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Subject: Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room! rss

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Mitch Willis
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Kathleen
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Overview
Whenever I play this game (especially after getting nailed with a particularly nasty event card), I always recall the quote by General Buck Turgidson from the classic movie Dr. Strangelove: “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines...”

Twilight Struggle is a card-driven board game/wargame (take your pick) for two players about the Cold War. This game was co-designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, and was published in 2005 by GMT. Each player is the leader of one of the two superpowers, either the United States or the Soviet Union, that emerged at the end of World War II. Players take turns playing event cards, spreading their nation’s influence throughout the world in an attempt to either score the most victory points (VPs) or to fulfill one of the automatic victory conditions. Playing time can really vary in this game as it can end early or can last through the full 10 turns; if our games are any guide, you can probably expect anywhere from 2 to 4 hours.

Twilight Struggle has done extremely well with awards and honors, winning the prestigious Charles S. Roberts award for Best Modern Era Wargame; it also swept the Best Wargame and Best 2-Player Game Awards for both the International Gamers Awards and the BGG Golden Geek Awards as well. It currently ranks as the overall #3 game here on the ‘Geek.



Out of the Box
The game box is very sturdy and upon opening you’ll find a 22” by 34” map, a sheet of die-cut counters, two player aid cards, 104 cards, two dice, and a rules booklet. The map, while colorful and functional, is not mounted; it’s made of foldable cardboard. The map displays the world as it was during the Cold War era, along with a scoring track, and several other tracks (DEFCON, turn, Space Race) to boot. The counters are the traditional wargame counters, several of which are markers, but the majority of which are the USSR/US influence counters. These are double-sided; each side will have the number of influence points with the lighter side representing influence of a nation while the darker side shows control. The rules are rather lengthy, and do a pretty good job of explaining the rules, while also giving several examples of game play. Overall, the components, primarily the artwork on the map and the pictures on the cards, add to the Cold War theme of the game. However, I would’ve preferred having a mounted game board; as it is, I’d recommend using either a sheet of plexiglass or mounting the map in a poster frame to keep it flat.



The Cards
Being a card-driven board game, the event cards are the heart and soul of Twilight Struggle. Event cards are divided into 3 types: Early War, Middle War, and Late War. Some of the event cards are actually scoring cards which will trigger a scoring round for a specific part of the world. Some events favor the Soviets while others favor the U.S., with the rest being equally favorable to either side. Each event card, other than the scoring cards, has an operations points value, along with a description of what the event entails.



Set Up
As the map is a decent size, you’ll want to set it up on a fairly large table or other such playing area. Shuffle the Early War cards and deal out 8 cards to both players. Place the China card face up in front of the Soviet player. The Soviet player will set up his influence markers placing a total of 15: 1 each in Syria, Iraq, and Finland, 3 each in East Germany and North Korea, and 6 anywhere in Eastern Europe. The U.S. player will place a total of 23 influence markers: 1 each in Iran, Israel, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Panama and South Africa, 4 in Australia, 5 in the U.K., and 7 anywhere in Western Europe.

Place the Soviet and U.S. Space Race markers to the left of the Space track. Put each of the player’s respective Military Ops marker on the corresponding zero space of the Ops track. Place the DEFCON marker on the 5 space of its track and the VP marker on the zero space of the VP track. Put the turn marker on the 1st space of the turn track and you’re good to go.



Game Play
Although certain circumstances can end the game earlier, there are 10 turns to each game. There are 3 stages of the game: Early War (turns 1-3), Middle War (turns 4-7), and Late War (turns 8-10). During the start of each phase, the beginning stage’s cards are shuffled in with the previous stages remaining cards. For example, during the Early War, only Early War cards are used, during the Middle War, both Early & Middle cards are used, and during the Late War, all cards will be used (excepting those that have been removed from the game).

Each turn has a fixed structure to it. First, you improve the DEFCON status; if the DEFCON is less than 5, you upgrade it 1 space. Next you deal cards; in the Early War each player will increase his/her hand back to 8 cards, while in the Middle and Late War phases hand size will be 9 for each turn. The Headline Phase follows with each player secretly selecting one card to play; the card’s event with the highest Ops value will take place first with ties being broke by the U.S. player. Unless specifically mentioned on the card’s text, during the Headline Phase only the event occurs (whether it benefits you or your opponent) and Ops points cannot be used.

