Tag Archives: twilight struggle

Gametown Top Ranking

While listening to Heavy Cardboard episode 52 (Amanda and Edward revealing their top 50 games each), I naturally started thinking about the games that would make it into my “Top N” list. I don’t think I could sensibly manage N=50; even with the length of time I’ve been seriously gaming, I’d probably struggle to drum up 50 games I’ve played more than once and I don’t think I can legitimately pass judgement on a game I’ve only touched on a single occasion. N=10 would be manageable, but liable to change on a moment’s notice.

So I thought I’d do something a bit different: a couple of favourite games in each of ten different categories, giving me a “sort of top 20 games list” to come back to in a year or two and scoff at.

All-Time Classics

You know, the sort of games that are always hovering around people’s top-10 lists, usually in the top 10 or 20 on BGG and often more than a few years old.

Agricola

Agricola

Yeah, you know it’s still the best game ever. Building a food engine, improving the farm, grabbing stuff, keeping an eye on everyone else and making sure you know when they’re going to be grabbing stuff, making sure you have enough food for Harvest… The game wants to kill you, but it wants you to have fun anyway.

I haven’t played it for ages though, which is partly due to the constant influx of new games and partly due to the company I keep – quite a few people don’t want to play with certain other people because those certain other people are so good at Agricola that there’s no chance of winning. Doesn’t bother me though. Agricola‘s always a good time, win or lose.

Twilight Struggle

If I’ve got 3–6 hours and a single willing victim, this is the game of choice for me. Of course, those being fairly restrictive criteria and being married to someone who (by and large) doesn’t play board games… again, this one doesn’t get played enough for my liking. The new digital adaptation by Playdek does an OK job and I need to dig into it more to get my head round the interface, but nothing beats the raw tension of playing TS in person.

Heavy Euros

The real brain-burning brutes with plenty of bits of wood being pushed around.

Madeira

See all my red workers in the fields? See my red square action marker in Moinho? That's my engine, that is.

Sounding like a stuck record already, but… I need to play this more. It’s fun, it’s long, it’s oddly lovely to look at and sweet lord it hurts. It’s (usually) obvious what you need to do in order to score in the next scoring round, but how you actually get to do those things and pay for them… that’s a whole other challenge.

Through the Ages

Possibly cheating with this one, because I’ve never played it face-to-face and I haven’t played the new version; it’s all been on BGO with the original (or very slightly tweaked) rules. It’s a masterpiece of horribly tight resource management and tableau building, which are two of my favourite things in games.

Lighter Euros

Shipyard

Rondels, rondels, rondels. Ships so long they look like oil tankers. The weird canal-maze-tile-laying subgame. This one’s greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are pretty great.

Trajan

Trajan

So simple, yet tough to pull off well because of that mancala mechanism for action selection. And it works really well at all player counts from two to four.

Economic Games

Basically a way to get a few more heavy euro-type games in. Brass nearly got in here, so consider it an “honourable mention”.

Food Chain Magnate

FCM Olly

Like most Splotter games, FCM is non-stop tough from start to finish and things can go horribly wrong for you… but it’s quite often your fault when that happens and you can learn a lesson for the next time you play. And then you’ll mess up something else and get better again. So many strategies I’ve yet to try.

1865: Sardinia

This is really here as a representative of 18xx as a whole, but I think 1865 might well be my favourite. It’s small and tight, and it eliminates a lot of the fiddliness of more traditional 18xx games by virtue of players never having to calculate their most lucrative routes. So where the final rounds of many 18xx games can bog down into hours of “well, if I put a station there it blocks that, but if I upgrade this track then I get $10 extra…”, 1865 retains all the good stuff and skips along nicely to the end.

Cooperative Games

Pandemic

Pandemic

Quite enough has already been said and written across the web about Pandemic; I’ll say nothing other than that I think it’s the best cooperative game around.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories

While Ghost Stories isn’t heavy by any stretch of the imagination, it’s hard. Really hard. And really fun, as long as you can cope with the fact you’ll very probably lose.

Two-Player Abstract Games

I do love a good two-player abstract, and I’m trying to indoctrinate my kids in the joys of the classic white-vs-black board game.

Hive

Hive

Yes, white should win in an evenly matched game, but it’s still an excellent game. Although it looks like you’ve got loads of choices on your turn, there are very often only one or two that make any tactical sense, so it’s usually quick to play and easy to convince your opponent to play another round.

