Sunday 10 July 2016

Twilight Struggle on iOS

When I first heard that GMT and Playdek were going to make an iOS version of Twilight Struggle, I was quite excited. I supported the Kickstarter campaign with no hesitation. Playdek had always delivered good products (Ascension, Summoner Wars and Agricola on iOS), so I had high confidence. I only pledged for the iOS version and not other items like the PC version or the physical items for the boardgame. The iOS version was originally scheduled to release in Mar 2015, 9 months after successful funding. It was eventually released in Jun 2016, much later than expected. Thankfully I wasn't actively waiting for it. It was a fire-and-forget decision for me. Otherwise I would have been frustrated by the long wait. Now that it's here and I've played a few games, I'm happy with it, and glad to have supported making it a success.

It is not easy to transfer such a complex boardgame onto the small iPad screen. I must admit I took some malignant pleasure in thinking about how Playdek was going to do it. Now that they have done it, I must say they did a pretty good job. The user interface is intuitive. I can easily see information that I need, or if it is not immediately visible, I can easily find it. When fully zoomed out, I can see 90% of the world map, which is nice. I can zoom in to specific regions. At the lower left and lower right corners (see screenshot above), the square buttons let you do this. CA means zooming in to Central America, SA means South America, and so on. Near the top left and top right corners, the symbols in squares are events which are in effect. If you press one of the symbols, the relevant card comes up.

Each region has a little meter to let you know how well you and your opponent are doing. The Europe meter is near the left edge of this screenshot. The left half being filled with blue means USA has achieved Domination in Europe. A quarter on the right being filled with red means USSR has Presence. If you tap the meter, you'll be shown a detailed breakdown of how the region will score. See next screenshot below.

This is the scoring details screen for Asia. How many points each side will score are shown in the two columns on both sides. The big red 05 in the middle means USSR will net gain 5VP if the Asia scoring card is played. The Twilight Struggle scoring is a zero sum game where only one side will have points. If the other side scores, the former needs to lose points first, until it reaches zero, before the latter starts gaining points. The 06 in the red box at the top means USSR is currently in the lead by 6VP.

This is the space race. USA (blue frame) is at Step 2 and USSR (red frame) is still at Step 0.

This is Central America. In this screenshot I have opened up the game log details. These allow you to see what has happened throughout the game. Other than the game log, you can also easily check which cards are in the discard pile (it is especially important to know which scoring cards have been played and which are still to come) and which cards have been permanently removed from the game.

The Help button on the left (the green circle with a question mark) is very useful. It is context-sensitive. When I press it, it shows me the rules relevant to the action or screen I am executing or viewing. This saves me much trouble in searching through the rule book. One thing I don't like though is the tutorial. Twilight Struggle is a complex game and it is not easy to make a rulebook-for-dummies. I tried reading through the tutorial and I didn't have patience to complete it in one sitting. Later when I came back, I found that I had to start from scratch and I could not continue from where I left off. Eventually I decided to skip the tutorial and just went ahead to play. Since I had played the physical boardgame before I still had a general idea of what I was supposed to do.

This is the overview screen. It tells you which Turn you are in, how many Action Rounds there are in the current Turn, and which cards have been played in previous Action Rounds.

So far I have played against the AI four times, and I'm now in my 3rd game against Han. I found that I am lousy at managing the DEFCON level. The DEFCON concept in Twilight Struggle determines how close the world is to nuclear war. The DEFCON level starts at 5, which is the best and safest level. Each time a player initiates a military coup, the DEFCON level drops. Some card plays also affect DEFCON. If DEFCON hits 1, nuclear war breaks out and the world is destroyed. The game ends, and the player whose turn it is is the loser. In my first three games against the AI, I lost all three because of DEFCON (screenshot above). In one game, I played a card which required both sides to roll a die to determine who gained points. The card also allowed the victor to adjust the DEFCON level. I had misunderstood and thought the active player was to decide how to adjust the DEFCON. The AI won the die roll, and since it was the victor, it decided to lower the DEFCON, which was already at Level 2 when I played the card. Nuclear war broke out, and I was blamed because I was the active player at the time. In another game, I played a card which gave the AI 1 operation point when DEFCON was at Level 2. I had neglected that the AI could use this paltry 1 ops point to start a coup, which it did. DEFCON went to 1, and I was blamed again for destroying the world. I was schooled by the AI! I now appreciate much better the intricacies in managing DEFCON.

Now finally, one game that I did win against the AI. I played USA and I managed to reach 20VP for an instant victory. In my 4 games against the AI so far, it seems the AI doesn't put much emphasis on the space race. In this screenshot you can see my USA is already at Step 5 of the space race, but the AI's USSR is still at Step 1.

Before the iOS version was released, I hadn't played Twilight Struggle for quite some time, despite owning a physical copy of the game. It is good that the iOS version got me playing this great game again. I enjoyed my plays. It felt good getting to know the game again, appreciating the beauty in its design and the tactics required to win. In the past, I had never got to learn this game well because usually there was a long gap between each play. By the time I played again, I had already forgotten the tricks I learned from my previous game. The iOS version helped me learn and enjoy the game much better.

As with all digital implementations of boardgames, there is a risk of burnout due to playing too much within too short a time. I feel this a little with Twilight Struggle. With a physical boardgame, you can't avoid the "work" required in managing the components and in doing calculations in your head. Despite calling these "work", they are part of the fun too. Digital implementations remove these. It is good in that you save time and you get straight to the crux of the game. However it can also be bad in that the experience is too blunt, too condensed and too naked. Suddenly you feel you have seen all there is to it, because the trappings of playing a physical boardgame have disappeared. I find that I am now intentionally not playing Twilight Struggle too much so that I don't burn out on it.

One thing I like about the digital implementation is before you roll the die for an important move, your odds of success are shown. So you can always change your mind before you commit to your move. With this, I don't need to memorise the rules related to calculating odds. I just need to have a rough idea of the factors which affect my odds. This is very convenient.

One thing I notice is I rarely get to the Late War stage. It might be because I keep losing by DEFCON heh heh... This is a pity because I don't get to experience what the Late War is like. There is a Late War variant scenario which comes with the iOS version, which I think is meant to address this problem. It starts the game in Turn 8 (of 10). Han and I are trying this now. It seems to be very tough for USSR though.

Update 17 Jul 2016: I just realised I had misunderstood the rules for the Late War scenario. I had played two complete games assuming the victory condition was the same as the standard game. I lost the first game due to DEFCON and never got to the end of Turn 10. In the second game, I did get to the end of Turn 10 and the final scoring. Han played USA and he had around 5VP after the final scoring. However the app said I won. I was puzzled. I had to look up the rules before realising that the victory condition was based on USA having 20VP. USA needed to have more than 20VP after the final scoring to win the game. Victory was no longer based on 0VP. No wonder when I played USSR it felt so impossible. I didn't realise I was actually doing well keeping USA from reaching 20VP. I had thought I really sucked at this game. Embarrassing...

The AI that comes with the digital version is decent enough, but it is not as interesting as a human opponent. It is sufficient if you want to learn the game or if you want to play a relaxed and casual game. Once you know the game well, it probably won't be much of a challenge. Despite my blunders with the DEFCON level when I played against the AI, I generally managed to outscore it because I played more efficiently. If I had lasted long enough, I'm sure I would have won eventually.

If Twilight Struggle is a game that interests you, the iOS (or PC) implementation is a good way to get into it.


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