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Subject: Twilight Struggle - A Design Gem rss

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Matt Thrower
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This is the latest in my series of "design gem" reviews where I highlight my favourite games. Twilight Struggle is an attempted simulation of the cold war between the US and thye USSR (duh!) published by famed wargames publisher GMT games. Which is kind of odd, really since whether or not TS is a wargame is a moot point, as you’ll discover in the following review. It follows an adaptation of the card-drive wargames system as employed by a number of other famed titles such as Paths of Glory and Hannibal. Which brings us nicely on to …

Rules

As always in my reviews I encourage anyone who’s interested in the game to download a copy of the rules (freely available here on the geek) rather than relying on a shaky and incomplete rules summary. However, I do think it’s valuable to summarise roughly how the card driven system works.

The basic system of play is gaining influence in a country. If the amount of influence you have exceeds that of your opponents by the “stability number” of the country then you control it and it becomes more difficult for your opponent to overturn that control. Some countries are designated as battleground countries where control is particularly important. Regions (Europe, Africa etc) are “scored” when a scoring card is played – at this point the countries controlled by each player in the region are compared and the most powerful player will score some victory points. Players must also watch the DEFCON level, which degrades when military action is taken in battleground countries – if DEFCON drops to 1, the active player automatically looses! The game can also end early if one player makes it to 20 victory points.

The game spans ten turns, and each turn players are dealt a hand of cards. The cards each have an event on them, which is associated with the US, USSR or both, and a numerical operations value. Each round the players take turns playing a card which they may play either for its ops value or, if the event is associated with the side playing the card, the event. Ops can be used directly to add influence to countries, or to reduce your opponents’ influence (realignment rolls) or to try and do both at once through a coup, or to try and get a technological edge in the space race. The latter three are all played out through use of a dice roll. Events usually also change influence in specific countries but can also change other factors like victory points, the cards in your or your opponents hand and so on. In a neat twist to the usual card system if you play an event associated with an opponent the event happens anyway, but you still get the operations value from the card. Coups are the nearest thing you get to combat in this game and they're abstracted down to the level of a single dice roll, which is why this can't be classified as your average wargame. But I think this mechanic suits the fact that this is above even operational level - this is a global simulation.

The events are really the key to this whole system. A few are generic events that can keep happening (“east European unrest” for example) but the majority depict specific events that happened during the cold war (Fidel Castro coming to power in Cuba) – these are marked with a * and are removed from the game once played. Thanks to this system, and the excellent historical notes included in the rules, the players can quickly gain a real feeling for the history behind the cold war in a much more direct and engaging fashion than that provided by more traditional war game systems like hex-and-counter.

The actual game rules span a mere 8 pages and are simple and intuitive. There’s a couple of “gotchas” (the rules for free coups from events for example) but you should have these down by the end of your first game. What’s not so clear from the rules is that knowledge of the 100+ event cards in the game is essential to good play. The events are often complex and can affect a bewildering array of specific countries (one card can have effects in several unconnected countries in eastern Europe) and it takes quite a lot of time to learn what the various events do and plan around whether or not they’ve been played accordingly. So the game is not as simple as it first appears – this is not something you can just drop in to for casual play.

Game Play Problems

There are a few issues with Twilight Struggle. Firstly the game obviously has some random mechanics – the cards you get dealt are crucial and there’s dice involved in sorting out some of the operations. This might put some people off. There are moments when it can be an absolute killer though – the deck is usually reshuffled at the end of turn 2, and if a scoring card reappears for a region where one player has a huge advantage this can totally throw the game.

You should also be aware that there is a perceived bias toward the USSR player in the game. The level of this bias is a point of hot debate amongst fans of the game but it’s undeniable that the soviets have the advantage in the early game and this can lead to the game ending before the US can pull back in the mid-late game. It’s also generally accepted that the US requires more skilled and careful play to win than the USSR who can kind of blunder through with a few powerful event cards. If you feel this is a problem then it can be ameliorated by granting the US a couple of extra victory points at the start of the game – the suggested setup for tournament play has the players bidding an amount of US VPs for the right to play the USSR.