The meat of the game takes place during the Action Rounds; this is where, starting with the Soviet player, each player, in turn, will select a card to play. If the card played by the phasing side contains either a friendly or neutral event, that player must decide whether to play the event or use the Ops points on the card. If the event is chosen, just follow the text on the card. If Ops points are selected instead, the player must choose between using them to place influence, attempt a coup d’etat, make realignment rolls, or play ‘em against the Space Race track. If the card played contains an enemy event, then while you’ll use the Ops points as reflected above, the event will also take place; you get to decide whether the event takes place before or after you play your Ops points. Some event cards are discarded once their event takes place; otherwise are discarded and can come back into play during a later turn. Note that if you opt to play an opponent’s event card against the Space Race, the event does not take place and the card is placed in the discard pile; unless otherwise specified, you can only make one Space Race event per turn. There are 6 actions per turn during the Early War and 7 actions per turn in the Middle and Late War stages. If the player owning the China card has used it during the turn, it is given to the opposing player and flipped face down.

After the Action rounds, both players check their Military Ops status to see if they’re penalized VPs for failing to perform the required number of military operations during that turn. Once recorded, both set their Ops marker back to zero in preparation for the next turn. If the China card was used during the Action rounds, the new owner now flips it face up. Now all that’s left to do is to advance the turn marker and prepare to play the next round.



Scoring & Endgame
Scoring can take place throughout the game. First off, there are several regional scoring cards that will be played during the game. Whenever you are dealt a scoring card, it must be played at some time during the turn in which you receive it. There’s a regional scoring card for Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Central America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. When a scoring card is played, you get a number of VPs for that region dependent upon whether you have Presence, Domination, or Control in that specific region. In addition, you get an extra VP for each country you control that borders your enemy’s superpower, as well as an extra VP for each battleground country you control in that region.

There are a couple of other ways to score as well. Aside from the regional scoring cards, there are several event cards that can award VPs under certain conditions. You can also score VPs if your opponent fails to perform the required number of required military ops for a turn. And lastly, after completion of the 10th round, region scoring is calculated for all regions on the map.

VPs are kept on the linear scoring track located on the map. The track runs from USSR-20 on the top end, down to US-20 on the bottom end. Whenever the Soviet side scores, you move the scoring marker to the left, toward the Soviet side of the track, while you’d move the marker to the right when scoring VPs for the Americans.

The game can end in several ways. First, the game will end if either side reaches 20 VPs, with that side winning. Next, the game will end if the DEFCON status degrades to 1, thus initiating nuclear war; in this case, the phasing player loses. If either side claims control of Europe, that side immediately wins when the Europe scoring card is played. A certain Late War card (Wargames) can also end the game if played while the DEFCON is 2; the side playing would give 6 VPs to the enemy and the game would end at that point without any additional scoring. And finally, the game will end after both sides have finished their 10th turn and final regional scoring is recorded. In cases other than a DEFCON 1 or European Control endgame, the player with the most VPs wins the game.



Observations
While this is a medium to heavy strategy game, there’s a bit of randomness to Twilight Struggle as well. This is inherent in any games where cards are randomly drawn and dice are rolled. There will be turns where you’ll be dealt cards which will mostly favor your opponent and that can be frustrating. Add to that dice rolls to determine coups, realignment rolls, the Space Race, and certain other events, and chance can play a significant role in this game. While this will usually balance out in the long run, there’s no denying its presence. However, it does seem to reflect the theme somewhat when you consider that the Cold War was quite chaotic as it was fought in turbulent and changing times. Momentum could seemingly turn on a dime, as power and influence shifted back and forth repeatedly throughout that era, which most of the games we’ve played have reflected. Also, this randomness increases the game’s replayability; no two games will ever be the same since the distribution of cards will be different each time.

While you can plan a long-term strategy, with the uncertainty of what each side will be dealt each turn, I’ve found the game to be highly tactical; in other words, you’ll have to adjust your plans often. Throughout the game, you not only must efficiently manage your hand, but you must try to react to and counter your opponent’s moves. You’ll constantly need to deduce what the enemy is up to and react accordingly. For instance, if he’s/she’s pouring influence in Asia, you’ll probably want to do the same since that could very well mean the Asian scoring card will appear that turn.

