Rodger B. MacGowan
|Age range||13 and up|
|Setup time||5–15 minutes|
|Playing time||3 hours|
|Random chance||Medium (Dice, Cards)|
Twilight Struggle: The Cold War, 1945–1989 is a card-driven strategy game for two players, with its theme taken from the Cold War. One player plays the United States (US), and the other plays the Soviet Union (USSR). The game takes its title from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address:
"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..."
The board is a map of the world, separated into six regions: Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Central America and South America. One player plays as the US and the other, as the USSR. Many countries are marked on the map and are connected by lines indicating their adjacency. The most important countries are marked as ‘battleground countries’. There is the ‘turn track’, denoting the current turn, a ‘victory point track’, denoting the current victory point status, the ‘DEFCON track’ denoting the current level of global stability from five (total peace) to one (thermonuclear war), the ‘space race track’, denoting how advanced each player is in the space race, the ‘action round track’, denoting how many cards are left to be played in the turn, and the ‘military operations track’, denoting how militaristic each player has been in the turn. The game is separated into ten turns which roughly cover the Cold War from 1945 to 1989. Turn One to Turn Three are the ‘Early War’, Turn Four to Turn Seven are the ‘Mid War’, and Turn Eight to Turn Ten are the ‘Late War’.
The victory point track ranges from +20 (US) to -20 (USSR), and starts on 0. As such, when the US receives one victory point, it can also be interpreted as the USSR losing one victory point, and vice versa. Throughout the game, a player can win by any of the following:
- Reaching 20 victory points
- “Controlling” Europe when Europe comes to be scored
- If DEFCON degrades to one (i.e. thermonuclear war breaks out) in the other player's turn, irrespective of which player's actions "caused" this to occur.
- If "Wargames" is played, and the phasing player has at least six victory points.
If neither player has won by the end of Turn Ten, each region is scored and this, coupled with the victory point track, determines the winner.
The main thrust of the game is in politically influencing the countries of the world to align with either the US or the USSR. The US places numbered blue tokens to indicate its influence, and the USSR places red tokens. Each country’s political stability is ranked from one to five. If one player has placed at least this many influence in the country more than the other player, then they are said to control it. For example, the stability of Iraq is three. If the USSR player has placed five influence in Iraq and the US, only two, then the USSR will control it.
The game is driven by cards, each of which depicts an event of the Cold War. Cards are split into three decks for the Early, Mid and Late Wars with the historical events organised into a vague timeline. At the start of Turn One, the Early War deck is used. At the start of Turn Four, the Mid War deck is shuffled in with the remaining Early War cards. At the start of Turn Eight, the late war deck is shuffled in. Players each have a hand of eight cards (nine from Turn Four onwards). At the start of each turn, they each pick a card to play as the "headline event". Then, they take it in turns in playing cards, with the USSR going first. This happens seven (or eight) times. Usually, each player will have one card left at the end of the turn. The next turn then starts and each player is dealt additional cards from the deck to bring their total up to eight (or nine). Each card has a star in the upper left corner. A white star indicates that it is a US-favourable event, a red star indicates that it is a USSR-favourable event, and a mixed star indicates that it could be either. There is a number from one to four in the star which indicates its strength. A card can either be played for the event or for its operations points. For example, the event “Fidel” allows USSR to place sufficient influence in Cuba to control it. Alternatively, to play it for the operations, the player takes the number in the upper left corner and conducts operations. The operations which can be played are:
- Place influence – the player places influence in any country in which she already has influence or which is adjacent to a country in which she had influence at the start of the action round. She may place as many influence as are denoted by the number on the card. If the other player controls the country in question, each influence costs two instead of one
- Attempt a coup – the player declares the target of the coup and rolls a D6. The country need not be adjacent to any friendly influence. She adds the result to the number on the card, deducts double the target country’s stability number, and if the result is positive removes that many of her opponent’s influence markers, and may even add influence of her own with any excess.
- Attempt realignments – the player rolls a D6 and adds one for having more influence in the target country than the other player, one for each adjacent country controlled, and one if it is adjacent to her superpower, and deducts a similar roll made by the defending player. The difference between the die rolls, if positive, is removed from the losing player’s influence, but the winning side may not add influence. She may make as many realignment rolls as is indicated by the number on the card.
- Attempt to advance in the Space Race – the player rolls a D6 and, if she succeeds in the conditions as specified on the Space Race track, she advances in the Space Race.
