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Subject: Thoughts from a first time playthrough by two total newbs rss

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Adam Kunsemiller
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Disclaimer - This is kind of a hybrid review/session report with some thoughts on improving the experience for a first time player, so there is some definite rambling involved.

Foreward - Getting the game
I remember watching this game come out and take the community by storm, rocketing to the top of the charts, much the same way Agricola recently has. The whole time I was intrigued, but not enough to actually go and get it, the subject matter and the fact that it seemed to have a definite wargame bend to it were turn offs for this otherwise eurogamer enthusiast.

With time, my collection grew, and I started to enjoy other games that I didn't think I would, such as Arkham Horror. (That's a different subject altogether, suffice to say, I thought I would hate it and I really loved it.) This was combined with what was turning out to be a board game collection that had a large number of the top 10 in it. So I started to look at my collection of board games not only as a set of things that I had access to, but an actual collection, something amassed by a hobby enthusiast, and Twilight Struggle was added to the collection.

Playing the game:
Yesterday I invited a friend over that I was pretty sure was up to the task of figuring this game out, and was likely to enjoy the game. She came over and we commenced with counter punching. I know this is a session, and not a review, but my first impression was that I didn't like the map at all. I was very annoyed with its refusal to lay flat, and I didn't have any Plexiglas covers just laying around, nor did I want to tape this to my table. We counter-bent the cardboard to try and encourage it to lay flat (which I'm sure would make certain people cringe) and we made do.

Learning this game was a *major* struggle for two people who had never had any exposure to it. The longer you read the voluminous rules, the more antsy you get, and you just want to start playing. The problem is, there is so much going on and so many different choices, that doing anything quickly became overwhelming.

In the end, I won in turn 5 because my opponent pretty much never did coups. As a result of never doing coups, I was constantly getting military VPs. We tended to even out on the regional scoring, one person coming ahead in one area, another person coming ahead in another, etc. But the constant unanswered military points eventually added up, and I got to +20. We both put away the game shaking our heads and saying things like "That game has a lot of potential, I wonder how it's really played?"

Thoughts from my first game:
The cards were very confusing. Specifically, how they are used in the headline phase vs. the actions phase was not intuitive or explained clearly. I know we played this game wrong, and this is why I'm doing a general report, I only feel like a review is valid if the game is played as intended. Anyways, after flipping through the rule book in an already frustrated state, we both decided that the text on the card only mattered if the card was played as an event during the headline phase. Otherwise it was just worth the number of op points printed on the card, and the text of the card didn't matter. We realized this was wrong in the mid-war, when we started to get cards that were clearly affecting the action phase and would not have made sense to be played as a headline. I know this was wrong, and I've done further reading since our initial game to see how it works, but it was *definitely* not obvious how all of this worked just from reading (well, to be honest, skimming) through the rule booklet.

The book is constantly using the terms operations, events, and headlines, removing cards vs. discarding cards, etc. but it was very difficult to see how it all fit together and when to do what. Reading through the example turns was not helpful either because rather then focus on mechanics and the clarification of them, it chose to focus on strategy and having a narrative as to why the choices in the example are good or bad. This kind of thing is great, but at the time, i just want a clearly documented, accessible example that illustrates the mechanics.

Back to the overwhelming nature of the game, there were aspects of this game that were totally ignored, because we were already confused enough as it was. Neither of us did absolutely anything with the space race, or china.

All this being said, the game was still interesting, even though we were playing it with that nagging feeling that we weren't doing it correctly. We would do the headlines, then do only Reassignments, Coups, or Placing Influence, and then score the military action, and draw cards, and repeat. Aside from the headlines phase, we never followed the text on the cards, and paid attention only to the ops value, except for scoring cards.

My friend left and I read the rules much more closely, I also read several of the supporting files on BGG, and things started to make a bit more sense. We had done several things wrong.
- We hadn't bothered to figure out how china really work
- We hadn't bothered to figure out what the space race was really for
- During the actions phase, we only paid attention to the ops value
- When raising influence, we would snake along countries, getting to ones we shouldn't have. (I realized this later, reading the emphasis that the placement rules are applied to your position at the beginning of placement, not as an ongoing thing).
- I think we were going through the number of cards correctly, but it seemed odd that we would have to reshuffle the early war discard before we got to the portion where we added in the midwar.
- Why were some connecting lines dotted? Who knows, whatever.
- Initially we applied the rules about where you could place influence to other actions as well, meaning we wouldn't attempt a realignment unless we had a bordering country with influence, etc.

