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Subject: Sure it's great, but is it a masterpiece? rss

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Greg Forster
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When I began writing this article (my first game review), I was going to say that Twilight Struggle is a great game that could have been a masterpiece if not for a couple of problems. However, in the process of writing the review, I’ve managed to convince myself that maybe it is a masterpiece after all. So I’ll just say why I think it’s definitely great and maybe a masterpiece, and also why I think it might not be a masterpiece, and leave the conclusion ambiguous. What the heck, an ambiguous conclusion worked for Lost in Translation, maybe it will work in a game review, too.

TS stakes out new territory midway between the Eurogames and wargames genres, and does so with tremendous success. It’s hard to do something new and do it really well on the first try. And I think TS really is something new. I’ve heard several people say things like “Don’t think of this as a wargame – it looks like a wargame, but it’s not.” That’s true, but I get the sense that people don’t adequately appreciate the implications. I can’t shake the feeling that TS is the embryo of a new genre, combining some elements of wargames and some of Eurogames. Everyone can see the various ways in which the game design springs from card-driven wargaming: you have “armies,” so to speak, and you have cards that you can use either for action points that let you perform a set of standard operations with your “armies,” or for historical events that affect the action in unique ways. So far it’s a CDW. But the structure of the game is much less open-ended than in a proper wargame. You don’t get to plot a grand strategy and then implement it step-by-step. The game “feels” much more like resource management and crisis response than like strategic mobilization and conquest. That is certainly true to the Cold War theme; the Cold War was much less a war than a series of crises (some of which were actual wars). But in addition to following the theme, it also creates a new kind of game: call it a card-driven Euro.

Or better yet, call it a “history game.” The great advantage of card-driven wargames was that they introduced more history into wargaming. The cards were a better way of having historical events affect the action on the battlefield. With TS, the designers are basically asking “Why limit that to war-fighting? Why not use this history-driven game mechanic to make a game that recreates a historical struggle other than a shooting war?” It strikes me that this opens up a whole new world of possible games. Somebody has already designed a self-published game based on TS that recreates the civil rights movement. Ed Beach is developing new two-player rules for Here I Stand that will deemphasize the military aspect of the game and focus on the Protestant/Catholic struggle of the Reformation; I’ll bet you that’s going to feel something like TS when it’s done. There’s no end of other historical struggles that could fit this format.

All this may sound like a digression from my review of TS, but it really isn’t. The point I’m trying to make is that TS introduces a new way to “play” historical struggles, and it really works. That’s a big deal.

Add to all this the fact that TS fills a crying need for a really good Cold War game, and provides all the engagement with the theme you could ask for. Theme is an underrated element of game design. No offense to people who enjoy abstracts, but a strong theme supported by the rules (chrome) and the bits (lots of pictures, etc.) provides a play experience that nothing else can. I mean, what do you say about a game where you have to worry about accidentally blowing up the world – and not in a cartoony kind of game but a realistic, tense game of international intrigue?

However, there are two problems I have with TS, and I think that these are serious enough that they aren’t just a matter of my personal taste. And I have an idea that would help alleviate both problems simultaneously, which leads me to think that this is an actual inefficiency in the design rather than the game simply being a somewhat different kind of game than I would have wanted.

The first problem is that hand management has been taken to a real extreme. It’s one thing for the game to be tense and have every move count; it’s another thing to feel like your plays for each turn have been mapped out for you by your card draws, and you don’t get a choice of which card you play when. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not too much of one.

The defense I’ve heard on this point is that in real life, that’s how things happened in the Cold War – you were constantly backed into a corner and out of options. Well, that’s fine as far as history goes, but it doesn’t make for a very enjoyable feature in a game. A little more leeway in hand management would have been preferable.

Second, too much of the action is predictable. You know in advance that Nasser will show up in Egypt, that Romania will go to the Soviets, etc. Now, some amount of this is just fine. Balancing predictability with unpredictability is the perennial curse of all historical games. If the game is too unpredictable, it won’t track the history, and the whole point of the game will be lost. But if the game is too predictable, it’s both less fun and less realistic (since the actual people didn’t know what was going to happen in advance when they were living the history in real time).