Game Play Brilliance

You might be wondering why I chose to outline the problems with the game before I talked about where the design succeeds. There’s a simple answer – I wanted to get them out of the way so I could tell you that in my opinion, whatever you might think of the potential issues with the design should be set aside in light of the fact that this is once of the most intense, exciting and strategically engaging games I’ve ever played.

The game works on a whole number of levels. In the first instance you’ve got a careful job of hand management. Almost inevitably some of the cards you’ve got will impact on other cards (you might have events in Europe alongside Europe scoring) so you need to plan carefully when to play each card. You’ll also undoubtedly have some of your opponents events you’d really rather not have happen and then you’re left with the question of whether you’re better off playing them to get them out of the way or whether it’s really too catastrophic in which case you can play one per turn on the space race where no events happen – but the card can then reappear to haunt you later in the game – and there’s the question of which card to blast in to space as well. Do you play your own events as events or as operations? You can usually carry one card over to the next round – which will you choose? The questions you’ll be asking as you sort through your hand are endless and even a bad hand full of your opponents events leads to all sorts of decisions about disaster management. Then you’ve got the tension of riding out the turn to see whether your opponents’ plays require you to rethink your carefully planned turn.

The decision making in hand management alone would be enough to make this a serviceable game. But there’s a whole other dimension when you play a card for operations as to what you’re going to do with those points. There are never, ever enough for you to be able to do everything you need to do in a turn so you need to prioritise, and you better get it right because if your opponents gets control of certain countries before you then you can be locked out of whole regions of the game! You can’t just place influence though – if you don’t play a coup each round you’re penalised victory points and you mustn’t forget the space race either and trying a realignment roll is always a tempting possibility. But in each case you’ve got to balance taking the risk of invoking the dice against the certainty of placing influence points. Personally I’m entirely comfortable with the level of randomness involved – it adds a great deal of excitement and anticipation to the game and rarely seems to overcome experience or skilled play.

Thanks to the events there’s also a variety of creative ways you can use the cards to get ahead. If DEFCON is at 2 it’s possible to use certain cards to try and force your opponent into starting a nuclear war, thus losing the game. There are times when it’s actually advantageous to you to allow an opposing event to go off because it improves board situation for you overall.

Conclusion

I’m a multiplayer games man. I like the chaos that having multiple opponents brings to the table, I enjoy the chance to negotiate or even just chat about the game as we play. I thought two player games were okay but I’d never come across one that I’d split up a bigger group just to get the chance to play. Until I played Twilight Struggle that is, a two-player game that kicks many of my multiplayer favourites in the teeth, hard.

This is a game that has the potential to satisfy everyone. There’s the careful and non-random placing of influence to satisfy the analysis freaks. If you’re an adrenaline junkie then there’s lots of dice to roll and the anticipation of a new hand of cards each turn. There’s creative strategy to engage the wargame fans amongst you. Really, unless you have big, big problems accepting random factors or hidden information in a game then you’re probably going to like this a lot.

My final rating? The full ten - and I don’t give out tens lightly. This is the best new game I’ve played in several years and you should play it too. If you’re not convinced head on over to http://acts.warhorsesim.com/ get yourself an account and I’ll give you a game – I’m always looking for more plays. You’ll soon see the light, even if it’s the baleful light of the mushroom cloud.

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Diz Hooper
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Great review!

 
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Steven Johnson
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In the Design Notes, it states that specific assumptions that were current during the Cold War are operative in the game.

One of those assumptions is the "domino theory". The Notes assume that this in outmoded or discredited concept. However, has this concept really been discredited? Or is it an example of being PC more important that being accurate? Note how this is working in South America today.

This game could be redesigned to cover the economic/military situation between China and the USA today. Has Russia taken over China's COld War role as the loose cannon?
 
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Philip Thomas
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steven, I have given some thought to a modern sequel. However, portraying the modenr world as a 2 way contest between China and US, with the "Russia Card" would feel a bit odd. I would think a more multiplayer approach with spaces for the EU, radical Islam and maybe even Russia would be closer to reality, although possibly more difficult to design a workable game for.
 
