Twilight Struggle – Review

Twilight Struggle Overview

Game Genre: Area Majority, Card-Driven Wargame
Designer: Anand Gupta and Jason Matthews
Publisher: GMT Games
Number of Players: 2
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The Cold War was a time of high tension, a time where knee-jerk paranoia settled upon every link in the chain of command, a time where many an action by any state actor spurred many a disproportionate response. In it, two world powers faced off to defend their ideology and their way of life. Military forays, espionage, and propaganda would be the tools used to forge the new world order.

Twilight Struggle Mindgames Are Intense

Twilight Struggle takes place within this context, immersing you in Cold War intrigues. Each turn, you’ll get a hand of cards. The cards might contain neutral events, events related to your side, or events related to your opponent. You’ll have to decide whether to use cards for the historical event (like start the Indo-Pakistani War or launch the Marshall Plan), to build up your influence around the globe, aid in research to enable travel into space, or use the card to score a region. But if you use a card belonging to your opponent (say, you’re the USA and you play the Warsaw Pact), you can use the card to influence one or more countries, but in return, you’ll activate a historical event that’ll benefit your opponent.

Because of the way the game is structured, every turn is burgeoning with tension. In the course of each round, you’ll have to wrack your brain to make your hand of cards work for you. If you’re stuck with a hand of your opponent’s cards, the problem will be finding ways to defuse the situation while maintaining your board position.

But even if your hand is favorable towards your side, your opponent will be doing their best to make your life miserable. They’ll be using their cards to advance their cause, spread their influence around the world, and stymie your attempts. Naturally, you’ll be doing the same to them. As you and your opponent play cards, your goal will be to anticipate when scoring will occur. You’ll generally have an idea when they’ll come up, but you can’t predict with 100% certainty when they’ll show.

This can lead to delicious mindgames. When your opponent makes a bold push into Asia while shoring up their territory in the Middle East, what are they trying to do? Do they have the Asia Scoring Card, or is it a feint to distract you from the true goal of taking the Middle East? Is their bumbling foray into Europe a setup for an event card that can flip things over into their advantage? As you play Twilight Struggle, you’ll have to take all those thoughts into consideration and the litany of scenarios to ponder over is what makes Twilight Struggle engaging and exciting.

Twilight Struggle has a High Knowledge Burden

All in all, teaching Twilight Struggle to new gamers is an easy task. Tell them to read the card text. Tell them what they can do with the card. Done. What makes the game’s learning curve steep for newcomers is its card-driven mechanics. The game is text-heavy. New players will have to read through each card to understand what the card does. Then, they have to understand the ramifications of triggering the event and how to prepare for or mitigate its effects.

Confused? Here’s an example: in the Early War, there’s a USA card that allows them to take control of Japan. Just like that. Soviet players who aren’t familiar with the game might accidentally commit influence into Japan without knowing that effort is futile. Or USA players might not be aware of Blockade, a card that wipes out all USA influence in West Germany unless the US player discards a card of sufficient power. So new USA players might not know to keep a high-powered card in reserve until the threat has been removed.

Essentially, knowing what cards come out when is a big part of getting good at the game. The knowledge burden that the game imposes upon you (if you want to play well) and the sheer amount of text to go through will make the first game of Twilight Struggle a long one. And that’s on top of the myriad of decisions to be made about how to spend those influence points. Place influence? OK where? Coup? OK, what country? Realign? OK, where?

But overcome that by understanding the effects of your decisions and the game’s depth really opens up as feints and forays lead to counter-feints and counter-forays. Twilight Struggle’s delicious mindgames and constant tension and paranoia transform it from what could have been a mere historical simulation into an intense knife fight where no quarter is given.

Verdict: 10/10 – Masterpiece: Once you’ve gotten an understanding of Twilight Struggle’s mechanics and an idea of which cards to watch out for, the game delivers exhilarating experiences as you grind out for points on the board’s regions. The game’s ability to generate tension and surprise is what keeps me coming back for more.

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