I’ve been looking for a good complex board-game to get my teeth into for a while now. There’s something very appealing about colourful punch card counters spread over an interesting-looking board, but I’ve never actually got around to buying and playing one. This year when we made our yearly trip to Salute (the South London Warlords’ huge wargames show) this was one item on the mental shopping list, although I didn’t have a specific candidate in mind. I don’t think there’s yet been a Salute when I haven’t gone with half a mind to buying one, or spent a good half hour perusing the vast swathes of hex grid-laden boxes on the stalls.
This year I stumbled across the intruiging box for Twlight Struggle, which triggered a memory of several raving reviews I’d read on boardgamegeek.com. It was an interesting choice for sure, set amid the political struggles of the Cold War rather than the all-out warfests that I’d thought I’d end up settling on. Still, the images on the back of the box had me sold so I paid out the £45 and walked away with a copy. The fact that two separate people stopped me as I walked to the exit whilst admiring the box to tell we what a great choice I’d made meant that when I got round to playing it my expectations were high.
The game is actually quite simple in some respects. It’s a two-player game, with one side taking control of the US and the other the USSR. The game is driven by a deck of cards. Every turn each player draws enough cards to fill their hand and then the players play them in alternating “action rounds”. The player can choose to either play the card to gain “Operations Points”, as indicated by the number in the card’s corner, or to trigger the event desribed in the card’s text.
Here’s the interesting bit: each card is alligned to either the US or the USSR. If the card is alligned to your opponent, then even if you play the card for its Operations Points the event will happen, no matter how much it benefits them and not you. And you have to play a card every action round. Therefore a large part of the game revolves around trying to get rid of potentially damaging cards in as least harmful way as possible.
Operations points are spent either peacefully gaining influence in foreign countries, or through more aggressive actions like coups. If you gain enough influence in a country you gain control of it. They can also be spent to advance your nation’s progress in the space race.
Events are all based on historical happenings of the Cold War and have a variey of effects, from triggering wars, spreading influence, modifying or revealing player’s hands and scoring victory points.
Speaking of Victory Points, this is the main way that you win the game. Victory Points are scored by dominating or controlling regions of the Earth at the time that the region’s scoring card is played. Regions are controlled by controlling the majority of nations within it, with a special emphasis placed on “battleground” nations; areas that historically served as flashpoints. Scoring 20 VP’s or having the highest total at the game end win you the game. Other ways of winning the game include achieving total control of the Europe region, or if your opponent is foolish enough to trigger a nuclear war. The coundown to nuclear war is monitored by a Defcon track, with each successful coup in a battleground nation causing the Defcon status to sink by one. If it gets to Defcon 1 and it was during your action round you lose!
There’s a bit more detail to the game but thats the basic idea.
My opponent for the first game was Gethin. I’d played through one turn at Rich’s house the day after Salute to get a feel for the rules, but otherwise we were both new to the game. I should admit though, that I’d had a quick read of a couple of strategy guides before the game. We diced off for sides with me ending up as the US, and Geth as the USSR.
Anyway, at the start of the game the board looks something like this:
Note that I took this photo before the optional deployments in Europe. Most starting deployments are fixed, but both players get to distribute some counters in Western (US) and Eastern (USSR) Europe at the start of the game. Both Geth and I used our optional deployments either nabbing or reinforcing the battleground countries.
I got off to a great start with a first-turn play of the Marshal Plan to spread US influence throughout Western Europe. During the Early War period (1945 to ~ 1960) I was able to gain the ascendancy in not only Europe, but the MIddle East and Asia as well. These are the only regions with scoring cards in the deck during the Early War which let me open a bit of a lead. Geth’s early hands weren’t as strong, but he managed to invade South Korea to stay in contention in Asia, whilst storming ahead in the space race and opening up influence fronts in Africa and the Americas ready for the Mid War. At the end of the Early War the board looked like this:
The ensuring Mid War period was characterised by a delicate balance in the Early War regions, with Central America being the site of a vicious back and forth of coup attempts. I managed to score once in the Middle East, despite frequent instabilities in Egypt, and Central America. Gethin was able to gain some points in Southeast Asia (thanks to a major misplay on my part) but was frequently unable to find the scoring cards he needed when he had the advantage. At the end of the Mid War I was hanging on to a slim lead, with the majority of regions not dominated by either of us. The stage was set for a tense Late War.
As the game rolled into the late 70’s I made the choice to focus my attentions back on Europe and Asia. The scoring cards for South America and the Middle East were already in the discard pile and the deck was a long way from being reshuffled (as happens each time the draw pile runs out). This lead to one one of the more interesting exchanges in the game.
Having scored Europe to increase my lead, I deliberately started a coup in Panama to ratchet the Defcon status down a bit. The lower the Defcon status sinks the more restictions are placed on further coups in the valuable regions so keeping Defcon low seemd a good way to choke Gethin out of Asia. Panama was chosen for being a fairly easy target, and Gethin’s dominance in Central America seemed like a threat. Gethin responded in kind, and so began another series of exchanges in this region, each of us convinced that the other was holding the scoring card.
Into turn 9 and I drew into a virtually perfect hand whilst Gethin’s face showed he was stuggling. He managed to complete the Space Race to draw close again on the VP track, but I managed to score Asia and then drop “Wargames”, a card that lets you end the game at the expense of 6 VP’s, to win by 4.
Of course neither of us had the Central America scoring card, and the whole exhange during turn 8 had been for nothing. The very next card would have been the Africa scoring card, which Gethin had been searching for all game.
Overall the game was very tense and quite draining. I’d read somewhere that the avarage game length is somewhere around 3 hours. We clocked in at 6 hours spread over two evenings. No doubt we’d be quicker in a second game, and this one did run very close to the full duration.
Perhaps this is a cliche for a board game review, but the game is full of tough choices. The fact is at some point you will end having to play a card that really screws you. A large part of the game is figuring out how to do it in a way that has least impact. We both spent a long time staring at our hands trying to figure out the best sequence to play them in, or trying to figure out what was in each other’s. I also like the fact that some cards are removed from the game when used as an event whilst others go into the discard pile and therefore end up getting shuffled back in and end up repeating several times. I think we must have had at least 3 Indo-Pakistani Wars during the game!
My initial impression is that the game strikes a good balance between skill and chance elements, and that there is plenty of in-depth strategy to get your teeth into. I’m certainly looking foward to the next game.
With regards to quality the game board is printed onto very thick card and seems very durable and I think the artwork is pretty good, especially for a game of this type where graphics are sometimes “functional”. The counters are similarly printed onto good card, and the cards themselves are plastic-coated.
Any criticisms? Only minor ones that I can think of. There are a limited number of options to spend Operation Points on so over a long game it can get perhaps a tiny bit repetitive. I’ll leave my final conclusions until I’ve played another game or two.