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Subject: Worth the Struggle? rss

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Matt Uhrich
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One of the things in which I pride myself when playing games, is being able to make quick decisions. I don’t want to be the guy responsible for a game grinding to a halt. When a game box tells me how long a game is supposed to take, I see that as a mark to beat. I like to make other decisions without taking too much extra thinking too, especially game-buying decisions. Gather the information, read some reviews, decide, done. I do, however, reserve the right to change my mind at any time. Which brings me to Twilight Struggle.

The first time I saw that Twilight Struggle was World’s No. 1 at BoardGameGeek, I immediately considered buying it. But after reading the description, it just didn't call to me, and I decided against it (not buying a game has much lower information requirement since it costs me nothing). I would occasionally glance at the top games list, and see it there, but I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to buy it. How foolish of me.

Advance the date to sometime last November. I was listening to Ludology (you need to be listening to this podcast) as I mowed the lawn one last time for the year. The hosts were interviewing Jason Matthews, creator of Twilight Struggle, and it was fascinating. I don’t remember for sure, but I may have immediately ordered the game using my phone from the back of my lawn tractor. Spoiler alert: great purchase by me.

The game arrived, I devoured the manual, and pressed a friend into service as an opponent. That first game went a bit slowly, as any card-based game will when you’re unfamiliar with the cards and when you’ve got a giant map to work with and no idea what to do, but it was incredible, and I was hooked like a junky. Within a few games, the cards had been learned, another friend had been trained, and online play was discovered. I’ll break it down.

The major reason for my several-year hiatus from boardgaming was my boardgame group’s transition to playing Texas Hold ‘em. It was a change I welcomed. I had gotten burned out on Euros like Puerto Rico after the 100th or so game.

Poker gave me a feeling I hadn’t ever experienced from board games. It’s a feeling I get when I’m making a big play with a marginal hand, or maybe a total crap hand, or when I know I’ve got the nuts and another player is considering whether or not to call my massive bet. I can hear my heart beating in my ears and my face gets hot, and I pray no one can tell. I love that feeling. But even with poker that feeling only comes a few times a night. In most games of Twilight Struggle I get that feeling for the whole game.

Sometimes I’m in the mood for a lighter game with several players where there’s down-time between turns for conversation and for my mind to rest. Twilight Struggle is not for those nights. After a good game of Twilight Struggle, I know my brain has been working. Every action round, there is so much to think about: what card should I play; where should I play it; what is my opponent trying to do; does he have a scoring card; oh, crap, I have a DEFCON suicide card, do I space it, or hope my opponent does something stupid and triggers it himself, giving me the win. Add to that the size of the map. There is so much territory to work with, I sometimes lose concentration and neglect an area of the map. A good opponent will always take advantage.

Back up for a minute. Just in case you've never heard about Twilight Struggle, it's a game simulating the Cold War between the years of 1945 and 1989. The players take control of either the US or the USSR. The game is won or lost by maximizing your influence throughout the world using while minimizing your opponent's. All the while, you're trying to avoid causing global thermo-nuclear war, and trying to induce you're opponent into doing the same (I'm guessing that counts as a moral victory). The heart of the game is the event cards. Each card has a event that be played for a specific effect or it can be played for operations points (ops). But not all events can help both players. Most events benefit only one side, and if you play one of your opponent's events for ops the event occurs, benefitting your opponent. The game can end after 10 turns, when one side gets to 20 victory points, when one side blows up the world, or from the evil card War Games. Simple enough, right?

Twilight Struggle was the first game I played that used the event vs. ops card mechanic. I just love the decisions it forces. Great games are all about tough decisions. Those ops are so valuable, but sometimes the right event at the right time and place can be more valuable. Figuring out the right time and place is the fun part. There’s also the tension between playing ops and being forced to trigger your opponents event. It's so satisfying to trigger my opponents event in such a way that it renders a powerful card nearly harmless. I’ve found that the more I play, the less often I trigger my own events outside the perfect situation. I love playing a powerful card for ops only to see my opponent have to trigger it for me after the next reshuffle.

In the games I’ve played I have administered humiliating defeat, and been the victim of same. The opponent I defeated in a victory point win at the beginning of turn four later disgraced my family by beating me with control of Europe (I was distracted by outside events, all right!). I’ve gained an abiding hatred for the card War Games. The same opponent has beaten me several times with that stupid card, always getting it as early in the game as possible, and getting just enough victory points for the win. The first time that happened, I couldn’t believe the game was actually over, but I eventually came to accept it. Even in a loss, I have fun, and that’s another characteristic of a great game.

