Time: 90 – 140 minutes
Times Played: 70~
I honestly don’t remember buying Twilight Struggle. The box tells me that I got it from a now out of business website (there was a coupon still attached) but I want to say that this was one of our first ten board game purchases. Maybe even original five. Pandemic and Ticket to Ride were the first two, in that order. Actually, reminiscing, Twilight Struggle might have been the first non-TTR or Pandemic game we purchased. I know we got expansions for those but they don’t really count as *new* games (at least, that’s what I tell myself).
Our first edition had the rudimentary paper board and served us well for education purposes. Maybe twenty plays after that, we gifted the board and pieces to a friend and upgraded to the actual board and have played that fifty or so times. In fact, very recently, we hit a milestone for the first time in the game: we reached the Late War era. Promptly after completing the game, the board ripped down the middle.
We have played a few times since but it’s hard to top that occasion and obviously, I need to invest in a new board.
Twilight Struggle is not the heaviest game that I have had the pleasure of playing but it can definitely be daunting, especially if it is your first foray into the GMT style of games. This is one of the few games where it truly gets better the more times you play it. After several plays, you’ll know what some of the cards are, you’ll have an idea of how the world develops each turn, and you’ll start to get a grasp on the little nuances that are Coups and Realignments.
I will mention that we did not “get good” at this game until probably our tenth or maybe even our fifteenth game. But it has to mean something that we played this game so many times where we were both dreadfully awful and fudging rules. Our initial games could last two or more hours and sometimes were left up overnight to be continued the next day.
Twilight Struggle is a wargame that focuses on the Cold War, which pitted the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) against one another from 1945 through 1989. During the course of the game, both players are trying to build their nation’s influence around the world and control strategic battleground countries. Every round, players will draw a hand of cards and play them, with each card having a value for Military Operations (“Ops”) and an Event for use.
From these cards, Ops can be used for placing influencing, removing your opponents influence (Realignment), or removing your opponents influence and adding your own (Coups). Coups and Realignment actions also use the roll of a dice, so there is a little chance involved. When a Coup occurs in a battleground country, the DEFense readiness CONdition (DEFCON) will increase towards global nuclear war. If the DEFCON level ever reaches the final stage during a players turn, that player immediately loses. This could happen because of a card they played or because of something their opponent has done.
Besides Ops, the cards also feature Events that reflect significant individuals and events that occurred during the Cold War. There are three stages of cards: Early War, Mid War, and Late War. The cards include events that could benefit one nation, both nations, or neither nation.
Where Twilight Struggle goes from just a game to brilliant (in my eyes) is how these cards are used. For example, if you are playing as the United States and want to play a card that could benefit your nation, you must decide whether you will use your card for the Ops or for the Event. Some Events, once played, are discarded from the deck for the rest of the game. So you have to make a choice of how you want to play the card. If used for Ops, there’s a possibility that you may see the card again when a new round permits shuffling, but it’s no guarantee. It might end up in your opponents hands.
But lets say you have a card that benefits the USSR. You can use the Ops but your opponents Event must happen. This is one of my favorite rules in all of board gaming and it makes every single action in the game tense, just like the Cold War. The decisions that have to be made to control the damage and weather the storm is just phenomenal.
The scoring also reflects the dog-fight that was the Cold War and is another great mechanic that needs mentioning. Instead of the United States gaining ten points and the USSR seven, the United States gains three towards their goal, in a tug-o-war style fashion.
This is the basic gist of the game. There are some other rules that are important, such as how scoring is accomplished, how each round is played, and the Space Race but the rulebook does a decent job of explaining these scenarios. It is not perfect and there can be some ambiguity, but there are FAQ’s and revisions online and these may have been included since I bought my version years ago.
Speaking of the rulebook, it also includes a reference that covers the first round of the game, which I implore any new player to read as it helps explain what is going on and more importantly, why.
Twilight Struggle is a complex game; I am not denying that. But it is also incredibly simple once you start playing.
If you enjoy history, Twilight Struggle is a blast just to see how they incorporated the Events into the game. Once you have a few plays under your belt, you will know a certain event is coming and realize that there is really no way to combat it, just like in real life.
Twilight Struggle is an incredibly tense game that forces players to make important decisions each and every turn. Players will overthink and over-analyze their plays before, during, and after they lay a card down. The rolling of dice does add some unpredictability and luck to the game and that can rub some people the wrong way but I’ve never had a situation where it put us off the game.
For such a tense game, I’ve never seen tempers flare, which is nice. Every time someone does something that causes the end of the game to be reached, the discussion goes straight to “what did I do wrong?” or “what could I have done differently?”
Due to the way the game is played, there is never any real downtime. Each turn, you are evaluating your hand of cards and what you want to play, anticipating and reacting to what your opponent is doing. This is a game that will take two hours but you won’t know it until you look at the clock.
There are things to note about this game though that after a few games might have you thinking about balance issues. The USSR is stronger in the early game and the US is stronger in the late game. If you have a player that you think might struggle with this game, having them play as the USSR to begin is a nice start as it will boost their confidence and keep some errant decisions in check.
There are games that will end in the Early War. There are some that will end in the Mid War. There are also some lucky people that will make it to the Late War.
I was, and still am, incredibly impressed by the way the creators of this game were able to merge the game mechanics with the historical theme.
I would mention that if you have not played Twilight Struggle before to watch a walkthrough or playthrough just to get a basic sense of what is about to be thrown at you. As I mentioned earlier as well, if you’re not prepared to learn and grow with this game, it might not be for you. There is a time commitment to playing Twilight Struggle and playing five games to see if you really do like it could take ten hours (hopefully not in a row).
One issue with this game is that it might be hard to find another player that wants to play this game as it can be hours of moving pieces and flipping cards over. This is not a social game.
There can be a lot of things to remember during the course of the game. There are little chits that serve as reminders for players but unless you’re actively looking at the board, they could get lost in the shuffle.
Although there are only two nations, the variety of cards add an absurd amount of variations to the game. Also, playing as the other nation will completely change your game planning and opens up even more variability.
There is a reason that Twilight Struggle was the number one rated game on Board Game Geek for so long. A lot of games can suffer after a certain amount of plays and as Twilight Struggle nears one hundred for me, the staying power is extraordinary.
The set-up is relatively simple and can be varied with each playthrough, depending on where you place your influence.
Secondly, as a game that is quite heavy, it’s certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re new to gaming as a hobby, you may feel the need to work your way up through lighter and medium-weight games before you’re ready to dive into a game like Twilight Struggle. But if you do have the time and energy for it, I can say without hesitation that I believe you’ll be glad you gave it a try.