving him any room to breathe. It's all about finding weak spots and hitting them hard, creating lose-lose situations for the other player and luring into complex strategic traps. People who like more subtle interaction in a less cut-throat environment may not like the game.
TS may seem unbalanced. Not everyone will be happy about it, but it's the very nature of this game, a trait which I personally enjoy very much. For beginners it's much easier to play the USSR. If you choose USA you'll be presented with many difficulties during the first era and your main goal is just to survive. Only after several turns you will be able to strike back against the Soviets. There are strategies to tip the balance in US favor in later periods but they have to be learned.
SHOULD I BUY IT?
As you can see, TS is far from a simple family game. If you are a highly competitive player who likes intellectual challenge, if you are into 2-player games because you often play with your partner/wife/husband, if you like history or would like to learn more about the cold war, if you enjoy games which require polishing your skills gradually until you become an expert - then give it a try and I guarantee you'll be delighted. People who prefer more peaceful and slow-paced gaming might not be satisfied.
We don't stop playing when we get old, but we get old when we stop playing.
A very good review of one of the best games ever.
Thanks for the review.
I actually prefer to read a review from someone that has played the game for some time and really gotten a good understanding of the rules and mechanics.
- Soap Box -
On the flip side, I get frustrated when people post/select game ratings for a game they have just ordered and have not even played yet...
john f stup
you are right on about the intensity of the game.
Anyway, how's your sex life?
A full session with a worthy opponent feels like the mental equivalent of running a marathon and leaves you totally exhausted.
This may be your first review but this is hitting the nail squarely on the head. I've had two games like this and it genuinely feels like you have been through the wringer by the time the dust settles.
A very nice first review. Thank you!