Twilight Struggle. The reason I am totally in love with wargames today. Now, I know some say that Twilight Struggle may not technically be a wargame or whatever but it opened up my eyes to the world of GMT games and GMT games opened up my eyes to the world of wargames and I’ll be eternally grateful for that.
I’m pretty obsessed with Twilight Struggle, I have an obsessive nature when it comes to boardgames I like any way but this is different. Twilight Struggle is probably my most played board game EVER, plus I’m on my second copy, so if that doesn’t tell you a lot, then I don’t know what will.
I remember the first time we met, a tatty blue and red box sat on top of a huge stack of boardgames in a bring and buy sale. I picked up that box, read the back of it and knew that this game was made for me. It was like finding a pot gold at the end of a rainbow, or hidden treasure buried for millions of years.
Seriously though, it was exciting to me. I had played a lot of games but this was something new, something different and the beginning of my love affair with Twilight Struggle.
Twilight Struggle is a two-player game simulating the forty-five year Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The entire world is the stage, where these two powers fight to make the world safe for their own ideologies and ways of life. The game begins amidst the ruins of Europe as the two new “superpowers” scramble over the wreckage of the Second World War, and ends in 1989, when only the United States remained standing.
It’s played on a map of world with each player trying to influence the most countries, to gain victory points, when the scoring events are played.
The winner is the player who has the most victory points at the end of the game or the player who reaches 20 victory points first, avoids nuclear war, or meets the objectives on certain cards.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about how to play, as there are about five million walkthroughs, reviews and articles regarding Twilight Struggle but I will tell you why I love it so much.
Twilight Struggle is oozing with theme. It’s cut-throat, tense and for a time I have no real connection to, I feel pretty invested and close to this one. Of course you could say that about any of the games I play, I don’t have any connections to WW1 or the American Revolution either but something about Twilight Struggle just keeps me coming back for more.
The Cold War is such a fascinating period of history, a time of tension, a time of fear, and that certainly comes across in Twilight Struggle. Nuclear War? yeah, you probably don’t want that to happen.
The mechanics are similar to the events that happened during the Cold War. Superpowers can only place influence in countries adjacent to their existing influence, and that’s the domino theory right there.
Then there’s the China Card, which reflects the role that China played in the Cold War.
The People’s Republic of China played a pivotal role during the Cold War. While the PRC’s influence was largely limited to satellites in Asia, the country was important to the uneasy balance of power that ultimately descended upon the post-WWII world. While beginning as an ally of the USSR, China became a counter-balance to Soviet influence in Asia during the later stages of the Cold War.
As I mentioned a little earlier, I wasn’t around for any of the Cold War so it doesn’t bring back any particular memories but it does educate me on that part of history. Something I love and talk about often is the amount I learn from historical boardgames and wargames. I could, and should probably write a whole separate blog post on that.
I also really enjoy pretty much every single mechanic in Twilight Struggle, it’s full of my favourites including area control, hand management.
Then my personal favourite mechanic, it’s a card driven game. You’ve got historical event cards of three types: events that the Soviet player is probably going to like a lot, events that the American player is probably going to like a lot and events that apply to both. The three types of cards correspond to the early, middle, and late groups of events throughout the whole Cold War period.
There are two strokes of genius with the Event Cards. First of all, every card except the scoring cards have an Operational Value as well as an event. You must decide whether to use the Operational Value to provide action points, spent to do stuff, or to use the historical event, where something cool will happen to affect the game. Some events are multiple use and some are single-use, additionally, some of the single-use cards have lasting effects, like the “Nato” card, which once played, is left face up on the board and it’s effects apply for the rest of the game.
The Operational Value or Event Value decision creates a lot of the tension throughout the game. Do you use a card’s points for basic situational improvement, or do you use a card’s event for dramatic changes to the board’s situation? It can be a pretty tough decision that you will have to make during the game. The value of the events are very context dependent, so a huge amount of tension in your decision comes from the inevitable question “Which is more valuable to me now? The event or the ops value?” Being able to carry over a single card from round to round also adds tension; there’s a temptation to keep the exciting event card until you have no other option than to use it.
Gaining Victory Points adds a lot of tension and aggression, too. Military aggressiveness if that is even a word, gets you points; however, the rewards are small compared to the values you’ll gain from the scoring cards, and there’s a constant danger associated with aggression. Overt military action increases the likelihood of a nuclear event and the person who actually sets off a nuclear war loses. Thematically, that’s pretty serious stuff too.
Before playing Twilight Struggle, so many people had mentioned how intricately married the theme and mechanics were, and I absolutely agree. Twilight Struggle can be mean, it can be nasty and the tug of war elements of the game can certainly be frustrating but the theme pretty much demands it. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so, but I like these kind of games a lot. IT’S ABOUT THE COLD WAR AFTER ALL.
I can’t sit here and say this game is a game for absolutely everybody, but the people that do enjoy it, really, really, REALLY enjoy it and I am one of those people. It took me a few games to properly get into it, but once I was, that was it.
Twilight Struggle is a game full of tension, suspense and a lot of very satisfying moments.
Thanks for reading.