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"Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle..."

John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inaugural Address

Twilight Struggle is a board game. It was first published in 2005 by its designers Anada Gupta and Jason Matthews. It combines the mechanics of a card game with those of a board-based strategy game (although not, precisely, a war game it nevertheless can be described as one). On the website Board Game Geek it is rated 8.32 out of 10 as of the time of this writeup, and holds the rank of number 1 in the board game, war game and strategy game categories. In short, it is a game of fighting the Cold War from roughly 1945 to 1989 as one of the two reigning superpowers. As of early 2012, it is available from online retailers such as AMZN for around $44 (US).

NOTE: This is from memory. Do not use this writeup to play the game. Do not use it, in other words, to plan a war.

I have recently been introduced to this pastime, and I'm grateful to the friend that introduced me.

Twilight Struggle (TS hereafter) is a two-player game and should take between one and a half and four hours to complete (unless like me you tend to start role-playing your alcohol consumption during a game, in which case it may take significantly more time). It can sometimes be played to the equivalent of a fool's mate, ending the game very quickly.

What it looks like

The game consists of the following.

  • The Board. A stylized map of the world, the board contains playboxes for a subset of nations (placed roughly correctly relative to each other, with liberties taken for legibility and playability). It also contains six tracks, linear sequences of boxes intended to hold game status markers, and informational boxes with scoring data in them as well as various helpful notes.
  • The Cards. A large stack of cards, 104 or 110 depending on your game version. These are divided up into three categories: Early War, Mid War and Late War.
  • The Counters. In addition to the status counters meant to be used on the aforementioned tracks, there are a myriad of influence counters meant to be placed by each of the players on countries of the world, as well as several other 'tracking' counters meant to indicate various game events or effects in force.
  • There are also dice, one standard six-sided die per player, color-coded red and blue.

How it works. This, of course, is the clever bit. Tthere are ten turns in the game, and one of the tracks on the board denotes the current turn while another denotes the current action phase. Turns have 6 or 7 (or in extreme circumstances 8) action phases. The objective of the game is to have the most influence over the world at the end of the game, or have the other player initiate nuclear conflict (denoted by the DEFCON track being moved to 1), or manage to gain control of the continent of Europe.

The game has a setup phase at the start. Players place initial influence markers on several countries on the board; these countries helpfully have the initial influence levels printed in their play boxes. If a player places enough influence in a country such that the delta between that player and their opponent's influence is equal to or more than the country's Stability Rating, they are said to 'control' that country. Each country has a 'USSR' and 'USA' play box, where each player places counters denoting their current influence in the country. Astute observers will note that the influence levels at the outset do, in fact, roughly conform to those that were in effect immediately following World War II. The various tracks on the board get their status counters (Turn number, Action phase, Space Race, DEFCON, Military Operations and the Victory Points tracker). Each player is dealt eight cards from the 'Early War' category, and the USSR further receives a special card called The China Card (nope, not kidding. Do you begin to comprehend the awesome?) The China Card is typically left on the table, face up to denote that it is available for play. The other cards are held in the player's hand, concealed.

At this point, the game begins.

Although the game seems quite complex, it actually manages its complexity very well - and isn't as complicated as it looks. Each turn follows a rigid cycle, which is helpfully printed up in clear diagrams. Before we get into the turn cycle, let's talk about what makes this game incredible, if you're a Gen X-er or political scientist or history buff - the cards.

Each event card (as opposed to scoring card) represents an event, a technology or a person which should be pretty much instantly recognizable to anyone who lived through or studied the Cold War. Event cards each contain (generally) the following information:

  • The card's alignment - either USSR (red), USA (white) or neutral (half red/half white)
  • The card's Operations value - a digit, generally from 1-5
  • The card's Event. These consist typically of a representative diagram or photograph, and a short explanation of the effect of the card. Although the cards do not contain direct historical data regarding their event, the rule book helpfully provides a short paragraph on the background of each. These events are what make the game.
Each player will have in their hands a random mix of their own cards, their opponent's cards and neutral cards. Each turn opens with each player choosing a card to play for its event - the 'Headline phase.' They are revealed simultaneously. The Operations values on each card are compared, with the higher-valued card taking effect (ties are awarded to the US player). In addition to being a chance to place an advantageous card into effect (some cards take effect for whole turns, or until particular conditions are met - either other cards or dice rolls), this phase is also one of the few ways that a player can 'burn' an opposing-flagged card. Here's why.

In the remaining phases, each player in turn reveals a card they wish to play. They may choose to play the card for its event, or for its Operations value. If they play an opposing flagged card for the operations value, the event still takes place even though it will generally favor their opponent! Hence, the Headline phase is one place where a savvy player might pick a low-value opposing card and present it, in the hopes that their opponent presents a higher-valued card. In that case, their card is 'burned' - it is simply discarded. There are other ways to 'burn' cards - once per turn (not phase) each player may try to advance their standing on the 'Space Race' track. To so so, a card of specific ops value or greater (depending on which Space Race box is at stake) is burned, and the player makes a die roll as indicated on the track. If they succeed, they move up the track - which might gain them Victory Points or even game effects. For example, reaching a particular point in the Space Race first means that until your opponent reaches that same point, they must reveal to you their headline card before you have to choose your own - clearly an advantage, generally understood to represent 'spy satellites.'

