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Pierre Miranda
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Check this link for the full illustrated review with links, etc.:

http://www.bloglines.com/blog/lepiotr?id=2

---------------------------------

Introduction

Twilight Struggle (TS) is an increasingly popular card-based boardgame about the Cold War recently published by GMT Games.

Is its exceptional rating on the BoardGameGeek web page deserved? Read on to find out...

Look & Feel
Box art is unimpressive at best:



Illustration: Some might even say the box is ugly. However, this shouldn't stop you from opening it and discovering a real gem in terms of gameplay.



Luckily, the board, cards and counters are much better, even though a bit too conventional:



Illustration: What are those radioactive warning counters for? Don't be fooled: you won't get to nuke your opponent here. If you do, the game ends in a well-deserved mutual defeat.





Illustration: the cards are OK, but they lack some colour. The VASSAL module designed for the game does a much better job, with gorgeous cards.

All in all, the material is a bit disappointing, but it's far from being a show-stopper.

Gameplay
The rulebook is quite polished, easy to understand and includes good examples. The game's complexity, however, lies mostly in its various cards. A game session lasts about an afternoon.

Your goal is to accumulate victory points (VP). This is mostly done by controling regions. For instance, when the Europe scoring card is played, you score 7 VPs if you dominate Europe.

Your control in each region can range from none, presence, domination, and finally to control, depending on the number and type of countries you control. Basically, you strive to control more countries in the region than your opponent.

Each country is rated for its stability, which is also the number of influence points you need in the country to control it. The influence struggle between the East and the West will likely focus on key countries labelled as battleground countries, which provide greater benefits to the controller than normal countries.

Cards provide operation points (OP) which can be used in one of these ways:

Increase influence:
note that you must already have influence in the country or an adjacent country in order to place influence there
Attempt a coup d'Etat:
the greater a country's stability, the harder it becomes. Staging a coup in Great Britain (stability 5) is pointless, while doing so in, say, Lebanon (stability 1) is quite profitable.
Realignment:
this means decreasing enemy influence in a country, which is made easier if the neighbouring countries are friendly to your superpower
Cards can otherwise be played as an event. There are too many events to describe, but to give you an idea, Nasser's arrival to power in Egypt, the Korean War and Margaret Thatcher (a.k.a. The Iron Lady) are all events, some favoring the Soviets, others the US.

If you play an opponent's event, it does (unfortunately for you) take place but at least you get to use its OP value. This is a key game mechanic: you want to minimize the opponent's events you play. The problem is that you cannot simply hold a card: you must play it, even if it's an opponent's event. This is where the Space Race comes in...

The Space Race basically allows you to get rid of 1 enemy event / turn. You play the event on the space race track and the card is simply discarded instead of being activated. In addition, you roll the dice to see how your space program is doing and if you get lucky you'll get some special bonus (score victory points, special abilities, etc.).

Another important mechanism is the DEFCON status. The game starts at DEFCON 5 (peace) and gradually degrades up until DEFCON 1 due to events and coup d'Etat, which means nuclear war! Basically, when you've reached DEFCON 2, you stop from increasing tensions because the one who triggers nuclear war loses the game.

As DEFCON drops, coup d'Etat and realignment becomes forbidden in some regions (the superpowers refrain from being to aggressive in key regions when tension runs high).

Finally, you score military operations each time you stage a coup in a battleground country or trigger a war. You must meet a number of military operations each turn equal to the DEFCON level. At DEFCON 5 (peace), your generals and public opinion are itching for action and you must try to reach 5 military ops in order not to lose VPs. At DEFCON 2, on the brink of nuclear war, a mere 2 military ops will suffice, as people around you tend to have a more cautious approach...

I found these game mechanics to be easy to understand but hard to master. You can follow very different strategies to win the game, but your main concern is to adapt your style to your card hand. Finding out good card combinations also plays an important role: combining the OPEC event with cards focusing on the Middle-East, for instance, can grant you a lot of victory points.

The luck factor is present, but far from critical.

What I find fascinating about TS is how realistic it is, despite its abstractness: Military operations are more a question of prestige than anything else and play a secondary role. The real fight is one about political influence and winning hearts and minds, and all aspects are taken account of, in a simple and effective way.

I have played many card-based games, and I must say this one clearly rates as one of my favourites, being very subtle yet not overly complex. However, it might not be the best suited game for inexperienced players, which may feel a bit overwhelmed by the great latitude of action (should I play my card as an event, influence, coup d'Etat, realignement or space race?).

