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Rick Holzgrafe
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Twilight Struggle from GMT Games is a two-player re-creation of the Cold War, spanning the years from the end of WWII to the early 90's. Although descended from "grognard"-style wargames, there is much eurogame influence in TS's design and many of its mechanics should seem familiar to eurogamers.

In the Box

Eurogamers will not be impressed by the production values. The board, which is mainly a map of the world, is made of folded cardstock rather than the thick cardboard we're used to. You'll want a sheet of plastic to lay over it, to get it to lie flat. The board's graphics are mostly diagrammatic and utilitarian, with the exception of the photos of world leaders on the turn track and the images of US and Soviet space program feats on the Space Race track. But though eye candy is lacking, the graphic design is clear and does a good job of communicating the essential stats of each country, its affiliations, and its relationship with its neighbors.

TS is a card-driven game, containing over 100 cards each depicting a different event from the history of the Cold War. Period photos decorate the cards, which are poker-sized. It might be nice if the cards were of slightly higher quality so that they would last longer over many plays of the game. (We recommend the use of a card holder. You need to hold as many as ten cards at once, and a card holder lets you keep them clean by minimizing handling, as well as letting you spread them out for easy review. We bought some nice wooden ones from Chessex (http://www.chessex.com), and of course they can be used for other games as well.)

The box should contain a couple of sheets of small cardboard chits, which are small and (I expect) a bit flyweight, so that they must be handled with a little care. I am not certain of their thickness, because our shrink-wrapped copy contained no chits at all. When we wrote to the publisher GMT, we were told that they had no replacements in stock! They have promised to send us free replacements in a few months when the second printing is available, but in the meantime I was not pleased to have spent $60 for a game that was missing a couple of hundred important pieces. But we were able to make crude replacements using a scan that was posted here on the Geek, supplemented with some colored wooden cubes from our miscellaneous-game-parts supply, so we were able to play without waiting for the reprint.

The rulebook may seem intimidating to a eurogamer, being some 24 pages long and organized into sections and subsections that go three deep ("10.2.3 - If both players earn Victory Points..."). But in fact, the rules aren't difficult to learn. The rules are probably simpler than those for some popular eurogames such as Caylus, and are much simpler than the rules for War of the Ring or Arkham Horror (which are not eurogames, I know; just popular games with complex rules). The actual rules take up only eight pages, including the scene-setting introduction and the optional "Tournament" rules. Four more pages are devoted to an "Extended Example of Play" (which we did not read, having read on the Geek that it contains several errors). Then there are two fascinating sections not necessary for playing the game: nine pages describing the historical events depicted on each card, and a page of "Designer's Notes" discussing how the game's authors chose to distill the Cold War down into a playable game. The back page is a player aid.

Much has been made of the many production errors in this printing. There are obvious spelling errors (including the infamous "People's Replublic of China"), one crucial setup error in the rulebook (the US should start with four influence points in Australia, not one), an important rule misstatement on the DEFCON track on the gameboard, a number of minor errors on the cards, and other missteps. Many of these are only cosmetic. An FAQ available here on the Geek details all the errata and clarifies some rules. Although annoying, these production errors don't prevent the game from being played and enjoyed. We do strongly recommend downloading and reading that FAQ before your first play.

Elegant Rules, Fiddly Play

Although the rules are not complex, this is a card-driven game and many of the cards introduce lasting changes to the rules. Keeping track of these changes is the most difficult aspect of playing the game correctly. One convoluted example is the "NATO" card which can be played only after the "Marshall Plan" or the "Warsaw Pact" cards have been played, and which can be canceled in West Germany (but not elsewhere!) by playing "Willy Brandt" -- and "Willy Brandt" can itself be canceled by "Tear Down This Wall". There are cardboard chits for such cards, which you can place on the board as reminders; but unless you play enough to memorize all the card effects, the chits will just be reminding you to check and re-check the rules. A third card holder to publicly display the cards-in-effect might be a good idea.

But I Thought This Was a War Game!

Much of the play action is reminiscent of El Grande and other area-influence games. Each country can hold Influence chits from both sides. A player whose advantage in influence chits meets or exceeds a country's "Stability Number" controls that country. Controlling sufficient countries in a region (such as Europe or Central America) gives a player "Dominance" or even "Control" of the region; this is a major source of victory points. In accordance with the Domino Theory that motivated many events in the Cold War, you can normally add influence only to countries in which you already have influence, or to countries adjacent to those in which you have influence: the "spreading stain." But many card events allow you to drop influence into specific countries even if you have no prior influence in the area, and the "coup" and "re-alignment" actions also offer ways to gain influence in new areas.