YINSH

Definite cheating here because I’ve only played this once, but I think this might be a truly excellent game and I want to play it a lot to get better at it.

Family Games

Stuff that my kids – and even my wife – will happily play and/or request.

Indigo

Indigo

For some reason, my kids love this Knizia game. I think it’s pretty good too, and it has the added benefit of being really handsome on the table.

Ticket to Ride series

Ticket to Ride

OK, I’m not a huge fan of TtR (especially the original US board), but I think it helps consolidate a lot of basic game concepts for my kids and will hopefully prove to be a decent stepping stone to more complex games.

Wargames

D-Day at Omaha Beach

DDaOB featured image

Because I don’t have any face-to-face wargaming buddies I can play with on a regular basis, it’s obvious that the king of all solitaire wargames is sitting here. Never mind that it’s incredibly tough and your troops will be picked off by the Wiederstandsnests as they move up the beach; this is a beautifully designed challenge for the solo gamer.

Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland 8–12 December 1939

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was my real introduction to hex-and-counter gaming, and it remains my absolute favourite two-player wargame. Why? Low counter density, relatively low rules complexity and a beautiful map that – while as free as any other – encourages certain types of movement and play while leaving the door open for the odd surprise manoeuvre. Fantastic design. I’ve been trying to get my head into the sequel, Operation Dauntless, but the added chrome and armour rules mean it’s been a bit opaque.

Solitaire Games

Mage Knight

If I’ve got a whole evening alone, I’ll quite often set this up and… well, usually lose. But the puzzle! Oh, the puzzle. Every hand of cards is a different puzzle with loads of solutions, but usually only one of those solutions will get you where you wanted and with the right cards left over to successfully defeat the next challenge.

Friday

I could write almost exactly the same about Friday as I did about Mage Knight, except it doesn’t take a whole evening. Simple, yet satisfying.

Fillers / Party Games

Codenames

I’ve only played this a handful of times, and never with more than four players (so I have yet to experience the chaos and fun of larger teams) but I know it’s a genuine masterpiece of game design. So, so simple, yet so, so tough on the brain whichever side of the table you’re sitting.

Coloretto

Coloretto

I don’t think I’ve played another filler that engenders such furious bouts of swearing as Coloretto. It’s one of those “gentle” games where you can be genuinely horrible to people without directly stealing from them or anything like that. Again, a brilliant bit of game design.

So there it is. My pseudo-top-20 list. What did I miss off? What entire categories of game did I neglect to include? Let me know.

Oh, and I couldn’t neglect to include this little pop gem.

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 27 February 2016

John Sh and I managed a couple more Corbridge sessions in February, involving Hawaii (which I declared to be “not bollocks”, but it seems to feel pretty dated now) and a first-play-in-a-long-while for Shipyard (which is just as good as I remember from the previous occasions it’s been out).

This, my friends, is how to win a game of Shipyard. As many ships as you can, filled to the brim with businessmen, in their suits and ties.

This, my friends, is how to win a game of Shipyard. As many ships as you can, filled to the brim with businessmen in their suits and ties. With the corresponding government contracts, of course.

But enough of Corbridge. To Newcastle, where I knew a 14-year-old boy I’d played Concordia with last time would be waiting to play Twilight Struggle with me. J (not to be confused with my J, who’s only 8) had attempted – but not finished – a few plays at home before, but any TS aficionado will tell you that it’s best to learn from someone who knows the game. That left me in the awkward position of either (a) taking the USSR, driving the usual early-war tempo and utterly demolishing him in the first few turns, or (b) taking the USA and watching the rest of the night disappear into an epic back-and-forth that doesn’t feel like a normal game of TS… and probably still winning anyway.

I took option (a).

I don’t think it was an unfair choice. I think it’s really helpful to see how the early war should play out with a more experienced USSR player (I’m certainly not a great player myself, but I knew enough to point out to J the importance of the Turn 1 AR1 coup in Iran… which I carried out beautifully and locked him out of western Asia for the rest of the game), and a new player taking the USSR against an experienced USA player can result in the mid war bogging down horribly. And to his credit, J only tried a couple of things that I really wouldn’t have done, so I pointed them out and suggested a rethink.

