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Posted on Jun 5, 2021 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

We’re Eyeball to Eyeball – Now’s Who’s Going to Blink? Plague Island Games Takes on the Cold War in “2 Minutes 2 Midnight.” Board Game Review

We’re Eyeball to Eyeball – Now’s Who’s Going to Blink? Plague Island Games Takes on the Cold War in “2 Minutes 2 Midnight.” Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

2 Minutes to Midnight. Publisher:  Plague Island Games. Designer: Stuart Tonge.

Passed inspection: Easy to play game encompassing the Cold War from the end of World War Two through the possible breakup of the Soviet Union. A card driven game with player input regarding actions and strategic decisions. While focused on the two superpowers, shines a light on the actions on smaller states during the period. Multiple scenarios with multiple turn lengths allows players to find a scenario that fits their time requirements.

Failed basic: Be aware that the game has a large footprint that will fill the standard 3’x5’ kitchen table. The full game will take more than four hours to play (but there are smaller, shorter scenarios).

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Stuart Tonge’s upcoming game 2 Minutes to Midnight explores the Cold War in the form of a game in which atomic weapons were still sought after and stockpiled, while the United States and Soviet Union competed for dominance by using means that fell short of a Global Thermonuclear War. Starting in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War the players strive to expand their influence and rebuild nations shattered by war. Their ultimate goal – create a global community in which they are recognized as the dominant socio-political economic philosophy. In other words, it’s a geopolitical struggle for the ages.

Box Art

2 Minutes to Midnight has two players assume the role of leading either the United States or Soviet Union in a struggle for global dominance. Your chief weapons are economic coercion, covert espionage and the not too subtle hammer of military force.  You’ll deploy these tools across a card-driven game that mixes your actions with the actions of your opponent as well as nations and actors spread around the world.

We received a playtesting prototype for review. We’ve previously reported on the components that make up the game in an unboxing review.

 The mission for today is to take the game out and see how it handles in the hands of a couple of grognards. You crew for this mission is Ray playing the United States while Bill leads the Soviets into this tumultuous epoch.

2 Minutes to Midnight is played in a series of turns. The actual number can vary based on the scenario you elect to play, but the full game is nine turns long. A turn represents a five-year period. These are nicely labeled on the turn record chart, so you always know the time frame each turn represents.

Game board

In each game turn, you will execute the cards in the draw deck and then perform a turn end phase.  The turn end is mostly housekeeping tasks where you check for automatic victory and adjust tracks for things like the new US presidential administration, Soviet government, five-year plans, trade goals and any reforms the current regime may allow. You’ll also build the draw deck for the next turn using recycled cards from the current turn augmented with the cards for the upcoming turn. Cards break down into two categories – money cards and event cards.

Money cards allow a player to implement an array of actions that range from deploying spies, mobilize your armies, suppressing unrest, deploying strategic weapons, foreign aid and investing and include research and development for that insatiable military-industrial complex. Simple, right? Oh, by the way, don’t forget to keep your population happy and your country supporting your strategic objectives.

The other group of cards are the event cards. These function as the history book of the game through which other, groups and countries act on the global stage. Cards are labeled with a turn number defining when they enter play as well as an end state that defines if the card returns in the following game turns, or is removed from play. Event resolution is often done via a die roll and then consulting the results on the card, but you’ll also have opportunities to decide how to implement the specific effects.

Each turn the players construct a draw deck composed of cards marked for the current game turn plus all recycled cards from the previous game turn. Shuffle all these cards together and you’ve got the outline for the upcoming game turn. You may know what’s going to happen, but you don’t know when it’s going to happen within the turn.

The game turn consists of revealing the top card in the deck and then resolving the activity – which is either an event card or a player action. When that card is done, flip the next card in the deck. Repeat this until you’ve worked through the deck. The various event and actions are often influenced by player actions and decisions. However, some events are resolved based solely on the text of the card with a die roll tossed in to randomize the specific outcome.

The money card works to create a style of play reflecting the nature of the two superpowers. The money card allows you to take actions. Some of the actions use pieces you have in play. For example, the Soviets have an effective KGB organization that can make up for technical weaknesses in research and development. (Ray says, “Yeah – they steal your stuff. A lot. You’ve got spies of your own. Deal with it.”)

