Sunday 17 January 2010

Twilight Struggle

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.

The game board is a world map. This first edition board is just cardboard is not a mounted board like the latest deluxe version. I used glass bead to weigh it down.

The Middle East at the start of the game.

The victory point track. You only keep track of the difference in score, not the actual scores.

Some of the cards. The one on the top left is a scoring card. The number on the top left is the operation points. If it is on a white start, then the event on the card is a USA event. Red star means USSR event. White+red star means both superpowers can use that event.

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.

(Sorry about the angle. This was taken from the north end of the board, and then flipped outside down. Just imagine you are looking down from somewhere high in the air.)

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.

Eventually I got quite strong in Asia. I won back South Korea. But now I realised I may have made more mistakes. If the numbers were right, I should not have control of South Korea or Thailand yet. I'm not sure whether this photo was taken halfway through an action and the markers had not been all updated yet.

Central and South America. We spent a lot of effort in Central America and all the governments were our puppets.

The Thoughts

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.


wankongyew said...

Coups are pretty awesome. All of those stability 1 countries in Africa are just begging for coups. They can result in some amazing turnarounds however, which I'm not sure if it's intended or not. In the game with my wife, Malaysia (stability 2) went from 2 influence for one side to a nearly insurmountable 4 influence to the other side because of a lucky die roll.

I do like this game but I'm not sure how viable it is long-term. It seems to me that once both players are familiar with the cards they will wait to play certain cards only once other specific cards have already come out, making it a very fixed ritual dance.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I think coups are exactly meant to work that way, because that'd make you think twice about cheaply establishing influence in Stability 1 countries. Also I think coups are no overpowered because you spend your whole card on it, unlike placing influence or doing realignment rolls.

I actually think the game will get better when you get to know the cards better. Although the events do define the story and "hard-code" the game somewhat, I think there will still be a lot of variability because of the luck of the card draw. The game is very much about timing, and the card draw affects that a lot. So I think there is still a lot of space for variability. The luck in the die rolls will introduce some randomness to mix things up a bit too.

I think I'll like it when both players know the cards well, because of the "I know what you know I know" kind of psychology. I think that's pretty exciting.

Unknown said...

Hi Hiew

I hugely enjoyed my 1st recent game of TS, and I cannot wait to play it again.

I noticed some mistakes in one of your photos (although this could just be a setup mistake if you did it only for the photo?):

In Thailand and S. Korea you have US control indicated (blue side up), even though you do not actually have control there. You need to have more influence than the other side at least equal to the stability number. In Thailand the US has only 1 more than the USSR (needs 2+), and in S. Korea US has 2 more than USSR (needs 3+). I cannot quite make out the detail, but it looks like Australia is also incorrect in the same way.

Unknown said...

Oops! I should have read the caption, as you indicate this mistake yourself! My apologies (blush)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

... just don't tell my wife, else she'll get even more upset that I won the game unfairly. :-D

Unknown said...

I actually just bought this and Tales of the Arabian Nights. My friends and I decided to crack open the latter first and had a great time. I can't wait to give this game a go, though the rulebook is a little intimidating.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Indeed the rules can be a bit intimidating if you are used to Eurogames fare. And I'd say the text on the cards is even more intidimating for a new player. There is just so much to read as you grapple with your hand of cards. However if you take a step back and look at the big picture and the overall structure / sequence of play, you'll find that the game actually feels Euro-ish. It's just taking turns to play cards, and using each card for 1 out of 4 possible actions. Tikal, Pandemic, Hacienda all have more choices than that. :-)

The Unknown Entity said...

Hi, may i know where do you buy the Axis & Allies Europe? is hard to find in KL. Thanks

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I bought Axis & Allies Europe many years ago during a business trip to USA. I don't know of any place in KL selling it now. I think it is almost out of print. Try this link:

There are still a few online stores selling it it seems.

Or you can also consider waiting for Axis & Allies Europe 1940 edition, which is a deluxe (and more complex) edition coming out later this year. It can be merged with Axis & Allies Pacific 1940 edition (already released) to become a grand worldwide war version.

荒凉。儒 said...

well, did u ask ur wife if she like the game or not finally?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

my wife is open minded about playing the game again, and that's all i dare to hope for for now. we haven't got around to playing it again though. if she likes it after a few more plays, then i will probably buy the deluxe version.

荒凉。儒 said...

i'm planning to get the chinese deluxe version online but i scare it would be a fake version. so what's on ur mind?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I didn't know there is a Chinese version. Where did you find it? I wouldn't be surprised if there are pirated versions of Twilight Struggle. A friend who often visits China has seen many pirated versions of boardgames, and most of them are of very good production quality.

荒凉。儒 said...

from a hong kong web store site:

i dunno it has any printing error or cheap quality components.

荒凉。儒 said...

yes, i'd check out the publisher, it's a official licensed product.

荒凉。儒 said...

sorry, forgot to post the link of the publisher at BGG:

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I've been to the shop belonging to this publisher in HK. Well, the have the same name so I assume they are the same. The shop has been around for a very long time, definitely more than 10 years. And I know they have gone into the publishing business publishing Chinese versions of games.

I think this is a legitimate copy, so quality should be about the same as the English deluxe version.

荒凉。儒 said...

cool!!! guess i will order one then.