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Twilight Struggle: A Deluxe Review

MT Updated August 29, 2019
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Twilight Struggle Board Game

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There Will Be Games

Anyone who pays much attention to my articles will be well aware that Twilight Struggle is about my favourite game to play in the whole world. Indeed I believe I happened to mention this last week. So it should come as no great surprise that I leaped on the deluxe version like a starving vegetarian grabbing a handful of lentils. Having now played a few games with the extra cards - and indeed having played many games in the past with a variety of balancing mechanics - I thought it might be worth writing a review. But here’s the rub - I’ve reviewed this game in the past, and since the changes aren’t that substantial I’m going to be really lazy and re-use a lot of my previous work in this review. Hopefully you either haven’t read it, or you’ve blanked it from your mind, or you’ve drunk enough moonshine in the intervening couple of years to destroy your long term memory.

As always in my reviews I encourage anyone who’s interested in the game to download a copy of the rules rather than relying on a shaky and incomplete rules summary. However, I do think it’s valuable to summarise roughly how the card driven system works for people who’ve been living in a bunker for the past couple of years and haven’t heard anything about the game. The basic system of play is gaining influence in a country. If the amount of influence you have exceeds that of your opponents by the “stability number” of the country then you control it and it becomes more difficult for your opponent to overturn that control. Some countries are designated as battleground countries where control is particularly important. Regions (Europe, Africa etc) are “scored” when a scoring card is played – at this point the countries controlled by each player in the region are compared and the most powerful player will score some victory points. Players must also watch the DEFCON level, which degrades when military action is taken in battleground countries – if DEFCON drops to 1, the active player automatically looses! The game can also end early if one player makes it to 20 victory points.

The game spans ten turns, and each turn players are dealt a hand of cards. The cards each have an event on them, which is associated with the US, USSR or both, and a numerical operations value. Each round the players take turns playing a card which they may play either for its ops value or, if the event is associated with the side playing the card, the event. Ops can be used directly to add influence to countries, or to reduce your opponents’ influence (realignment rolls) or to try and do both at once through a coup, or to try and get a technological edge in the space race. The latter three are all played out through use of a dice roll. Events usually also change influence in specific countries but can also change other factors like victory points, the cards in your or your opponents hand and so on. In a neat twist to the usual card system if you play an event associated with an opponent the event happens anyway, but you still get the operations value from the card. Coups are the nearest thing you get to combat in this game and they’re abstracted down to the level of a single dice roll, which is why this can’t be classified as your average wargame. But I think this mechanic suits the fact that this is above even operational level - this is a global simulation.

The events are really the key to this whole system. A few are generic events that can keep happening (“east European unrest” for example) but the majority depict specific events that happened during the cold war (Fidel Castro coming to power in Cuba) – these are marked with a * and are removed from the game once played. Thanks to this system, and the excellent historical notes included in the rules, the players can quickly gain a real feeling for the history behind the cold war in a much more direct and engaging fashion than that provided by more traditional war game systems like hex-and-counter.

The actual game rules span a mere 8 pages and are simple and intuitive. There’s a couple of “gotchas” (the rules for free coups from events for example) but you should have these down by the end of your first game. What’s not so clear from the rules is that knowledge of the 100+ event cards in the game is essential to good play. The events are often complex and can affect a bewildering array of specific countries (one card can have effects in several unconnected countries in eastern Europe) and it takes quite a lot of time to learn what the various events do and plan around whether or not they’ve been played accordingly. So the game is not as simple as it first appears – this is not something you can just drop in to for casual play.

So what is it about this relatively simple game that I love so much? Simple - this is once of the most intense, exciting and strategically engaging games I’ve ever played.

The game works on a whole number of levels. In the first instance you’ve got a careful job of hand management. Almost inevitably some of the cards you’ve got will impact on other cards (you might have events in Europe alongside Europe scoring) so you need to plan carefully when to play each card. You’ll also undoubtedly have some of your opponents events you’d really rather not have happen and then you’re left with the question of whether you’re better off playing them to get them out of the way or whether it’s really too catastrophic in which case you can play one per turn on the space race where no events happen – but the card can then reappear to haunt you later in the game – and there’s the question of which card to blast in to space as well. Do you play your own events as events or as operations? You can usually carry one card over to the next round – which will you choose? The questions you’ll be asking as you sort through your hand are endless and even a bad hand full of your opponents events leads to all sorts of agonising decisions about disaster management. Then you’ve got the tension of riding out the turn to see whether each and every one of your opponents’ card plays require you to rethink your carefully planned strategy for the cards you hold.

The decision making in hand management alone would be enough to make this a superb game: it’s totally compelling, almost addictive as you plan forward in your head, knowing what events are still in the deck to turn up and hoping against hope that you get the cards you need and your opponent gets a nightmare hand from which he can’t help but to have one or two of your choice events escape. But there’s a whole other dimension when you play a card for operations as to what you’re going to do with those points. There are never, ever enough for you to be able to do everything you need to do in a turn so you need to prioritise, and you better get it right because if your opponents gets control of certain countries before you then you can be locked out of whole regions of the game! You can’t just place influence though – if you don’t play a coup each round you’re penalised victory points and you mustn’t forget the space race either and trying a realignment roll is always a tempting possibility. But in each case you’ve got to balance taking the risk of invoking the dice against the certainty of placing influence points. Personally I’m entirely comfortable with the level of randomness involved – it adds a great deal of excitement and anticipation to the game.