Good “damage management” skills can go a long way in Twilight Struggle. Every turn, you’re likely to get cards that you’ll have to play with events that help the other side. Of course, you want to handle these in a way that minimizes the damage to you. If you get a card that appears catastrophic, you’ll want to play it against the Space Race where the event won’t take place; ideally, you’d like to do that in a turn where the discards aren’t fixing to be re-shuffled back into the draw deck or you might be seeing that card again all too soon. On the other hand, say you have a damaging card that you can’t play against the Space Race and you can’t carry it over to the next round. You have the choice whether to play the Ops points before or after your opponent’s event occurs; usually, you’ll want to have your opponent’s event take place first so that you can then use the Ops points to react to and perhaps minimize the effects of the event. Be aware that there are a couple of cards that, if you play, will give control to your opponent with the possibility of downgrading the DEFCON; they’d be the winners if they can downgrade it to DEFCON 1 since you would be the phasing player...

I think the bottom line of this game is survival. Early on the Soviets have the upper hand and the U.S. must try to weather the storm. Since the Soviets play first during the action rounds, the U.S. will be playing catch up; with the DEFCON rating usually starting at 3 after the 1st turn, the Soviets can usually attempt a coup while the Americans can’t (unless they have a special event card that prevents the DEFCON from degrading). The U.S. needs to hold ‘em off long enough to extend the game to the Mid- and Late-War turns where the momentum starts to swing back their way, and then it’s the Soviets turn to hang on. There can be a lot of point swings throughout the game, so never throw in the towel when things look particularly bad...if you can just extend the game one more turn, you’ll have a chance to come back. Also, don’t completely ignore an area after it’s been scored; most of the scoring cards can come back into play and, after the 10th turn, all areas are scored again.

I think the game plays well with equally experienced opponents. However, if playing with someone new to the game, the more experienced player has a significant advantage since he/she will be familiar with the cards and will know which ones are coming up in the later turns. It’d be a good idea to at least give the new player either a card summary (I think there’s one listed in the files section here on the ‘Geek) or let him/her peruse the cards some time before actually playing.

There’s an excellent peer-to-peer computer version of Twilight Struggle over at the WarGameRoom web site (http://www.patmedia.net/bmh1980/downloads.htm). It looks nice and enforces the rules well as far as I can tell. I’ve played it several times and have had no problems at all...um...well...other than losing more often than not...



Conclusions
I think Twilight Struggle is an excellent game that captures the theme of the Cold war very well. While no game will ever be 100% historically accurate, it has an historic feel and it’s fun to boot, especially if you’re familiar with that era. It’s a game where I never really feel comfortable with my position; if I’m ahead, it’s never by enough as I’m always wary of a turnaround and if I’m behind, I worry ‘bout a knockout blow but also know I still have a chance. There’s suspense in each round as tough decisions have to be made about which cards to play and which regions to concentrate on. The game can last a tad long, but it’s usually one of those where I’m so into playing it that I’m not aware of the time. And while a bad die roll or poor card draw can be frustrating at times, they haven’t lessened my overall enjoyment of the game. Twilight Struggle is in my personal Top 10 and I currently rate it a “nuclear” 9.

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Kevin Brown
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Macon
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Great review. When are we gonna play it again?
 
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Baron von Doom
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I knew you were from Georgia as soon as you said "fixing to".

Great review!


-BvD
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Mitch Willis
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Kathleen
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Re: Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room
pilight wrote:
Great review. When are we gonna play it again?


As soon as I quit licking my wounds from the whuppin' you put on me last time...can't this weekend but probably can next Sunday...have you got the latest upgrade (1/4/2008, I think) from the wargameroom? How did you do against Joey?
 
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Mitch Willis
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Kathleen
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Re: Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room
Baron von Doom wrote:
I knew you were from Georgia as soon as you said "fixing to".

Great review!


-BvD


Thanks. I'm afraid my Southern drawl extends even to my writing...
 
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Kevin Brown
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Macon
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otha62 wrote:
pilight wrote:
Great review. When are we gonna play it again?


As soon as I quit licking my wounds from the whuppin' you put on me last time...can't this weekend but probably can next Sunday...have you got the latest upgrade (1/4/2008, I think) from the wargameroom? How did you do against Joey?



I crushed him like a bug.

Of course we played 1960: The Making of the President right after and he won handily.

I got the latest upgrade. Been playing a couple of times a week on wargameroom.
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