If I were to describe 13 Days using only two words, they would be ”elegant” and ”tense”. For a game that has comparatively few components – a game board, a few wooden cubes, and 52 cards – it is surprisingly deep. This is so because all the parts affect each other in so many ways. I’ve played 13 Days a handful of times so far, but I’ve also been thinking about it alot in the meantime. And since nobody, so far, has tried to write a strategy guide (with the exception of this excellent post by one of the game’s designers) I thought I would give it a try.
Two things make writing a strategy guide about 13 Days difficult. First of all, the fact that everything is so interconnected makes it hard to know where to start, and what topics to put stuff under. I’ve thus decided to use two main topics: Agendas, which I would say is the strategic part of the game since this is what will score you Prestige and win you the game; and Strategy cards, which, despite their name, actually form the tactical part of the game. The second thing that complicates a strategy guide is that, from a quick glance, one could easily believe that the randomness of the game (”Oh, you got 3 DEFCON Agendas in the same turn, and then only Soviet cards to play? Well good luck!”) and the tightness of scoring (once you learn how, it is fairly easy to block your enemy – meaning there are often rounds where nobody will score at all) makes strategy unnecessary. I am a very competitive gamer and felt that the low scoring sometimes made 13 Days end in an anti-climactic manner. So I had to challenge myself to enjoy the gameplay itself, which is brilliantly tense. But apart from this, I do believe that there are a couple of things that can help you become a better 13 Days player. So, consider this a ”conversation-opener”.
Disclaimer: The guide will explain some of the game mechanics, but will otherwise assume familiarity with the game rules.
Agendas, Prestige and DEFCON
The Agendas are what drive 13 Days. I would argue that choosing (or avoiding) the appropriate Agendas for each turn is the most important aspect of the game. Since you and your opponent mark your Agenda alternatives on the map before choosing one each, this is where the mind game starts. There will be a good deal of gambling when choosing – but there can and should also be a few points of analysis to do first.
Agendas come in two flavors: Battlegrounds and DEFCON tracks. Note that all DEFCON Agendas come in doubles, so half the time you will be fighting on the DEFCON tracks (and sometimes you will get a hand of only DEFCON Agendas). But also note that a particular DEFCON track is raised by 1 point for all markers in the DEFCON 2 area before the Agenda is resolved, meaning you should never end a round above the middle spot in the DEFCON 2 area when a corresponding Agenda is in play (and should your opponent do this, pat yourself on the back: as soon as you read the Agenda card, they just pushed themselves into DEFCON 1 and thus lost the game). Be careful if both you and your opponent compete for the same DEFCON track (which is entirely possible) since both markers will then jump two (one each per card) steps, meaning you both lose. Will this deter a player who understands the risk from taking a DEFCON Agenda if he/she knows you are holding an identical card? Maybe and maybe not.
How to choose an Agenda
How can you decide which Agenda to pick, then? Some rounds your choices will feel limited – your hand will consist entirely of one type. For at least one of the three rounds, however, you will probably be given a mix of Battleground and DEFCON Agendas. In any case, you should always look at the board positions when making your call. This includes both your own positions and maybe, most importantly, those of your enemy. As a rule of thumb, DEFCON Agendas are easier to score on early in the game – by round three, all DEFCON tracks will most likely be very elevated and both players will be scrambling to deflate them (most commonly by leaving two tracks on a safe spot in DEFCON 2 and one track in DEFCON 3). Anyway, consider the following: has your enemy overcommitted in any area? For example, if your enemy is very high on the Military DEFCON track but you are not, choosing a Military Battleground where he/she has little Influence might be a good idea since he/she won’t be able to place alot of new Influence there without risking DEFCON suicide. Following the same line of thought, you can also compete with your enemy in a Battleground type that they seem to play as their ”safety” DEFCON track.
The Personal Letter
One of the Agendas is a special case: the Personal Letter Agenda. This is actually the only Agenda on which you can guarantee to score points, even though it is ”only” worth a flat 2 points. How? Well, US starts with the Personal Letter. The only way to gain it (ie, without the opposing player using it in play and thus handing it over) is by winning the United Nations Battleground, but if it that Battleground is tied (and no side can ever have more than 5 Influence each, so a tie is perfectly possible) then the player which currently hold the Personal Letter will win the Agenda. Do note that this Agenda only comes in one copy, so once it has been taken and scored, it will not show up in a future shuffle.
