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Subject: The DEFCON Conundrum rss

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John R
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[Cross-posted from our blog, Margin of Victory, an in-depth look at boardgames]

One of the constant questions that I have in GMT's Twilight Struggle (10 wins, 3 losses) is how to use the DEFCON track to my advantage. Put simply, the DEFCON track is a method for tracking how tense the Cold War is at a given moment. If you attempt coups in key areas, called "battleground countries," you drop the DEFCON status by one point. This has the effect of putting one region out of play--that is, you and your opponent may not make coup attempts or realignment rolls in that section of the map. The DEFCON track goes from 5 (Peace) down to 1 (Global Thermonuclear War). If at any point in the game a player takes an action that causes DEFCON to go to 1, he loses the game.

The thirteen times I've played this game in the past seven months, we have usually been pretty lenient on this last point. If someone tries to do something which will drop the DEFCON status to 1, the other player reminds him, he chooses to do something else, and play continues. But after a recent game with Russ, we have both realized that there are certain situations in which the phasing player can actually force their opponent to drop the DEFCON track to 1 and subsequently lose. There is an even greater chance that, at DEFCON 2, the phasing player makes a move that leads to an accidental DEFCON drop, causing them to lose!

Before this, we often saw the USSR player drive the DEFCON to 2 as early as possible. This did a few things: first, it allowed him to maintain any early gains he had made in certain regions. Second, it meant that after a new turn started and DEFCON bumped up to 3, the USSR player could use his first card play to coup a battleground country and drop DEFCON back to 2 without the US player being able to do anything about it. For instance, in Sunday night's game, I took an early lead in the Middle East and Europe, while Russ locked up Asia. Later on, I was able to take several battleground countries in Africa, and by keeping DEFCON at 2 throughout most of the game, I was able to cement my lead in three regions while ceding one (though rich VP-wise) to him.

Now, after a quick analysis of the deck, I'm wondering if this is such a good idea. By my count, there are 13 out of 110 cards (almost 12% of the deck) that deal with DEFCON. Three are US (Duck and Cover, Nuclear Subs, and Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007). Two are USSR ("We Will Bury you!" and Glastnost). The remaining eight are usable by either player. These include the following: Olympic Games, Nuclear Test Ban, Cuban Missile Crisis, SALT Negotiations, Summit, ABM Treaty, Wargames, and "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Seems like a lot, doesn't it?

The question is this: how dangerous is DEFCON 2? Does it actually do more harm than good? For instance, think about this example: USSR player has dropped DEFCON to 2. He plays Missile Envy, which means the US player has to hand the USSR player the highest-value card in his hand. If he hands him a USSR event or an event that can be played by either player, it is triggered. If this card is "We Will Bury You!", it drops DEFCON to 1. Because the USSR player is the phasing (or active) player, he loses the game. Even if it's Olympic Games, all the US player has to do is choose to boycott, which also degrades DEFCON. Again, the USSR is the phasing player, and he loses. Whoops! Or take another example: DEFCON is at 2. US player plays Lone Gunman. The USSR player gets to look at the US hand, and then use the point to "conduct operations" at that moment. He decides to start a coup in a battleground country. This degrades DEFCON to 1, and because the US player is the phasing player, he loses.

In the examples above, you'll note that there are a few cards which give immediate ops points to the other player, or read something like, "Pull card out of opponent's hand. If it's an event for your side and/or an event for both sides, the event occurs." From my count, these include the following: Lone Gunman, CIA Created, Five Year Plan, and Missile Envy. (Note: I'd include Grain Sales to Soviets, but that does let you pick a card and return it to your opponent's hand if you don't like it.) If you're keeping track here, this means there are a total of 18 cards that can mess with DEFCON and/or spell disaster in that situation. That's 16% of the deck! I know that some will say, "But John, you can shoot a lot of those cards into the Space Race." My response to that is...sometimes. A lot of the cards we're talking about are 2-value, which means they can only be played into the Space Race on the first four boxes. And CIA Created and Lone Gunman? Those are 1-op cards.

I thought Twilight Struggle was intense before this, but now...well, let's just say after doing a bit of research into the potential, I'm a bit stunned! How can a player protect himself against such disasters? A couple of things come to mind:

* As a turn begins, think about where you want DEFCON to protect your holdings and/or encroach on other regions. In addition, think about how your opponent might use the DEFCON track to his advantage.
* Especially in the Mid-War, when Bear Trap and Quagmire are in the deck, ask yourself whether or not it is too risky to have DEFCON at 2. Without The China Card and a few bad Quagmire/Bear Trap rolls, you might be required to play an event which degrades DEFCON or allows your opponent to opportunity to do it.
* If you have The China Card in your possession and DEFCON is at 2, think about playing it (even if it's not an optimal play) in order to hold a card like CIA Created or Lone Gunman over until next turn, when DEFCON will go to 3 for at least one card play.
* Keep in mind that a lot of cards actually improve DEFCON. While doing this can expose you to unwanted coup attempts, it can also get you out of a tight jam.

