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Subject: A review of Twilight Struggle by Joe Steadman rss

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Joe Steadman
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Evans
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Most people who know me know that I much prefer wargames to all other styles of board games. No one knows this more than my wife, Monica. Monica is an avid and great game player but like most wives she has not played 75% of the games her husband owns. So, you can image my surprise when she approached me a few weeks ago about wanting to try one of “my” games. Wow! The dream that all of us wargamers have had for years had come true! Many titles ran through my mind as I searched through my game collection looking for the perfect game to start my wife’s hopefully new addiction. At first I thought Quebec 1759, a good light block game, then I thought maybe I would teach her ASLSK. While looking through my games I recognized the fact that she really didn’t like military type things and trying to teach her something too “militarish” might turn her off for good. Then I remembered that I had just gotten a copy of Twilight Struggle from GMT and decided immediately that it would be perfect.

Overview:

Twilight Struggle is a two player card driven game recently produced by GMT and designed by two new designers, Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta. The game covers the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, beginning just after WW2 and ending in the early nineties. Your typical game will last about two and half hours but could be cut much shorter in certain situations. While the game is made by a primarily wargame producing company and the theme is about a “war”, Twilight Struggle, with only nine pages of rules, is really nothing more than a war-themed area-control, card-driven game that many types of gamers could enjoy.

The game is ten turns long with each turn divided into a set number of action sequences. In each sequence both players play a card with many available options on which they could act. This continues until one of three victory conditions is met. The three possible endings include: if a player has twenty more victory points than the other the game ends instantly, if nuclear war begins the player who started the war loses, and if the game lasts a full ten turns the player with the most victory points after the final global scoring wins.

The Game:


The game is a struggle for influence and control of the global map. Each player, one playing as the USSR and the other the USA, take turns playing cards that will best help them to win the Cold War. The way it works is that each country on the map has three important factors that you need to consider:

1. The background color: Each of the seven different regions has its own color. This becomes important as you try to make sure you have a presence, try to capture domination or best yet, control the region.
A. You gain presence by simply controlling one country in the region.
B. To attain domination you must have control of more of each of the two types of countries in each region.
C. And then finally, to gain control of a region, you must meet domination plus control all battleground countries in that region.

2. This brings up another factor you must consider when looking at a country: whether it’s a normal or battleground country. The backgrounds of the names of the battleground countries’ are purple.
A. Two aspects of battleground countries are important. First off, during scoring each battleground country is worth an additional victory point.
B. Secondly, when attempting a coup in a battleground country you must escalate the DEFCON level (which I’ll explain later).

3. Throughout the course of the game there are scoring cards that will come up for each region. You must play these cards some time during your turn and this is how you decide who gets victory points for presence, domination, and control of a region. These cards are shuffled back in so scoring happens multiple times for each region.

There are four ways assert your presence in a country: using a card’s event or using the card for it’s operational value to place influence, attempt political realignments, or attempt a coup d'état. Twilight Struggle is a card-driven game meaning the game is mostly run by a deck of shared cards that players take turn playing throughout the course of the game. Each card includes the description of a Cold-War era event along with a picture, a red, white, or two-colored star noting who will benefit from the card if played as an event, and a number representing the card’s operational value.

1. The first option a player has when playing a card is to initiate the event described on the card. The events really make the game and give it a lot of historical flavor. Typically, the better the event the higher the value of the card. This makes for interesting decisions as many cards, if used for an event, are removed from the game. The event may be powerful, but by removing the card you forfeit possible future use of the card’s operational value.

2. Next, rather than using a card’s event you may decide to use the card for its operational value (ops) to place influence on the map. You can place influence on uncontrolled countries at a 1-1 ratio but if the country is already controlled by the enemy your first point of influence cost 2-1 until the enemy’s control is broken. Also, markers are only allowed to be placed next to countries you already have influence on or next to your home country using the typical point to point map system. A unique thing here is that if you use a card for ops and it is a card that is the opponent’s color the event on the card is activated. While you can choose the order the event and the ops take place, it still often makes for a win-lose situation as you play cards. There is a lot of strategy in deciding to use an enemies card. Often it is a good idea to use their card early in the game thus removing it early where it does not hurt as much or passing on using the card and holding it or using it in another interesting feature of the game: The Space Race.
A. The Space Race is a scoring track included on the map that keeps track of who is ahead in the well known space race the two superpowers engaged in throughout the Cold War.
B. In order to advance your position in the space race you must “dump” a card of a set ops value and roll a die. If you make the required die roll you advance your marker and possibly gain positive things that are included in the race like extra victory points or the allowing of the bending of certain rules temporarily.
C. This makes a great place to dump an opponent’s card that has a real nasty event on it. Any cards played in the race do not have their associate event initiated and are put in the discard pile. Remember, the discard pile is eventually reshuffled.

