I first played Twilight Struggle in 2006. Played 1.5 games, but after that never came back to try it again. The recently released deluxe edition (4th printing, which means this game is selling well) triggered my interest to try it again. I am looking for another 2-player-playable longish game that can be my wife and my go-to game, in addition to Through the Ages. So I borrowed Han's copy of Twilight Struggle to try it out with Michelle, to see whether she likes it, before deciding whether to buy the deluxe edition. Actually, I'm not even sure whether I liked it when I played it four years ago.The Game
Twilight Struggle is about the Cold War, 1945 - 1989, from the end of World War II to the fall of USSR. It is a 2-player-only game, where the players play USSR and USA, the two superpowers during the Cold War, competing to spread their influence around the world. This is a card driven game. Players take turns playing cards and either use the operation points on the cards to spread their influence, or use the events on the cards. Most of the flavour of the game comes from these real historical events. This is a very educational game, summarising the geopolicital tensions and international incidents throughout the Cold War. In most cases the outcomes of these events are related to how influence is changed on the world map, or how victory points are scored.
There are various ways to spread your influence. You can add your influence through proper means. I imagine providing aid to countries, or signing international treaties, etc. You can make some risky political realignments to reduce your opponent's influence. I imagine these to be things like spy missions, which can backfire and cause you to lose influence instead. You can even set up a military coup to try to reduce your opponent's influence and even to increase your own influence.
When you play a card, if it has an event associated to your superpower, you can choose to use the operation points number of the card, or have that event occur. Sometimes this can be a tough decision. The even more tricky thing is if you play a card with your opponent's event, you can only choose to use the op points, and your opponent's event occurs (usually bad for you). That means you will be in trouble if you draw many cards associated with your opponent's superpower.
There are ways around this. Normally you will play cards from your hand until you have only one card left. So if you have many of you opponent's events, at least you can reserve the worst one to be the last card held in your hand. But you can't discard it. You'll still continue hold it when you replenish your hand for the next Turn, but hopefully later on the effect of the card wouldn't hurt you as much. The other way around this is the Space Race. This is a simple and abstract mechanism meant to represent the prestige project of the two superpowers. Any card spent on the Space Race will not have its event occur. Advancing your country in the Space Race gives some benefits, but as soon as your opponent catches up, you lose that advantage.
Another interesting aspect of the game is the DEFCON track, representing how close the world is to nuclear war. Military coups, and some other events can cause the world stability to worsen. Whoever causes the situation to get out of control will end the world by nuclear annihilation. Everyone loses, and that player loses more for being the culprit. Military coups are sometimes a convenient way to fight for influence, but the DEFCON level will restrict the use of coups in different regions, and you can't start a coup if it the world is on the brink of nuclear armageddon (unless you want to concede the game).
The Military Ops track is another interesting concept. Both superpowers want to flex their military muscles around the world, by sponsoring or triggering wars, and staging coups. You can lose face and get penalised if you don't show off your strength enough.
Most of the scoring in the game centres around the scoring cards. Every region on the board has a scoring card, and when such a card is played, players score depending on how well they have established control in that region. If you have a scoring card in your hand, you can plan ahead and try to make sure you are better positioned than your opponent to benefit from it. Sometimes when you see your opponent suddenly sucking up to African warlords, you'll wonder whether she'll be playing the African scoring card soon. But then, she may also be bluffing just to distract you.
The game is a little complex. Definitely at the level of the complex Eurogames, but compared to wargames this is probably relatively simple.The Play
Michelle player USSR, supposedly the easier superpower to play, and I played USA. In the early game USSR was always ahead in score. I was pretty much just doing damage control. USSR had strong influence in Europe, even controlling France. I barely held on to West Germany. Even in Asia it managed to control South Korea and Taiwan, traditionally USA allies. During the mid game, the advantage gradually shifted to the USA. I slowly managed to dominate Asia, the Middle-East and Central America. Michelle controlled many countries in Africa. We were more or less equally matched in South America. Eventually USA won in Turn 9 (out of 10 Turns in the game), by reaching 20 victory points. The last 4pts were gained by successfully advancing on one of the steps on the Space Race.
Unfortunately, my victory was marred. There were some USA event cards that I forgot to discard. Some events should have been discarded from the game when they occurred, but were not. That definitely impacted the game. One thing that I made use of a lot was the coups, which I think helped me a lot. Michelle didn't use those much. She was still grappling with the rules. And I think throughout the game neither of us tried realignment rolls. It had never even occurred to me. It probably would have been very useful in some situations. So actually I was grappling with the rules too, just maybe slightly less than Michelle.
Europe was dominated by USSR. I held on to West Germany desperately. If I lose it, I will lose the game instantly because Michelle would have full control of Europe. This is a special instant victory condition.
I quite enjoyed the game. I enjoyed watching history unfold. I think in any game a majority of the cards will come out sooner or later, just that not all will be played as events. This means that the cards very much define the game. All the flavour, the pacing, and the many unique quirks come from the cards. The game is very much about damage control, and managing the timing of the scoring cards and the rise and fall of your influence. You need to prioritise where you want to exert influence. Sometimes you need to bluff. In a way it feels like Race for the Galaxy - how do you make the most out of your hand of cards. If they are good, how should you squeeze the most out of them? If they are bad, how do you minimise damage?
Playing the game for the first time can be challenging, because there is a lot of text on the cards. But the overall structure of the game is not complex. It's just playing cards and doing one of four possible actions - add influence, realignment, coup or Space Race.
I don't know whether Michelle will play this with me again. I'm kind of in denial and don't want to ask her yet, waiting for when she is in a charitable mood. The mistake I made upset her a little. But I think at least she now has a pretty good grasp of how the game works. She is always resistant to learning new games, but once she gets over the initial learning curve, she can start liking the game, if it is a game that she is able to like. For some games she flatly tells me it's no fun (不好玩的). At least she hasn't said the same about Twilight Struggle. I am still hoping to make this game another go-to game for us. I just have to wait for the right moment to spring the question on her again and get her to play again.