Another point worth noting is the lack of decent competition on the subject. Games on the cold war are few and far between, and none that I know can compete with TS.

Replay Value
The many different cards and the many ways you can play them lead to a great variety of strategies. In the end, no game ever plays the same. As such, I would rate replay value as high.

Balance
I lack experience to really judge play balance, but it looks to be OK. The Soviet tends to have an initial advantage, while the US gets very powerful cards during the late war period.

Internet Play
TS can be played (for free) both on VASSAL (real-time or by email) and Cyberboard (by email only). Both of these freeware are excellent.

The VASSAL module is really superb, with improved artwork over the original. It also shines with its many automatic features. The only downside is its slowness. Cyberboard clearly has the edge on this last aspect.

Alternatives
I have yet to find a game which compares to TS. For other quality card-based games, you might want to check GMT Games.

Pros
Outstanding game mechanics
Complexity level just right
Cool period
Ability to play online
Reasonable playing time
Cons
Not for beginners
Not for players who are more interested in the military aspect of the era
Only playable by 2 players (but there were only 2 superpowers, after all...)
No way to nuke your opponent without losing!
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Kevin Thatcher
United States
Lake Forest
Illinois
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Those interested in another Internet play option should check out www.wargameroom.com. Excellent program that enforces all of the rules.
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James Hemsley
Italy
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Great review and blog!
 
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Zack Boatman
United States
Tesuque
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Quote:
The luck factor is present, but far from critical

I think the luck factor is quite critical as it is a card driven game.
 
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David
New Zealand
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pmiranda wrote:
What are those radioactive warning counters for? Don't be fooled: you won't get to nuke your opponent here. If you do, the game ends in a well-deserved mutual defeat.

They can be used to mark areas that are 'blocked' by the current Defcon status.

If nuclear war happens on your turn, it's not a mutual defeat at all - you lose and your opponent, err, wins! (Although arguably the only way to win that game is to not play at all...)

 
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Bill H
United States
Absecon
New Jersey
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"Shijuro" in Awatum (Serpent's Tongue)
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"A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation." LP Jacks
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meowsqueak wrote:
pmiranda wrote:
What are those radioactive warning counters for? Don't be fooled: you won't get to nuke your opponent here. If you do, the game ends in a well-deserved mutual defeat.

They can be used to mark areas that are 'blocked' by the current Defcon status.

If nuclear war happens on your turn, it's not a mutual defeat at all - you lose and your opponent, err, wins! (Although arguably the only way to win that game is to not play at all...)
This is the one part of Twilight Struggle that I don't like.shake

This game reminds me of the old Chris Crawford computer game "Balance of Power", where the player was one of the two superpowers spreading influence, causing coups, etc. around the world. In it and it's sequel/updating BoP II, DefCon 1 meant that both players immediately lose. No sexy explosion graphics, just a line of text saying that everyone lost. When it happened, it was all the more chilling.
 
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Allen Doum
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Shijuro wrote:
When it happened, it was all the more chilling.
If you put that in a game, especially if it going to be played in tournaments, it will just mean the a player who is losing would be motivated to end the game in a "mutual loss", AKA a draw.

To recreate the feeling you want, you could always bet a dollar, and if the game ended, burn both bills. cool
 
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Bill H
United States
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"Shijuro" in Awatum (Serpent's Tongue)
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"A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation." LP Jacks
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I understand that aspect and wouldn't mind an exception for tournaments (hey, disqualify the player responsible for a Global Thermonuclear War!). I wouldn't think that tricking the opponent into DefCon 1 (the player who is penalized is the active player at the time, so it is possible to do this to the opponent) should be an acceptable strategy for tournament play either. Mutual Assured Destruction is exactly that.

I still don't like the rule for casual play. I'm just sayin'.

Btw, according to Wikipedia, the text that abruptly ended a DefCon 1 Balance of Power game was:
Quote:
You have ignited a nuclear war. And no, there is no animated display or a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure.
 
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Glen Cote
United States
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Kevin Lee Thatcher wrote:
Those interested in another Internet play option should check out www.wargameroom.com. Excellent program that enforces all of the rules.

Another way to play over the Internet is with the Automated Card Tracking System (ACTS) at http://acts.warhorsesim.com/index.asp - a great way to play via email
 
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