 The money cards are where players have the opportunity to make decisions and take direct action. You may move your spies and instigate unrest or steal technology. You may choose to use your resources to invest in a region. You can try and use those investments to build markets for trade. Maybe you want a STEM heavy budget so you sink additional money into R&D for new technologies like sending a man to the moons?

Or maybe you need more forceful responses ranging from supporting civil wars, military intervention or deploying strategic weapons systems? These are all options, but you’ll have to balance these choices against spending those same resources to keep the folks on the home front happy or diffusing unrest in regions before that resentment erupts into a coup. It’s the classic conundrum of “guns or butter”. Trumping all those options are homeland crises, which demand that you reduce the level of domestic unrest before you think about doing anything else. The cards nicely capture the challenge as laid out by Dwight D. Eisenhower “…Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children….”

The card deck acts as a chit-pull mechanic. Neither player knows which card is coming up next. Do you need to get that investment into the Angolan civil war before the civil war resolution card comes up, or do you need to reduce unrest in France first before it boils over into a coup.

The card deck makes game play relatively straightforward. Experienced players, focusing on the game will be able to knock out a complete game turn in about 30-45 minutes.

We’re not going to bang through an example of a complete game turn – that’s a lot of cards! – but here’s a short example that illustrates how the event and money cards combine to create the narrative and compel and constrain player decisions.

And with a roll of “4” we get the historical “I am not a crook.” result

To set the stage, there are 2 unrest tokens already sitting in the United States homeland from event cards played earlier in the turn. (Thank goodness we wrapped up the Vietnam War last turn!) The next card we draw is an event – Watergate.

The card requires we roll 1d6. Ray rolls a die and get a result of “4”. Looking at the card, we find that our President has resigned. (“Arrrroooo! Nixon’s not the one!”) The US loses their presidential abilities actions for the turn. (These were both in the “trade” box, so a bit of an inconvenience as Ray was planning on performing a trade action a bit later in the turn.)

We flip the next card and find it’s the Yom Kippur War.

We check the map and find that Egypt and Israel are both aligned with the US, The Israeli scored a victory in the Six Day War (resolved in the prior game turn). These net a +2 modifier to the die roll. We roll a six and find the Arabs have launched a prepared attack on Israel. Next, we resolve the outcome of the war by rolling two dice – a pair of threes! According to the dice, Israel has just lost the ’73 war – there’s panic on the Golan Heights!

Or is there? Reading the additional text on the card, Ray elects to spend $1 of money bumping the national debt level up to avert an Israeli defeat and save the American ally. This game outcome closely mirrors the historical US response in Operation Nickel Grass that delivered weapons and supplies to Israel.) Of course, this action cheeses off the Arab states who just had their victory snatched away by American intervention. Some of the fallout is the Arabs use OPEC to implement an oil embargo and drive up the price of petroleum (adjusting the current game price from $2 to its maximum of $3).

The next event is Oil Thirst. (Ray rolls his eyes and mutters “well that’s just great, man”.) The US has an insatiable appetite for oil and now they can’t get as much, and what they can get costs a fortune. (Bill and Ray both remember this event from their youth.) Checking the map, we find that while the global supply of oil to the US is adequate, the high price of oil is not making people happy. This in turn sparks domestic unrest in the United States. It’s getting expensive putting twenty-two gallons of gas in the old Buick Electra 225! The result is that an unrest marker is added in the United States homeland. We now have three markers. Did we mention that three unrest markers constitute a homeland crisis? The people demand government action! (Okay, maybe “political dissatisfaction” would be a better term, but the unrest reflects that people are really unhappy!)

The final card in this example is a US Money card.

Ideally, this card would be used to build trade with the United Kindgom (pushing the victory track along two more spaces) and maybe build influence in Japan. However, we’ve got that pesky domestic crisis that takes precedence. Ray elects to take two actions, first applying government aid (investment) to reduce domestic unrest by one level. The list of possible actions is defined on the QRS charts for easy review.

