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Subject: An Over-Long Reflection on Twilight Struggle as #1 on BGG’s Top 100 rss

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glen.
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This was a silly over-long reflection on recently being on the Dice Tower Showdown. I had great oponents and thought the whole thing was fun. This post was originally posted on Couple vs. Cardboard, a site about gaming with your spouse. Check it, here: http://couplevscardboard.com/an-over-long-reflection-on-dice...

It’s hard when you’re talking about the coolest kid in school. Everyone loves an underdog story, and when there are hundreds of new games coming out per year, it’s hard to look at a game and say, “this guy should be #1″. Especially when you’re talking about something especially subjective, like fun-ness or even game mechanics. There’s no yard stick or investor report to define how great something like a game is.

I don’t have a dog in this fight — apart from that I was recently on Dice Tower Showdown arguing in favor of Twilight Struggle being in the #1 spot on BoardGameGeek’s Top 100. While I admit, I wanted to win, I don’t actually have a strong emotional or personal opinion about it remaining in the #1 spot. So, spoiler alert, not going to read through this whole thing? Scroll down to the bottom for my conclusion in bold.

I will say this: I do think when compared to the rest of the games in the Top 10 — all of which are absolutely incredible games — I would affirm that Twilight Struggle is their superior on a couple points (more on this in a moment) and would also say that if one game were to represent Board Gaming on the whole, I would select Twilight Struggle to be our game.

Two major premises, Audience and Game Mechanics:

Audience is huge. There are tons of games which are great games, but they wind up being gamer-games. Meaning games which gamers enjoy, but would be nearly impossible to get any cardboard muggle to shift a token or move a mini. This can be due to a lot of factors, but often it has the dual problems of being overly complex, failing to be intuitive, and being especially or overly long.

Game Mechanics, while not the entire enchilada, are a huge portion of it. Complex games are great, it doesn’t even eliminate the game from being great outright if you have to look up something or certain things even on your 50th play — however, it takes a special game to be simple enough to pick up in a few turns. Twilight Struggle takes simple, difficult concept, like the politics of the Cold War, and breaks it down to a simple concept: influence over a particular area.

How these two things work out on a on the blow-by-blow:

Twilight Struggle has this incredible ability to be a lot of things all at once, while also not needing folks to be committed to those things.

Twilight Struggle is very historical — but also doesn’t have a lot of odd rules and exceptions to rules you have to follow in order to be accurate.

Twilight Struggle is very thematic — but doesn’t require you to keep track or care about the theme. Because it’s simple, you may find yourself swept up in it or not.

Twilight Struggle is very simple — but is also deep. Every play, every choice changes from game to game. You find yourself playing a uniquely different game, shifting dramatically turn by turn, but not randomly. Letting you grow in experience and strategy with the game.

Because the game is simple, it’s playable by a huge variety of people. Euro gamers, war gamers, historical gamers, gamers who are into games with heavy themes, and I think even more importantly, non-gamers. It’s the sort of game you can play over the course of a couple hours in the evening after dinner, or on a weekend afternoon.

Furthermore, because it is two player, it is the kind of game you can play with a dear friend or a spouse, over the course of a lifetime as opposed to simple as a one off. Much like folks who have the regular Chess or Risk or Backgammon game they play together when they hang out. It builds an emotional and longstanding connection between two (friendly or less friendly) rivals.

Addressing Criticisms:

Art: I will grant that the art isn’t incredible. I play a lot of Lord of the Rings LCG and games like Belfort and War of the Ring, and other similar games, by comparison, blow Twilight Struggle out of the water. But I will also say that by comparison, the art is incredibly functional. Meaning, once you’ve read through the rules between the quick start play placards and the directions on the board itself, it’s rare you will ever need to go back to the actual rulebook.

Two Players: I will grant that having only a 2-Player dynamic is a limiting factor. I actually suspect this is a lot of what keeps many people from playing or purchasing, because you’re asking only two people to play for around 2-3 hours, which limits it from normal places you might play (game nights, game stores, etc.) as there are more people present. However, I would also respond that a number of the games in the top 25 are not nearly as good when played with a certain number of players. For example, War of the Ring plays 2-4 players, but was made for 2 and isn’t great with 3 or 4; Power Grid plays 2-6, but has a sweet spot at 4-5. The play varies between these types of games, whereas it is incredibly consistent with Twilight Struggle.

The Rulebook: It has been said that it has a long rulebook, and further that the rulebook is complicated. The first part is incorrect, the rulebook is about 10 pages with the rest of it having a long example of play, and a huge section of historical information. About each card, about important places and key players. Furthermore, the rulebook is a bit obscure. Meaning, it can be hard by just reading it to figure out the rules the first time because they offer a large number of explanations, clarifications and caveats. While this can be difficult to read through the first time, it is great if there is any clarification needed throughout play.

