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Derek Thompson
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After years or Agricola and Puerto Rico fighting for top-billing on BoardGameGeek’s ranking chart, Twilight Struggle eventually took over the number one spot. Designed by Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta and published in 2005 by GMT Games, Twilight Struggle is an attempt to retell the entire story of the Cold War in the form of a board game. Many argue whether or not it is truly a war game, but more importantly, is it really the best game of all time? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?



Components: Twilight Struggle is not exactly the prettiest game ever made, although the current Deluxe Third Edition is a big step up from previous editions that had paper boards! The board is nice and thick and very functional – everything is clearly laid out. The influence tokens are relatively easy to handle, and the cards evoke the era well and are pretty clear in their meaning. There are also some other tokens for when certain events take place, although we generally forget to use them. The $60 MSRP is pretty high but not unexpected for a game of this size.

There are some annoyances with the components that sour the experience, though. A few of the connections between countries are just too dang small to see and criss-crossed (I’m primarily talking about between Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Syria). The wording on a few of the cards is annoyingly unclear, to the point where you end up with endless threads on BoardGameGeek over the same topics. Even though they’re all delineated in various FAQs, it’d be a lot less of a problem if the cards were clearer. Lastly, influence can sometimes get up to 7 or higher in several places, and there aren’t really enough high-value tokens included. Stacking a five and three together gets the job done in a pinch, but it’s rather annoying. So, the components get the job done, but they could also be a lot better.



Accessibility: Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise - Twilight Struggle is not an easy game to learn. The first step, just learning how to play correctly, is a bit of a hurdle. There are a ton of different rules to remember, particularly about using a card for ops: placing influence, coups, and realignments. I struggled for a long time to learn the difference in restrictions and modifiers for coups and realignments. In fact, the formula for coups just looks like a made-up math equation! And of course, learning this is paramount, because you don’t want to accidentally do something completely illegal, and you definitely don’t want an unsatisfying DEFCON loss just because you don’t know what you’re doing. Those also tend to take new players by surprise, because they don’t see how they lose because the opponent coups on their turn.

In addition to just learning how to play correctly, there’s the strategy of the game, which is hugely dependent on knowing the cards in the deck. Until you’ve memorized the contents, you won’t know that the U.S. player probably shouldn’t start with influence in France, or that the USSR shouldn’t place influence in Romania, and so on. I’ve seen games between two beginners take over four hours, just because they can’t deal with their own cluelessness. This is an even more difficult task for Late War cards, because so many games never get that far. I’ve played the game over fifty times between real-life games and VASSAL and I still don’t know the Late War deck as well as I should, because so many games never get that far! I’ve played my share of complex games – card games especially – but this game is not one you just pick up and start playing. You’ve been warned.

One last note: I’ve very much enjoyed playing the game on VASSAL against other players, but I can’t imagine that it would be a good way to learn, as you’d have to find someone with the patience to teach you, and VASSAL does have the occasional bug or two.



Depth: If you do put in the effort to learn the game, you will be immensely rewarded. At the height of play – when both you and your opponent fully understand the ins and outs of the game – this is an epic battle for the ages. The strategy is immense, and comes at you from every direction. You have to be prepared for any card still in the deck – you need to know which ones those are, by the way – and you have to be prepared for an attack in any region, all while avoiding blowing up the world. The timing of scoring in the game is brilliant, and compounds with the deliciously frustrating rule that your opponent’s events still trigger when you play those cards for ops. Every decision is agonizing.

Yes, the game can have huge swings of luck, and it has them throughout the entire game, to the point where they mostly balance themselves out. Without those tides turning, if you were stuck neck-and-neck the entire game, it would not be exciting at all. Instead, you have to figure out how to dig yourself out of impossible situations, and how to create those situations for your opponent. There are a few games where I can say “Man, that came down to a 50/50 die roll” – but I let the game get to that point. I can always point to a prior turn or action round where I probably should have done something differently so that my opponent would not have that chance available to take. On top of that, every game is completely different, simply because of the different ways that the cards come out and the dice are rolled. This game is a true battle of wits, the kind you find at the highest level of games like Magic: the Gathering and Android: Netrunner, with all of the variety and none of the expense.



