How I Won the Cold War (Twice) – My Review of Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle
Twilight Struggle

Cam and I got Twilight Struggle for Christmas.  We finally got it out for our first game.  This is not just your average war game. Twilight Struggle was designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews in 2005. It is a two player card driven strategy board game set during the period of political and military tension colloquially known as the Cold War. It’s a beautiful, well designed two-player game.  It also wasn’t that complicated to learn.  The mechanics are simple.  There is the board, where you each track your influence in the world, and the cards which dictate game play.

The two players take the roles of the major superpowers of this era, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  In our first attempt at the game, I played as the USA.  Since Cam hates to lose, we played again the next day.  We switched it up, and I played as the USSR.  Since he hates to lose twice in a row, we might get it out again this weekend.

The game draws it’s name from a portion of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…” Twilight Struggle echoes this sentiment exactly in its tension, as players do battle on the board primarily through increasing their influence or decreasing their opponent’s influence in countries on the game board, which resembles a map of the world as it was in 1947-1991.

The game can last at most ten turns, each turn representing between three and five years historically, but has the potential to end sooner. Victory is achieved when either player has amassed 20 points on the singular victory point track, which ranges from -20 to +20, mirroring perfectly the ebb and flow of power between the eastern and western blocs. These points are usually gotten from the various regional scoring cards spaced throughout the three decks that make up the core interaction of the game, with players scoring particular regions based on how much influence they have in that area.

There are 3 different decks of cards.  The players start out using the early war cards, and the remaining decks are sequentially shuffled in, to mark the passage of time at particular points in the game.  The cards themselves are how the players interact with the board and each other. They can be played in different ways, as each card has a point value and a historical event associated with it. The players can use either the point value to affect their or their opponent’s influence on the game board, or utilize the event listed on the card. The events really make the game shine, as they are actual important moments from the Cold War, such as the formation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, the formation of the Warsaw Pact, and the blockade of West Germany, all retooled in the game’s influence oriented mechanics.

Twilight Struggle board
Twilight Struggle board – USA victory!

One of the most interesting parts of the game is the DEFCON level.  It begins at level 5, the most peaceful state between the two players.  As the levels decrease through various player actions, such as coup attempts, those actions become more limited in certain regions.  For example, DEFCON level 4 means that no coup or realignment attempts may be made in Europe; level 3 prohibits coups in Europe and the Middle East.  Once the DEFCON level reaches 2, the threat of nuclear war is imminent.  Interestingly enough, the player whose action causes nuclear war automatically loses the game.  I thought this was a game flaw to begin with. I okingly said that this should cause both players to lose, seeing that in nuclear war, everyone loses.  However, it does prevent the mentality of “if I can’t win, nobody can.”

Both times we played, the game play was different. The randomization of the decks and the multiple paths connecting countries for influence placement result in varying permutations for game play. Players are constantly adapting their strategy to the evolving game state.  The USSR always leads each turn, which causes the USA to be reactive to their actions rather than proactive.  I viewed the cards in my hand differently as I played as both superpowers.

Overall it was a game that we both enjoyed immensely.  It is a game that neither of us will get tired of any time soon.  We both highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in history or well designed games.  In fact, you don’t need to know anything about or have lived through the Cold War, as the game does an excellent job of exposing you to the important events of the era.