We got just into Turn 4 and onto the fifth scoring card of the game before I hit 20 VPs. A coup in Panama set me up for a quick infiltration into South America and I scored it for the 2 VPs I needed. I don’t think J was too crushed by his defeat, and I hope he enjoyed it enough to convince his parents to play again. He was certainly starting to recognise the signs that I was holding a particular scoring card… and he also appreciated the ability to bluff in that regard, so he was never entirely convinced I was doing what it looked like I was doing. (I was.) Ahhh, Twilight Struggle. It truly is a great game.

We joined his mum and brother, plus John Sh, Olly and Graham for a game of Paris Connection (aka SNCF). I hadn’t played it before, but it’s about as simple as a decent game can be. I was just getting the hang of the mechanisms when it ended, a round short of me having that crucial tenth share, with Olly (who had ten shares) taking the win. Really good fun in a short package.

After a seemingly complex decision-making procedure involving seven people and a bunch of games that went to five maximum, I ended up at a table with my copy of Samurai, club stalwart Lloyd and relative newcomers Sarah and Iain. Samurai is at its best with players who relish destroying other people’s plans, and there’s always a faint concern that married couples can introduce a relationship-based metagame or just be too nice to each other. No such concerns with Sarah and Iain, who proceeded to be just as mean to each other as to everyone else.

Sarah and I concentrated much of our mutual aggression on this small island.

Sarah (red) and I (red) concentrated much of our mutual aggression on this small island. I later realised why she just left those two castles to me.

I’d like to try Samurai with just three at some point. My two plays with four players have felt like they’re just a little too long and the extra board space possibly introduces a bit too much chaos with the statue-swapping and tile-replacing tiles. But it was still wonderfully aggressive euro fun. (I really should get hold of Tigris and Euphrates.) Sarah took the win by concentrating only on buddhas and rice; she took the scoring tile for both categories, automatically winning. (I managed to take the tile for castles, but I was clearly too diluted in the other two categories.)

After a lovely and enlightening conversation (in which I learned that Sarah and Lloyd had both penned entries on Urban Dictionary, one of which is simply too obscene to link to, and Lloyd told us about one of his plays and the resultant domain name shenanigans), Lloyd and I were left to play Lost Cities. It had been a very long time since I’d last played it, but I’d remembered the dangers of starting too many expeditions. Lloyd, meanwhile, was playing fast and loose, so over the course of our three rounds, things just got better for me and worse for him. I eventually won, 79 to -11. Yes, minus eleven.

Olly and John joined us to round off the evening with The King of Frontier. This remains a fantastic little game after six plays. I thought I was doing pretty badly to start off with (I declared myself to be playing “the long game” after several rounds without completed production areas); after finally finishing off my quarry and forest, I could actually afford some Buildings and shifted into a new gear. First of all, Reclaimed Land let me discard part of a city I’d just foolishly finished; next, I replaced that discarded tile with The Statue of a Man, which gave me 5 more points; the final, glorious touch was the Ancient Monument, which let me sift through my discard pile and place anything that would fit. As it turned out, that filled every space on my board except one, and it was only a couple of turns of Development before I pulled a tile that slotted in perfectly.

Wow

It truly is a thing of stick-figure beauty.

Lloyd had actually done really well with a couple of Building tiles and Olly had a nice combo of Warehouse (storing cubes) and a tile that scored VPs per cubes left at the end of the game, but nothing was enough to beat that 12-point swing from fitting my last tile in. John, meanwhile, was… well… he hadn’t completed many areas.

Final score – Me: 48 / Lloyd: 43 / Olly: 37 / John: 12

Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne! Details can be found on Meetup.

My January in Games

There isn’t usually enough gaming between sessions at Newcastle Gamers to make a song and dance about. Maybe an evening here and there; perhaps a weekend afternoon with the kids.

Well, January 2015 has been chock-full of gaming goodness. It started in fine form on New Year’s Day, introducing my friends Ben and Rachel to Pandemic – playing with my wife, a hardened Pandemic veteran. Perhaps it would have been a little smoother to have played before an entire bottle of red wine went down one person’s throat (identity protected for purposes of dignity), but everyone had a good time and enjoyed the game. Oh, and we won with two cards left in the player deck. Perfect!

After the early-January all-day session in Newcastle, I met up with fellow Corbridge gamer John on three consecutive Wednesday evenings. It’s as close as I’ve ever been to having a regular game night, and it was only the sudden blizzard last Wednesday that prevented a four-week run. We’ve had two games of Viticulture, one of which was with the Mamas & Papas expansion from Tuscany (really enjoyed both those games – an excellent light worker placement game, with potential to become substantially meatier as the Tuscany expansions get added in). There’s been Targi (slightly mind-bending with its spatial aspects), Bruges with bits of The City on the Zwin (always enjoy Bruges, and the bits of Zwin we used were a neat addition) and Rosenberg’s Fields of Arle.