Theme: Even if you are not a Cold War enthusiast or a history buff, this game’s mechanics are still worth the experience. That being said, the theme has still had an effect on me, and made me curious to learn more about the Cold War. Some of the events I had never learned about in school, and are as timely and important as they ever were. (For example, I had no idea that Reagan bombed Libya). There truly is a full-on history lesson hidden within this game. The mechanics also perpetuate the fear and paranoia of the Cold War, as you find yourself nervously waiting to see what your opponent does next, or for your chance to spring a surprise strike. It’s also a grim reminder that this war was mostly fought with lives that were neither Soviet nor American. If you are a history buff, and especially if you find the Cold War fascinating, you definitely owe it to yourself to check out this game.



Fun: Not everyone is going to like this game. There are wild swings of luck, and it’s a constant back-and-forth, push-and-pull battle until the end. You can win or lose at the drop of a hat nuke. But if you enjoy that high level of one-on-one card play and bluff in games like Magic or Netrunner, this is the pinnacle. This is it. That is the reason this is the #1 game of all time on BoardGameGeek – and that ranking is justified. Yes, it’s kind of ugly and it’s very hard to learn, but once you (and at least one buddy) are set, board games don’t get any better than this.



If you haven’t experienced Twilight Struggle yet, prepare yourself for an uphill battle that is so, so worth it.



Originally posted on http://meepletown.com
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Aaron Silverman
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
aldaryn wrote:
Some of the events I had never learned about in school, and are as timely and important as they ever were. (For example, I had no idea that Reagan bombed Libya).

It is so weird to read statements like that about events that I remember.

Getting old. . . soblue
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Paul Ferguson
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
How is this game number 1 on BGG?! Quality of components, very poor. Gameplay, very random, accessibility is low, max number of players 2. I am finding it really hard to see the good points in this game, this is number one, and it is basically a card playing game with huge random elements that for the most part are out of your control. Not to mention the worst quality game board in existence. There is seriously no game in the world better than this?
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Brandon Holmes
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
itmo wrote:
How is this game number 1 on BGG?! Quality of components, very poor. Gameplay, very random, accessibility is low, max number of players 2. I am finding it really hard to see the good points in this game, this is number one, and it is basically a card playing game with huge random elements that for the most part are out of your control. Not to mention the worst quality game board in existence. There is seriously no game in the world better than this?

My newer edition (deluxe edition) has great components so you are probably basing that off an older edition. The "coffee stain" (as mentioned by the poster above) is intentional and I've grown to appreciate it.

Have you played the game or are you asking this based on critiques of the game you have read?

Assuming you haven't played this before I have to say it's a game you have to play to truly appreciate. It's a definite 10/10 for me. It oozes with theme, I'd argue the "randomness" is a feature in this game (how you deal with your draw and your opponents IS the game, especially as you have ways to mitigate "bad" draws) and it's so damn tense and interesting. Everyone in my group that I have played this with loved it, even though we usually play "geekier" fantasy/sci-fi games. It's just that good that it completely won us over.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
itmo wrote:
How is this game number 1 on BGG?! Quality of components, very poor. Gameplay, very random, accessibility is low, max number of players 2. I am finding it really hard to see the good points in this game, this is number one, and it is basically a card playing game with huge random elements that for the most part are out of your control. Not to mention the worst quality game board in existence. There is seriously no game in the world better than this?

Sounds like you had a game at Go Lounge then?

I've always been a little surprised with its number 1 ranking, only because I never heard that much about it at any board game group I attend. If it wasnt for bgg I would never have even heard of it.
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Max DuBoff
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
itmo wrote:
How is this game number 1 on BGG?!

Quite simply, it manages to have wide appeal among different crowds because it doesn't feel like a heavy wargame (and thus can appeal to Eurogamers and Ameritrashers) yet still satisfies wargamers with its maneuvering and unique "battles."

itmo wrote:
Quality of components, very poor.


Honestly, I'm a tad confused by this point. The components are quite high-quality--the cards are classy yet not too thin, the influence markers hold up well, the deluxe edition has a mounted mapboard--and are worth the price tag.

itmo wrote:
Gameplay, very random,

This is so much less true than you think. If the gameplay were really that random, the same people wouldn't dominate international competition. If the gameplay is that random, how have two people won 7 of the 8 tournaments of this run at WBC? If the gameplay is that random, how do many of the same faces advance to the later rounds of Wargameroom league year after year?

itmo wrote:
accessibility is low,

I already established that this isn't true; it's just light enough to appeal to Eurogamers and just heavy enough to appeal to wargamers. That kind of hybrid is rather rare.

itmo wrote:
max number of players 2.


Is this really an issue?

itmo wrote:
I am finding it really hard to see the good points in this game, this is number one, and it is basically a card playing game with huge random elements that for the most part are out of your control.

