Hey everyone! Recently, I had a chance to play one of my favorite games of all time, Twilight Struggle. Before playing Twilight Struggle, I had decided that all two-player games were not very fun. My theory was that a game like Chess was fun purely because of the logical deductions and thinking processes made while playing the game. One of the things I discovered from being on the chess team was that you aren’t even allowed to talk to your opponent once the game starts. Even at the State competition with hundreds of people playing chess games in the same room, you can still hear a pencil drop on the floor a few rows away. This is contrary to the bluffing and social interaction games that I tend to enjoy. To put it short: I don’t enjoy solitaire, which is what I figured most two-player games would be like.
This changed when I was introduced to Twilight Struggle. When I play TS, I feel like I am actually in charge of the Soviet Union, or the United States. One of the ways that the game is elegant is in the fact that there isn’t one “right way” to play the game. Each opening hand completely changes which strategies are good to pursue. I also am a sucker for well-balanced asymmetric games. Being able to play as the US or the USSR adds a ton of replay-ability and gives the game a lot of flavor. Finally, I think that Twilight Struggle is the prime example of how to use luck well in a game. As my friend put it, managing luck is central to succeeding in TS. You can get dealt a terrible hand, or roll poorly on a critical dice roll. But you get to choose which battles to fight and which ones to surrender, and how to play each card. In many ways, this makes Twilight Struggle an endless battle of damage control, which is exactly how I imagine the cold war felt to the world leaders at the time.
The gameplay is some of the most solid gameplay in any board game I’ve ever played. Each card is extremely important and can be spent in hundreds of different (viable) ways. Twilight Struggle is actually a large part of what inspired the change to playing cards in Dagers High over the sleep cube system. Anyway, each player first chooses a card from their hand and plays it simultaneously for the headline phase. These cards tend to decide the rest of the round since each effect has serious implications for strategy. For example, Red Scare/Purge makes all action cards lose an operation point, making it more worthwhile to play cards for their events. Containment or Vietnam Revolts works in the opposite way, giving the US or USSR bonuses for spending points over using them as events. Marshall Plan can reveal the US’s intentions to develop influence in Europe while Socialist Governments could indicate an impending coup on Italy and a subsequent grab for France. These little details that you start to pick up after playing the game many times creates the delicious tension that I’ve only experienced in a game of Twilight Struggle. After the headline phase the gameplay involves each player taking turns to play cards from their hand. However, don’t be fooled by the elegance and simplicity of the rules. Each card played has a deep strategy and reasoning behind it. Perhaps an influence placed in Malaysia indicates a plan to make a grab at Thailand whenever it is safe to do so. Or a coup in Iran could be the start of a dangerous expedition into Pakistan and India. Having to constantly keep tabs on what the other side plans to do while forming one’s own secret plot is what makes Twilight Struggle such a spectacular game.
For a game as intimidating as TS to my friend, who admitted to me that he had been scared to play after seeing all the different components and the 32-page rulebook, the game suddenly clicked half-way through his first ever game. “I can’t believe I haven’t played this before. This game is actually really simple,” he told me. We finished our first game and I suggested playing something lighter to finish off the day. “No,” he responded, which surprised me. “I want to play again.”
There is a reason Twilight Struggle used to be the highest ranked board game according to BGG.com. I can’t recommend Twilight Struggle enough, but I also know that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It isn’t something that someone who has never played board games before would enjoy very much. If you are looking for a friend to play it with, I’d recommend working up with games of lower complexity before jumping into something like Twilight Struggle. So here is a simple guide you can use to see if TS is right for you:
+1 point if you enjoy two-player games
+1 point if you are a history buff, or find the Cold War fascinating
+1 point if you enjoy managing an economy
+1 point if you enjoy war games
+1 point if you can handle important outcomes being decided by dice and cards
+1 point if you are not very susceptible to “analysis paralysis”
+1 points if you will play a board game without knowing when it ends (On average, probably 3 hours. But it could be anywhere from 2-5. I have been kicked out of libraries before being able to finish a game)
+2 points if you will play this game multiple times- the game really gets better the more that you play
+2 points if you have problems with basic geography and need to learn what a world map looks like
+2 points if you want to play this game digitally, since it’s on Steam now for $10
+5 points if you have accidentally caused global nuclear war
If you got 7 points or more, you should definitely consider this game! Pro tip: Get card sleeves before playing! Otherwise, your early war cards will be much more worn out and differentiable from the late war and mid war cards.
What did you think of this review? Let me know what you think in the comments below! Thanks for reading, and make sure to subscribe if you enjoy this content.
Here you’ll find a report of the two games we played. We also played a game of Dagers High, but I forgot to take a picture of the game. I was happy to see my poorly executed mixed strategy lose to an academic strategy with my friend almost getting straight A’s. Overall another great play test. Oh, and we also stumbled upon what must be over 50 Tesla cars being kept in an abandoned parking lot. What??
In the first game, I had my friend play as the US. While the USSR tends to be stronger in the beginning of the game, it also tends to decide the direction of play since they get to play first each turn. The game was fairly from the get-go with my friend gaining a strong foothold in Europe with me edging him out in Asia and the Middle East. However, early De-Stalinizations and Decolonizations allowed me to put influence into South America and Africa very easily, and so while I ceded a bit of ground in the three main regions I had complete control of Central America, South America, and Africa by the start of the mid-war. With a stroke of good luck, I drew into both Central and South America scoring cards, and was able to take the game from there.
In the second game, we switched roles. As the US, I mainly focused on solidifying my territories and slowly gained the edge in each region. I drew into both De-Stalinization and Decolonization in the second round, which meant that I had to play one of the two. Here I had to make the painful choice to play De-Stalinization instead of space-racing it for the 3 action points. I didn’t feel like having to deal with it later on in the game. This paid off, since I was then able to space Decolonization on turn 3 and lock it away. Because of this, I was able to gain a stronghold in most regions and actually ended up pulling ahead in VP when I made a huge blunder by playing Missile Envy. My friend gave me a card that decreased the DefCon, making me lose the game by causing nuclear war. Bummer! I’d been so focused on the board that I had forgotten to worry about nukes. This made me appreciate the fact that nuclear war was avoided despite how tense relations were between the US and USSR.