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Jason Matthews
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Quote:
In the Design Notes, it states that specific assumptions that were current during the Cold War are operative in the game.

One of those assumptions is the "domino theory". The Notes assume that this in outmoded or discredited concept. However, has this concept really been discredited? Or is it an example of being PC more important that being accurate? Note how this is working in South America today.


Oh yes, the domino theory is discredited. It wasn't fully accepted even at the time, but made for the kind of simple analogy that works well in politics.

The grand problem with the domino theory is that it relates to geography. Geographic proximity (to an ideology in this case) is a factor in societal choice, but not determinantive. Geography can help the spred of ideas, but a society must be receptive to the idea in the first place. If geography is destiny, how is Cuba a communist state -- even today -- while surrounded by liberal economies? On the other end of the spectrum, if the domino theory were really true, Thailand Malaysia and the rest of SE Asia would have fallen.

Taking things a little closer to home, when Canada elects a liberal prime minister, does the United States flip to the Democratic party? What about the reverse? What about Mexico?

Sometimes there is an interrelationship. If we have a problem, we might look to Canada to see what they are doing, and the answer to that question might have political/ideological ramifications. But, on the other hand, we might look across the border and decide their experience and circumstance has nothing to do with our own. So it was with Indo-China vs. Thailand. Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam all came from an intense and bitter colonial struggle that made them ripe for the anti-capitalist, anti-western message of Communism. Thailand (Siam) remained an independent kingdom throughout the Age of Imperialism. So, communism just did not take in the same way.

You obliquely refer to the situation with Chavez and the socialist rhetoric emanating from recent South American elections. That's not the domino theory at work. That's good-ole anti-Americanism down south of the border. Its about as old as the Republic and flares up periodically. I might mention that we do occasionally egg it on.
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Nick McElveen
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Quote:
Oh yes, the domino theory is discredited. It wasn't fully accepted even at the time, but made for the kind of simple analogy that works well in politics.

The grand problem with the domino theory is that it relates to geography. Geographic proximity (to an ideology in this case) is a factor in societal choice, but not determinantive. Geography can help the spred of ideas, but a society must be receptive to the idea in the first place. If geography is destiny, how is Cuba a communist state -- even today -- while surrounded by liberal economies? On the other end of the spectrum, if the domino theory were really true, Thailand Malaysia and the rest of SE Asia would have fallen.


I largely agree, but the domino theory had to do with more than the competition of ideas innocently spreading freely based on their merits. It also featured cross-border subversion and insurgency, and choices weren't always 'societal'.

You brought up Cuba. The Cubans did work to actively spread Communism throughout the hemisphere with resources, troops, and training. They failed for the most part, but it was in reaction to Cuban ideas and Cuban-inspired guerrilla movements that much of Latin America turned to military government at approximately the same time. That spread of military government was very much a domino action. Militaries were inspired by neighboring militaries and reacting to the larger Cold War.
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marc lecours
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Jason,

your example of Cuba is poorly chosen. In real life communism did not arrive in Cuba from a neighboring communist country by domino effect. But in your game it rarely does either. Communism parachutes into Cuba by the play of the Fidel card.

I live in Canada, and I know that the USA barely notices our politics. I can safely say that the party in power in Canada has never influenced the results of an american election.

As to the reverse it is hard to say. Some of the republicans that get elected in the United States do not seem so great viewed from the north and may influence canadians into voting for more left wing parties. On the other hand there is an influence anyways. In the 60s and 70s canadian parties (both conservative and liberals) moved to the left as their US counterparts did. During the 80s and 90s our parties moved to the right as did their US counterparts. Coincidence?.... I think not!

IS not the rise of Thatcher and Reagan at the same time a sign of influence.

The following is an observation that just popped into my head but barely relates to the subject at hand. I live in Ontario Canada. Ontario has a long tradition of electing a different party at the provincial and national level. Probably to balance things out. We don't conciously do it. It just happens. It is not 100% of the time but often enough not to be a coincidence.

have a nice day.
 