Fields of Arle is a real table-eater. Huge.

Fields of Arle is a real table-eater. Huge for a two-player-only game.

Fields of Arle deserves a paragraph of its own, because it’s a really neat ‘greatest hits’ compilation of bits from Rosenberg games over the years. There are obvious bits of Agricola in there, plus a few elements from Caverna (where it differs from Agricola). Le Havre comes to mind when considering all the paths to upgrade and convert resources, along with all the different uses for them, and Glass Road is the clear progenitor of the random selection of buildings available for construction once spaces have been cleared on your board (and that’s also a bit Farmers of the Moor). I won, 97½ to 92½, but John and I had adopted utterly different strategies. I’m sure there are a whole bunch of paths to victory – mine was just building shedloads of buildings, while John actually did some proper farming, harvesting flax, converting it to linen, then sending that off on his selection of carts to be turned into clothing. I really enjoyed the game, and I should play it again soon before I forget not only the rules but also the resource-conversion paths.

Gaming with the kids has been plentiful, with Bandu (Bausack by a slightly more Anglo-friendly name) being a particular hit. Camel Up has also been popular with my 7-year-old; it’s got just the right mixture of randomness, tactical positioning, brightly coloured stacking camels and a pyramidal dice dispenser. Rampage remains my 5-year-old’s favourite. It seems a bit of wanton destruction is quite appealing to a small boy. Who’da thunk it?

Brilliant oddity of the month was my friend Sarah’s out-of-the-blue request to play Twilight Struggle. Stats-wrangling site FiveThirtyEight had run a few blog posts on board games, and she’d seen Twilight Struggle referred to as “the best board game on the planet”. Like a moth to a flame, Sarah was drawn to the glimmering beacon of Twilight Struggle and invited me over to teach her the game. We had an excellent evening, with me playing USSR in an attempt to drive the game to an early-ish conclusion while giving Sarah a feel for the game (and repeatedly stopping her from committing DEFCON suicide). Some very duff hands in the first few turns put paid to that plan, and I didn’t win until Turn 7. That was lucky really, because the game was undergoing its natural later swing in favour of the USA and my unlucky card draws had returned late in the Mid War.

War

Into the Mid War, with the Americas and Africa virtually untouched.

January also saw the end of play-by-email games of Paths of Glory and Twilight StrugglePaths was against Gareth; although I’d held his Central Powers forces quite well for a long time (even after my western front collapsed), eventually the Russians fell to bits as well and there were Germans and Austro-Hungarians everywhere. A crushing defeat. Twilight Struggle was Olly’s second game, which he won as the USA after ten turns and final scoring. Later analysis has revealed that I missed an opportunity to DEFCON suicide him in the middle of the game… but I probably would have just pointed it out to him had I noticed and suggested he play a different card.

I’ve still got a PBEM game of Unconditional Surrender!: World War 2 in Europe on the go, playing the USSR 1941 scenario as the USSR. It’s going terribly for me, so the less said the better. The game system skews heavily in favour of aggressive Axis play (hefty combat DRMs for German units, especially Panzer armies), and that combines with the option for multiple mobile attacks by single units to create a situation where it’s easy to get overrun by the German forces in the first turn. That’s exactly what happened to me, anyway. The USSR can keep creating cheap leg units in each turn, but that just creates more targets for the Germans to attack. It won’t be long until Moscow falls. Ho hum.

Digital

I don’t usually mention non-board-games on here, but a new laptop has enabled me to get up to date with some computer gaming too, so… whatever. It’s my blog. Here we go.

I’ve been starting to explore space-fantasy civ-style game Endless Legend, which takes all sorts of concepts from old stalwart Civilization V and spruces them up with quests, different species, changing weather and gorgeous graphics. I’m not sure if it’ll have staying power for me like Civ V (or any Sid Meier Civ game, for that matter), simply because I prefer the pseudo-historical human aspect of Civ, but it’s a wonderful alternative to have. Which reminds me – I should get back to trying to figure out Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II. They’re right up my street, but the depth is ridiculous.

That's a nice city you've got there. Shame if something were to... happen to it.

