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Subject: Indoor Archipelago: Board Game Review - Twilight Struggle rss

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Sam Ernst
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Fort Collins
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Note: For the full review with image captions, check out: https://indoorarchipelago.com/2017/07/20/board-game-review-t...

PUBLISHED: 2005
DESIGNERS: Ananda Gupta & Jason Matthews
ARTWORK: Viktor Csete, Rodger B. MacGowan, et al.
PUBLISHER: GMT Games
PLAYERS: 2
TIME: 180+ Minutes


The Cold War has proven to be a fertile period from which to draw artistic inspiration. Maybe it’s the fact that those who came of age during the conflict’s 40-odd years are now the ones making the art. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the clarity of binary power struggles amidst today’s seemingly fractured world. Looking back, knowing how the Cold War reached its ultimate resolution, it is tempting to weave its dispersed events into a cohesive “great game”-style narrative. Which is convenient nomenclature, since games are woven into Cold War History.

Sport, for one, was rife with cross-cultural conflict. The Olympics had their various boycotts, 1980 had its “Miracle on Ice,” Rocky Balboa fought Ivan Drago, and the tension even spilled-over into board games. In 1972, Bobby Fischer bested Boris Spassky to become chess champion of the world. From one perspective, it was just a young upstart taking down a respected champion. From another, it was the West’s triumph over the USSR. I can only imagine how delighted Nixon must have been as a result: “Take that, you Commies!”

Oddly, given the notable prominence of board games in the Cold War, the Fischer victory is one of the few historic events that isn’t depicted on the cards in Twilight Struggle–-a two-player, card-driven strategy game from GMT Games. Before I go any further with this review, you should know that Twilight Struggle is widely considered one of the classics of modern boardgaming, and thus a great deal has already been written about it. It long sat atop the rankings at BoardGameGeek as the “best board game” in history (though it has recently been dethroned) and has been studied and dissected like chess, with a multitude of its potential plays and counters cataloged and discussed at length (nearly 4.6K forum posts on BGG).

“Ah, Ruy Lopez–a fine opening.” vis a vis “You’re really countering with ‘The Cambridge Five’?”

So what’s all the hubbub about? Before we talk about whether the hype is justified, let’s talk about the gameplay. As you might expect, in Twilight Struggle, one player represents the Soviets, the other the U.S. Players duke it out over a series of up to 10 rounds, with hands of eight cards (nine once you get to the mid-war rounds). The choice each turn is simple enough, choose a card and play it for the operations points or the text event. This straightforward choice will leave players at wit’s end sometimes–“But I want to do both/none of these things!” Sorry, you must choose. Each card is themed around some real-life piece of history drawn from the Cold War. “We will bury you!”? Check. Duck and Cover? Check. The invasion of Malta? No, that’s not a real thing.

The cards making up the deck can be good for one side and disastrous for the other, so you might think your choice is obvious: “Duh…I’m only going to play the bad events as operations points!” Haha. When you do that, the event will still trigger to the delight and benefit of your opponent. Such is life. So really, a lot of the game is about timing and mitigation. When to roll out the negative effects in a way such that you can counteract them and tip the ultimate balance in your favor. For those absolutely abhorrent cards, you get the chance to spend one per round on the Space Race. “Ta-da! Fidel is now in space!”

With the countless possible combinations of cards, each game will proceed in telling its own unique amalgam of Cold War history. In high school, I remember taping all 24 episodes of CNN’s Cold War, eagerly awaiting Kenneth Branagh’s sober-voiced explanation of what had happened in the preceding decades (brought to you by Qwest: “Ride the Light.”). As much as I enjoyed watching that series, Twilight Struggle has it beat as a learning experience. The interplay of the cards and mixed-up order of the events help underscore how much random chance was a factor in our successfully exiting the period without being engulfed in a thermonuclear holocaust. Sometimes world leaders are just making the best of the bad hands they’ve been dealt.

“Why are we playing all of these cards anyway? Isn’t there a map in this game?” Very astute. Yes, the card play resolves itself across a number of zones on a large board depicting the world map. Across the map are dozens of countries where players can spend their precious operations points on spreading influence, realigning governments, or even launching coup attempts. The Cold War was a proxy conflict more than anything else–in Twilight Struggle, you’ll learn that the Americans and Soviets mainly spent their time trolling each other via puppet governments and regionally confined, microcosmic conflicts.

So what? Recreating history does not necessarily make a game good. Twilight Struggle certainly does a fantastic job of immersing the player in the giant tug-of-Cold-War. (One design choice that highlights this is the score track which only has a single marker that fluctuates between two extremes.) It is a game most definitely alive with history. Thankfully, the underlying gameplay is a fantastic complement to the immersive setting. Difficult decisions abound. Player interaction is part-and-parcel with most two-player experiences, and Twilight Struggle feels like an especially exciting battle of wits, full of unexpected reversals and tables being turned. This review doesn’t really capture the complexity and nuance of game’s central mechanics, but rest assured, they are there.

