Board Game Review: Twilight Struggle

Over the past week I got a rare opportunity: a chance to play a top-rated board game with its designer — learning from the man who made it. I refer to the critically acclaimed Cold War simulation Twilight Struggle, and one of its two designers, Ananda Gupta. Ananda is a senior game designer here at Firaxis, and yet in time I’ve known him I only recently discovered that Twilight Struggle was his credit. That just goes to show how little I follow nondigital designers these days, considering the game has retained a choice spot in BoardGameGeek’s “The Hotness” list for what seems like forever. It was a classic case of “Oh, that game! I’ve heard of that, and I’ve been meaning to get around to playing it…” until I found out it was Ananda’s, and then the opportunity was obviously too good to pass up.

Twilight Struggle is a complex, deeply layered reenactment of the Cold War over the course of forty years, told through the perspectives of its two major combatants, the United States and the USSR. It’s a strictly two-player game — rare these days — where the two opponents take the roles of the two superpowers. The “struggle” is enacted as a game of global nation-nabbing, each superpower trying to influence or directly control the countries of the world before their opponent can. On the surface, it’s a simple mine-versus-yours tug of war, each side trying to grab more countries in vital world regions and hold on to them long enough for the weight of that territory to come to fruition in the game’s sophisticated scoring. In reality, however, it’s an extended mind game — a battle of will, threat, and opportunity where the projection or insinuation of power and attention is just as important as its actualization. As Ananda put it, the more experienced you are at Twilight Struggle, the more you will find yourself mentally fencing with your opponent in a engrossing and deeply complicated shadow war. A faithful representation of the real-life experience, I daresay!

The core mechanics are founded in a map of the world where most of the world’s nations are represented as resources to be controlled, grouped into regions that are used for scoring. It takes place over ten game turns in which each player takes eight or nine player turns. A player turn involves playing a card from their hard and prosecuting its effects on the board. Cards are either events with unique results, or a pure point value that the player can use to adjust influence among the nations they have access to — referred to as “Operations” or “ops value” in the game. The use of the cards is where the real meat of the game lies in terms of the cerebral nail-biting it inspires. Some events are stunningly powerful and can swing the balance of control in dramatic ways. But, the ops value can be used to take direct action, adjusting the influence where you need it most, which is always valuable and often critical. That’s where the kicker comes in: card events are colored to one side or the other — either a US event or a USSR event, or occasionally an either-or. If you hold a card that’s colored for your side, you can play it for the event or for ops, whichever you prefer. But, if you play a card colored for your opponent intending to use its ops value for your own purposes, the event triggers anyway. You have to take it.

This is more insidious than it seems. The tension in the game is so finely tuned, so delicate and requiring such careful insight and timing, that every play becomes an agonizing risk of terrible loss just to achieve even modest advantage. Getting ahead in Twilight Struggle nearly always means falling behind somewhere else, or at least opening yourself up to devastating counterplay by your opponent. You can’t afford to ignore the consequences of any action you take — you must attempt to predict them, balancing them against the flow and momentum of power to mitigate them as much as possible. The game gives clues to work from, mostly based on counting the deck and gauging the probabilities of certain cards being likely to come out and under what circumstances. But the brilliance of the game’s design shows through in the balance of this information flow. You have enough information to make educated guesses about the risks you’re taking, but only rarely enough to be certain. Place yourself in this position and you can easily see how your thought process would devolve into the most exquisite paranoia. Ananda described the design process that led to this rule: he said they wanted to engender this feeling of worry in every move the player makes, the feeling that no move is without cost and every action you take could set the stage for an upset in reply, if only your opponent has the right cards at the right time. He wanted players to be unsettled by every move their opponent made, driven to studying it and wondering what its “larger significance” was, whether it was a real power grab or just a smoke screen. Triggering opposite-side events when the card is played was the key move. It wrenches some control over the momentum of the game away from players and ties their fates together in a much more intimate, more dangerous relationship. It would be easy to see how this game would play like Axis & Allies or History of the World with the way its “zone control and domination” scoring system works, where players need only straightforward, conventional tactics to generate advantage and grind out victory. But the event-driven card system destabilizes the game, making each player’s opportunities much more heavily a function of what their opponents do, or don’t do. Or could do… if they have the Europe scoring card, and they move on Iran after I spend these points on Southeast Asia, because the China card was played last turn and they hasn’t used it yet, and because they put four influence into Israel two turns ago… you see what I mean? ;)

After the game ended with my defeat towards the end of the Mid-Game, I was already hooked and ready to play another. Your understanding grows so much through play — the subtlety and ebb-and-flow rhythm is revealed only through play, and proves very inviting once you recognize it. Ananda said, “There’s usually a huge jump between Game One and Game Two,” and I intend to find out as soon as possible. I highly recommend Twilight Struggle to any serious board game fan. For the casual player it will almost certainly prove too slow, requiring a level of constant analysis you may find tiring. But for fans of heavier games, particularly long-arc strategy games like A&A or History of the World, this may be one of the best games you’ll ever play. It has terrific replay opportunity, especially if you learn it with a friend that you intend to face off against regularly. You’ll get the chance to learn the game at the same time you learn how they play it — how it must have felt to fight the Cold War for real, I imagine.


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