Improving the experience for a brand new player:
Ultimately, this was our own failure to be patient and simply read the rules completely before starting the game. I know this, and I'm not trying to knock the game. But it still feels like there should be a quickstart or something like that. If someone feels up to it, having a "playing for the first time for both players" file would be excellent. This would be something that highlights common mistakes, explains the interplay with the cards a bit better (which is what I felt like was the most lacking part off the rules), and maybe even had a scripted example round, that demonstrates the different choices that are available. I think the most confusing phase by far is the actions phase, and that is where the walkthrough would be very helpful. I would envision a scripted, educational example to consist of something like:
(All within the action phase)
- One action where you chose the event
- One action where you just use the ops value of your own kind of card (and you raise influence)
- One action where you use the ops value of a neutral card (and you lower influence with a realignment)
- One action where you use the ops value of an enemy card, and they get the event (and you attempt a coup)
- One space race attempt (where you get rid of a particularly scary enemy event card)
- USSR: One action using the ops value of china, just to demonstrate it
- US: One scoring round for US, just to demonstrate how scoring works.

From here you could then wrap up the example, showing how the military tracks affect scoring, drawing up to the right number of cards, etc. That kind of example, with a focus on the mechanics of the game, not necessarily the tactics, would have been incredibly enlightening!

Conclusions:
Perhaps struggling through this game with the feeling that I wasn't quite doing it right was something that just needed to happen. The experience of clearly doing it wrong provided me the context to understand the descriptions of how it was supposed to work. Before we played, I looked at the rules, and even some BGG files, and just kept getting this glazed over deer in headlights look of someone that is trying to keep too many things in mind at once without really understanding any of them. After our flawed playthrough, I read through the rules front to back, and it was much more clear. Tackling it for the first time is just a bit much, but reading it after playing was much easier. I look forward to playing this game again, and hopefully playing it correctly.
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Guillaume G.
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I learnt the game with another player through reading through the rule booklet. It took us 30mn and despite the fact that English was not our mother tongue, we managed to grasp most principles for our first play.
I don't think the rules are badly written. They are quite clear and easy to get but you have to make the effort to go through all of them.
It's not a game aimed at being played 15mn after opening the box.

For the rest, I agree that:
- The material is quite poor (to the exception of the cards)
- Some cards text writting may lead to confusion
- The first game is tough because you don't really know what is in the deck of cards (and especially when the scoring cards will appear)
 
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Adam Kunsemiller
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The biggest source of confusion, and something that I still don't think is very clearly stated in the rules is how the cardplay works. The source of the confusion for us was reading about how headlines work, and how they use the events on the cards you choose. Then reading the card descriptions that state "they can be used for events or operations."

The rules has a section about "playing cards" that talks about the cards being used as events or operations points, but we read this section thinking it applied to both the headlines phase and the actions phase, and that when it talked about events, it was talking about the headlines, and when it was talking about operations, it was talking about actions.

We associated headlines with events, and actions with operations, since all the clarifications in the action phase talk about operation points, etc. It's the headlines phase that really threw a wrench into things and resulted in our confusion. I think if someone had just said "Look, headlines are a one card choice where the event occurs, but event's *ALSO* occur during actions!" Somehow that seemed glossed over.
 
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Colin Hunter
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Everyone is human we have all stupid mistakes
I do think the rules are quite explicit though, but hell I've made equally stupid assumptions, so welcome to the club.

edit: while I have problems with the example of play, it does show cards being used for both ops and events, just in the manner it states in the rules, but don't worry, I never read the examples, so I would have been just as guilty there
 
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Adam Kunsemiller
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As I read through it the second time, it all made sense, but it took seeing a BGG file that explicitly stated the way cards worked in the action phase to make it all click.
 
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AxonDomini
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This reminds me of my very first game of Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. Very confusing, lots of mistakes made and our both being sure that the game would be excellent had we only played it correctly. The good news is that the game DID eventually click and it is, indeed, excellent. I'm hoping your experience with TS is the same as ours with Hannibal. They're of very similar style and weight, which is why I mention it.

Just so you don't feel bad, here's a rundown of all the mistakes we made in that game:

http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/266230

 
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Bonnie Ricca
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Here's a turn-by-turn recount of a session, which you might find helpful:

http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/286443
 
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Jason Matthews
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Honestly Adam, I think that jumping in to TS with two newbies without context is understandably rough. The cross over support that we have gotten for this game is extremely gratifying, but it was way beyond our imagination. When Ananda and I started out, we were just trying to make a Card Driven Game that we could play. Our company was going to be GMT and we assumed we would attract other wargamers who wanted something lighter and more playable in an evening. So, we were writing rules targeted at people who had played Paths of Glory, Hannibal and We the People already.

I think if anyone would have believed at the start, that we were going to bring in such a diverse crowd, we might have done it differently. But no one did.

If you haven't already, you might want to take a look at the rules for 1960. We were much more consciously trying to bring in the crowd that had never played a CDG in that game. I think you will find those rules and their layout much more beginner friendly.

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Adam Kunsemiller
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Wow, I would never have expected a response from the designer, that's great!

I think I may have painted a bit of a grim picture regarding the first experience. We were very guilty of just "wanting to get on with it" and even though I haven't played it again yet, I'm pretty confident that I have it all figured out now, it isn't really that difficult (just a little daunting to a first timer), and look forward to playing it again!

Thanks for the reply! I have purchased 1960 as well, but had wanted to try this one first. That one will be getting a play soon as well hopefully.
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