That’s a nice city you’ve got there. Shame if something were to… happen to it.

The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game, clearly influenced by the Portal games, but playing as a humanoid robot AI working its way through a series of challenges in utterly stunning outdoor environments. This game is seriously beautiful, and the puzzles present just the right amount of challenge without being annoyingly difficult. So far, anyway. There’s also a wonderful lack of ‘action’; I’m not a fan of games involving rapid button mashing and sprinting around, and this is definitely not one of those games. Most of the time is spent staring at the screen and wondering how to keep that gate open while shining a beam of light through it simultaneously. Then trying it, failing and going back to figure it out again.

It’s all set against a backdrop of philosophical enquiry and debate regarding consciousness and post-human humanity (play it and you’ll find out), and it gets a bit sixth-form-philosopher about it IMHO, but it certainly isn’t enough to spoil the atmosphere and pleasure of the puzzles. I just wish it had done away with the tetromino-tessellating block puzzles that unlock further areas of the game. They’re usually so easy as to be pointless, and when they’re harder it’s frustrating because you just want to get on with the actual game.

The Talos Principle. It's even lovelier in motion.

The Talos Principle. It’s even lovelier in motion.

And just towards the tail-end of January came the release of Grim Fandango Remastered – a reissue of one of my favourite games from the 1990s, with updated visuals, audio and UI. As an old-school point-and-click-style adventure, it had the potential to feel very dated, even with the spruced-up bits and bobs, but the characterisation and humour keep it fresh (and the black bars at the sides of the screen – an artefact of the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 – only add to the vintage fun vibe). Even better, I’ve forgotten the solutions to most of the puzzles in the fifteen years since I last played it.

It's the Day of the Dead, so it's quiet in the office. Note the black bars at the sides – a legacy of the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 screen ratios.

It’s the Day of the Dead, so it’s quiet in the office. Hold on… how does a skeleton get a sweaty back?

So that was January. February’s already looking pretty good too (snow permitting), except for the fact that I won’t be able to make either of the Newcastle Gamers sessions this month.

[sad face]

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 13 December 2014

TWILIGHT STRUGGLE!

It was about time Twilight Struggle hit the table again. Although I’ve played six or seven games over email (using the VASSAL engine), I hadn’t had a face-to-face game since the first time I played it back in May 2013. Much as I love the game by email – and I do love it – it’s really not the same as sitting down opposite an opponent and trying to judge their bluffs and misdirections.

Olly had expressed an interest in trying The Beautiful Game for quite a while, so we finally took the opportunity to commandeer a club table and give it a go. There are two schools of thought regarding taking sides in a teaching game: (a) the newbie should play the USA, so the old hand can show them how the USSR drives the game in the early turns – it will probably be a short game, but it will be a fairly ‘normal’ game; or (b) the newbie should play the USSR, so they have a greater chance of not being utterly crushed in the early turns – it should be a longer game, but the USSR might leave openings for the experienced USA player.

I opted for (c): “Which side do you want?” As it turned out, Olly picked USSR, so I guessed we were in for a longer, more unpredictable game, which suits me just fine. I’m by no means a brilliant player, so I expected us to be fairly even in the early game. As it turned out, I had some horrendous US hands early on (nearly all USSR events, without the Ops values to make up for it), so although I notched the score up to 14 VPs at one point with some solid Domination in Asia, Olly managed to pull back a lot of points mainly by attempting a Europe-Control win. He was a couple of cards away from pulling it off after an excellently orchestrated round of Realignment Rolls in West Germany, but a lucky Coup in Italy (yes, DEFCON had remained high enough to pull that off!) meant I took back a Battleground country. That denied him the win when he played Europe Scoring, but he did score a metric shedload of points. Unfortunately for Olly, that came in Turn 4, meaning Europe Scoring would be in the discard pile for several turns to come.

Trouble at t'mill... or, more accurately, crisis averted in Europe

Trouble at t’mill… or, more accurately, crisis averted in Europe

Meanwhile, Asia and Central America were swinging round to the USSR as well (after a lengthy Panamanian Coup / counter-Coup / Brush War debacle), but the Middle East was fairly solidly in support of the USA (no danger of OPEC points for USSR) and I had grand plans for South America. DEFCON was in my ‘happy-zone’ of 2–3 and I was starting to see some excellent USA events coming out in both hands.