Cons: I still have never done a con, so I can’t explain why it doesn’t get the kind of play at cons. I suspect the sweeping epics like Twilight Imperium get more play because it’s hard to find opportunities for things like that. Furthermore, unlike games like other two player games like Netrunner, for example, there is a bit more setup and lots more surface area it takes up. Arguably not as much setup as can be caricatured (unless you don’t bag your chits or something) but Cheryl and I have taken this to a coffee shop with a large table and played just fine. Then again, it doesn’t fit on most coffee shop tables, so the commitment of a game like this is also limited by the footprint you’re allowed to have as well.

Anecdote: I traded for Twilight Struggle expecting to not like it. I thought it would be all hype, be complex, be something which wouldn’t beat out War of the Ring to the table — but what I found instead was incredible and I was in love by the third turn. It’s smooth, it’s elegant, it’s brilliant. It is not my favorite game, but I love playing it and look forward to it each time. I would still rather play War of the Ring, but all the same, the mental gymnastics and setup I need to do for War of the Ring are nearly absent comparatively and it becomes a beloved and welcome reprieve at times.

Final Arguement: If not Twilight Struggle, what? It’s easy to say, “it doesn’t deserve to be #1″ but rarely is to followed by an argument for the actual person’s opinion on what should be #1. When I survey the options, by process of elimination, Twilight Struggle in my opinion becomes the humble and reluctant leader. It isn’t sexy, but it is exactly what it is — and what it is is wonderful, awesome and a great face for our hobby.

Long Live the King.

Note: I would be interested in entertaining conversations around the BGG system being flawed. Funny story, during that part of the conversation on Dice Tower Showdown, my computer froze and I missed everything during that part of the conversation. I don’t have strong opinions at the moment, but would be willing to hear out thoughtful discussion about it.
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Max DuBoff
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Great review, Glen. Overall, I really agree with what you said. Some if te games I like a little more, like Here I Stand and Hannibal, are much to hard to learn to be wildly popular like TS is.


The one thing I will disagree with is the art. I find both the secon edition and the deluxe edition to be beautiful, but the real kicker is the card art. I love the historical pictures. I really feel they add to the flavor. It's not really fair to compare TS's art to that of War of the Ring. Compared to other CDGs, TS has great themed art.
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Mike Smith
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For a hard-core gamer or wargamer the rules to TS are not very complex. For most other people they are. Because of that I am truly amazed the game is number 1. I would have thought it has the wrong demographic. Its a great testament to the game (either that or the system that puts it there is deeply flawed as a reflection of popularity...).
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Shane Larsen
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I would never recommend Twilight Struggle to a "non-gamer".
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Jonathan Harrison
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My wife's progression was Carcassonne > Agricola > Settlers of Catan > Twilight Struggle. 10 months later, she beat me at Wilderness War.

But I grant not everyone is like this.

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Max DuBoff
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HuginnGreiling wrote:
My wife's progression was Carcassonne > Agricola > Settlers of Catan > Twilight Struggle. 10 months later, she beat me at Wilderness War.

But I grant not everyone is like this.


I totally agree that TS is the best gateway CDG. For years, the only CDG I knew was Twilight Struggle, and then when I started playing on Wargameroom I was able to learn a whole bunch of new games without as much trouble.
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glen.
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MD1616 wrote:
The one thing I will disagree with is the art. I find both the secon edition and the deluxe edition to be beautiful, but the real kicker is the card art. I love the historical pictures. I really feel they add to the flavor. It's not really fair to compare TS's art to that of War of the Ring. Compared to other CDGs, TS has great themed art.

I agree on the "being the best CDGs" art, but I'm not comparing it just to other CDGs, I'm comparing it to other games in general. I agree I like the historical art, but I'm just saying by comparison, it's not great.

thedecker wrote:
I would never recommend Twilight Struggle to a "non-gamer".

I agree that it's not my first recommendation, but similarly to HuginnGreiling, it is a good game to graduate to. I even think it's simple enough that unlike a lot of other strategy games or war games are off-putting because you can't have a full mastery of the rules in the first game. Whereas I think you can with TS. Making it not the worst choice either if you're looking for a long, deep strategy game.
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Mantuanwar wrote:
For a hard-core gamer or wargamer the rules to TS are not very complex. For most other people they are. Because of that I am truly amazed the game is number 1. I would have thought it has the wrong demographic. Its a great testament to the game (either that or the system that puts it there is deeply flawed as a reflection of popularity...).