But what you never, never do is build an army and invade. Although descended from and strongly reminiscent of wargames, Twilight Struggle is not a wargame. Some of the cards represent historical wars such as the Arab-Israeli wars, but it is the effects of those wars that matter in TS; the wars themselves are not enacted or simulated in the game. Twilight Struggle is a prolonged wrestling match, a constant tension of give-a-little-here, take-a-little-there.

Card Management

Play proceeds in rounds, to a maximum of ten rounds. (With experienced players, this should mean about a three-hour game; our first game took more like six, but we were learning the rules, studying all the unfamiliar cards, and discussing the history of the Cold War with our kids.)

In each round, both players receive a hand of cards drawn from a shuffled deck. Cards are divided into Early, Mid, and Late War; you start with just the Early War cards and shuffle in the others later in the game. Each card is also labeled as being either a Soviet, US, or neutral card, based on which side its event effect is good for. Finally, each card has an Operations Point value.

A card can be played for its event, in which case you do what the card text says (often the text offers you some choices, sometimes not). You can choose instead to skip the event and just use the card's Operations Points to spread your influence by Domino Theory, coup attempts, or re-alignments.

But there's a catch: your hand can include all three kinds of events (US, USSR, and neutral). When playing cards with your own or neutral events, you must choose either to use the event or the Ops Points, not both. But when playing a card with an opponent's event, you must play both the Ops Points (good for you) and the event (good for your opponent). The bad news is that, with few exceptions, you must play every card you are dealt, for good or ill.

The good news is that you control the order in which you will play your cards, which allows you to finesse their effects. Also, once per round you can "burn" a card to try to advance yourself in the Space Race, which lets you get rid of a particularly damaging card without triggering its event. Properly managing your hand is one of the central aspects of the game.

Luck and Inevitability

"We will bury you!" said Krushchev, and what he meant was that the Communist system was superior to Capitalism, so that its victory was inevitable. But neither side could entirely predict how the rest of the world would respond to their actions, and luck played a big role in the Cold War. The same is true in Twilight Struggle: you have a lot of control over your own actions, but you must also suffer the luck of the shuffle; and the outcome of each coup attempt, re-alignment, and Space Race effort depends on a roll of the dice.

If you are comfortable with a balanced mix of luck and strategy, you'll be okay. Bu if you prefer to be master of your own destiny, you may not like the amount of luck in this game.

Paths to Victory

One hallmark of the European designer style is "multiple paths to victory." In games of this type, not all players have to be seeking the same goals. This is true in Twilight Struggle, where there are several possible victory conditions.

Scoring is done with old-fashioned Victory Points, but with a twist: the VP track runs from -20 to 20. A single marker starts in the middle, at zero. When the Soviet player makes points, the marker is moved in the negative direction; when the US player makes points, it is moved in the positive direction. The marker therefore represents the difference in the number of points each side has made, rather than showing the totals.

Points can be garnered in several ways. Scattered through the deck are Scoring Cards for each major region on the board: Europe, Asia, South America, etc. When a Scoring Card is played, the amount of influence each player has in that region is tallied and the players receive points accordingly. (Timing the play of a Scoring Card in your hand is another interesting aspect of hand management!)

Points are also awarded by the events on some cards, and for reaching certain levels on the Space Race track, with higher points awarded to the player who first reaches that level. The Space Race track also offers certain play advantages to the more-advanced player; this is another collection of "temporary rule changes" to keep track of.

One way to win the game is to peg the VP marker at either -20 (for the Soviet player) or 20 (for the US player) at the end of any Action Round, after the effects of playing a card have been fully resolved.

Another way to win is to have "Control" (overwhelming influence) of Europe at any time that Europe is scored. This reflects the historical fact that attaining such influence in Europe was the main goal of the Cold War.

Yet another way to win is to wait out the full 10 rounds, at which time all regions are scored as if their scoring cards had just been played. The player with the most points at the end wins, unless somebody has control of Europe, in which case that player wins.

In our first game, the US player went for control over Europe, but this gave the Soviet player a fairly free rein in the rest of the world. That game ended in turn nine, after about a turn and a half of nail-biting play in which the US player alternately controlled Europe or was one chit shy of it, and hoping either to find the Europe scoring card or keep control of Europe to the end of the game; while the Soviet player hovered at or near -19 VP, trembling on the verge of a win on points. The tension in the game built inexorably, and the finish was a marvelously agonizing climax.

