Twilight Struggle by GMT Games is a game that consistently finds itself at the top (as it is currently) or near the top of the rankings over at Board Game Geek. It is an area control game that puts one player in control of the USA and the other in command of the USSR during the cold war. The game is all about influencing and controlling countries to fulfil your own particular agenda.
The game has been sitting on my shelf for a while. Last year I trotted it out, sat down with a friend to play, and found myself completely and utterly lost. It may have been too early in the morning.
Last night I broke out the impressive board once again and sat down to play. It went a lot better. As with any game, the rules can initially seem daunting, especially with the itemised, carefully referenced rules presented in this box. The setup took us a long time, as we read over everything and made sure we were playing entirely by the book. Similarly, our first two turns were quite slow, but we definitely noticed the game speeding up significantl once we got into the swing of things – and slowing back down when we understood enough to know that we were probably making tactical errors!
The map is split into different regions, which are then further split into different countries. The countries each have a number, or ‘stability value’ which indicates how much influence you need to exert to control that nation. The UK for example, has a high stability value of 10. This means that in order for the USSR to control the UK, it must have 5 influence more in that country than the USA has. The states whose names are backed by blue are the battlefield states. These are key countries in the cold war which hugely affect a superpower’s control over an area. Attempting coups in these states will also degrade the DEFCON status, moving the world ever closer to thermonuclear war. We found ourselves using a lot more coups early on in the game, but shifting out focus somewhat during the later game.
The game consists of up to ten turns (though there were a couple of points where I was close to being able to end the game early), each of which sees the players play 7 (and from turn four, 8) cards. One is played at the start of the round as a ‘headline’ card, and thereafter each player takes it in turns to play an event or operation to further their agenda. For context, here are some cards:
The red stars indicate affinity with USSR, whilst the white indicate affinity with the USA. The split stars affect either faction. Each time you play a card, you may play it as either an event, in which case you resolve the text on the card, or as an operation. Presumably, if playing a card as an event, you will be using a card with your own coloured star or a split star, as it is rarely (read: never) beneficial to play an opponent’s event. If you choose to play a card as an operation, one of two things will happen. If the card is your own colour, you may ignore the text on the card and put the numeric value inside the star towards performing operations, and then place the card on the discard pile which will later be shuffled back into the deck. Operations include spreading influence, realignment rolls, coups and advancing the space race. Should you wish to play an operation using a card aligned with your opponent, you will get to use the numeric value of the star towards your operations, but you will also trigger the event for your opponent. It’s a sacrifice, and once that you will, by necessity, find yourself making quite often.
Key events in the cold war may only be played out once each. Those cards that have an asterisk beside their name will not be added to the discard pile after their event has played out, but are removed from the game. Those cards that have their titles underlined in red will, after use, remain in play for the rest of the game or until cancelled in some way. An example of such as card might be the establishment of NATO, severely limiting the USSR’s ability to undertake operations in Europe.
There is a lot more to it than this, but I’m sure that I have at least given some impression of the depth and scope of the game. It feels sweeping, epic and expansive as you play it, and does so in a way that few other games do. It is also the most ‘serious’ area control game I have played and the one with the most considerations and potential for grand strategy.
I am very much looking forward to breaking this game out again and really getting my head around the minutia of it.