3. The next thing you can do when you play a card for it’s ops value is to attempt to make a political realignment in as many countries as the ops value of the card, including multiple attempts on one country. Both players roll a die with easy-to-understand modifiers and if the challenged player loses he must remove the difference in influence from that country. Many players often overlook this under-valued option and prefer to go right for the next possibility, the coup.

4. The aggressive player may use a card’s ops value to attempt a coup in a country the enemy has at least one point of influence in. The success is based on the player rolling a die and adding the ops value to his roll. If this modified value is more than the double the stability number of the county in question the coup is successful. A successful coup removes the difference in the two values in influence from the country. Here is the neat part; if the other superpower doesn’t have enough influence to remove the offensive player gets to add his own influence to the county. This is potent because it allows you to get a foothold in countries that you may not otherwise have been able to get into. With this powerful option there comes a price – Nuclear War.
A. Being a Cold War game, something that was brilliantly built into the game is the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. At the bottom of the map there is the DEFCON track. This track keeps record of the current DEFCON level starting at level five (peace) and decreasing to level one (war) which is when the leader pushes the button and the game is over. Remember, the player who pushes the button automatically loses the game.
B. The most common way to decrease the DEFCON level is to attempts a coup in a battleground country. Every time a coup is attempted in a battleground country the DEFCON level decreases on level. The status can also be changed my various event on cards.
C. The only way the DEFCON improves is through a few events on cards and a mandatory improvement of one level each game turn.
D. Also, as the DEFCON decreases regions are shut down from coup and realignment attempts, thus limiting players’ options.
Also, ever time a coup is attempted, the acting player gains military operational points equal to the ops value, that are tracked on a place on the board. At the end of each turn players compare their military operational value to the DEFCON level and pay the difference to the opponent in victory points.

Game Sequence:

Here is a basic sequence of the game along with a brief description of each.

1. Improve DEFCON status
2. Deal cards
3. Headline phase
4. Action rounds
5. Check military operations status
6. Reveal held card (tournament only)
7. Flip “The China Card”
8. Advance turn marker
9. Final scoring (after turn 10 only)

1. At the beginning of each turn you improve the DEFCON status one level.

2. During turns 1-3 each player is dealt cards until they have a total of eight cards, during turns 4-10 the hand size is increased to nine. The card deck is divided into three piles: early, mid, and late war. The game begins with early war cards only then at turn four the mid war cards are shuffled in. Finally, in turn eight the late war cards are added to the mix. This allows for certain historical events to happen in the proper sequence and adds another degree of strategy to the game.

3. The first card both players play is the “headline card”. This is a way to play a card for free where the even is the only consideration and often sets the tone for the whole turn.

4. Turns 1-3 each player gets six actions and in turns 4-10 seven actions are taken.

5. Players check their military operational status and reward the proper victory points.

6. At the end of each round you normally have one card remaining in your hand. This is typically a powerful card for your opponent that you didn’t want to play or a card you were saving for a better occasion. I guess in tournaments you’re required to show this card?

7. There is a special card that is never removed from play and alternates between players during the course of the game. The China Card is a four ops value card that abstractly represents how China often flip-flopped alliances during the Cold War. When a player chooses to use is it is flipped face down and passed to the opponent who then flips it for his use during this time. Interestingly, if you use The China Card in Asia, you gain an additional ops point.

8. Advance turn marker.

9. At the end of 10 turns (if auto-victory or nuclear war never happened) one final global scoring takes place. The regions are scored as if their scoring card had come up. After final scoring, he or she with the most victory points wins.

Thoughts:

To me the game is a great introduction game into the card driven world or wargaming in general. I’ve even got my wife asking about other light wargames thanks to this beauty. The game is fast, well balanced, and the theme is intriguing and unique. While unfortunately there are a few map and card errors they can be easily fixed and the clarifications and errata are east to find at BGG or Consim. Other then that, the component quality of the game is high and the map is the preferred thin cardboard foldout as compared to a paper map. You can tell it was made by a wargame company and thankfully there are not bunches of silly wooden blocks or plastic pieces to contend with. Also, on BGG and Consim you can find player aids (including one I made) and other resources.

I really feel like the president of a cold-war era superpower being forced to respond to the actions of my rival superpower all during the game. The newer player should always be the USSR as the playing of the US, while balanced, takes a little more finesse and experience to pull out a win. This is great to me because it still affords a challenge to the teaching player that is often lost when playing a game as the teacher. I highly recommend this game and mark my words; it’s going to be a popular one.

Keep you powder dry,

Joe Steadman cool
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Eric Brosius
United States
Needham Heights
Massachusetts
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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What did Monica think about the game?
 
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Joe Steadman
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Evans
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She likes it a lot, we just played another game tonight!
 
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Thomas Eastside, Esq.
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Richmond Hts.
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Joe, excellent review! I also managed to get my non-wargaming wife to play this game. I actually think she enjoyed it! Yay!!!!!
 
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Chris Trimmer
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Showing your last card in a tournament is to prove that you didn't illegally hold back a scoring card.
 
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