Friday, November 5, 2010

Board Game Review: Twilight Struggle

Sorry it's been a while since I've reviewed any board games, but I wanted to make sure I had a few more games of Founding Fathers under my belt before we continued. Today, we're looking at Twilight Struggle, the first game published of the ones I'm reviewing. The previous games I've reviewed in this series are 1960: The Making of the President and Campaign Manager 2008.

Unlike the other games in this series, Twilight Struggle was created by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews (the other three were co-authored by Matthews and Christian Leonhard) and it was originally published in 2005. The pictures and review are for the Deluxe Edition; however, there are only relatively minor differences between the two, though the components of the Deluxe version are significantly better.

The theme of Twilight Struggle is the Cold War. One side plays the US and the other plays the USSR. There are ten rounds in the game, each representing about a five-year stretch, between the end of World War II and the real-life collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Similarly to 1960 and many other card-driven games, each player is dealt a hand of cards, and must play them out for the round, good or bad; success in the game depends on a player's ability to time the card play and make decisions on how the cards affect the game.

A quick run-through of each round (I'm skipping a few maintenance rounds):

Improve Defon: Defcon is a representation of how close the world is to nuclear war. If Defcon goes to 1, the game ends--nuclear war has started, and the player who triggered it automatically loses. It also restricts certain actions; you can't go nosing about in Israel if the Chairman has his finger on the big red button. During this phase, it "improves"--goes closer to peace.

Deal Cards: Each player is dealt a hand of cards. Up to 8 in the first part of the game, 9 for the second. Unlike 1960, it's possible to hold a card or two in your hand from turn to turn.

Headline Phase: Each player must play one of their cards as an event. This more or less forces players to play at least one event per turn. 

Action Rounds: This is the heart of the game. Each player plays one of the cards in their hand as either an event or for its points. We'll look more into this below.

Check Military Operations Points: You have to hold a certain number of Coups (or similar actions) per turn; if not, you are penalized victory points.

Flip China Card: China--due to its unique position in the world during the Cold War--is abstracted into the game into one powerful card called the China Card. When one player plays it, however, it automatically goes to their rival, spent. This phase allows it to become "active" again.

Already, you can see there is a lot to this game--certainly more than 1960 or CM08. In fact, TS is often classified as a "wargame" instead of a regular "family strategy" game due to both its complexity and the feel of the game itself, even though there is very little actual war in the game. 

The map itself has several key nations represented on the board. Some of these are colored as "Battleground" nations, which take on more importance. Nations are also connected with lines, since certain action require checking on the status of adjacent nations. Note that many of the "connections" and areas are done more for the political climate instead of geographical accuracy--Canada is considered part of Europe due to its participation in NATO, for example.

Each nation also has a stability rating. Nations with high stability are harder to overthrow, and require more influence to control. 

The cards each represent a different event during the Cold War. They each also have an operations points value. Like other card-driven games, a player has the choice to either use the event or the OP. Unlike 1960, however, playing a card with an opponent's event automatically allows them to use it--which makes the decisions you make significantly more important.

There are three types of cards: Early, Mid, and Late War. After certain turns, the new era of cards are shuffled into the deck. That way you won't run into Lady Thatcher right after the Berlin Wall is built, but you still don't know exactly what round she's going to show up--you just know it will be late in the game. Many cards have restrictions as to when they can be played.

Some cards are scoring cards that must be played on the turn they are dealt to a player. They score in a specific region, such as Europe or Southeast Asia. Players score more points based on the number of nations they control, and the number of those that are Battleground nations.

If a player doesn't like the event or isn't ready for it, they may use the operations points on the card. This can be used in one of three ways:

They may place influence on a nation. (Unlike 1960 or CM08, both players can have influence in the same nation at the same time.) While you have to have influence in an adjacent nation, you are otherwise allowed to place it regardless of an opponent's presence in that nation. Costs vary depending on the stability of the nation and how much influence your rival has.

You may also try a realignment of a nation, where you remove an opponent's influence. This is partially up to a die roll.

You may also try a coup, which will remove your opponent's influence and, if they run out, add your own. This is also partially up to a die roll. 

To act as a "safety valve," the Space Race is abstracted into a mechanic that allows a player to discard a card without triggering its event. Roll a die and if the result favors you, you move one step closer to landing on the moon. Doing this at certain levels will allow you to gain victory points and earn a small benefit.

Of course, the object of the game is to score points, and this is done primarily through Scoring Cards. There are several Scoring Cards in the deck, and when they are played, both players score. There are different score levels depending on how much control a player has in a region--for example, a player has Presence in an area if they control at least one nation; they have Domination if they control more Battleground nations than their rival and more regular nations than their rival (minimum of 1); they have Control if they control all of the Battleground nations and more nations than their rival.