Paths to Defeat: DEFCON

And then there's the DEFCON track, which reflects the level of tension between the competing superpowers. One brilliant mechanism in the game requires each player to attempt a certain amount of "military operations" per turn, or risk losing VPs as a penalty; but most such attempts will degrade the DEFCON level. The player who triggers DEFCON 1 on his turn, thus starting a nuclear war, instantly loses the game. This push-pull of having to perform military operations without performing too many is a great source of tension and balance in the game. It brings to life the Cold War notion of "brinkmanship": playing chicken with nuclear weapons. At one point in my first game, I decided to grit my teeth and make a move that would win me 2 VP that I felt were important, at a one-in-six chance that I'd trigger that nuclear war and lose. My opponent thought I was nuts, but I thought my back was against the wall. And I got away with it...

Final Thoughts

Twilight Struggle is a rich game. By "rich" I mean that there is a lot going on in terms of depth, variety, strategy, and theme. It is deeply thematic, and my 15-year-old painlessly and enthusiastically learned about three school weeks' worth of world history in the course of our first game. ("They did what?! When did that happen?") The mechanics are varied enough to afford interesting and unpredictable play, and they bring out the zeitgeist of the era: the paranoia, the brinkmanship, and the meddlesome arrogance that reduced the rest of the world to an arena for the contest of the giant nations. The game has a brilliant balance that requires players to push their luck and spread their efforts, yet allowing each player to choose from a variety of different game plans.

The small history lessons included in the rulebook are a fascinating addition. The Designer's Notes, which could have been a self-congratulatory waste of space, offered still more insight into the era, the difference between the modern and contemporary views of the Cold War, and the decisions and sacrifices made in summarizing such a complex period of history into a game, all in two columns of text.

Eurogamers will find much that is familiar here. The area-influence mechanics, the card management, the VP scoring, and the many paths to victory are all mainstays of eurogame design. The overall complexity of the game is well within the limits of the more complex eurogames. But gamers who prefer simpler games may find the interactions of the card effects annoyingly difficult to track as the game progresses.

No one should be surprised to hear that TS is a confrontational game! Some card combinations can allow a player to spring some very nasty surprises on an opponent. This game is not recommended for the "if-you-do-that-you'll-sleep-on-the-sofa-for-a-week" crowd.

As noted above, the production quality is well below what a eurogamer tends to expect for the price. At least some of these issues should be addressed by the reprint due out in a few months, according to GMT. (It is early June as I write, so I would suppose it will be available in the early fall of 2006). Since the first printing is nearly sold out, most gamers making a purchase decision while reading this review can hope that the copy they eventually get will be better in some ways.

The bottom line: in spite of the production flaws and the somewhat fiddly card interactions, Twilight Struggle is an absolutely brilliant conception. We thoroughly enjoyed our first game and look forward to playing again. I have given this game an 8.5 rating to begin with, but I may revise that upward after I see what multiple plays feel like.

I strongly recommend Twilight Struggle for anyone looking for a medium-complex, intensely competitive two-player game in the three-hour range. And if either of the designers ever read this, you can consider me to be standing, applauding, and enthusiastically shouting "Bravo!"
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david funch
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That's a great review. Bravo!

If I may, I'd like to offer a suggestion about keeping track of what cards are having lasting effects on the game. My girlfriend and I adopted this about halfway through are 1st game.

After a card is played it's placed into one of four different piles. The out-of-the-game-forever pile, the will-be-reshuffled-later pile, the has lasting-in-game-effects pile, and finally the has-lasting-in-game-effects-for-this-round-only pile. The large empty spaces over USSR and USA are perfect places for these last two piles.

Placing the reminder counters on the board is sort of an art form. By the end of our games we have them all over the place. Placing them wherever we think we're more likely to see them if we're attempting an action and have forgotten about card effects.
 
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Bill Koens
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Excellent review. I enjoy this game thoroughly also.

But...

Quote:
At one point in my first game, I decided to grit my teeth and make a move that would win me 2 VP that I felt were important, at a one-in-six chance that I'd trigger that nuclear war and lose. My opponent thought I was nuts, but I thought my back was against the wall. And I got away with it...

What action requires a die roll to see if the DefCon degrades? I can't remember one.
 