I am not surprised at all. BGG is a gamer's website. From among the top 10 games on the site for example, I think TS falls on the lighter weight side.
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I've only played TS twice so this opinion may change, but one important flaw I see with the game is it's too long *for what it is*. It feels like you do the same thing over and over again without being able to plan a coherent strategy from beginning to end, since you can't expect the card draw. Thus the game becomes a series of exercises in damage control -- trying to do the best with the cards you have on a single turn. While being aware of what cards have passed so far and what cards are to come is important, you still have no guarantee that these cards are going to come out in the way you expect or want them.

In addition, when Africa and South America scoring enter, it almost seems like you're starting the game anew.

In any case, I don't mind TS being #1, but I certainly prefer many other games over it.
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Max DuBoff
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honeyralmond wrote:
I am not surprised at all. BGG is a gamer's website. From among the top 10 games on the site for example, I think TS falls on the lighter weight side.

No. I totally disagree. I've played 7 of the Top 10 TS, Agricola, Through the Ages, Android: Netrunner, Puerto Rico, Eclipse, Power Grid) and I would say that the other 6 are easier to learn than Twilight Struggle.
 
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Max DuBoff
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honeyralmond wrote:
I've only played TS twice so this opinion may change, but one important flaw I see with the game is it's too long *for what it is*. It feels like you do the same thing over and over again without being able to plan a coherent strategy from beginning to end, since you can't expect the card draw. Thus the game becomes a series of exercises in damage control -- trying to do the best with the cards you have on a single turn. While being aware of what cards have passed so far and what cards are to come is important, you still have no guarantee that these cards are going to come out in the way you expect or want them.

In addition, when Africa and South America scoring enter, it almost seems like you're starting the game anew.

I feel like you're criticizing the CDG genre. That's fine, and I respect your opinion, but don't take it out on TS.
 
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honeyralmond wrote:
I've only played TS twice so this opinion may change, but one important flaw I see with the game is it's too long *for what it is*. It feels like you do the same thing over and over again...

Although I think it's been the best #1 (as a face for the hobby) since Tigris and Euphrates, this is why I stopped playing it.

For mine, the variance in when the scoring cards come out is too swingy for my tastes given the length. The to-and-fro of the turns is good fun and highly engaging, but I've often felt that the game was decided by how the scoring cards fell through fortune rather than fate.

I'd still play TS against anyone who was keen, anytime, but I no longer suggest it.

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MD1616 wrote:
honeyralmond wrote:
I am not surprised at all. BGG is a gamer's website. From among the top 10 games on the site for example, I think TS falls on the lighter weight side.

No. I totally disagree. I've played 7 of the Top 10 TS, Agricola, Through the Ages, Android: Netrunner, Puerto Rico, Eclipse, Power Grid) and I would say that the other 6 are easier to learn than Twilight Struggle.

From these I'd say Through the Ages and Agricola are heavier, and Power Grid is about at the same level as TS. I haven't played the other three, but I'd think Eclipse was a heavier game as well, just looking at how many things there are going on.

In any case, the consensus opinion on BGG seems to be that the top 10 rank as follows by weight (highest to lowest).

1. Mage Knight Board Game (4.1)
Through the Ages (4.1)
3. Terra Mystica (3.8)
4. Le Havre (3.7)
5. Agricola (3.6)
Eclipse (3.6)
7. Twilight Struggle (3.4)
8. Power Grid (3.3)
Puerto Rico (3.3)
10. Android: Netrunner (3.2)
 
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But weight can be either complexity or weight.

Chess is a 3.8. No way that's more complex than TS in terms of rules.
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Max DuBoff
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Prop Joe wrote:
But weight can be either complexity or weight.

Yeah, I was talking about rules and, to some extent, strategy.
 
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thedacker wrote:
I would never recommend Twilight Struggle to a "non-gamer".

This is your personal problem then, and not a fault of the game. I do TONS of game evangelizing - I run a high school gaming club for teenagers. I would never think of insulting my kids with an easier game when I know they would enjoy and appreciate a more difficult one - and how patronizing to them if I did dumb it down for their benefit? Many of them are completely new to designer board games, and have never played anything more complicated than Scrabble or Uno. And yet they seem to be able to grasp all sorts of complex and difficult games - including games as arcane as High Frontier!

Why is it there are so many little whiners on here who can't seem to grasp the clarity and elegance of Twilight Struggle, but non-gamer high school sophomores understand it just fine?

And since when do we have to pander to non-gamers at all?

This is a niche hobby website, not a giant advertisement for evangelizing new sheep into the flock, no matter their comfort level with complex rulesets.

And frankly, if you aren't smart enough and patient enough to learn a game as simple and precise and clear as Twilight Struggle, I don't want you sitting across from me at a table on a game night, no matter if we're playing Love Letter and Carcasonne or something more complicated.

