The PLAYlist 10: Twilight Struggle

Aug 21, 2017 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share


Who’s up for a harrowingly intense, three-hour-plus Cold War simulation? If you haven’t fled for the front door already, then saddle on up because I’ve got a winner for you. In this volume of The PLAYlist we’ll be looking at GMT Games’ classic head-to-head wargame Twilight Struggle, which is the most fun you’ll ever have staring down the threat of utter and absolute nuclear obliteration.

I’ll start off with a quick apology to the longterm gamers who have stumbled onto our column over the last several entries. To seasoned hobbyists, re-visiting Twilight Struggle is like asking a dedicated indie rock fan “Hey, have you heard of this Arcade Fire band yet?” Released in 2005, the game rose to become both a popular and critically-lauded classic; it stood at the top of BoardGameGeek.com’s rankings – a sort of Billboard chart for games, as voted upon by gamers – for more than five full years, a feat which is unlikely to ever be matched or beaten. (Even today, twelve years after its release, Twilight Struggle is still ranked at #3.) To put things into music terms yet again, Twilight Struggle ruled the charts in a way similar to how Michael Jackson’s Thriller did while Ronald Reagan was in office.

And so, yes, if you’ve been part of the community for a few years, you’ll be forgiven for skipping this particular post. (Bye bye! See you next column.) But given the way the hobby’s grown in recent years, there’s an ever-increasing number of gamers who haven’t yet played this modern masterpiece. (We’ll admit that we were among them, too, until just recently.) This new appraisal goes out to everyone who wants to read a review that wasn’t written almost a decade ago. For what it’s worth, we’re looking at the latest reprint of the deluxe edition from 2016, currently available for an MSRP of $60 (or significantly less, from online retailers.)

Before we get too deep, though, I need to set forth a teensy preface: this is a long, intensive game, sure to put off gamers who prefer to keep things casual.  Each game of Twilight Struggle will require around three hours of your time, give or take an hour based on you and your opponent’s focus level and how much time you spend thinking through each action. On that same note, those are three extremely think-y hours, requiring deep concentration and endless revisions to your course of action. There’s nothing light or even remotely breezy about this game. If you’re anything like us, you’ll walk away from a finished session feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted… and satisfied beyond all get-out. You see, Twilight Struggle provides a head-to-head experience like few others. If you’re willing to invest the time and brain power, then this is one of the most riveting, tactical challenges in gaming.

"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, year in and year out, 'rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation' – a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself." John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, January 20th, 1961

A game of Twilight Struggle covers the entirety of the Cold War, from 1945 – 1989.  The board is a world map, broken up into chunks that represent countries and territories on both sides of the Iron Curtain. One player takes on the role of the United States, while the other commands the Soviet Union. There are only ten turns to the whole game, but there’s a lot that goes on during each one.

At the start, blue and red influence markers are spread across the board to signify ideological allegiances at the end of WWII. (The U.S. side starts out strong in North America, Western Europe, and so forth; the Soviets begin with advantages in historically Communist regions of Eastern Europe and Asia.) Each country has a number that represents its political stability threshold: if one side’s influence number here is higher than their opponent’s, plus this stability number, then that country is considered under their control. Controlling nations is the most reliable way of earning points throughout the game, which determines the winner. Points are raised and lowered along one shared track, meaning that when the U.S. player’s score rises, the Soviet’s lowers, and vice versa. (In an evenly-matched game, the scores will often hover in the low single digits.)

To start every turn, both players draw up to a hand of eight cards. These cards are what drive the action in Twilight Struggle. The bulk of them depict historical events from the mid-late 20th Century, from the threat of socialist governments in Western Europe through the Iran-Iraq War that spanned the 1980s. (As the game begins, the draw deck will contain only cards from an “Early War” pile; as it progresses, cards representing events from the “Mid War” and “Late War” will eventually be shuffled in, to ensure that history moves forward semi-realistically.) Gameplay entails the U.S. and Soviet sides taking turns revealing one of these cards from their hand, using it either for its listed event or its “operations value” – a number appearing in the upper left corner of the card. Playing an event usually means carrying out a specific action described on your card, which is typically to your great advantage. Operations – or Ops points – are used to carry out more general actions, such as spreading influence or attempting a coup in an opponent's territory.

Something that makes the deck in Twilight Struggle so interesting is that the majority of events are slanted towards one side’s advantage or the other’s. And, here’s the rub: if you play an opponent’s event card for its operation value, they get to play out that particular event. That makes the swords in TS double-edged; you’re always weighing the value of attacking your opponent against the advantage you’ll be giving them by playing the card. (There are few ways around a doozy card, either – in most turns, seven of eight of your hand cards will need to be played and any remaining will be carried into your next turn.) Twilight Struggle is impeccably balanced above all of its other shining qualities, so this is a conundrum both players will endlessly be fretting over. The winning player will always be the one who best navigates the timing with which they play their hands, better-mitigating those disadvantages with power plays than the person sitting on the other side of the table.