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Matt
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I read somewhere that because of the US's intense involvement in Vietnam, the Soviet Union ceased its efforts to spread its ideology in SE Asia. The Soviets felt it would have been too costly to continue. The domino theory was believed to be real and possibly would have toppled a few countries in that region had the US not been there.

Sure, we left because of the anti-war movement at home and, in a sense, we lost the war, but in the larger picture, communism didn't spread any further in SE Asia. The Soviet Union would have continued to support communist movements with people, propaganda and money if the US didn't put up a fight. Supposedly, all this was mentioned in recently declassified documents from the former Soviet Union.
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marc lecours
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i have even heard it said that the USA was not entirely displeased to leave a pro Soviet Union Vietnam on the southern border of the anti Soviet Union China. As long as there was no possibility of communism spreading to Thailand and Indonesia having a heavily armed Vietnam to watch China was not completely bad especially if it made for some friction between USSR and China.
 
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Philip Thomas
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Well, there was also the failure of the communists in Malaysia, due to sucessful British counter-insurgency tactics.

As for the advantages of a Communist Vietnam, these only became apparent to the US once it had already lost the war. Not on the ground, but in public opiniom back home.

A good example of Dominoes falling is in Southern Africa. The collapse of the Portuguese Empire meant guerillas in Zimbabwe had bases to work from, which led to the collapse of the white settler regime there. This in turn fed into South Africa leading to the abandonment of Namibia and the collapse of Apartheid. Of course, there were other factors at work, but geogpraphy played a signficant role.
 
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Jason Matthews
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Marc LeCours wrote:

Quote:
your example of Cuba is poorly chosen. In real life communism did not arrive in Cuba from a neighboring communist country by domino effect. But in your game it rarely does either. Communism parachutes into Cuba by the play of the Fidel card


Marc, I am afraid you missed the point of my Cuba reference entirely. Communism did "parachute" in to Cuba. But if you believe in the domino theory, it should have collapsed. Cuba became communist despite its neighbors and has remained communist even though the 99% of the world (and all of its neighbors) abandoned communism. So obviously, geography CANNOT be determinative in government choice -- AGAIN, I do not deny that its a factor. But no one in the field of political science -- and not many even then -- believe that countries fall like dominoes.

Quote:
In the 60s and 70s canadian parties (both conservative and liberals) moved to the left as their US counterparts did. During the 80s and 90s our parties moved to the right as did their US counterparts. Coincidence?.... I think not!


No, this is not a coincidence. But, it does not have very much to do with geography either. Countries that share ideology, democratic systems and common objectives are very likely to influence each other. Twilight Struggle notwithstanding, Japan is not in physical proximity to the United States or Canada, but the same trend that you note in terms of left ward drift followed by conservative governments can also be found in Japanese politics during the same period.
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Jason Matthews
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Philip Thomas wrote:
Well, there was also the failure of the communists in Malaysia, due to sucessful British counter-insurgency tactics.

As for the advantages of a Communist Vietnam, these only became apparent to the US once it had already lost the war. Not on the ground, but in public opiniom back home.

A good example of Dominoes falling is in Southern Africa. The collapse of the Portuguese Empire meant guerillas in Zimbabwe had bases to work from, which led to the collapse of the white settler regime there. This in turn fed into South Africa leading to the abandonment of Namibia and the collapse of Apartheid. Of course, there were other factors at work, but geogpraphy played a signficant role.


An interesting example Philip. Two things are play there -- one is anti colonialism. I do think geography played an important role, in that if a neighboring colony just won freedom, a colonial citizen would wonder what was wrong with them. But that said, anti-colonialism was also bigger than geography. It stretched everywhere in the world that felt the yolk of the European imperial presence. So it was not contained by geography either. When India went, I believe the rest was an inevitability. It would not matter that India and Kenya were seperated by thousands of miles of ocean, Kenyans would insist on their independence too.

Secondly, the Portugese collapse also left a power vaccum on either side of southern Africa. It was only natural that leftist insurgents filled the void. But note, Mozambique and Angola are not physically connected. The leftist regimes developed "organically", but were grown in similarly fertile soil planted by the maladministration of the Portugese.