I think TS leans too far in the predictable direction. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have Fidel show up in Cuba – it wouldn’t be a Cold War game without that. But some of the predictable stuff doesn’t even serve the purpose of invoking the history. For example, does anyone feel the Cold War theme of the game is enhanced by the card Romanian Abdication? I mean, we all remember the pivotal role Romania played in the history of the Cold War. It seems to me that the fun and realism that unpredictability provides have been sacrificed with no gain in the realm of fidelity to the historical theme.

So here’s my idea. Take some of the more history-specific cards and make them more generic. The game doesn’t have a card called Iranian Revolution, it has a card called Muslim Revolution. That’s a great model for other cards. Instead of Romanian Abdication, you could just have Abdication. Work out some way for the card to provide a benefit to the Soviets in Europe without being tied to a specific country. Nasser could be redone as Arab Nationalists. And so forth.

This would restore some unpredictability without totally deviating from the Cold War history, since the historical events would still be incorporated. And it would also take some of the pressure off hand management, since a lot of that pressure comes from the specificity of the events. (If you wanted to relieve the hand management pressure a little more, you could move some of the 1 OP cards up to 2 OP.)

I’m not saying this would radically transform TS, but then, that’s because TS is so good it doesn’t need to be transformed. Think of this more as a “bump” that would remove my last qualms about using the M-word in connection with this game.

In addition to these two serious problems, I have one quibble. It just feels wrong that so much of the board, especially in Europe, goes unused. I mean, it’s just too expensive to take control of Sweden or Norway or Canada (which cost 4 OP each!) or Bulgaria or Hungary. So those countries are rarely or never involved. Same goes for lots of countries elsewhere on the map, like Morocco or Gulf States or Honduras. The actual history of the Cold War involved much more widespread struggle for influence. It seems to me you could tweak the game to let both sides spread more influence around, through some combination of making it easier to place influence in these less important countries and/or providing some reward for controlling them.

But as I said, that’s a quibble. This game is an amazing accomplishment and I’m sure I’ll keep coming back for more. It is / is not a masterpiece (circle one of your choice), but whether you agree with that assessment or not, you have to admit that it’s both a great game and a bold advance for gaming. Kudos.
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Wade Broadhead
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Great review. Havent played, but I am dying to get a game in. I've been playing Wilderness War and marveling at the amazing card system that allows for great flexability and great theme true to the period. I usually have problems with scripted games, although I don't mind some of it in WW because the changing decks shift focus.

I can't believe nobody has done an non historical/abstract card driven game yet. It could be set it a fictional world, and a map could offer far more tactical choices than the WW or We the People Map. You could create an alternative historical timeline, or the players could create it by their card play. I love lots of options in a game along with a big map for continued replay and land for strategic planning. The market must be out there for some type of blank-world, card driven game. Just like what your saying about a card driven Euro, that gives great mechanics for all sorts of new games, situations, and "worlds".
 
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Lev Mishkin
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Yes i think too it is a great game but no a masterpiece.
And i have a question about cards Why Five years plane is U.S card, but Duck and Cover isn´t a Soviet Card?
Lev
 
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Bruce
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>

I agree with you on both points. Unfortunately, for me, the problems were enough to keep me from really enjoying the game. I think it's a great concept, but I'm currently in the minority of nay-sayers on this one. However, I've only played it one and one-half times, so it's probably a bit unfair to pan it at this point. I will be giving it another go on Cyberboard with my buddy Todd this week, so we'll see how it goes.
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Jason Matthews
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Lev,

Our view is that FIVE YEAR PLANS actually hurt the Soviet economy and provided much of the economic inefficiency and dislocation that hampered Soviet economic success. This is not to minimize the Soviet Union's accomplishments, because there were many. But, centralized economic planning just did not work.