With the homeland crisis now averted, the US player sinks the second action into implementing the trade deal with the UK. (Where’s Nixon when you need him?) Counting the sum of previously committed investments (a total of 6), and rolling a die (5), then subtracting the negative modifier of -4 from the trade marker, the US has achieved success (a six or higher is required). Ray removes the trade marker, increasing the UK’s economic worth from 2 to 4 which pushes the US along towards gaining another victory point.

Play will continue until the current turn card deck is exhausted. At that time the players would check for automatic victory – being ahead by three or more victory points – and if the conditions are not met, prepare for the following game turn.

If this taste of gameplay left you wanting more, then good news! The rulebook contains an example of play for a full turn of card play that lays out how events function and gives a good idea of the options that the money cards enable players to make. It’s an outstanding feature that will help get new players up to speed on how the game is played.

2 Minutes to Midnight is a fun, journey through the history of the Cold War. It’s not the only game covering the Cold War out there. But 2MtM does have a unique feel. After playing through it, I described it using the model of a Hollywood elevator pitch “It’s like Supremacy, Ultimatum and Twilight Struggle got together in some mad science experiment and the result was 2 Minutes to Midnight.”  

What do I mean by that? Well, with all the technology tracks and balance of forces, it provides a more engaging research and development experience than either Twilight Struggle or Supremacy. Each player is constantly looking at the correlation of forces and how they rank in technological competition. It’s no surprise that the United States tend to lead in many technical areas, though the Soviets start with a lead in rocketry., but have the added burden of having to develop farming technology, reflecting another historical disadvantage between the two superpowers.

Technology tracks and military balance

You do worry about your strategic weapons systems. How you are doing on the strategic level impacts what can be done with your conventional forces – and what your opponent cannot do with their armies. This can help you conduct aggression with impunity or prevent your opponent from carrying out armed incursions.

The naval balance has elements that work like a feedback loop – a good navy helps your strategic posture. Suddenly, all those carrier battlegroups show their value in supporting the strategic balance of force. And pursuing some other technologies can have cascade effects which in turn can move the strategic balance in your favor. For example better communication satellites impart a +1 naval advantage,

2 Minutes to Midnight is certainly a better geopolitical model than the old Ultimatum game. Using the basket of diplomatic options of foreign aid, trade and influence you have multiple dimensions through which to implement strategies. You’ll certainly have the option of winning people’s hearts and minds. What you don’t get was the detailed weapon system descriptions you found in Ultimatum.

This just in…Francisco Franco is still dead.

One of the key design decisions Stuart Tonge made early on was that the players would not be able to trigger an all-out global thermonuclear war. In discussion, Stuart’s explanation for this decision was a belief that “Because the only way it could happen is by accident. Only a crazy fool would have pushed the button because the stone age was a bit crap, really.” History bears out that the few times the world has come close, either leaders have taken a step back from that fiery abyss or the people on the spot have challenged the perception of the situation and determined the threat to be an error. Deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction were powerful brakes that confined conflict into what came to be viewed as “acceptable” levels of conflict. 

While the players may learn to love the bomb, their citizens have not stopped worrying about it. As you play the game you’ll have to deal with the political fallout of your actions, as expressed by ‘unrest’ on the home front. It turns out a lot of things cause unrest. You can cause even more, or you can try and manage the root causes behind the unrest. That tension reflects the political realities leaders faced on both sides, though the tools used for dealing with the unrest vary a bit between the two superpowers. The Soviet player facing the unique challenge of managing demands for reform of the Soviet system as the people demand reforms and greater freedoms. Will you embrace the demand for reform as a progressive, or crack down like a reactionary old guard Stalinist? “Alles Klar, Herr Komissar?”

The game has the Soviets managing leadership, reform, five year plans and trade with the west. Just another day at work for the Central Committee.