If the player chooses to play a card for the operations, she must spend all of the points on one type of operation, and may not carry any over. If the event is favourable to the player (or to both players), then she may play it either for the event or the operations. If it is favourable to the other player only, then she must use it for the operations, and the event will take place nevertheless, although she may choose which happens first. A card is placed in the ‘discard pile’ once used, other than certain event cards which are removed from play and placed in the ‘burn pile’. When the deck runs out, the discard pile is shuffled and becomes the new deck.
Players cannot pass their turn.
Each region has a scoring card in the deck, which cannot be used for operations. When a player draws a scoring card, he must play it that turn. Victory points are awarded to both players, based on whether each has "presence" in, "domination" (control of a majority of states and a majority of battleground states), or "control" (control of a majority of states and all battleground states) of a region. During scoring, additional points are also scored for the number of battleground states controlled in the relevant region, and further points for states adjacent to the enemy superpower. Control of Europe during a scoring causes the relevant player to win the game outright.
Europe, Asia and the Middle East scoring cards are in play from the start of the game, whereas Africa and South and Central America are not added to the deck until Mid-Game. There is also a single (one-off) scoring card for South-East Asia, which will most likely be drawn some time in the mid-game, corresponding to the time of the actual Vietnam War.
If a player uses a card to attempt to advance in the Space Race, the event on the card does not happen, making it a useful way of disposing of an opponent-favourable event.
Players may normally only use one card on the Space Race per turn. There are various rewards for reaching certain points on the Space Race (e.g. victory points).
Whenever a coup attempt is made on a battleground country, the DEFCON degrades one level. If the DEFCON reaches one, the player whose turn it is loses. Some events cause the DEFCON to change also. The DEFCON level sets restrictions on where players can attempt coups and realignments (e.g. players may only coup and realign in Europe when the DEFCON is at five, while they remain possible in less stable regions such as Africa and Latin America at lower DEFCON). At the end of each turn, the DEFCON improves one level.
Whenever a player attempts a coup or plays a war event (some of which, e.g. the Korean War, are one offs, whilst others may occur several times throughout the game, e.g., the Indo-Pakistan Wars or Arab-Israeli Wars until the Camp David Accord occurs), the operations number of that card will be added to their military operations track (to a maximum of five).
At the end of each turn, if a player’s military operations does not equal or exceed the DEFCON level, then she loses the difference in victory points. For example, if the US player is at one on the military operations track, and the DEFCON is at three at the end of the turn, then she loses two victory points. Provided each player conducts the same number of military operations—even if that number is zero—each turn the VP effect cancels itself out.
The Vietnam War and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan are portrayed slightly differently, as game events requiring the relevant player to discard a card each turn and take no other action, effectively paralysing him, until he successfully rolls a die for it to end.
The China Card
All countries, even lesser world powers such as Britain and France, are shown as satellites of one or other superpower, or else uncontrolled. The game's Designer Notes explain that this represents the internal logic of the Cold War mentality, even when that logic is now known to be flawed.
The exception is China, which is not shown as a country to be controlled on the map, but rather as a card which starts in Soviet hands. It can be used as a normal card for four operations, or five if it is used solely in Asia. When it is played, it passes to the other player face down and unavailable for use, representing China tilting from one bloc to the other; at the start of the next turn, that player turns it face up and can use it. At the end of Turn Ten, the player who holds the China Card receives a victory point.
General game dynamics
A game of Twilight Struggle requires players to choose between competing objectives, spreading their reach as far as possible to ensure access to key regions later in the game but often cutting losses and focussing elsewhere if the other player has the advantage. Throughout the game they must make decisions about timing, playing cards at an optimal time to minimise the damage from the opponent-favourable events of which each player can expect to be dealt roughly three or four in any given turn, or performing a coup first so that the other player cannot (e.g. because the DEFCON level is now too low).
Twilight Struggle has been emulated for computer by Vassal and WarGameRoom. In April 2016, a paid version was released on Steam, which allowed players to play against others via an internet connection as well as, for the first time, against the computer. The game has been received very positively.
Zev Shlasinger comments that "Twilight Struggle gives you a compact history lesson about the Cold War, nicely encapsulating the struggle between the two superpowers and those caught (accidentally or not) between them. Coupled with that is the game's accessibility and the design's cleverness, all of which make Twilight Struggle stand out among the crowd of recent political wargame releases."
Twilight Struggle won the 2005 Charles S. Roberts award for Best Modern Era boardgame, and the 2006 International Gamers Award for Best Wargame and Best 2 Player Game. It was the first game ever to win two International Gamers Awards. Twilight Struggle also received a 2006 nomination for the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming. In 2007, the game received a nomination from Games Magazine for Best Historical Simulation.
GMT also published 1989, covering the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, in 2012. The game system is very similar, with a "Tiananmen Square" track corresponding to Twilight Struggle's Space Race.
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