Reagan’s demand for Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall happened a few years before I was even a thought. The wall was dismantled mere months after my birth. So my recollection of the Cold War exists strictly from historians and the stories of my family. Living under the constant paranoia of self-assured nuclear annihilation is beyond me. There was no duck and cover drills during my elementary school years. Therefore, my expectations for Twilight Struggle was, well, nonexistent.
Twilight Struggle is a two-person card-driven strategy game set during the Cold War. For those that aren’t well board game diverse, a card-driven strategy game is a game where the cards with instructions and or actions are used to play. This is a common practice used to avoid excessively long rulebooks and to reduce the need to memorize a bunch of rules since the cards tell you exactly what to do.
The purpose of Twilight Struggle, other than being a fun and enjoyable game that can be played in an unreasonable amount of time, is to try to simulate the tensions, geopolitical influences, and the paranoia as the opposing superpower tries to gain control. The players select between either playing as the United States or the Soviets. After the initial setup based on 1945 control and influences, the players use their Event cards to either cause historical events to happen such as the Warsaw Pact forming to the Ussuri River skirmish and even late events such as Iran-Iraq War and Regan bombing Libya, or the player can use the operational value of the Event card to conduct what are call operations.
Operations consist of expanding influence, causing non-violent realignment rolls used to reduce a superpower’s influence or attempt a coup which is a much more violent and effective way to reduce and increase influences but has a greater effect on tensions between superpowers which could result in Nuclear War.
What the game boils down to is the use of spreading and reducing influences by using Event cards in a strategic and effective manner in order to better position yourself for when the scoring cards show themselves which is one of a handful of ways to win. There are three ways to win and one way to lose. Scoring is just a scale going from 20 USSR points to 20 USA points where most of the game is trying to balance those points into your favor and eventually reaching that magical 20 point mark. If you do manage to reach that mark you win, or you could win after 10 turns and a final score is calculated and if the scale finishes on your side you can claim the victory of the Cold War. The last way to win is by controlling Europe, which is harder than you can think. The one way you can lose is by starting Nuclear War. Yep, the game is design to deter you from getting to that point.
Enough about the logistics of the game. I want to tell you how much I enjoyed playing this simulated struggle of ideology over governance and economic principles. While the learning curve is steep, the game is not overly complicated. Once you understand the basic principles and get a few games under your belt, the game flows smoothly and you never run into rule confusion as long as you remember to take the card instructions as literally as you can and that the card has the final say.
Now, the strategy of Twilight Struggle is where the fun really happens. Every action must have a purpose. Every detail could change your game plan. The USSR expand their influence in Africa. Is it a decoy? Or are the Reds trying to capitalize on the Africa scoring card? Because everything matters, there is always a sense of urgency, tension, and paranoia that the war is slipping from your control. It captures what I assume the Cold War would have felt like for the leaders.
While the strategy is important, there is enough luck involved to give each player a sense of hope that things could change in their favor by drawing the right cards or getting a dice roll in their favor. Now, the gameplay advantages for the superpowers seem to shift as the game progresses. Playing the U.S. in one game, I felt I was struggling to not let the Ruskies gain an advantage. It took every ounce of brain power and deception I had to get to the late game. Once in the late game, it seems that the Events card where more in my favor and I quickly gained an advantage. When I played as the mighty Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, the Event cards at the beginning swung in mostly my direction and therefore allowed me to rapidly expand my influence. While the game is not balanced overall, it does make for an interesting playing experience.
Lastly, the historical relevance of the event cards, and how the game is played makes it feel like a history lesson. The rulebook has the historical relevance of each card which makes for an interesting read. It is just another added perk to an already solid board game.
Twilight Struggle won’t be for everyone. It is a long game with a lot of rules and requires serious thought. For the casual board gamer, this might feel overwhelming. For the rest of us, Twilight Struggle has solid and interesting gameplay, plenty of strategies, and enough luck to give you hope.
“Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…” – John F. Kennedy
Saas Flavor: Worchestor Saas