Friday, 25 April 2014

Game Review: Twilight Struggle


Yesterday my wife and I went hunting for a new board game. We have been playing the likes of Risk, Ticket to Ride and, our old fall-back, Carcassonne for many years now. We wanted something that worked well for two players, as those other games seem to be more fun when you have a larger group. We did some research on the net and this game turned up everywhere:

We picked it up a Games Paradise in Sydney and cracked it open as soon as we got the little ones off to sleep. After a solid 3 hours of play, obviously drawn out as we learned all of the mechanics, I feel like I know enough to give a quick review.
Firstly, Twilight Struggle is not about vampires that sparkle in the sunlight (thank goodness). It is a simulation of the Cold War years that utilises a Risk-like atlas and a card based system for “combat” and events. I hesitate to say those last couple of things, because it goes so far beyond the global context of Risk and “combat” in such an eloquent and sophisticated way, that I may as well come up with an entirely new vernacular. Play it and you will see what I mean.

The board has a few different features that allow you to track progress through the game. It has a Turn Record Track for the ten turns of the game (3 early war, 4 mid-war and 3 late war). The turns get longer and the deck of cards evolves as the game does, which keeps you on your toes. There is a Round track which records which round of the turn you are up to. Each player gets 6 rounds per turn, which increases as the game progresses (7 mid-war, 8 late war). As players spread their influence across the globe and combat each other’s influence, the DEFCON Status track (below) records how close you are to triggering a nuclear holocaust. It is amazing how quickly this thing can escalate! In one round we cranked it all the way up to DEFCON 2 (and suffered the consequences) before I played a Nuclear Test Ban event that cooled things down.
Instead of playing cards as Events you can use their Action Points value to increase your influence in countries, reduce your opponents influence, incite a coup de tat, or make advances in the Space Race. Coups will move you up the Required Military Operations track whilst successful research moves you up the Space Race track (unlocking various benefits). Finally there is the Victory Points track, which can be manipulated in various ways and is set up like a 40 point tug of war.

The value of all of these things, including the historical events on the cards, is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is down-right eerie how this game reflects such complicated history and geopolitical struggle. You find yourself trying to influence countries just because your opponent is trying to. You cut off ideologically different states by influencing their neighbours, then try to unsettle them. You incite coups in unstable states because it is easier to make a difference there (Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Panama, Argentina, Pakistan etc.). You avoid provocative attacks in some states in favour for attacks that will not raise the DEFCON level. You wait for opportune events to make changes in stable states. You perform military operations just to keep up with your enemy’s number of operations (not because you value the actual outcome).
Interestingly, triggering a nuclear war ends the game (and severely punishes the person who “pulls the trigger”). The designers state that this most accurately reflects the consequence of nuclear war and within the boundaries of this mechanism, the game is truly scintillating. I would give it 4/5, but only because I don't know what the endgame is like. This could very well be a 5/5 game.

After 3 hours, my wife and I are tied on points despite the victory point track getting a tremendous workout. The Ruskies are, however, hammering me in the Space Race. Who knows what tonight will bring…
Lest we forget,