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Subject: Strategic or tactical? rss

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Patrick Donohue
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As this review is based on a single play of Twilight Struggle keep in mind that these are just first impressions! They are meant to stimulate discussion and not a definitive judgment on the game.

For those not familiar with the game here is a simple description of the game mechanics. The game portrays the cold war, as each player controls one superpower. Twilight Struggle comes from the card-driven “wargame” family, where every turn each player has a hand of cards to play (generally one at a time).

To win the game one must score 20 victory points (VP) more than one’s opponent. VP’s are scored in several different ways: control of countries from a region of the world, advancing in the space race, and special events that depend on card play. For winning however controlling countries is your safest best.

There are four ways to increase your influence in a country: “investing” in a country (by placing influence points in that country, which you pay with operations points), realigning the country (which one could portray as a more forceful way of investing), creating a military coup (which one also pays with operations points) and lastly some card events enable you to place influence markers. There is a subtle balance between those four ways that compels you to use all of those methods in order to increase your influence in the countries. For example the staging of a military coup is limited by the DEFCON level (which measures how close the super powers are to a full out and yes, nuclear war). This is really a games mechanics that works perfectly.

So basically you play your cards in order to increase your influence and control countries. In the deck there are scoring cards. Each scoring card corresponds to one region (say Africa, the Middle East or Europe…). When such a card is played one takes a snapshot of the region and basically the superpower with the most influence (that controls the most countries) gets to score victory points. The player that has such a card in his hand can play it either early in the turn or late (but has to play it), so this player can try to advance his position in the region before playing the card and will generally be shadowed by his opponent.

This scoring card mechanism works very well. It keeps the game moving and tense, meaning that every play is important and you must carefully monitor the balance of influence in every region (except for those where the scoring card won’t show up before a reshuffle of the deck).
However this scoring card system is purely a game invention, it has no basis in real life. This is the point where the game ceases to be a simulation and is just that: a game. I must say that what attracts me most in wargames is the simulation aspect: how clever (or not so clever) mechanics can put you in the shoes of a commander in chief.

In general one can say that Card driven wargames (CDG) have introduced more “game” in wargame. The game mechanics does not try to simulate real life mechanics, but introduces subtle choices as you manage you hand of cards. In fact you must often build your strategy around the cards you have. So this makes CDG's more “tactical” as opposed to games that are more “strategic” where decisions you make early may be rewarded much later. Playing Twilight Struggle you play each hand as a special “tactical” problem. Of course earlier game turns count a lot since they produce the situation on the map. At my level of playing it is useless trying to build a strategy ahead of time. But maybe more experienced player would say differently.

The number of different tactical problems that you can encounter is so large that Twilight Struggle has a very large replay value (like many CDG’s). This can be opposed to games where a winning strategy can be found. Say if you play a given historical battle (with a regular wargame) an optimum strategy might exist. Once you find this hypothetical best strategy the game just comes down to the way the dice flow… This richness of tactical situations is a somewhat unique feature of CDG’s.

CDG’s also have great flavor because the cards describe many real life events, that would be cumbersome to include into a set of “regular” rules.

So how did I like my first play of Twilight Struggle? It’s a mixed experience. Indeed I lost… I was playing the US and a quickly fell behind in influence in Asia and the Middle East. So basically I was mainly responding to the Soviets and wasn’t able to plan my own strategy (it is apparently known that the early turns are hard for the US). But this could only improve in future sessions.

Will I try again? Of course! I feel like I can only get better, and that is a fun challenge.
 
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Allen Doum
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Pat22 wrote:
In fact you must often build your strategy around the cards you have. So this makes CDG's more “tactical” as opposed to games that are more “strategic” where decisions you make early may be rewarded much later. Playing Twilight Struggle you play each hand as a special “tactical” problem. Of course earlier game turns count a lot since they produce the situation on the map. At my level of playing it is useless trying to build a strategy ahead of time. But maybe more experienced player would say differently.
If by "ahead of time" you mean some strategy that you expect ot explore over several games regardless of the cards you draw I might agree with you. But there are what I would consider "strategic" decisions in TS. While it is true that you have to do a lot of tactical "firegfighting", you will also have times where you have operations to spend at your discretion. Those can be used to put pressure on your opponent so that he has to do some firefighting while you drive the game.

With more experience you will also gain knowledge of the cards, not only those in your hand, but which ones remain in the deck. That advanced knowledge will allow you to do some planning.

Pat22 wrote:
This scoring card mechanism works very well. It keeps the game moving and tense, meaning that every play is important and you must carefully monitor the balance of influence in every region (except for those where the scoring card won’t show up before a reshuffle of the deck).
However this scoring card system is purely a game invention, it has no basis in real life.
I'm not so sure about that. While not tied (or titled) to specific historical events, certainly there were times when the worlds attention was focused on a particular region.
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