Do you have a good story about losing/winning the game over DEFCON? Or do you have other thoughts on the "DEFCON Conundrum"? Leave a comment!

John

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I've played over 100 games, and in all those games, a DEFCON win has only happened about a dozen times.

In some cases it was an engineered victory, such as the time I used Aldrich Ames which allowed me to force my US opponent to play Lone Gunman (which allowed me to do a coup and hang the loss on him). You can read about it here.

One time, I played Missile Envy in the headline with the DEFCON at 3, but my opponent had something that allowed him to play a coup to make the DEFCON 2 and then the card he gave me as my event dropped the DEFCON, handing the loss to me.

DEFCON is something you have to keep in mind, yes, but it's just yet another variable among all the other things you need to keep track of during the game.

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Andrew MacLeod
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And when, exactly, are we playing Churchill again?
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Another card that can cause kablooey in certain circumstances is Ortega Elected in Nicaragua. If the Americans play this for ops at Defcon 2, the Soviets (who are entitled to a free coup in any country adjacent to Nicaragua with this card's event) can coup Cuba: KABLOOEY!!!!!!
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Philip Thomas
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amacleod wrote:
Another card that can cause kablooey in certain circumstances is Ortega Elected in Nicaragua. If the Americans play this for ops at Defcon 2, the Soviets (who are entitled to a free coup in any country adjacent to Nicaragua with this card's event) can coup Cuba: KABLOOEY!!!!!!


The Soviets can only coup Cuba if it contains US influence (normal coup rules). Keep out of Cuba and this risk is avoided.
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Matthew Barratt
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Since a DEFCON 1 win is no respector of VPs, it seems that a player with a secure VP lead would want to keep the DEFCON as far away from 1 as possible (even at the cost of allowing their opponent to do some juicy coups) once the risk of losing by WWIII has become greater than the risk of losing by VPs.
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Matt Davis
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But someone is going to want DEFCON to be at 2, so someone is going to coup it down there. Thus you might as well be the one to get the coups out of it.

For the record - Lone Gunman/CIA created are the devil.
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John McCoy
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It is pretty unusual for DEFCON to actually drop to 1, but the threat of it occuring plays an important role in the game. My advice is that whenever you draw new cards you should be on the lookout for events that can lower DEFCON, either on their own or because they can trigger other events not currently in your hand. If you have any of these cards you need to give careful thought to how you are going to deal with them.

This tends to be a bigger problem for the Soviets than the Americans in my experience. Lone Gunman is the only DEFCON lowering event that is genuinely hard for the Americans to work around having in their hand (although it can be quite hard). Ortega in Nicaragua might be a bit tricky as well, if the US happens to have influence in Cuba. Anything else can generally be space raced. The Soviets have to contend with CIA Created, Grain Sales to the Soviets, Five Year Plan, KAL shot down, and Duck and Cover. So it is more likely that they will draw several events at once and find themselves in a bind.

If you've been unfortunate enough to draw two or more cards that enable your opponent to lower DEFCON when you are the active player, then your turn will most likely be focused on getting rid of these events as harmlessly as possible.

If DEFCON is at 3 or 2, don't play cards that could lower DEFCON as your headline event unless you are certain your opponent cannot play an event that will lower DEFCON before your event occurs.

I agree with the sentiment others have expressed that even if one palyer would prefer for DEFCON to remain at 3 or 4, the other player is unlikely to play along.
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Justin Kitt
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I find that in the Early War there is often an interesting game of cat-and-mouse, with the Defcon track hovering at around 4 due to the difficulty of moving into Asia.

While the track is at 4 or above it is risky to move into Malaysia or especially Pakistan because they are vulnerable to your opponent's coups, and a successful coup gives a golden opportunity to Thailand or India respectively. But using your turn to degrade Defcon to 3 hands the opportunity to your opponent anyway! Incidentally, this is why I think an early Duck & Cover can be very valuable to the Soviets, as they can use the ops to move into Asia (or less stable MidEast countries) while simultaneously raising the protective Defcon umbrella.

However, once Defcon passes the barrier of Defcon 4 it often drops to 2 very quickly, and generally stays there for the rest of the game. The advantage of the only battleground coup in a turn is too big for either player, even taking into account the danger cards in the deck - if the Soviets don't coup in their headline or first round the Americans almost certainly will. Once the Mid War rolls around the African battlegrounds are too juicy a target to ignore as coups with even low op cards are almost always successful, and couping into South America is one of the best (if perhaps not the most reliable) ways to gain entry to this hard-to-access continent.
 
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