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Games: Twilight Struggle

Last year on the Forth of July I wrote about US themed board games. Let's make a tradition of it, what hey?

The board games I tend to highlight on this site are those I refer to as GGGs: Good Gateway Games (or, around the holiday season, Good Gift Games). In other words, games that are easy to teach and play, that can be completed in an hour or less, and are "fun on the first try," suitable for casual get-togethers and people new to the board gaming hobby.

GGGs aren't the only games I play, just the ones I tend to showcase here. In fact, my preferred titles often violate two or even all of the above guidelines, as my newest favorite game illustrates. Twilight Struggle has a bit of a learning curve, takes 3-4 hours to complete, and, while fun, requires multiple playings to fully appreciate.

So why mention it here? Simply because I can think of no other game I own that inspired me to research an entire field of academic subject. Power Grid didn't get me interested in electricity production; I didn't become obsessed with Swahili economics after playing Jambo; and despite dozens of games of No Thanks! I've felt no compulsion to improve upon my manners. And yet, since acquiring Twilight Struggle, I've read a book about the cold war (called, cleverly enough, The Cold War), watched a six-hour documentary on the clash between capitalism and socialism, and impressing people at cocktail parties* by causally opining about Charles de Gaulle's effect on European history.

Twilight Struggle is for two players; one assumes the role of the United States, the other: USSR. The board shows a map of the world and the key nations for which the superpowers will be fighting. The game is played with a deck of 110 cards, each of which depicts a major event in the cold war. Most of these events are affiliated with one superpower or the other, though some are neutral. In addition to the event, every card also boasts an number of "operational points" from 0-4.

A game begins in 1945 and unfolds over 10 rounds, each of which represents 3-5 years of history. During a round, players alternate playing and resolving cards. When playing a neutral card, or one affiliated with his own superpower, a player has a choice: he may either trigger the event, or he may spend the operation points. Operation points can be used to increase your superpower's influence over other nations, to reduce your opponent's influence, or to foment coups (which, if successful, may both decrease your opponent's influence in the target country and increase your own). When playing a card associated with your opponent (which you will do often, as the game forces you to play nearly all of the cards in your hand, whether you wish to or not), you get to use the operation points and your opponent gets to resolve the event. This nasty little twist means that you will sometimes find yourself playing cards that benefit your opponent more than yourself.

The goal of all this is control: control of key battleground nations, and of the six major regions of the world (Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa). When one of the periodic scoring phases is triggered, the superpower that controls more nations in the indicated region will rack up points.

Complicating matters is the threat of mutual assure destruction, which lurks in the background at all times and becomes especially worrisome as Defcon creeps toward 1. (If nuclear war breaks out during a player's turn, he loses.) And China serves as a perpetual fly in the ointment of both superpowers, first aiding one of them, then immediately defecting to the other.

I'm not a huge fan or wargames--and Twilight Struggle, at its core, is not one. It differs from true war games in two ways. First, the two players never attack each other directly, instead jockeying for control of key areas of the map, and fighting proxy battles across the globe. It is not intended to be a simulation of the actual cold war. In fact, in the designer notes, Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews openly admit that they goal was to create a game that adhered to the mythology of the cold war, if not the reality. To that end, the "domino theory"--of dubious validity in actual foreign policy--is crucial to success in this game, nations are little more than pawns for the superpowers, and investing time and energy into the "space race" reaps tangible benefits. Twilight Struggle depicts the cold war as it was envisioned by those who were fighting it, not as it now appears to us in retrospect.

I don't play games as often as I used to, alas. So when I find myself with a free evening and an opponent, I consider the time valuable. I could easily play three different games in the time it takes for one bout of Twilight Struggle; that I choose the latter ought to tell you something about how much this game has grown on me.

* I don't actually attend cocktail parties.**

** Or impress people

Posted on July 04, 2007 to Games





Comments

It really is a great game. After my first play I was a bit skeptical that I'd be able to overcome the randomness with decent tactics, but after another game, it became clear that while you could lose due to randomness, player skill is essential. Great fun.

Posted by: Matthew F on July 5, 2007 11:22 PM

Silly Yeti. You don't have to actually attend cocktail parties to impress those who do.

Posted by: juliloquy on July 6, 2007 9:50 AM

When do the dominos figure into play?

Posted by: Rob Cockerham on July 6, 2007 1:00 PM

The German Studies major in me needs to point out that the image on that game is historically inaccurate. The wall in that graphic is running East-West, which would create a North and South Berlin.

/neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeerd

Posted by: Marianna on July 13, 2007 5:09 AM

Did you see the documentary "Fog Of War" by Errol Morris? It is basically an interview with Robert McNamara, mainly covers his time as Secretary of Defense (61-68), and discusses a lot of cold war events. Essential viewing if you're developing an interest in that time period.

Anyway, just got the game and hoping to get it on the table soon. Excellent review.

Posted by: Anonymous on August 13, 2007 7:02 AM