DUCK AND COVER is kind of a tongue-in-cheek card that refers to US Civil Defense efforts. The theory goes, if your country could survive a nuclear exchange, they would have the upper hand in a crisis that might result in a nuclear war. Of course, these efforts were largely laughable, and in fairness, the Soviet Union had a more robust civil defense effort than the United States. That said, "Duck and Cover" is such a Cold War icon immediately recognizable to Americans, so to slide in the reference, we made it an American card. Otherwise, we would have had to do a generic "both" card called Civil Defense or something else equally bland.

Jason
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Alexander B.
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Nice review!

I was curious about this game, but reading this has helped me to avoid it.

I really hate games that have an illusion of choice when there is little choice: this is fine for making people feel brilliant when they aren't, but is a deadly blow to any game for me.

Thanks again!
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Greg Denysenko

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No, No, No!

You do have choice, do not be fooled. Event management and avoiding some events is part of the game. You can hold cards from turn to turn, you can discard cards with play of other cards or the space track and you can even play a card that will help your opponent BEFORE he can use it. Sure, it may come back to his hand, maybe. But no guarantees.

No, YOU NEED TO BUY AND PLAY THIS GAME!! There is choice, there is strategy, IT IS FANTASTIC!!! 'nuff said.
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Per Fischer
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Great article.

I have only played it a handfuld of times, but so far TS has blown me away. I stopped playing hex-counter war games for a looong time, then discovered Euros until stumbling upon TS entirely by mistake.

I think it's a masterpiece, for many reasons, but the theme of the game and the way it's handled in the mechanics means a lot to me - I have a degree in history and was born in 1963. I lived with the Cold War and saw it fade away first hand - travelled through East Berlin the exact day when the East German currency was abandoned.

I don't find TS more predictable than say, chess. In TS you know that the struggle starts in Europe and moves on to other areas. In chess, the opening is a struggle about the four center squares d4, e4, d5, e5, directly or indirectly. Certain opening moves tend to end (much later) in the same thematic end games. In both TS and chess this is not really the issue. Can you play the game and adapt to the situation is.

You know that Fidel is in there somewhere in the early war - but who has the card? And if US has it, can it be 'burned' in the space race? If USSR plays it early, does US go a coup attempts instantly or counter attack in south-east Asia?

There are choices in TS, loads and loads of choices, and as in other Card-drivens (OK, I only played PoG so far) you have to make choices all the time. I don't know if TS is the first CDG where players share the decks, but this is a brilliant brilliant feature. Sometimes you are forced to play cards that hurt yourself as hell in order to advance your own schemes - and sometimes you are you just plain forced to bite the bullet.

BTW, what are those games you mention that have been self-published or independently developed? Do you have links?

Per
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Fabio Henrique
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Greg Forster wrote:

In addition to these two serious problems, I have one quibble. It just feels wrong that so much of the board, especially in Europe, goes unused. I mean, it’s just too expensive to take control of Sweden or Norway or Canada (which cost 4 OP each!) or Bulgaria or Hungary. So those countries are rarely or never involved. Same goes for lots of countries elsewhere on the map, like Morocco or Gulf States or Honduras. The actual history of the Cold War involved much more widespread struggle for influence. It seems to me you could tweak the game to let both sides spread more influence around, through some combination of making it easier to place influence in these less important countries and/or providing some reward for controlling them.

I said this here http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/136757

But, how you said, the game is amazing!
 
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Karl Kleve
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I've just bought this game and played it once with a friend. Being a historian with the parts of the Cold War as speciality, this game was a must-have. And I'm not disappointed. I agree with Greg that it is a great game, and maybe a masterpiece. First time I was in serious deep waters. It seems to have just the right amount of challenges to make it enjoyable for a very long time. And the Theme! I need some theme to make me interested in the game. And here I could really play the part. I need to play it more to decide, but the two negatives Greg mentions might be something to keep in mind. But if it gets to be a problem, it should be easily fixed. Abdication: Agree with Greg. Do the same as with Independent Reds: make it count for your choice of Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria og Greece (all countries with forced abdications followed by possible Red takeovers). Nasser could be Arab Nationalist in your choice of Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran etc. (I'm no Mideast specialist, but somebody could probably say which countries had strong Arab Nationalist parties and personalities). I don't rightly know how to make more parts of the globe involved. Countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark should be more involved, as they were important battlegrounds and the Cold War was the main factor overshadowing and influencing everything in these countries. There was a precarious situation called Nordic Balance established, which required all the Nordic countries to dance to a common and complicated tune with serious potential for disaster. Both the Soviet and US military presence was huge. Norway alone had up to 1.500 interceptions of Soviet war planes each year in the 70s and 80s. There were several shoot-downs and other events.
Maybe we could develop more variants and optional rules. The possibilities seem endless. And this is also a great thing with this game. It is extremely stimulating.
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Greg Forster
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Alexander:

