I’m a minor-league history buff. I love to research past events and learn the different viewpoints that form the composite image of history. It’s not something I do with any seriousness, but I’m always tempted by those Ken Burns documentaries on Netflix. I’m not alone among gamers either. Quite separate from the world of Eurogames and Ameritrash is the world of wargames. Wargaming is the realm for people who value history above anything else in gaming. It can be a frightening world to the layman. Some heavy wargames clock in at a good 8 hours or longer, and they often have loads of rules to create historical detail. It’s overwhelming to anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. And because of that, I put off trying Twilight Struggle for a long time.
Let’s be clear: Twilight Struggle is not really a wargame. It doesn’t have any true combat, and there are only about 8 pages of rules. It clocks in at around 2-3 hours, which is perfectly acceptable for weeknight gaming. And it covers an event that wasn’t a true war to begin with, the 45 year Cold War between the USSR and USA. But it does share a lot of DNA with older wargames like We The People and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. It’s a card-driven game, where players are given a hand of cards representing historical events, and they play the cards for different uses to manipulate the state of the board. In most card-driven wargames, that means moving troops. In Twilight Struggle, it means that you get to place influence for your superpower in various countries, and perhaps even remove the influence of your opponent. It’s a pretty straightforward system, but as I’ll discuss later on it makes for some very meaty game decisions.
The other obvious influence in Twilight Struggle is that of El Grande, the great German design where players vie to have the most wooden cubes of their color in various territories in Spain. El Grande also used cards to determine the actions of the players, but in that case there were only five face-up between all players. Here, each player has a whole hand every turn. But the principals are quite similar: have more of your guys in a region than anyone else, and score points. Score enough points, and you win. Easy as blintzes, right?
In theory, perhaps. But in practice it’s a boggling experience. My first game of Twilight Struggle took a while, almost four hours. And each turn was frankly excruciating. You see, the cards have events that are associated with the USSR, the USA, or are neutral. You’ll be forced to play several cards that contain your opponent’s events, and in that case the event happens either way. Each card also has a little number in the corner, essentially telling the card’s value if you want to use it for other purposes like placing influence. So when you start your turn, you will need to analyze how to play each card, and how to account for the damage that your opponent’s events will do. Will you play a card’s event to take that advantage? Will you use it for the ops points (the number in the corner) and place influence or attempt in a coup in a country? And what if the event belongs to your opponent? The event will happen either way in that case. Needless to say, there’s a lot to consider at all times, and it’s a lot to take in the first game. It doesn’t help that there are a few ways for the game to end early, by one side scoring enough points or someone triggering nuclear war. It’s easier than you think to cause nuclear war, and it means you lose. So if it’s your first game, and the other guy knows what he’s doing, you might get steamrolled and not be clear why.
But if you’re smart, you’ll stick it out for at least a second game. Because in your second game, you’ll understand a lot more. You’ll know what cards are most likely to come up, and even what a couple of them do. You’ll know the ways the game tends to lean at different points. You’ll even be better aware of what to look for in your opponent’s moves. And you’ll see that Twilight Struggle is one amazing game, better every time you play. The experience does not make the game more obvious, it simply makes the game more playable. There are no wasted moves. Every turn has real impact, and every choice has ripples through the rest of the game that neither side can see.
The biggest reason that Twilight Struggle works is because of the tension. You can plan something three moves ahead, but in that time your opponent will also have three moves. And you never know when a region will score its points, since those scoring rounds are tied to event cards of their own. Many turns will involve you trying to position yourself to get some solid influence in a region before you play the scoring card there. Of course your opponent could be doing the same elsewhere, so you are both tempted to shore up those other regions to keep from getting left in the dust.
But what really kicks Twilight Struggle to the next level is its amazing historical flavor. Every part of the Cold War is represented somewhere here. Joe McCarthy, the Space Race, duck & cover, and the Warsaw Pact all have their own presence in the game. There were a couple of good moves made in this regard. First of all, the game never focuses on one aspect too much. The entire Vietnam war is represented by a single card. It’s a strong one, but it’s only one bit of the whole. Rather, the game is concerned with the zoomed-out view. The events may shift, but the entire thing feels very true to life. The second good move was a conscious decision to focus on the cultural feel of the Cold War. It’s generally accepted now that the “domino theory” doesn’t hold water, but it’s a fundamental part of how you place influence in Twilight Struggle. True or not, it’s how the Cold War felt.
And that feel is really what impresses me the most. Twilight Struggle has the uncanny ability to recall the emotions that people felt in the Cold War. Why did we invest so much in some regions? Because the other side did of course, and they are thinking the same thing with you. Nuclear war feels simultaneously inevitable and impossible, a crushing end that you both skirted and tried to avoid. And you can never gauge who’s winning, but you always fear that it isn’t you.
Twilight Struggle isn’t for everyone. If you are the type who plays games five times than moves on, don’t waste your money. This game demands your attention. I’ve played about five times myself, and there are still fathoms to explore. And some will be scared away by the simple production, which has been improved in the most recent edition but remains pretty lean. But I can honestly say that this is one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. It’s an amazing intersection of mechanisms and setting that has been equaled elsewhere, but never surpassed. And if that doesn’t convince you, it’s the top-ranked game on Boardgame Geek. For once, I think they may be on to something.