In any case, once a player has decided on a card, either the event actions are taken or the player chooses to spend Ops points. If they choose to spend ops points, they may use them in one of three was. First, they can simply place Influence in countries which they currently have influence in or which adjoin those. Second, they may try for a Coup - they can make a die roll, modified by the target country's stability rating, the card value and various other factors. If they 'make' their die roll, their opponent's influence in the country is reduced by the amount of the coup roll, and (if necessary) their own influence is added to create the required delta. However, if the country they have Couped in is a battleground country (indicated by red background on its stability rating number on the board) then the DEFCON is moved down one step! As the DEFCON moves down, various regions of the board become 'locked out' of Coup attempts - Players cannot attempt Coups in Europe, for example, once the DEFCON is 4 or lower.

The third option is to spend the Ops points of the card making "realignment rolls." These are more heavily modified than coups, with less spectacular results - they are the modeled result of skillful, lucky or hard-pressed diplomacy, and result in influence levels moving more slowly, but safety. DEFCON numbers do not change as the result of realignment rolls. Each ops point allows a single roll, and all Ops points from that card must be used for realignment (although not necessarily in the same country).

Some cards have events which remain in effect. These cards have red underlines beneath their name. Events like NATO (the foundation of), or Marshall Plan, or The Iron Lady for example, all have enduring effects. If necessary, they remain 'in play' until negated.

Some cards are not event cards, but Scoring Cards. These are played during normal action phases, and have no operations value. They are labelled with a region (Europe, Asia, Africa, Central America, South America) and playing these cards forces the current state of that region to be scored, with players picking up victory points for various conditions in the region (how many countries they control, how many battleground countries they control, etc.) Victory Points are zero-sum - the track ranges from USSR 20 to USA 20 (reaching 20 means instant victory) so the net VP change is recorded on the VP track. Scoring cards cannot be held between turns and must be played - so they can either help or hurt their holders!

There are restrictions that must be obeyed. Right below the DEFCON track is a track named 'Military Operations.' It runs in reverse, and every turn both players start at 5. This represents the number of Ops points that must be spent on military operations or Coups during the course of the turn. If a player has not carried out the requisite number of military ops, their opponent will receive victory points! This enforces the 'interesting game' and elegantly drives the Cold War. Players cannot rest on their laurels. To 'spend Military Ops' as required, players must either play event cards with the word 'War' or 'Invasion' in them, scoring that card's Ops value (Iran-Iraq War, Arab-Israeli War, Korean War, India/Pakistan Invasion, etc.) or must spend points on Coups. This means that the DEFCON level will start to drop, and fast!

Anyhow, not to run on too long, that's about it. The turns go by. After a few turns, the 'Mid War' cards are shuffled into the deck, and after a few more, 'Late War.' Some cards indicate that if they have been played as an event, they are removed from play for the remainder of the game, whereas the rest are placed in a discard pile which is shuffled back into the deck when the deck is gone.

Victory. As mentioned before, there are a few ways to win. One way is to simply have the most VPs at the end of the game, when final scoring is done. Another is to reach 20 VP during gameplay. Another is to gain control of Europe, which is actually very difficult since it's the main battleground. The 'fool's mate' mechanism, in my opinion, involves the DEFCON. The key is that whichever player has played the card which causes the DEFCON to drop below 1 loses immediately. This isn't as straightforward as it sounds. For example, there is a card called 'The Olympics' in which the player playing that card is the Sponsor of the Olympics and the other player can participate or boycott. If the other player boycotts, the DEFCON moves down one - but in this case, if it drops to 1 and ends the game, it is the fault of the player who played the Olympics card, not the boycotter - and they might be forced to play that event by game rules!

The game is a tight, well-balanced, fun and vicious strategy game. It turns on the 'dick move' and the 'truly sneaky ploy' and rewards them appropriately. It plays better when you behave as Cold Warriors should - exercising brinkmanship and pushing the world towards DEFCON 1, intending to dance back from the brink! I cannot recommend this game highly enough if you're a board gamer and enjoy strategy titles.

Optional Rules! These are mine. I have found that keeping a bottle of Stolichnaya and a bottle of Jack Daniels or Jim Beam on the table, and forcing each player to do their country's representative shot either once per turn or maybe when they lose in Coups, increases the hilarity level. Also, docking points for dropping out of character works too (I found myself, playing this game recently, banging my shoe on the table shouting "WE WILL BURY YOU!" while shooting a vodka).

Some card titles I remember (leaky memory, the game's not in front of me) are as follows:

  • Nuclear Submarines. Results in Victory Points and other effects if played as an event.
  • NATO. The USSR may no longer may Coup or Realignment rolls in US controlled countries in Europe. BUT:
  • Willy Brandt. This card negates NATO for West Germany! And:
  • Charles de Gaulle negates it for France!
  • Captured Nazi Scientist allows the player a free move up the Space Race track.
  • UN Intervention - when played with a card of the opposing flag, allows a player to use the Ops points without the event taking place.
  • WE WILL BURY YOU! -yeah, pretty much what it sounds like, the USSR gets influence.
  • How I Learned To Stop Worrying. With a picture of the Dr. Strangelove War Room on it, this card allows the player to set the DEFCON to any level they like, immediately, and counts as 5 Ops towards the required Military Ops.
  • The Iron Lady. US gains 1 VP; remove all USSR influence in the UK, add 1 USSR influence in Argentina.
...and so on. There are, again, over a hundred cards, and nearly all of them will cause Cold War veterans to go "ohhhh, yeah....hahahaha that sucks!"

Enjoy the Struggle!

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