And great mechanics breed acolytes. Which leads me to my final point. Toward the end of his career, Bobby Fisher grew tired of the mechanized, rote memorization that high-level chess had evolved into. Thus, he invented a chess variant called Fischerandom, or Chess960–so named because the pieces are randomized into one of 960 possible starting positions. One might worry that Twilight Struggle approaches the rote in its most serious circles. There are people who memorize the cards, analyze the best interactions, and play accordingly. For me, the sooner I “solve” a game, the sooner it loses its magic. Though I’ve played Twilight Struggle at least half-a-dozen times over the years, the plays have always been far enough apart that I have no real recollection of the cards in the deck. In some ways, my foggy half-understanding is a better approximation of what world leaders experienced during the Cold War. Consider it role-playing. The Cold War was never a game of chess–it was a game of fumbling forward as best we could. Twilight Struggle captures that feeling perfectly, and it’s a feeling I look forward to experiencing again. But not too soon lest mastery steal away my joy.
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Ben Kyo
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The Chess vs Fischerandom/Chess960 analogy isn't a good one, in my opinion. Twilight Struggle already has so much randomness that every game is unique, and memorising all the cards and learning a lot of strategy does nothing to detract from this.

Of course, if you don't want to play at a high level, you can always just play with other beginners and still have a good time. I think the high level play is both more rewarding and more interesting though. It can't realistically be played by rote or "solved", and "mastery" does nothing to lessen the joy.
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Sam Ernst
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Ben Kyo, I definitely see what you're saying, and maybe I oversold it a bit with my last sentence. I've played Twilight Struggle with players who range from beginner to experienced and have enjoyed it greatly each time. Moreover, I jump at any chance I get to play the game. So my comment is not so much meant to be a knock against playing the game at a high level--just a commentary on my experience that it is sometimes possible to love/play a game to death.

For strategy games like Twilight Struggle, I certainly appreciate when there is in-built replayability due to card randomization, player decisions, etc. Nonetheless, I feel like all strategy games are puzzles with an optimal solution--no matter how complex that solution may be. Twilight Struggle, definitely takes a lot of careful thought and experience to find those optimal strategies, but I believe they do exist.

Benkyo wrote:
The Chess vs Fischerandom/Chess960 analogy isn't a good one, in my opinion. Twilight Struggle already has so much randomness that every game is unique, and memorising all the cards and learning a lot of strategy does nothing to detract from this.

In that sense, my reference to Chess960 was not so much meant to be directly analogous on a complexity-level, merely one example of the arms race between playing and solving games. If solutions feel foregone, people will create variations that push the limits further. If AI has solved Go, something like Twilight Struggle, which relies much more on conditional logic and card tracking (i.e. "if X card has been played, then deploy influence in Y region"), can certainly be solved. This may all be irrelevant on a typical human-to-human gamer level because of the number of potential combinations, but is the kind of thing I think about when I play games. Where is that limit when a game becomes a rote exercise? Thankfully, that feels a long way off with Twilight Struggle--I just love the experience of playing the game so much, that I want to stave it off as long as possible.
 
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Ben Kyo
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IndoorArchipelago wrote:
If AI has solved Go, something like Twilight Struggle, which relies much more on conditional logic and card tracking, can certainly be solved.
I wonder about this. I'm not going to deny the conclusion ("can certainly be solved"), because that is theoretically possible for everything, but the premise seems shaky ("If AI has solved Go").

Despite the huge decision tree in Go, the conditions are always the same - you will always play a stone somewhere and your opponent will respond in kind. No matter how complex, it's still falls under the study of combinatorial game theory. You don't have to take into account hand management, OPs per turn, OPs per AR, probable opponent OPs, card play by opponent providing hints/bluffs about remaining OPs and/or events, all the possible (useful) events in their hand and yours... Now, it may well be that this is all just a smokescreen, and the actual actionable decision tree is orders of magnitude simpler than Go. However, it is a field that hasn't had hundreds of years of research thrown at it, no-one is even remotely close to a solution, and any solution would be almost impossible for a human to replicate (because conditions are always random, an imperfect understanding of perfect play isn't useful when your conditions are different) so the whole argument seems moot to me.

I will note that I've only ever seen complaints of "rote" TS play by beginners, which indicates to me that it is a fear, not a reality, perhaps fuelled by a shaky understanding of the game, perhaps by seemingly automatic thrashings received from stronger players. You don't need to "stave off" rote play.

Some personal anecdotes: I have a couple of friends who have played TS hundreds (say, 300+) times. I have a win rate of 29 to 2 against one of them, so I'm comfortable in saying that my understanding of the game is much better than his, despite only about 60 games under my belt. That said, I expect he would beat me in a blitz game, because I don't know how to play on autopilot while he has played hundreds of 1-hour chess-clock games.
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Michael Cabral
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Good read. Don't worry mastery only enhances the game! It then becomes a very interesting play of wits, bluffs and ingenuity.

There are certain similarities between Twilight Struggle and Chess. They both have beginning, middle and end game moves. The beginning moves in Twilight Struggle are usually similar in most games in that the USSR player coups Iran for their first Action Round. There are of course divergent strategies or outcomes, such as Comecon trap, couping Italy, bad roll on the AR1 Iran coup, or couping the Phillipines with the China Card (perhaps in a decade we will look back and see the genius of the AI in this play. )

The Early War you want to setup the influence in key battlegrounds to control Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In Chess you setup your pieces for control of the centre of the board without wasting moves. The Mid War you will need to expand your influence into the 3rd World countries while avoiding a 20 VP auto loss (checkmate). The Late War is where you either go for the kill or shore your up influence for endgame scoring.

However, there is so much randomness in the game from the dice rolls to the cards you are dealt that each game plays out differently that it hasn't gotten old for me yet. I love that I have to follow my own agenda yet react to what my opponent is doing while mitigating the damage of their event cards or doing a clever play of cards to deliver the coup de grâce.
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