I suppose you won't be convinced that it's much more a game of skill than you realize. Clearly, any time there are cards and dice, there are going to be random elements, and a game of TS can be decided by luck, but in the majority of cases, the better player will win.

itmo wrote:
Not to mention the worst quality game board in existence.

Oy.

itmo wrote:
There is seriously no game in the world better than this?

No, it's not the best board game ever made. But it is the perhaps the best board game with broad enough appeal to reach most of the BGG community.
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Max DuBoff
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
Great review, Derek!
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Derek Thompson
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
I'll agree the components aren't as snazzy for the price as they could be - compare to something like Kemet or Cyclades.

I personally think the accessibility is VERY low.

But if you think the game is random and devoid of skill, you haven't played it enough. A friend and I have played ~50 games now and the head games we get into are INTENSE. More than any time in the 10+ years I've spent playing Magic.

Thanks for the comments!
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
aldaryn wrote:
I personally think the accessibility is VERY low.

This is quite obviously dependent on the games you normally play. It's one of the easiest and most elegant GMT Games games I've played with regards to rules.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
itmo wrote:
There is seriously no game in the world better than this?

Correct.
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Derek Thompson
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
turbothy wrote:
aldaryn wrote:
I personally think the accessibility is VERY low.

This is quite obviously dependent on the games you normally play. It's one of the easiest and most elegant GMT Games games I've played with regards to rules.

Sure. The only other GMT game I've played much is Battle Line. I'm thinking of in comparison to mass market and gateway games.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
itmo wrote:
There is seriously no game in the world better than this?
Yes, there is one. Up Front.

DJ Kuul A wrote:
aldaryn wrote:
Some of the events I had never learned about in school, and are as timely and important as they ever were. (For example, I had no idea that Reagan bombed Libya).

It is so weird to read statements like that about events that I remember.

Getting old. . . soblue
"Reagan bombed Libya" is old? Hell, I remember the Maple Leafs last Stanley Cup win. Now get off my lawn, punk!
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
itmo wrote:
How is this game number 1 on BGG?! Quality of components, very poor. Gameplay, very random, accessibility is low, max number of players 2. I am finding it really hard to see the good points in this game, this is number one, and it is basically a card playing game with huge random elements that for the most part are out of your control. Not to mention the worst quality game board in existence. There is seriously no game in the world better than this?
I disagree completely.

The component quality of this and other GMT games is top of the line. I have hundreds of games from various other companies and very few come close to this level of quality.

The game has random elements, but is generally won by the better player. It is a strategy game that actually rewards good play. It is also well balanced and has very well tested rules. You probably need to play it more to realize its full potential.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
itmo wrote:
How is this game number 1 on BGG?! Quality of components, very poor. Gameplay, very random, accessibility is low, max number of players 2. I am finding it really hard to see the good points in this game, this is number one, and it is basically a card playing game with huge random elements that for the most part are out of your control. Not to mention the worst quality game board in existence. There is seriously no game in the world better than this?

I haven't played this game enough, but I think it's a bit like Here I Stand, a game I know better, and which uses the same kind of card-driven mechanic: The first times you play it's a bit random, because you don't know what's coming. But once you start to know the cards, you can play more strategic. Fortunately, I enjoy the learning period because of the story and the theme, but I know some people who hate the fact that they can't make big plans and play very strategic the first time they play.

In short: I doubt this game is as random as you say. I also disagree about the components. They are excellent. Mounted board, nice cardboard for the counters, nice and rounded corners on the counters, and GMT has the sturdiest cards I know of. I'm sure they're made to withstand a nuclear attack (appropriately for this game). The game is accessible too. I'm sure I could teach this game to anyone who's interested. At least, the friend I have taught it to is not an experienced gamer, and it didn't take him long to learn. He might have had a hard time learning it by himself, though, so in that sense it is not as accessible as Ticket to Ride. And what's wrong about being a two-player game, anyway? Many other games support more players, but they are generally not good for two. We need two-player games too.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
Random????

Random?

RANDOM???? gulp
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
itmo wrote:
How is this game number 1 on BGG?! Quality of components, very poor. Gameplay, very random, accessibility is low, max number of players 2. I am finding it really hard to see the good points in this game, this is number one, and it is basically a card playing game with huge random elements that for the most part are out of your control. Not to mention the worst quality game board in existence. There is seriously no game in the world better than this?
It is a Euro game with a conflict theme that strikes at many people on a personal level. It is easy to relate to thematically, and has a nice dash of historical events.