2 Minutes to Midnight gave an engaging experience. As discussed, the game gives you a degree of crunchiness in terms of events and actions. Let’s be clear – this is not a detailed simulation like Stuarts Cold War gone hot game “Blue Water Navy”. Instead, 2 Minutes to Midnight puts the ‘war’ in Cold War and requires the player to delve into the machinations of the military-industrial complex that are driving technical innovations (which provide a strategic edge, which support your strategic goals and makes your conventional forces more capable). It may not be nuclear war, but civil wars will breakout as a result of unrest or foreign provocation (i.e. your spies). Historical revolts such as Indo-China and Algeria will occur and conflicts like the Arab-Israeli Wars, Indo-Pakistan conflicts, the Iran-Iraq War and the Falklands can all be triggered through event cards. With five-year game turns, most of these events are quickly resolved, though some like Vietnam and Algeria can drag on and go all quagmire on you. You’ll have to decide if you want to go all in and hope a surge will bring things to an end, or pull out and let the locals find their own conclusion to the conflict. 

From a history standpoint, the game starts immediately after WWII. One of the things I found jarring was the almost complete devastation that the Second World War had inflicted on the across Europe and the Far East. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but yet there it was. It really drove home why the United States implemented the Marshall Plan in the post-war period. It’s also a graphic warning about the costs of total war.

2 Minutes to Midnight did a good job reflecting the historical competition and asymmetry between the two blocs in methods and ideology. While both sides have all these actions available, the situation will often have the USSR leveraging espionage and direct military action, while the US favors diplomacy and economic investment (while not adverse to the occasional covert operation or military intervention). 

A big plus with the game is that it does not treat each superpower as an inviolate, abstract place that is above the conflict. Unrest will happen at home – be it from McCarthy, foreign wars, Soviet crackdowns on reform, Oil Prices or Civil Rights protests.

2MtM provides a complex environment in which players are challenged to make decisions that best support their current strategies and objects. The game does resemble a Euro game in that there is an area control element – each player will need to control spaces and the factories and oil within the area.

At the same time, there are also decisions to be made regarding long term investment and economic development. Those decisions are also tied to the area control element. As you improve the economic worth of a given area it becomes more valuable to control. Some areas can be development for much greater worth than others, reflecting the broad historical trends of the later half of the 20th Century.

It’s not all about Western Europe and the Middle East. The America’s and Africa receive a fair amount of attention, reflecting the historical efforts of the two superpowers to expand their influence.

A quick word on solitaire play. The game does include a deck of cards that act as a ‘bot’ to automate play. But to paraphrase “Pirates of the Caribbean” the bot should best be thought of more as “guidelines than rules”. They’ll give you direction for what the opponent should do, but if you see something obvious, the rules suggest  you should by all means do that!

The game has a lot going for it. But new players may find some of the features off-putting. The biggest thing is the footprint of the game. It’s large. My standard gaming space is a 3′ x 5′ table. 2MtM was another reminder that I really need to upgrade to a 4′ x 6′ to have bigger games fit comfortably on the table. If you are constrained on space, this could be an issue (though you can solve this by moving the sideboard technology tree to a separate, nearby space.).

A new player may find themselves feeling overwhelmed with the array of action choices choices. Just weighing the opportunity costs of choosing one action over another can cause mental gridlock. You can get lost trying to do too much at once, or conversely being so focused on a goal, that you let other areas suffer. Fortunately, this is something that can be alleviated by reading the introductory example of play – and the rulebook – as well as working through a few turns of the game – you’ll quickly get the hang of it!

Some players may find the card draw mechanic almost too confining. This can happen if you find your self having too much unrest pile up – especially on the home front. There are few things more frustrating than finally getting a money card to perform some actions, only to be forced to ‘buy down’ the unrest to get the protesters off the streets and back to work.  The lesson here for you armchair generals is that you should deal with the unrest as it happens. If you let it pile up you’ll find it will derail your strategic operations, usually at the worst time.

2 Minutes to Midnight does a good job representing the Cold War. The event cards and decisions shine a light on the long road it was getting from the aftermath of the Second World War to the Francis Fukuyama’s concept of the “End of History”. It’s a medium weight game – similar in decision making depth to Eurogames such as Scythe. The event cards provide a broad overview into the events of the Cold War. It’s also a way to view how the past reflects on the present and the future. Gamers interested in exploring the Cold War will find this a welcome addition to their library. As a child of the Cold War, the game was engaging and captures the tension of the times. I’m looking forward to the release of the game!

Armchair General Score: 93%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  5

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of hobby magazines.

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