A regional power vacuum can lead to all sorts of unpleasant behavior and sometimes it follows the popular pattern of the time. Look at the collapse of Yugoslavia as a national entity and the seeming attraction of ethnic cleansing not just by Serbs, but also Croats. I suppose in a way, that's some form of genocidal dominoes.
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Philip Thomas
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yes, I wasn't saying the original Angolan and Mozambique collapses were due to the domino effect. They were the 'push' that started the dominos falling, as it were. Of course there was a lot of other stuff going on.

 
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Jur dj
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Jason has a good point that the Twilight Struggle hammers the postwar period down to a US-USSR struggle. Decolonisation certainly played a role. The fall of French Indochina (originally a nationalist movement) led to a revolt in Algeria rather than neighbouring countries.

The US was a bit in two minds about decolonisation. It strongly support the independence of Indonesia, India and other colonies close after the war, but later became involved in many former colonies. Yet it supported the independence of Papua New Guinea (probably to keep the Indonesians on side). It also forced the US to back up a lot of dubious dictators and rebel movements.

Within Europe, events could have taken a different turn than European unification, so the French-German relationship was always a factor, as well as that between France and Great Britain.

In South America, rather than decolonisation, societies suffered under inequality and arrested development.

We may know about the dark side of communism, but to many it offered the only alternative to continued poverty or occupation. As long as these conditions exist(ed), communism would always find a grass roots support, regardless of geography.
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M Hellyer
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Wasn't the Domino Theory considered to be occurring in the first 5 years after WWII when Eastern European countries fell one-by-one under Communist influence, which then expanded to China and elsewhere in SE Asia (Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, etc.)? At that time it was political, military and geographic influences. However, once the world stabilized into two main Cold War camps, led by the US and the USSR, the dominoes for the most part stopped falling, and then fell in reverse as economic, global media, and other influences saw the USSR and most Communist countries collapse.

So, I would say that the Domino Theory wasn't invalid and hasn't been totally discredited, but international stability is usually more complex and less predictable than following the patterns of this one theory.
 
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Andrew Rae
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rsjrev wrote:
Has Russia taken over China's COld War role as the loose cannon?


China is a loose cannon? Russia was a loose cannon? Some might say the States is a loose cannon? It seems to me this depends entirely on which side of the fence you sit. You seem to imply that all the US wants/wanted in peace and stability, and all the 'other side' wants is war and chaos. Perhaps

Would it be better to replace loose cannon with 'counterbalance' or if you're terribly and undeniably patriotic 'nemesis' instead? It is a very emotive statement.
 
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David
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I'm inclined to agree - if someone stopped me in the street and asked me to name a country I'd describe as a "loose cannon" during the Cold War I'd think about it and probably name the USA. Even today they appear the biggest risk to 'planet stability' because their actions cause so much change, yet they act only in their own interests.

In the 80s, when the threat of global thermonuclear war appeared greatest in my lifetime (and I lived in the UK), I can't say I was ever really worried about the Soviets. The USA scared me far more effectively and I was on their side! Allied propaganda perhaps.


 
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M Hellyer
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I have to say that IMHO the country that postured itself as the more ominous threat during the Cold War was the Soviets. Khruschev pounding his shoe and saying that "Your (U.S.) grandchildren will live under Communism." Putting up the Berlin Wall, trying to arm Cuba with missiles to launch from 90 miles offshore of the U.S., attacking a neighbor (Afghanistan), arming insurgencies and terrorists. I don't think the U.S. was this aggressive or de-stabilizing.

I think one of the saddest (among many) legacies of the current U.S. administration is that it has taken on the character of the Soviets of the Cold War: aggressive, bullying, unilateral, de-stabilizing, threatening to force a particular kind of government throughout the world, and this new direction for the U.S. may be tainting how people now view past U.S. actions. I hope the U.S. is not becoming the new "loose cannon" -- I'd rather think that this new direction is an aberration, and not the way of the future.
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