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Rick Holzgrafe
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Xelvonar wrote:
Quote:
At one point in my first game, I decided to grit my teeth and make a move that would win me 2 VP that I felt were important, at a one-in-six chance that I'd trigger that nuclear war and lose. My opponent thought I was nuts, but I thought my back was against the wall. And I got away with it...

What action requires a die roll to see if the DefCon degrades? I can't remember one.

I played Summit at a time when I had the advantage in the die roll. Had I lost the roll, my opponent would have had the privilege of moving the DEFCON marker "one level in either direction." We were at DEFCON 2 and I was the phasing player, so had I lost, my opponent would have moved to DEFCON 1 and I would have lost because I triggered the event.

It's just as well we weren't playing with real bombs. shake
 
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Colin Sykes
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Thanks for this excellent review. I want this game SOOOO much, just can't decide whether to buy now (I know a place that still has it in stock) or wait for the reprint...

As a matter of interest, who won the nail-biting game you described?
 
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Richard Irving
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Good review, but I don't know anyone who uses the chits to keep track of the Permanent effect event cards.

I just leave the permanent event card face up near the board, so both players can read it. Events that cancel or are prerequisites, only the most recent event need be displayed (So when NATO comes out, you can toss out Warsaw Pact/Marshall Plan. Etc.)

Discard after use events (& Canceled permenent events) get thrown in the box.
 
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Rick Holzgrafe
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BrouHaHa wrote:
As a matter of interest, who won the nail-biting game you described?

I did, playing the USSR. I got the luck: in the ninth round, I drew both of the scoring cards we were agonizing over: the Europe card that would have won for the US, and the SouthEast Asia card that gave the USSR exactly the three points I needed (after the US had played a 2-VP headline to knock me back to -17).

Because I was fighting hard to keep the US from having control of Europe, scoring Europe might not have been an instant win; but it would have been worth 12 points. After that the US would have good chances for simply hanging on to the end of round 10 and scoring Europe again, leaving the US up by several points. The scoring of the rest of the world would have decided the game, and it could have gone either way.

rri1 wrote:
I just leave the permanent event card face up near the board, so both players can read it.

That's what we wound up doing, and it's why I thought a third card holder would be a good idea. We're going to try that, next game. The chits on the board will remind us to check the cards, and the cards will be readily available.
 
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Excellent review. I made a trade for this recently, and I just can't wait to receive and play it.
 
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Tim Taylor
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Excellent review of this game's pros and cons. I just wish that more reviews could be this informative and succinct. Well done!
 
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Paul Franklin-Bihary
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Great, precise review!

I will add a couple things to relate to multiple play experience:

1) This game is incredibly re-playable because of the cards. And also because it is so fun, tense, and strategic you just can't stop playing! After playing, you want to try again to revise your strategy, to see which cards you get, etc. My friend and I played five games in a row last time we took it out!

2) The game seems to be unbalanced toward USSR. Of the 7 games I've played, I've played approximately equal tries with US and USSR, and the USSR has won 6 of the 7 games, all in the Early or Mid-War stages. This is using all the current errata as well. I think that some playbalancing needs to occur in the second edition. But it's still an intensely enjoyable game. I want to play it more to try to figure out how to win with the US!

3) At first I was frustrated with the 20point win mechanic. The game ends so quickly if one player gets a staggering lead. But now I think it's great. It just allows the game to be shorter without being overly frustrating for one side, and allows multiple plays to happen even faster.

This is definitely one of my favorite games in my collection, and I can see myself playing this a lot in the future. Get it!!!
 
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David Nowakowski
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rholzgrafe wrote:
I got the luck: in the ninth round, I drew both of the scoring cards we were agonizing over: the Europe card that would have won for the US, and the SouthEast Asia card that gave the USSR exactly the three points I needed (

How is that possible? Southeast Asia is removed from play after scoring the first time, and it's a Mid-War card. Why was it still in the deck in turn 9?
 
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Allen Doum
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dnova wrote:
rholzgrafe wrote:
I got the luck: in the ninth round, I drew both of the scoring cards we were agonizing over: the Europe card that would have won for the US, and the SouthEast Asia card that gave the USSR exactly the three points I needed (

How is that possible? Southeast Asia is removed from play after scoring the first time, and it's a Mid-War card. Why was it still in the deck in turn 9?

The card could have been discarded in the Mid War, and shuffled back in. Scoring cards don't have to be played, they just can't be held.
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