When I originally set this up, I had this vision of taking you (virtually) through my games closet, introducing you to the various and sundry games within. It would culminate with Twilight Struggle. Then, I realized a virtual tour of a games closet is very difficult when you don’t have the actual games closet. I don’t even have a closet right now.

So, we’re skipping right to the end and calling it good. If I get some energy/time in a few months, I’ll throw in a couple of extras, but that’s it.

Here is what you need to know about Twilight Struggle: it is the best board game ever devised. Sorry, Chess. Fuck you, Checkers. Monopoly… just go home, Monopoly.

Twilight Struggle is a two player board game about the Cold War. If that sentence doesn’t have you out of your chair and into your car, traveling to the nearest quality gaming establishment to purchase a copy, then I am genuinely mystified. This game is so awesome, so perfect, that the agony of not playing it should overwhelm you. Even purchasing a copy over the internet would be the most profound torture imaginable. (That is how I acquired my copy, and the anticipation nearly caused a kidney to explode. FROM AWESOME.)

Enough hyperbole, for the moment. The concept is simple: one person plays the Soviet Union. The other plays the United States of America. There are four ways to win: drive the other guy entirely out of Europe (the Patton Way); get 20 victory points, triggering an instant victory (the Reagan Way); wait until the end of the game and hope you have more points than the other guy (the Brezhnev Way); or, trick the other person into causing a nuclear war, obliterating the planet, but dying one of fraction of a second later than the other guy (the Stalin Way). Making the Brezhnev Way extra appropriate: if the Soviet Union just makes it to the end of the game, it’s pretty much a moral victory.

Twilight Struggle is primarily card driven, like all great board games. There are dice, and they matter (somewhat), but rarely will a bad die roll or great die roll make a huge difference. It’s about gradations of meaning. It’s about weighing short term risk vs. long term reward. If you sponsor a coup in Israel this turn (a very, very difficult task indeed), that could freeze you out of South East Asia in the mid game. If you focus exclusively on Europe, you could see Asia disappear. If the American player neglects Mexico (which is very easy to do), the Soviets can make trouble in the late game.

It is not a war game. Wars are fought entirely in the abstract, via die rolls. That’s one die roll a piece (although sometimes you can reroll if you’re the attacker). You don’t even see armies on the map; it’s even more abstract at simulating combat than Diplomacy. You do not decide what size your army is. It’s all about politics, diplomacy, and covert actions.

The game is purposefully unbalanced; it leans heavy Soviet in the early game, slightly Soviet in the mid game, then heavy US in the end game. It does via the cards, the number of which are dedicated for each side, and the effects of the cards. However, this does not mean that the Soviets win every time; far from it. It does mean that the longer the game runs, the more difficult it becomes for the Soviets. In fact, the late game so rarely happens, that the creators of the game actually included a “late game scenario” that starts you in 1970, roughly.

Most remarkably of all, setup is relatively quick. The pace is fast (fast enough that you will, every once in a great while, lose track of whose turn it is. This is especially common when the person designated to pay attention to turns does not do so.) If you actually played a game from 1947 to 1991 (which has never happened for me), it might take you three hours. The first game will probably take you about that long; the rules are relatively clear — what is less clear is the optimal strategy and the potential card combinations. Again, this is a very good thing: if you’re thinking about how to win instead of how to play, the game designer did their job.

I will not insult you by recommending this game. I will instead, berate you mercilessly until you either buy the game or somebody takes my place. The Khrushchev Way.



2 thoughts on “Theory of gaming: Twilight Struggle

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