Do you want to know my favorite aspect of Twilight Struggle? It’s the tension – oh, golly, the tension is thick in this one, as it should be in a game that simulates the political maneuverings of superpowers as they hung on the brink of nuclear destruction. You see, military-oriented cards tend to be some of the most powerful events in the game, so the temptation to use them will always be present. However, doing so will lower the game’s ever-so-short DEFCON track, which represents the threat of global nuclear destruction. If this track bottoms out on your turn, you lose, game over. (Game over, world.) The DEFCON level rises in turns of peace, and some event cards help bring it back up, but then many of the operations – which you more or less need to carry out, as part of the most basic level of gameplay – lower it again. You’ll find yourself dropping the DEFCON level as far as you can to get things done, and also to prevent your opponent from getting a leg up on their turn. Twilight Struggle is a game that encourages you at every moment to keep the nuclear doomsday clock teetering at 11:55pm. It's pretty messed up, when you think about it, but that's the world we were (are) living in. 

This, folks, this is the mechanic that makes Twilight Struggle such a nail-biter. I can’t overstate how tense this game becomes, and it’s all due to that consistently-worrisome DEFCON meter. You’ll plan your turns around how close you can push it to the ledge, and spend your opponent’s moves nervously watching that track in the corner of your eye. It’s just one small part of a much larger, thoughtfully-designed game, but it’s the little thing that makes this game so, so good.

I’ve mentioned the operations, which are where Twilight Struggle's second level of drama primarily takes place. You spend operation points – the number values listed in the corner of each card – to do a few different things. The simplest is to spread or bolster your influence in allied or neutral territories. You’ll also use them as the game’s form of attacking your opponent, through coup and realignment attempts. Those actions are resolved with simple dice rolls. There’s a good degree of chance involved in Twilight Struggle, sure, between the rolls and the obvious luck of the draw, but it’s allayed by the balance of the cards themselves. (Unless you’re a top-level player, you’ll more likely hose yourself with a dumb move than get hosed by a bum hand of cards.) Points are achieved through a number of means, the most common of which are the play of scoring cards, which net you points based on your territories in a given region. (Hence, the reason for all of that coup-ing and such.) The game ends after ten turns, when a player reaches 20 points, or someone accidentally triggers nuclear Armageddon.

There are other factors to be considered within this very big, considerably complex wargame, such as a space race track, events that affect play for multiple turns, a powerful “China” card that changes hands every time it’s used, and a round of final scoring based on endgame control of entire swaths of the globe. There’s a lot to take in when you first learn the game, but it’s thankfully more straight-forward than it looks on initial glance. The designers, Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, have created a game where the greater portion of your mental capacities can be dedicated to tactics and strategy, rather than remembering vague or obtuse rules.  

Twilight Struggle does an incredible job of translating a half-Century’s worth of history into a three-hour wargame. It might seem that condensing complex affairs (i.e., the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis) into single cards trivializes them, but Twilight Struggles uses it as an educational opportunity in its thick rulebook, which includes historical reference for every single card in its deck. If you’re excited by the idea of spending entire evenings wrapped up in a white-knuckle test of wits – and, importantly, have a friend eager to join you – then Twilight Struggle comes with our emphatic endorsement.

This column’s playlist is perhaps the one we’re most proud of yet. UTR’s The PLAYlist: Twilight Struggle comprises 54 vintage Cold War-era songs about the threat of total nuclear annihilation. (It’s certainly not the most uplifting 3 and ½ hours of music, but it’s no more depressing than tuning in to the news on any given day.) Like the board game we’ve been discussing, these songs span from 1945 to 1989, and we’ve presented them in chronological order so that you can bop your head along to a sequential, musical history of nuclear fears and Cold War paranoia.

This is hardly a comprehensive list – in particular, there were a lot of metal and punk songs that weren’t available on Spotify – but we feel it’s a pretty good cutaway of atomic pop music. All of the best-known tracks are included, from CSNY’s “Wooden Ships” to Nena’s “99 Luftballoons,” but some of our favorite finds are the more obscure ones, particularly from the ‘40s and ‘50s. (The 1959 track “We Will All Go Together” by Army veteran/Harvard-educated mathematician/musical comedian Tom Lehrer is an absurdly chipper piece of gallows humor – if you listen to only one song, please make it this one. You won’t believe it.)

The playlist closes out with a song that isn’t specifically nuke-related (Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”) but was included in tribute to the film Dr. Strangelove, which was easily the funniest piece of entertainment to come out of Cold War anxieties.

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Previous PLAYlist columns: HonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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