Thanks to the events there’s also a variety of creative ways you can use the cards to get ahead. If DEFCON is at 2 it’s possible to use certain cards to try and force your opponent into starting a nuclear war, thus losing the game. There are times when it’s actually advantageous to you to allow an opposing event to go off because it improves board situation for you overall. This unholy trinity of risk-management, decisions over where to spend your points and the possibility of creative combinations is such heady stuff that it almost managed to bypass the desire for victory and goes straight into pushing the buttons of your primitive gamer hind-brain, making you want to spend turn after turn dealing the cards, analysing the dangers, worrying over where to spend the points. Twilight Struggle is one of a tiny number of games which I’d consider well worth playing on from an entirely hopeless situation. It doesn’t matter if you’re not going to win because every turn, every new hand of cards and the decisions it offers, is a mini-nirvana all of its own. As long as you’re trying to use the cards to do your best to win, it matters not a jot whether you do so or whether you don’t.

And good job too because I’m not going to pretend, even after more than fifty plays, that Twilight Struggle is a perfect game. Far from it. I hate to say “I told you so” (actually, I love saying “I told you so"), but I’m one of the people who believed early on that there was a significant bias toward the USSR, even in the face of all the individuals who were proclaiming that their own experience had more of a 50/50 win rate. Several years of tournament play, and statistics kept from online sessions of the game now back me up: in it’s raw state the USSR has a fairly significant advantage. And with all my experience of the game I can now see why that should be. Firstly it’s relatively easy for the USSR to stitch up both of the biggest point-scoring regions, Europe and Asia, fairly early in the game and hold on to them: all it takes is some average-to-good dice in coup rolls for Italy and/or Iran and the US is in trouble. Secondly if some powerful USSR events such as Decolonization or Vietnam Revolts come out early and in the USSR players’ hand the US can be shut out of Asia and the Middle East almost completely. Thirdly if, at the turn 3 deck reshuffle the scoring cards for the initial regions come out again and the USSR has already had some good points from one or both of them then the US player can pretty much kiss the game goodbye. So not only is the game in its raw from not balanced, but the imbalance is determined almost entirely by luck: lucky rolls or lucky card draws for the USSR player. This isn’t the sort of thing that people who love strategy games want to hear and, inevitably, there have been a number of suggestions as to how to put the imbalance right, all of which are now included in the deluxe version as optional rules for players to pick from.

The most common is to give the US player an extra 3 influence points at the start of the game, to place in countries where he already has some influence. This is a nice, simple way of balancing the game and statistics show that it works: games played with this variant are near 50/50 balanced. Unless I’m playing that is, with my useless US win rate, but that’s another story. The second variant that’s been used in the past but now made official is the Chinese Civil War variant which puts the China Card out of play at game start, and requires the USSR player to put influence into China to get it, with the game state assuming that the US has the card in the meantime. Statistically this also succeeds in balancing the game but I’ve never been a fan. Quite commonly in games with this variant the China Card simply never comes into play at all, which removes some of the interesting decisions from the game.

The deluxe edition comes with a number of new cards which are also supposed to do the job. Most significantly from a balance point of view are “Special Relationship” which allows the US player to add free influence to Europe if he’s in control of the UK and is a lever to try and ensures the US can get influence back into France if he looses it, and “Norad” which offers free influence every turn Defcon drops to 2 and is supposed to give the USSR player second thoughts about driving defcon down with a coup each turn. These cards - and the other four new cards in the mix - certainly do offer some more meaty decisions to the game as well as some more history, and on the whole I like them a lot. But I’m very far from convinced they actually balance the game. Take “special relationship” for instance: on the face of it a very powerful event for the US. But consider that the USSR event “Suez Crisis” removes influence from the UK at a point in the game where the US player can ill afford to spend influence propping up a country like the UK which the USSR has no hope of capturing, and consider that to get most use of it the “NATO” event, a card never played by the US player as an event, has to be in effect and suddenly we’re back with a timing issue again. For “Special Relationship” to have the desired balancing effect the Soviets much have had, and played, NATO, and the Suez Crisis event, which is previously a popular throw-away card for the US, has to have been avoided. “Norad” is also a card which the US player may feel compelled to use for ops and which the Soviet player may feel compelled to blast into space. I’m also a bit annoyed that the designers didn’t take the opportunity to avoid the turn 2 reshuffle issue and the potential reappearance of powerful scoring cards by simply adding enough new cards to avoid needing a reshuffle. That would have been a very simple fix that could have made a lot of difference. As far as I know there’s not been enough time to look at the statistics with these cards in play, but I’m not convinced they balance the game. It’d be interesting to see if a hybrid system like giving the US 1 or 2 more influence and keeping the new cards in play is viable: I’d like to use them in my games, but I’d like the game to stay balanced, too.

But hey, it’s so much fun that I continue to play it balanced or not. I continue to play it even though I virtually never win as the US, balancing variants in play or not and I’ll be using those new cards every time now that I’ve got them. It’s that good. I’m a multi-player games man. I like the chaos that having multiple opponents brings to the table, I enjoy the chance to negotiate or even just chat about the game as we play. I thought two player games were okay but I’d never come across one that I’d split up a bigger group just to get the chance to play. Until I played Twilight Struggle that is, a two-player game that kicks many of my multi-player favourites in the teeth, hard. This is a game that has the potential to satisfy everyone. There’s the careful and non-random placing of influence to satisfy the analysis freaks. If you’re an adrenaline junkie then there’s lots of dice to roll and the anticipation of a new hand of cards each turn. There’s creative strategy to engage the wargame fans amongst you. Really, unless you have big, big problems accepting random factors or hidden information in a game then you’re probably going to like this a lot. So if you’re still wondering about it, wonder no longer. The deluxe version with its new art, mounted board and thick die-cut counters has removed any worries you might have had about production quality. Hopefully this review has removed any lingering doubts you might have had about game-play. Give it a try: you’ll soon see the light, even if it’s the baleful light of the mushroom cloud.

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Matt Thrower (He/Him)
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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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