How about the components? By the time I bought the game, the deluxe edition was out, so I got the mounted board, which is great quality. I love the artwork and the size of the map. It takes up my whole table. The cardboard counters are nice and thick, my only wish is that there were more high-number counters. Side note: I’ve noticed that when playing online—even with some of the same players—there tends to be higher influence counts in important countries. Maybe there's some sub-conscious resistance to adding influence above that available in a single counter. It could also just be a coincidence.

The cards are high quality, but a little too stiff for my tastes. I tried to shuffle them with a normal rifle shuffle, and they just wouldn’t flex enough to do it. It just meant I had to sleeve them. No big whoop. The dice are the standard blue and red GMT dice. I was happy with them until I saw some custom dice for sale from nightglider1, which I immediately bought.

The game sets up faster than just about any other game I play. It’s literally, dump out the influence counters, shuffle the early war deck, deal the cards, USSR player place their influence, US player place their influence, and play. Awesome.

In the years before I got into poker, I rarely played two-player games. But since then the other players in my group and I have all gotten married and had kids. Some of them are on a much shorter leash than I am, so it’s not easy to get four or five players together without a month’s notice and signed permission slips. Two-player games take care of that problem, because odds are at least one other player will be allowed to come out and play.

One problem I do have when playing live on the table is that I can’t seem to remember to advance the action round marker, and that can cause some real problems. But that’s not an issue with the game. In fact, I think it’s a strength, I become so immersed, the mechanics of the game get forgotten. How cool is that? I either need to pay attention or get more responsible opponents.

I'll conclude with this, if you’re looking for a challenging two-player game with lots of player interaction and conflict, if you want to be able to crush your opponent’s spirit (at the risk it happening to you), if you want your brain to hurt, and to feel like you need to lie down, you need to play Twilight Struggle.

Twilight Struggle has become one of my favorite two-player game, and one of my favorite games overall. It is worthy of the number one spot.
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Jonathan Harrison
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Excellent review.
The U wrote:
Poker gave me a feeling I hadn’t ever experienced from board games. It’s a feeling I get when I’m making a big play with a marginal hand, or maybe a total crap hand, or when I know I’ve got the nuts and another player is considering whether or not to call my massive bet. I can hear my heart beating in my ears and my face gets hot, and I pray no one can tell. I love that feeling. But even with poker that feeling only comes a few times a night. In most games of Twilight Struggle I get that feeling for the whole game.
You nailed it. Things get so tense during the game that my wife (she loves the game; I think we played it once a week the first couple months we owned it) sometimes has to step out to blow off steam when we hit about the 1970s. She's embarrassed to admit it, but this is the one game that can make her face turn red when plans go awry, the tension is so high.

I get a knot in my stomach before playing this. It really does feel like you're in a real, live knife fight—the entire time. The tension never lets up.
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Jacovis
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HuginnGreiling wrote:

I get a knot in my stomach before playing this. It really does feel like you're in a real, live knife fight—the entire time. The tension never lets up.

Man is that ever true. I don't think any other game has ever left my nerves on edge like TS does!
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Shawn Garbett
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The mechanic is ingenious in the constant feel of struggle against each hand, "what do you mean my opponents event always occurs when I play it!?". Everything seems like a losing proposition, and when you see an out you just hope beyond all hope that your opponent catches on a hand too late.
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Matt Uhrich
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HuginnGreiling wrote:
Excellent review.
Thanks so much. I felt like this great game deserved some of my public adoration.

HuginnGreiling wrote:
I get a knot in my stomach before playing this. It really does feel like you're in a real, live knife fight—the entire time. The tension never lets up.
I love that feeling. I can't think of too many other games that do that for me.

CyberGarp wrote:
"what do you mean my opponents event always occurs when I play it!?"
I remember when I first figured that out. At the time I couldn't imagine how you could possibly make that work. After an action round or two, it made perfect sense.
 
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Jordi Ros
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Quote:
the other players in my group and I have all gotten married and had kids. Some of them are on a much shorter leash than I am, so it’s not easy to get four or five players together without a month’s notice and signed permission slips. Two-player games take care of that problem, because odds are at least one other player will be allowed to come out and play.

Amen.
 