I'm glad you found the review helpful. But tell me, why do you have a microbadge called "I love all games"?


Per: Your chess analogy is a good one, but the question is, should a game that recreates history be as predictable as chess?

I only referred to one self-published game. It's called Free at Last and it's listed here on Board Game Geek.


Fabio:

Yes, I had seen that thread. The same complaint has also been made by others. In fact, this isn't even the first time I've brought it up myself. No claim of originality was expressed or implied in this review!


Karl:

What if Nasser became Arab Nationalists and were playable on any of the countries you mention (except Iran, because Iran is Persian, not Arab), and then the card Sadat Expells Soviets became Arab Nationalists Expell Soviets, and it were playable on the same country in which you originally played Arab Nationalists?

Here's another example of a card that could be providing more historical leverage than it currently is. The card Reagan Bombs Libya bothers me because it's no good if the US controls Libya and the USSR has ended up with its influence somewhere else in the region. You could rename the card Reagan Puts Dictator "Back in His Box" and have it say something like the USSR player must choose to either remove all influence from a Mideast battleground of his choice or give the US player 2 VP.
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Alexander B.
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Greg Forster wrote:
Alexander:

I'm glad you found the review helpful. But tell me, why do you have a microbadge called "I love all games"?

...

I love all CLASSES of games, not all specific games. That is what the icon means: it is a meeple in a wargame hex. The original design tried to also include Ameritrash, but there was no room (some say the heart represents AT). My top 10 include Euro, wargame, and AT(and I have a CCG, light, heavy, classics, etc. in my top 20)..

Within each class, I then have a preference range like everyone else

No idea if this game is any class of game at all, but I do tend to dislike this "new" card-based wargame mechanic. I certainly do not like all game mechanics!

All that said, I'd probably rather play even a game where there is little choice than do most other things in life (a few certain exceptions), so if love is relative, perhaps I do love all games.
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Matthew Webster
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I don't own the game and I have never played it but am seriously considering acquiring it. All historical games need to make the trade-off between being accurate and being interesting. At the one extreme you simply replay history just like a textbook while at the other you have the Hollywood blockbuster where much is sacrificed in the name of entertainment!

Any truly historical game must allow what actually happened to happen again but this should always be one of hundreds or thousands of possible outcomes to ensure re-playability. Twilight Struggle handles this by allowing the timing of certain events to change or in fact not happen at all e.g. burying events in the Space Race. This could be augmented by randomly removing a certain number of cards from the deck (like experienced players do with Memoir '44) before play.

What TS does not do however is to include events that could have happened but didn't. An example of this approach is Crusader Rex. Frederick Barbarossa died on his way to the 3rd Crusade and his army did not make a significant contribution to the war. If this unlucky event hadn't occurred the outcome of the crusade could have been quite different. The game allows for both possibilities.
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John Di Ponio
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I wasn't going to buy the game until I finally played it late last year. I liked the depth and the fun factor it provided for me! For what the game is suppose to be, it works for me so I decided to purchase a copy and luckily, I jumped in as GMT was re-releasing it!
Is it a Masterpiece? At this point, it is not of that stature for me. I do consider it to be a very good game...but not a masterpiece. I guess it would take me 10+ plays to figure that out better. A masterpiece to me will not be a masterpeice for lets say a Eurogamer or minature gamer.
 
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Nice review, Greg. Thanks.

I've wanted to buy this game for a long time, now. The Cold War theme combined with Hannibal-like card management seemed like a perfect fit for me. But its time-to-play put me off.

I bit the bullet and ordered the game.