The target market for this specific game is broad and deep, hence the extra ratings, higher sales etc.

But not all people are going to like it and not every one like the OP will be able to grasp it first pass.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
hipshot wrote:
It is a Euro game

I'll stop you right there. That makes absolutely no sense. To be honest, that's probably an either-or logical fallacy--there's an underlying assumption that an "area control" game (which TS isn't in the normal sense) has to be a Euro if it's not a wargame. In reality, TS fits none of the real requirements of Euros: money-->VPs model, balancing resources, etc.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
I wish people would stop talking about eurogames vs ameritrash, as it is a bullshit distinction, and this game is just one more game to show that. All designers, whether they are american, european or whatever, pick and choose among the same mechanisms, area control being one of them. You can say that this mechanism has european roots, but so what? The theme of this game has american roots, as does the card-driven mechanism. So which bullshit label do you want to put on it, eurogame or ameritrash? Does it matter? When a game is labeled as a eurogame, someone could be led to believe that it is dry with a theme that is pasted on. When a game is labeled as ameritrash, someone could be led to believe that it is a completely random game with lots of cheap plastic, dice rolling and crappy mechanisms (but hey, it's dripping with theme). Does any of those stereotypes fit Twilight Struggle? I don't think so, and to put any of those labels on the game will give people the wrong impression.

Sorry for the rant, I just could't help myself...
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
MD1616 wrote:
hipshot wrote:
It is a Euro game

I'll stop you right there. That makes absolutely no sense. To be honest, that's probably an either-or logical fallacy--there's an underlying assumption that an "area control" game (which TS isn't in the normal sense) has to be a Euro if it's not a wargame. In reality, TS fits none of the real requirements of Euros: money-->VPs model, balancing resources, etc.
Wow, just jump on that.
Have fun.
I'll go edit it and say IT is a GAME... would that make you happy?
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Max DuBoff
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
hipshot wrote:
MD1616 wrote:
hipshot wrote:
It is a Euro game

I'll stop you right there. That makes absolutely no sense. To be honest, that's probably an either-or logical fallacy--there's an underlying assumption that an "area control" game (which TS isn't in the normal sense) has to be a Euro if it's not a wargame. In reality, TS fits none of the real requirements of Euros: money-->VPs model, balancing resources, etc.
Wow, just jump on that.
Have fun.
I'll go edit it and say IT is a GAME... would that make you happy?

I apologize for ranting, Kev, but I know you're a bit stuck-up about wargames. As someone who plays both, I dislike it when someone tries to fit a game into a category it doesn't fit into (in this case, that of Euros), which can become very misleading and make the category name lose part of its meaning.
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Kev.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
MD1616 wrote:
hipshot wrote:
MD1616 wrote:
hipshot wrote:
It is a Euro game

I'll stop you right there. That makes absolutely no sense. To be honest, that's probably an either-or logical fallacy--there's an underlying assumption that an "area control" game (which TS isn't in the normal sense) has to be a Euro if it's not a wargame. In reality, TS fits none of the real requirements of Euros: money-->VPs model, balancing resources, etc.
Wow, just jump on that.
Have fun.
I'll go edit it and say IT is a GAME... would that make you happy?

I apologize for ranting, Kev, but I know you're a bit stuck-up about wargames. As someone who plays both, I dislike it when someone tries to fit a game into a category it doesn't fit into (in this case, that of Euros), which can become very misleading and make the category name lose part of its meaning.

Well I'm happy to be wrong, I'm even happy to be stuck up. I play war games because I have a deep interest in history, it is my release valve for many things.

But because I know I need to be more open minded and accepting of others view points regardless of how blinkered, spiteful, reactionary and venal I might feel they are, I am endeavouring to play other types of games. To whit -

I have recently had some success with CDG, and cdg and area movement games, its just a big break thru for me.

I think the guys in my group are going to have me try a non conflict based title soon, that has no roots in any history what so ever - it will be just all out fun!!
I shall gird my loins and embrace it.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
itmo wrote:
How is this game number 1 on BGG?! Quality of components, very poor. Gameplay, very random, accessibility is low, max number of players 2.

Because it has excellent addictive non-random gameplay.
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Re: Review: Twilight Struggle
StevensonJunior wrote:
itmo wrote:
How is this game number 1 on BGG?! Quality of components, very poor. Gameplay, very random, accessibility is low, max number of players 2.

Because it has excellent addictive non-random gameplay.

There's a difference between "skill-based" and "luckless"...
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