At the end of the ten rounds, the player with more Victory Points wins. If either player gets more than 20 points during the course of the game, they can win early; and, of course, if Defcon reaches 1, the game ends as well.

This game is much more complicated than 1960 or CM08. It's also apparent this is the first game in the series. Many of the ideas from this game will pop up much cleaner in 1960. Still, it's not nearly as complicated as it seems; it's just that there is a lot more going on.

Things I like about this game:
*The theme is far and away the best I've seen integrated into a game. There is legitimate tension, and the effects of the events are remarkably specific enough that it feels accurate, yet not so ridiculous as to grind the game to a halt each turn.
*There are a lot of options involved. Each turn, you have the normal event vs. point decision common in card-driven games, but you also have the Space Race to contend with, and using the points in three different ways presents even more choices. New players will no doubt be overwhelmed, but that's OK. A game like this nearly requires you fly by the seat of your pants the first few times; that doesn't mean it's not fun.
*The timing of the cards is very well designed. At the beginning of the game, players concentrate more or less on Asia and Europe. As new cards are added, focus shifts to the Middle East and South America, and finally Africa and Central America. While this follows the real-life trajectory of the Cold War, it's set up so that a small brush war could emerge in Argentina early in the game, or a warning rocket from southern Africa be fired off. So while the game follows history, there's no reason that the players can't try and alter it; they just can't alter it enough to cause odd results.
*While there are a lot of rules and a lot of decisions, after you get the hang of it much of it becomes intuitive.

Things I don't like about the game:
*There's some slight math. It doesn't bother me in the least, but I know it irritates some people.
*Length. I haven't played this game a ton, but I've played it often enough that the time to play it should be shortening, but it isn't. It's almost always a 3 to 4 hour session. While I like long, deep games, it also means I don't get to play it often.
*I would rather have the Defcon nuclear war trigger restrict player's actions, but I somehow wish it wouldn't trigger war without your complete control. As it stands, the phasing player get the "credit" for launching the war (and thus losing) even if it was through the actions of your rival. Sometimes this is good, since letting yourself get in that position is part of the game; but sometimes it is blind luck. It wouldn't be so bad except it's a game-ending, all-other-factors-ignored rule. Defcon adds a lot of tension into the game, but sometimes I think it's the wrong type of tension.
*As a corollary, a strategy has emerged that, since the USSR goes first, they can more or less drop Defcon to 2, and then the US can only react--and there are very, very few cards that raise Defcon mid-turn. As such, the US has a large part of their opportunities chopped off right from the get-go. It's not 100% effective, but it's enough that I see it as an issue.
*Some people have disliked the balance in the game, saying Russia has a slight advantage. I never saw it, but there are several decent optional rules that allow for some balancing. If nothing else, players can bid Victory Points for the right to play Russia.
*The game production seems clumsy at times. There are chits for events, for example, which I guess is fine; leaving the cards up and available seems to make more sense than squinting at a bunch of similarly-looking tokens piled to the side of the board. The notations for persistent and discarded events could more easily have been done with icons or banners; instead they are nondescript asterisks and underlines. Not a huge deal, but given the high presentation quality of their other games it seems odd.

I like Twilight Struggle, but I have the feeling that if I played against experienced players on a regular basis I would absolutely hate it. I love looking at the board and weighing options, but there are just enough game-altering rules and cards involved that suck the fun out of the game for me. If this were a one-hour game I wouldn't mind so much, but more than once I've played two and a half hours just to have a two-card combination from my opponent force a huge positional loss in one turn, and there was nothing preventative I could have done to stop it. No, it doesn't happen often, but it happens often enough that I think it should be noted. Also, many experienced players can more or less "calculate" a win, grinding the game to a halt and making it a less enjoyable experience.

I also think that the game would have been much better post-1960. 1960 seemed to refine many of the mechanics introduced in Twilight Struggle, and I think that would have helped the original game a lot. Having three types of actions to use for operations points seems like it would allow more decisions, but in reality--since so many coups have to be done each turn--you usually end up doing a ton of coups and events, some influence placement, and rarely any realignments. While each option has its place, it seems there could be cleaner ways of doing it.

Still, the game is currently ranked as #3 at, so it's hard to argue that this isn't a good game. It certainly is--I enjoy playing it a lot, and would recommend it, especially to those interested in the theme. There's a bit of a learning curve since it's much more complicated than, say, 1960, but once you play through a game or two it is definitely worth the time investment. I give it a B.

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