My final justification was that it will teach my 8-year-old recent history (at which he's new) and geography (at which he excels) in a gaming (fun, strategic, tactical) way. I know the game is a bit old for him at the moment, but I think he'll catch on pretty quick.
 
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Steve Bernhardt
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I disagree dont think the problems you mention are really problems with the game. I like the fact that events aren't generic, personally. Minor differences of opinion, to be sure. Good, thoughtful review, do more of them
 
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Steve Hope
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I think a masterpiece has to have less rough edges than TS has. But maybe that's because I tend to think of a masterpiece as being something that shows an extreme level of accomplishment and craft. So a piece of art with a lot of inspiration and good ideas (TS) doesn't necessarily qualify while a less INTERESTING game that has no rules ambiguities, edge cases, etc., might.
 
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Mark Gray
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Not sure whether I would call this a masterpiece or not, but I really don't believe that it matters. The discussion may be interesting, but the important thing for me is that my 18 year old son and I set it up on a card table, play it over the weekend and have a ball. We both prefer Hannibal, but the history he has learned about the cold war, and the new experience each game brings has made this one of our favorites.
 
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Paul Vaughan
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Interesting point about TS using events to be more "history-driven". Has anyone noticed the similarity with "Britannia" here? Sure, the latter achieves a realistic historical train-of-events by a completely different mechanism which many find off-putting, as it forces given strategies on people in a much more ham-fisted way, but in concept its very close.
 
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E J
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JasonMatthews wrote:
This is not to minimize the Soviet Union's accomplishments, because there were many.

shake



 
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Marcelo Trein
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Sarge77 wrote:
JasonMatthews wrote:
This is not to minimize the Soviet Union's accomplishments, because there were many.

shake




Matthews is right.

Great review, by the way. I agree with your point of view on the two "flaws", although I wouldn't exactly call them "flaws". Masterpiece or not, this is fun².
 
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Richard Young
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Greg wrote:
Quote:
With TS, the designers are basically asking “Why limit that to war-fighting? Why not use this history-driven game mechanic to make a game that recreates a historical struggle other than a shooting war?” It strikes me that this opens up a whole new world of possible games.

It strikes me that when Mark Herman introduced what are now referred to as Card Driven Games (CDG) with his ground breaking We The People, he did exactly what you seem to just now have discovered in TS.

Struggles between nations, or within nations, is hardly ever simply about moving military units around. Grand Strategy involves using all the resources available to the state to achieve its ends: diplomatic, economic and military. War games (as we used to understand them) typically were set at the tactical or operational level and focussed on campaign planning and execution with the strategic backdrop as a "given." Thus the game focus was on replaying a single battle or series of battles and mostly involved pushing military units about a map and resolving battles. CDGs typically operate on a higher plane, which I would argue they all do - not just TS. The mix of diplomacy, economics and military pressure happens to be more balanced in this game than those that are based on historical periods where military action is more the focus. Nevertheless, all the tools have been there all along.

The CD engine gave game designers the ability to make the game player think above the operational level, possibly even without them realizing that's what is happening. The most basic decision in any CDG is what to use a card for: event or ops. In most cases, choosing the event creates a result that reflects actions that take place at the national level, far above the level of a military commander, whereas ops are strictly military - but you have to decide which is more important with the play of each card. A well designed CDG (admittedly they are not all equally well done) makes every decision point a delicious agony. It is not always obvious which is the better use of each of your cards and the semi-random card mix also adds to the suspense (and from a game design standpoint also preserves replayablity).

All CDGs share this characteristic and the CDG engine was a simple, elegant and in my opinion brilliant innovation in game design! TS simply is the latest incarnation, and shows off what a CDG can do when thoughtfully employed.

The nature of the Cold War put diplomatic and economic factors more to the fore because all-out military confrontation between the super powers could too easily escalate to the unthinkable. Military activity, proxy wars and covert skirmishes all took place but the true struggle was on a much higher level - and the game accurately reflects the period while being a good "game" at the same time. "Masterpiece" or not, TS is a worthy addition to a wonderfully rich strategy game genre. Long live the CDG!
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