It all came to a sudden end in the headline phase of Turn 6. DEFCON had just risen from 2 to 3, as per the start-of-turn routine, and I played Junta for my headline card, in order to Coup the last Battleground in South America (having South America Scoring in my hand), although I had the option of playing the Coup elsewhere if Olly played a DEFCON-dropping card in his headline. It turned out to be the other way round: Olly played Olympic Games, so my Junta triggered first. I played the Coup in Venezuela, taking Control of South America and dropping DEFCON to 2… then I boycotted the Olympics and DEFCON dropped to 1 when Olly was the phasing player. Instant win for me.

The tide may have turned eventually, but it's always nice to get the insta-win

The tide may have turned eventually (check out South America), but it’s always nice to get the insta-win rather than crawl all the way back up from 2 VPs

Twilight Struggle‘s always a pleasure, and Olly seemed to enjoy it quite a bit (while appreciating that the game depends enormously on experience and knowledge of the cards), so I may make a regular opponent of him yet. With the digital implementation supposedly just a few months away, I imagine there’ll be quite a surge of interest in the game, alongside a sudden increase in playing ability across the world as thousands of gamers can get more games under their belts in less time. Maybe it’ll become a regular feature at various Newcastle Gamers tables.

After a quick round of Olly’s long-forgotten copy of Roman-themed trick-taking game Triumvirate (verdict: meh) and a similarly quick game of Hive with Pillbug expansion (I won, but only after Olly pointed out my stupid move, so it’s a moral draw), it was time for another bit of mental workout as John Sh joined us for three-player Trajan.

Astonishingly, I pulled off the win with a Beetle on top of my Queen. That's usually the kiss of death for me.

Astonishingly, I pulled off the win with a Beetle on top of my Queen. That’s usually the kiss of death for me.

Trajan remains my favourite of the Stefan Feld games I’ve played, and it’s all because of the mancala. At first utterly brain-melting, after a few plays the mancala mechanism becomes a beautiful engine of selection and planning, allowing the slightly more experienced player the opportunity to line up several actions in a row. And I am that slightly more experienced player, with a few face-to-face games and substantially more web-based games under my belt. Unfortunately, for all my elegant planning and diabolical scheming, the game just didn’t work out for me.

I was trying something a little different to my usual strategies, this time mainly concentrating on instant gratification and VP bonuses wherever possible (and largely ignoring senate votes) rather than spending the early game building an engine for a later payoff. That meant I raced ahead in the first quarter, kept the lead in the second, lost it in the third and came last by the end of the game. It’s nice to try different strategies now and then, but the lesson was learned.

John looked in trouble early on, but saved up to play a blinding bit of shipping and remained strong in the senate to narrowly retain his margin over me in the final tally.

Olly, meanwhile, having never played before, exercised his long-standing Feld-affinity and did spend the early game collecting +2 markers and the corresponding extra-action markers to take several bouts of “three actions in one turn”. That set him up nicely with Trajan tiles and allowed him to collect plenty of forum/extra-action tiles, both in the forum itself and across the military areas. He powered into an unassailable lead through the third and fourth quarters, with a huge tableau of shipped commodity cards only adding to his bonus points.

Final score – Olly: 134 / John: 101 / Me: 96

A shameful showing for me! And I only did that well because I’d picked up a couple of wild-card construction tiles earlier on, giving me 20 bonus VPs in the final scoring. *shakes head*

Note the foamboard insert bits

Note the foamboard insert bits, including the card draw- and discard-pile holder to the left

Another excellent session. The next Newcastle Gamers (all-day!) session falls two days after Christmas Day, so I imagine turnout will be low and I certainly won’t make it. I’ve got some plans for gaming over the Christmas period though, so there’ll hopefully be more on here before the New Year.

All photos by Olly, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne, but this month’s second session is an all-dayer (10:00 am until late on 27 December) and there’s an extra one on 3 January (also 10:00 am until late), so even more opportunities for gaming!

Corbridge Gamers – Sunday 26 May 2013

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:

Unmistakably a wargame – Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland: 8-12 December 1939

Unmistakably a wargame – Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland: 8-12 December 1939

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.

Twilight Struggle – definitely a conflict simulation

Twilight Struggle – definitely a conflict simulation, but probably not a wargame

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’!

The end of the game – clearly, marshalling my influence tokens into serried ranks was the key to victory

The end of the game – glorious Soviet strength in Asia and the Middle East, while the USA looks happier in Europe and the Americas

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.