The One Where We Play Twilight Struggle
It’s happened. I’ve played the best game ever made.
That’s not my opinion; it’s the opinion of the users of BoardGameGeek, where Twilight Struggle has reigned supreme in the rankings for a few years. This alone makes it a must-play for many gamers. How could I not want to play the highest-ranked game in the database? What could have elevated it above such classics as Agricola, Puerto Rico and Power Grid? I had to find out.
I’d held off buying it for ages, but a confluence of circumstances and inspiration had led me to throw caution to the wind and pick up a copy. Why the hesitation? Well, it might be the highest-ranked game on BGG, but it’s also a fairly brutish-looking recreation of the Cold War, involving a world map, a deck of 110 cards and more cardboard counters than you can shake a stick at. It’s only for two players, and a single play can last anywhere from two to six hours. It’s also nearly a wargame. I mean, it’s a wargame in the sense that it’s a game about a war (of sorts) and it’s published by GMT Games, who specialise in wargames… but when I think “wargame”, I think hexes, terrain and stacks of unit counters with austere symbology and inscrutable information moving across a paper map to engage each other in combat:
Twilight Struggle is nothing like that. It’s a game of influence and control, played out on a global scale on a map where every country (or group of countries) is represented by a pair of boxes. This is an ingenious representation of the nature of the Cold War, which was more about winning over the minds of leaders and nations with ideologies than it was about military operations. That’s not to say that Twilight Struggle is without military operations; in fact, they’re a necessary part of the game, resulting in penalties for a player who doesn’t carry out enough military action during a turn, but they’re abstracted to a simple “coup” action and the occasional “war” card.
So… it’s a beast. An intimidating beast, but one with a reputation for greatness. That meant it wasn’t hard to convince John Sh to come over and recreate the Cold War on my kitchen table.
We tossed a coin for sides and I ended up as the USSR, pushing the communist agenda across the world. John, as the USA, would be trying to win the hearts and minds of nations with the promise of freedom from tyranny. And so to business… and immediate bafflement. From the outset, it became clear that this is a game that needs both players to know the cards before they can form much of a coherent strategy. I mean know them. There’s a basic card list on the back of the player aid card, but that only gives the title of the card, its Operations value and whether it’s USA- or USSR-aligned.
And that last thing is the brutal kick in the face to every great plan you might come up with. Yes, I might have a 4-ops card, enabling me to take control of three countries in Europe in a single turn… but if the star at the top is white the USA-aligned event on the card is triggered, which could undo all the good work I’ve just done for the USSR… so maybe I’d be better off playing this card instead. Or I could play this other one for the event rather than the ops points. It’s easy to get paralysed by the options, especially with the map board being an open sandbox.
We managed to get into a rhythm after a little while, and I took an early lead in the first few scoring rounds. The USSR card “The Cambridge Five” helped me find out which scoring cards John had in hand on a couple of occasions, which meant I could plan effectively for the scoring rounds that had to come within that turn – you can’t hold scoring cards from one turn to the next. I was feeling pretty comfortable with the game after the first three turns or so… and then we hit the Mid War. At the beginning of Turn 4, the Mid War deck is shuffled in with the Early War deck you’ve been using up to that point. Suddenly, it’s not just Europe, Asia and the Middle East that can come up for scoring – the whole board becomes important as the Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America and South America scoring cards join the game, on top of the original three. And there’s a whole raft of new cards to contend with, many seeming a bit beefier than the Early War cards.
I drew the OPEC card, which awarded me 1 VP for each country I controlled out of a list of six or seven oil-rich countries. By also having a card (I forget which) that allowed me to rifle through the discard pile and retrieve the card of my choice, I managed to get hold of OPEC again and score 9 VPs over the two plays of that card. John’s domination of Europe pulled my lead back a touch when he played Europe Scoring, but I swung it back within a few action rounds. With a few strong operations in Asia, I managed to dominate that region even though Formosan Revolution was in play and John was holding Shuttle Diplomacy (together effectively reducing my battleground majority by two). John couldn’t pull Asia back before I played Asia scoring in Turn 6, pushing me up to the 20 VPs required for a victory. Proletarii vsekh stran, soyedinyaytes’!
So that was Twilight Struggle. It was mentally tough. It was pretty long – about three hours, and we only got up to Turn 6 out of a possible 10. But it was very, very good. Completely engaging. Borderline overwhelming the first time out – I cracked out a beer around Turn 5, just to give my brain a break – but the great game was plain to see. Incredibly tense, which only escalated as the game went on and the key areas of activity expanded, but not without some humour (the Kitchen Debates card allows you to poke your opponent in the chest while scoring points, for example). There was never enough opportunity to do everything I needed to do, which felt very much like a good eurogame. We both went away with the game thoroughly stuck in our heads, which to me is the sign of a good gaming experience. Rather than feeling like I’ve “ticked one off the list”, it feels like I’ve only just begun with this game.
I can see why Twilight Struggle is the top-ranked game on BGG: it’s a game of great depth and replayability, with a theme that’s relatively accessible as far as conflict simulation goes (most gamers lived through at least part of the Cold War, and it was part of everyday life). I’m not sure how often I’ll get to play it, so I’ll probably never be particularly good at it, but I’m already looking forward to playing it again.