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Paul Pfeiffer
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HuginnGreiling wrote:
Excellent review.
The U wrote:
Poker gave me a feeling I hadn’t ever experienced from board games. It’s a feeling I get when I’m making a big play with a marginal hand, or maybe a total crap hand, or when I know I’ve got the nuts and another player is considering whether or not to call my massive bet. I can hear my heart beating in my ears and my face gets hot, and I pray no one can tell. I love that feeling. But even with poker that feeling only comes a few times a night. In most games of Twilight Struggle I get that feeling for the whole game.
You nailed it. Things get so tense during the game that my wife (she loves the game; I think we played it once a week the first couple months we owned it) sometimes has to step out to blow off steam when we hit about the 1970s. She's embarrassed to admit it, but this is the one game that can make her face turn red when plans go awry, the tension is so high.

I get a knot in my stomach before playing this. It really does feel like you're in a real, live knife fight—the entire time. The tension never lets up.

All I can say is DIDO. My wife loves the game as much as me. Weird.
 
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Nate Edwards
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elrond3737 wrote:

All I can say is DIDO. My wife loves the game as much as me. Weird.

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Joe Stude
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great review - now i want to play again... immediately.
 
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Luke Hector
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I need to try this game out. The Cold War is not a theme I have any interest in and the board itself looks fairly dull so I'm well confused as to why it's so popular and rated No 1. I think it's only No 1 because the fans who love it REALLY love it and it doesn't get rated by those who don't like it.

That being said, I would at least play the game once to find out for certain.
 
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Paul Pfeiffer
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farmergiles wrote:
I need to try this game out. The Cold War is not a theme I have any interest in and the board itself looks fairly dull so I'm well confused as to why it's so popular and rated No 1.

My wife would agree with you. But, the reason that is is so popular is that it is intense. Every play I make feels important. If I goof up my opponent makes me pay and you are never out until you are out. I have come back, from being 4 points away from losing, and won. That means I scored 36 points to win. Each card is power(play with the alger hiss card dumbed down option) You never play the same game twice and did I mention it is intense. Watch a few of the good reviews.
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Sam Carroll
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farmergiles wrote:
I think it's only No 1 because the fans who love it REALLY love it and it doesn't get rated by those who don't like it.

That's not really true. TS currently has 5 and a half pages of ones. If you look at the ratings breakdown graph (available on each game's page), it's very similar to the rest of the top ten.

The one that really stands out from that group is Android: Netrunner, which has more 10s than any other rating. The rest of the games peak at 8 and drop off as you go higher. So what you say is more likely true of that game.
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Michael Kiefte
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spartax wrote:
farmergiles wrote:
I think it's only No 1 because the fans who love it REALLY love it and it doesn't get rated by those who don't like it.

That's not really true. TS currently has 5 and a half pages of ones. If you look at the ratings breakdown graph (available on each game's page), it's very similar to the rest of the top ten.

IIRC, there was a campaign a couple of years ago by fans of Porto Rico and Agricola to downvote TS when it became #1. A lot of those 1s are from people who have never even played it.
 
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Luke Hector
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Well if anyone I know ever has it I'm sure I'll give it a test run - but to beat Agricola or Terra Mystica for me. . . . that's truly something if it can manage that!
 
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Paul Pfeiffer
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mkiefte wrote:
[

IIRC, there was a campaign a couple of years ago by fans of Porto Rico and Agricola to downvote TS when it became #1. A lot of those 1s are from people who have never even played it.

Stoooopid. I have often thought that when I see people give a game a 1 or 2. It has to be truly awful to be a 1 or 2. Like cooties or tic tac toe
 
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Luke Hector
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Or Last Night On Earth............haha ok maybe not a 1 or 2, but despite my initial "meh" first impressions on the podcast about that game, a second play recently highlighted many problems I now have with that game! angry
 
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Michael Kiefte
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elrond3737 wrote:
mkiefte wrote:
[

IIRC, there was a campaign a couple of years ago by fans of Porto Rico and Agricola to downvote TS when it became #1. A lot of those 1s are from people who have never even played it.

Stoooopid. I have often thought that when I see people give a game a 1 or 2. It has to be truly awful to be a 1 or 2. Like cooties or tic tac toe

Actually, those 1 and 2 ratings are useful. I always read them before I consider buying a game. If the comments with those ratings are idiotic, I'm more likely to buy the game.
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