The Strategy deck layout
There are 39 Strategy cards in the game, divided evenly among US, Soviet and UN (neutral) events. The cards are also evenly distributed in relation to their ”Cube strength”, that is, the value from 1-3 which you can use to place Influence instead of playing the event. Each side has four 3-cube cards, five 2-cube cards and four 1-cube cards. Many, but not all, of the US and USSR cards are ”mirror cards” – they have similar mechanics but differ in strength or target. For example, US has a card that lets your place 2 Influence in the Atlantic Battleground; USSR has a card that lets you place 3 Influence there. There are also a few cards whose mechanics are unique and sometimes very strong, but whose use might be very situational. USSR, for example, has a card that will all but guarantee dominance in Italy (unless it is tied at 5-5 Influence). You do not need to learn all the cards by heart – but after a few games you will of course learn to think carefully before picking the Italy Agenda as US, for example.
How to deal with the ”unlucky hand”
Many players might complain over the fact that they are given a very unlucky hand – they might play as US and get 3 USSR cards, 1 UN and 1 US for example. The randomness of the card deals might sometimes lose you a round or even a game – but learning to manage the cards, even when your hand seems to be terrible, is part of the joy of playing 13 Days. Consider this: in a typical game, 30 to 33 of the 39 cards will be drawn. If the US player gets 3 USSR cards in the first round, there are now only 10 USSR cards left in the deck. Thus, chances are the USSR player is sitting with a bunch of ”unlucky” US cards in his/her deck. So if the US player defuses the USSR events, he/she will suddenly have a tactical advantage for future rounds.
Defusing enemy Events and discarding to Aftermath
As some of the strongest cards are very situational, it is often possible to play enemy cards at times where it will simply not help them. Moscow is our Brain and EXCOMM are examples of cards that can be brutally strong, but they can be played more or less risk free if you time them right (MIOB played early in the game, when USSR has not yet spread out, means it is fairly harmless; the same applies to EXCOMM if you play it as late as possible). You always have the option of putting a nasty card in the Aftermath pile – and sometimes, depending on your Agenda, you will have an enemy card in your hand that gives you no choice. But I would argue that there are very few enemy cards that always warrant being ”Aftermathed”. Instead, I might even play enemy cards during a round so that I can put my one of my own cards in the Aftermath. The 2 points that the Aftermath gives can often win you a game and should not be neglected.
If you need to compete for a single Battleground, you can use almost any kind of card for its Cube strength. My favorite cards are those whose Events let me put Influence in several Battlegrounds at once, since this exception from the game rules is so very useful. These kinds of cards I will almost always play for the Event. 1 Influence in itself may not be much, but 1 Influence in two, three (or even four!) Battlegrounds in a single play is great for you and very stressful for your opponent. It’s also a great way to place ”superfluous” Influence in the World Opinion Battlegrounds, which provide pretty neat boni but do not always warrant an exclusive play to dominate.
On the same note, don’t underestimate placing ”only” 1 Influence in a Battleground, at least not in the first round. If it is previously uncontested, this means your opponent has to place at least 2 Influence to attain a dominating position – but this move will often cost him/her a DEFCON step, where it cost you nothing DEFCON-wise.
When you reach the second round, it is a good idea to add Influence to 1-Influence Battlegrounds, whether you dominate them or not or whether they have an Agenda or not. Why? Call it DEFCON insurance. By round three, the DEFCON tracks are usually so elevated that you will need to deflate them. But unless you deflate using Events, you need ”spare” Battlegrounds with 2 or more Influence in them that you can spend Cube strength on to deflate DEFCON.
Wow, I seem to have written a novel Blame it on my love for this game – much can be said. Hopefully you will have found this guide useful in some way. And remember, practise makes perfect.
Have I missed anything obvious, or don’t you agree on something? Please comment!