The lockdown due to the COVID-19 virus has caused a certain amount of disruption to tabletop gaming, and has forced many people to look online for substitutes to their usual face-to-face gaming fayre.
I have always been a fan of the Twilight Struggle boardgame from GMT Games, and backed the Digital Edition of the game on Kickstarter in June 2014, which was developed by Playdek. The game is currently available on PC, iOS and Android, and the online gaming interface works seamlessly across all three platforms. The Digital Edition is a faithful ‘port’ of the boardgame to electronic media, but includes some extra options which can help players during the game, such as identifying when certain cards are not eligible for play or warning players of actions they must perform, such as playing scoring cards.
It also allows a game to be played not only over a number of hours, but even a number of days. One of the issues of the boardgame was that if it went the number of turns, it was likely to take 4 hours to play. This extended play feature takes away that time pressure, which is probably one of it’s biggest bonuses.
But what is Twilight Struggle?
Twilight Struggle is a two-player game set during the Cold War, which it identifies as running between 1945 and 1989, which was when the Berlin Wall came down. Players take the role of either The United States of America or the Soviet Union, with the aim of exerting their influence across the globe to the point where they achieve a level of control, which is measured in victory points.
The world is divided into six different regions:
- Europe (21 spaces)
- Middle East (10 spaces)
- Asia (15 spaces)
- Central America (10 spaces)
- South America (10 spaces)
- Africa (18 spaces)
Each space represents a country, or group of countries. Each country has a stability number which represents that country’s stability, independence and power. There are several Battleground countries in each region, which are deemed to have special significance and have different rules in the game. These countries have their name highlighted in red.
For example, the Middle East is represented by 10 countries.
Libya, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia are identified as battleground countries with the balance being made up of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Gulf States.
Playing the game
The game is played over a maximum of ten turns, with each turn consisting of a number of rounds. Each player has a hand of cards, which is dealt to them at the start of each turn. These cards can be used in a number of ways to gain influence and/or victory points.
The turns are split into three parts, with each turn having a different number of Action Rounds:
- Early War – Turns 1-3 – 6 Action Rounds / Turn
- Mid War – Turns 4 – 7 – 7 Action Rounds/ Turn
- Late War – Turns 8 – 10 – 7 Action Rounds / Turn
As the game progresses, new cards are added into the deck which reflect the historical events of that period.
Each card has an operational value, identified by the number in the star in the top left of the card. The colour of the star indicates who the event belongs to – Red-USSR, White-USA, red/White-Neutral. The card also has a title and an event, which identifies what special event happens if that card is played in that way.
Cards can played in a number of ways:
- Play Event – The card can be played in order for the event on it to occur. If this event is marked with an *, it is a one-off (normally highlighting an actual event) and is removed from the game once it is played.
- Place Influence – A number of influence markers can be placed in countries equal to the operations value of the card
- Realignment Rolls – You can attempt to remove the influence of your opponent in a country by using an opposed dice roll
- Coup Attempt – You can use the operations value of the card to perform a coup in a country to obtain influence there (and gain military operations points)
- Space Race – If you don’t want an event to happen, you can place it on the space race (usually limited to once per turn)
Your hand will usually consist of a mixture of USA, USSR and Neutral cards. If a player uses and opponents card to place influence or make realignment or coup dice rolls, the event on the card will trigger.
During the game, when the drawer deck runs out of cards, the discard deck is reshuffled and this becomes a new drawer deck. In this way it is possible for cards to occur multiple times in a game.
Scoring is done in four different ways during the game.
The primary way that scoring is achieved is by the playing of scoring cards. There are seven of these in total, one for each region. During the Early War period of the game only the score cards for Europe, Asia and the Middle East are in play, with the rest being added with the Mid War cards on turn four of the game. Southeast Asia scoring is a special card that only occurs once. Once it is played it is removed from the game.
Players have presence, dominance or control in a region, depending upon the number of battleground and non-battleground countries you control. Each player scores a number of points, and whoever has the majority of points are awarded the difference when the scoring card is played.
The second way of scoring is via the Space Race track. You can play cards on the Space Race, which allows a player a dice roll to see if they advance. Getting to certain spaces on the track awards that player points
Certain Event Cards, when triggered, score points for a player. Finally, Each player must perform a number of military operations equal or greater than the DEFCON level. Any difference at the end of the turn is awarded to your opponent as bonus victory points.
Winning the game.
The game ends in the following ways:
- The end of turn 10 is reached – a final scoring round is performed and whichever player has the most victory points wins the game.
- The game ends immediately if a player attains 20 victory points.
- The game ends immediately if DEFCON 1 is reached (Thermonuclear War breaks out) with the player who caused the war losing the game.
- The game ends immediately if a player has control of Europe when the ‘Europe Scoring’ can is played.
- The game ends immediately if a turn ends and a player still has a scoring card in their hand, with that player losing the game.
What makes Twilight Struggle a great game?
Twilight Struggle was the no.1 rated board game on the BoarGameGeek.com website for a number of years, and is still rated the no.8 game of all time. Why is it rated so highly, and has it stood the test of time?
TS is a quite a complex game with ebbs and flows that take time to learn. Given that it’s a card game, the game variations are huge which mean that it is very rare for any two games to be alike. That said, there are certain strategies that can be used, and part of the joy of the game is learning the best way that events, or certain other card combinations, can be played.
For example, do you try to avoid opponents events from happening as much as possible, or do you play them and mitigate their effects as much as possible, knowing that they will be removed from the game once they have occurred?
Or maybe you concentrate on Europe. If a player controls Europe, they win the game, no matter what happens elsewhere in the world, so maybe you want to go for broke and hope that Europe scoring is played before your are overrun elsewhere?
In the Early War, there are only 3 scoring cards in play, so you can concentrate your efforts in Europe, Asia and Middle East. However, you can also plan ahead and start adding influence elsewhere on the map, knowing you can be ahead of the game – if you survive that long…
The game is a complex dance, where you are constantly trying to out-think, or maybe out-guess, your opponent. Where are they playing? Does that indicate if they are likely to be scoring this turn? If they are playing my cards, does this mean that they have none of their own left to play?
In addition to the gameplay, TS is also an interesting game from an historical perspective. Since each card represents an historical event, the game offers the chance to find out more about the events of the cold war. This is enhanced by the fact that you can find a list of all the cards in the game, along with the history behind each one, in the app (and in a book in the boardgame).
Twilight Struggle offers a rewarding and challenging game, which improves as with each play as you learn how the various cards work with each other in the game. Whilst it is true that it is more likely for the USSR player to win the game in the first half, and more likely for the USA player to win should the game go the full number of turns, it is finely enough balanced that it is entirely possible for the US player to pull off and early win, or for the USSR player to dominate late in the game.
As with all card games, the luck of the card drawer can play an important part in the game, but the game is as much about how you mitigate your poor luck as how you press home any advantage you may have.
I’ve now played this game over fifty times, and I am still keen to play it much more. Sometimes, but not very often, you get a game that achieves perfect union between game mechanics, theme and strategy. Twilight Struggle is one of those games.