Yes, I am an elitist - but we all are. We're on the internet. We're on a specialty hobby website. We are arguing about a board game. This whole experience is elitist. And really, enough with the egalitarianism. I am tired of seeing game designs dumbed-down to reach the lowest common denominator.



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Bit of an over the top rant there, CH.
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Prop Joe wrote:
Bit of an over the top rant there, CH.

Ok, fair enough, I mean I am wearing the HYPERBOLE microbadge (see it there?) But this is a great review that makes some valid points about why this game deserves to be so highly rated, and the best defense anyone can level at it is that it "isn't a game for n00bz."

Well, damnit, I say, GOOD. Enough with the pandering to t3h n00bz.
 
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MScrivner wrote:
Prop Joe wrote:
Bit of an over the top rant there, CH.

Ok, fair enough, I mean I am wearing the HYPERBOLE microbadge (see it there?) But this is a great review that makes some valid points about why this game deserves to be so highly rated, and the best defense anyone can level at it is that it "isn't a game for n00bz."

Well, damnit, I say, GOOD. Enough with the pandering to t3h n00bz.

I understand your point.

I also think the issue is whether non-gamer means someone who isn't much interested in moving beyond Risk or Yahtzee. Someone who wants to get into serious gaming will gut it out and learn more complex games.
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Prop Joe wrote:
MScrivner wrote:
Prop Joe wrote:
Bit of an over the top rant there, CH.

Ok, fair enough, I mean I am wearing the HYPERBOLE microbadge (see it there?) But this is a great review that makes some valid points about why this game deserves to be so highly rated, and the best defense anyone can level at it is that it "isn't a game for n00bz."

Well, damnit, I say, GOOD. Enough with the pandering to t3h n00bz.

I understand your point.

I also think the issue is whether non-gamer means someone who isn't much interested in moving beyond Risk or Yahtzee. Someone who wants to get into serious gaming will gut it out and learn more complex games.

Well the other part of this is whether or not TS is actually all that complex.

Consider: on your turn all you do is play a card. When you play it, you either play it and do what it says, or use it for points. If you use it for points, you choose one of 4 possible actions. If the card you play has text for your opponent, they also get to do what the text says. Everything else is just thematic chrome.

How is that hard?

I think learning this game out of the rulebook is probably intimidating because it is written like a wargame rulebook and not a euro rulebook, and forces you to wrestle with stuff like Defcon level, etc.

I also think the game is DEEP since it takes a couple of games before the implications of your actions become clear.

But it's NOT complex.
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MScrivner wrote:
I also think the game is DEEP since it takes a couple of games before the implications of your actions become clear.

Just a couple games?
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I intensely dislike TS, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve to be the #1 game. User-generated ratings systems don't agree with everyone's opinions by default, just the majority. I'm happy to be in the minority here.
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First of all, GREAT review. I happen to be a huge fan of TS and I enjoy teaching it to people who WANT to learn how to play it. Really the game boils down to making the best of your good hands and mitigating your bad hands so they cause you the least amount of damage. I also love getting people who like traditional games like Risk, Monopoly, Yahtzee, UNO, Stratego, Clue, Sorry, and people who love Rummy and Spades into the BGG world of designer board games. I really like hearing a person new to Designer board games say something like "Wow that was really fun saving the world" after a game of Pandemic or "that game was fun and much easier to play than it looked when you first set up the board" after a game of Lords of Waterdeep.

I would not try to teach a brand new gamer TS. Not because it is too complicated or there are too many things to keep track of (Defcon Level, Military Track, Space Track, Scoring Cards) but because I don't think it would have that FUN factor that a new gamer is looking for. When a new gamer completes their first Destination Card in Ticket to Ride you can always see that smile on their face. They are like "hey that was easy, I'm ready to do my 2nd one now". I think TS is more intense and more of a brain burn in a good way for 2 people who both want to dominate the world and win the game. I have played all of the games in BGGs top 10 except for Power Grid and I think that they are all deserving of being in the Top Ten.

I also agree with the poster who said that most of us are elitist about the hobby. 5 years ago if I had went to someone's house and they said does anyone want to play Monopoly or Risk, I would have jumped all over that and been happy as a lark that we were going to play a game. Of course that was before I stumbled into the world of real board games. While I would certainly never be a snob or put someone down for their choice of games, my reply to Monopoly or Risk would be "Hey I have a bag of games in my car that you guys might really like" and then quickly go grab Dominion, Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, Lords of Waterdeep, and even Survive. Hopefully I would convert a few people in the group to Real Gamers.
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For me the luck-factor is to big.
 
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Muramasa84 wrote:
For me the luck-factor is to big.

I shouldn't bite but I will. The luck-factor in TS is wildly overstated. If it had a high luck factor the same people wouldn't win the tournaments every year and that's what happens.
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