Twilight Struggle

posted by defectiveyeti

One of the hallmarks of European board game design is the absence of direct confrontation. Interaction between players is usually mediated by some game system: the real estate in Catan, the economy of Power Grid, the single-use powers of Agricola, and so on.

War games, on the other hand, emphasize combat, with victory often going to the most ruthless and aggressive. 

"European-style war game", therefore, seems like an oxymoron.  What kind of war lacks open conflict between the main parties?

Answer: a cold war.

Twilight Struggle is the epic, two-player game of military tension between the greatest superpowers of the 20th century. And I’m not using “epic” here in the modern, Internet sense of “anything cool”, although the game is undoubtedly that. I mean epic in length (3-5 hours), epic in detail (much of the rulebook is devoted to the history of the Cold War), epic in strategy (multiple playings are absolutely required to appreciate the subtleties of the design), and epic in scope (the game covers the years from 1945 to 1989 — assuming you don’t irradiate the planet before the advent of glasnost).


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The state of Central America. Photo by Raiko Puust.

One player assumes the role of the United States; the other, USSR. The board shows the key nations for which the superpowers will vie. Countries are grouped into regions (e.g., Europe and the Middle East), with those of particular significance designated “battleground states”.

Over the course of 10 rounds, each of which represents 3-5 years of history, players take turns activating and resolving cards. A card depicts a major event in the Cold War, ranging from the forming of the Warsaw pact to the Iran-Contra Scandal, and boasts 0-4 Operational Points (OPs).

In most cases, a player may use a card for its event or its OPs, but not both. Invoking the “Fidel” event, for instance, allows the Soviet player to put influence markers in Cuba; the “Camp David Accords” event allows the US player to gain influence in the Middle East. Operation points, on the other hand, are used to increase a superpower’s influence in various nations, reduce an opponent’s influence, or foment coups (which, if successful, may both decrease your opponent’s influence in the target country and increase your own). Events are generally powerful, but very specific; OPs are less powerful, but allow the player great latitude in determining how and where they are spent.

A player with sufficient influence in a country is said to “control” it. And control is the name of the game. When one of the periodic scoring phases is triggered, the superpower that controls more nations in a region, and/or more of the battleground states, will score a number of points. This mechanism of scoring, called “Area Control” or “Area Influence”, is a mainstay of European-style game design, and is put to great use here. Thus, “European-style war game” is an entirely appropriate description of this remarkable hybrid.

The zero-sum nature of the Cold War is symbolized by the single score track, with US victory on one end, USSR victory on the other, and a “0” in the middle. When a player scores points, he moves the score marker that many spaces toward his end of the score track, and immediately wins if he gets to his goal of “20”. You can see at a glance the balance of power at any point in the game: If the US has 2 points, things are relatively even; if the USSR has 18, they are on the verge of domination.

Complicating all this is the lurking specter of mutual assured destruction, with the DEFCON track recording how close the world is to Global Thermonuclear War. And China serves as a perpetual fly in the ointment of the superpowers, aiding both, but refusing to vow allegiance to either.

True to the theme, the players of Twilight Struggle never attack one other directly (though they may wage proxy wars in the Koreas or the Middle East, if doing so furthers their aims). They instead work to exert their influence across the globe, with success measured not by troops killed or land captured, but by their increase of prestige and dissemination of their propaganda.

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Three of the 110 Twilight Struggle cards. Photo by Enkubus.

Twilight Struggle 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, rather than to 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. The game depicts the cold war as it was envisioned by those who were fighting it, not as it now appears to us in retrospect.

Since its debut in 2005, Twilight Struggle has been my favorite game, period. I don’t play it often, owing to its length and considerable learning curve. But every time I do I am amazed anew by the brilliance of the design. Its position at #1 on Boardgame Geek is, in my opinion, richly deserved.

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