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Posted on Mar 14, 2006 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Twilight Struggle – Boardgame Review

By Kaarin Engelmann

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Back to the USSR
Revive the days of Romanian abdication, duck and cover, Iran-Contra and Chernobyl with GMT’s Twilight Struggle.

"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." –John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address

With a quote like that to introduce the game, my husband couldn’t wait until Monday for my review copy of Twilight Struggle to arrive. Rather, on Friday night, he drove an hour to pick up the game, and we ended up playing through the weekend. It was only the beginning of an obsession with GMT’s new card-driven boardgame on the Cold War.

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For the next two weeks, we played it against each other, friends, and pretty much any unsuspecting gamer who walked in the door. A few times we got in two or three games per day. Karsten managed to get on a first-name basis with the designers, as he haunted Twilight Struggle online discussion boards. I kept beating my head against the wall trying to come up with a strategy to defeat Karsten.

Initial enthusiasm toward any game is often followed by burn-out, resulting from discovery of a fatal design flaw, play imbalance, or limited strategic options. Just when I thought that was the case for this game, I had the opportunity to play it against new opponents at PrezCon, a boardgaming convention in Charlottesville, VA. Instead of losing appeal, the game has become even more of an obsession. I’m now committed to running Twilight Struggle tournaments at several upcoming conventions.

Before I go any farther, here are some specifics about the game.

Overview

Twilight Struggle is a low-complexity, two-player boardgame simulating the Cold War power struggle between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Players use cards to place influence or trigger events that affect control of countries and regions on the map. Victory is determined by automatic victory conditions during the game or by the player with the most victory points after 10 turns. Games usually last from 35 minutes to 3.5 hours.

Two snapshots of the mapboard. You can either be Blue… …or Red. Each has its own struggle.

Anyone who has played card-driven classics such as We the People and Hannibal will recognize Twilight Struggle’s underlying system. Each turn, players receive 8 cards (9 after Turn 4). They begin by playing "Headline" events, which are revealed simultaneously. After resolution, players alternate 6 or 7 action rounds-beginning with the Soviet player.

Cards are labeled with both an Operations (Ops) Value and an event. Players use Ops points to place influence in countries they occupy or are adjacent to, attempt to "realign" (reduce) influence in countries where their opponent is present, or initiate a coup to overthrow the government in a county their opponent occupies. Both realignments and coups are resolved via die roll.

Unless a card contains an opponent’s event, playing a card for Ops means giving up the event. The game’s designers, Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta, pulled the events straight out of the pages of history. For example, there is Fidel-ceding control of Cuba to the Russians; Warsaw Pact-adding USSR influence to Eastern Europe; Vietnam Revolts-giving the Soviets a foothold in Southeast Asia; Pope John Paul II Elected-increasing US influence in Poland; and Chernobyl-which prevents the Soviet player from adding influence to a region of the US player’s choice. Most of the best events happen only once and do not recycle through the deck.

Playing an opponent’s event to give yourself Ops triggers the opponents event. Instead of playing such events, you can discard them the Space Race Track. Victory is not guaranteed to a player who is ahead in the Space Race, but there are nice benefits, such as victory points and the ability to dump extra cards or glean intelligence from your opponent in the Headline Phase.

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A Defcon Status Track shows how close the world is to nuclear war. Coups in Battleground countries (identified as countries that were particularly important to US-USSR power struggle) and some events reduce Defcon. Any player who takes Defcon to "1" triggers nuclear annihilation and loses the game. More than one game I’ve played ended as a result of mushroom clouds; that’s what happens when you keep the world on the edge of destruction.

Scoring is a differential from – 20 (USSR) to +20 (USA). Cards shuffled into the deck initiate scoring during the game. Europe, Asia, and the Middle East appear in Early War (turns 1-3); Southeast Asia (once only), Africa, Central and South America are added at the beginning of Mid War (turn 4). Not all will come up the same number of times. Points are awarded for presence, domination, and control of an area. While players must execute scoring cards the same turn they draw them, there is usually time to maximize their effect or at least minimize damage.

Any time Europe is scored, if one player controls all of the Battleground countries and more countries total in Europe, that player gets an automatic victory. Otherwise, if neither player has achieved 20 points before the end of Turn 10, winner is declared after final scoring of all regions.

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