Game Length: 3 hours
Best enjoyed: With 2 players after a deep and compelling wargame that improves on repeat plays
Disclaimer: I have not yet played Twilight Struggle, something I hope to rectify soon! This summary is based on impressions from reviews, rules and feedback from others who have played the game.
Twilight Struggle is a two player wargame set during the Cold War and, at the time of writing (and indeed since 2010) the highest-ranked board game on Board Game Geek. It captures a lot of the tension of that time – the threat and bluster, the mistrust and aggression, and the threat of mutual annihilation through nuclear war hanging overhead. It is a tense and fulfilling wargame that fully engages both players and will have them making difficult decisions all game long.
Twilight Struggle is a card-driven wargame, played on world map. Players will influence the board by playing cards. Each card has a unique ability printed on it, as well as a Deployment rating and, most crucially, an alignment – either US, USSR or neutral. The Deployment rating lets you place forces on the board, instigate coups or otherwise influence the state of the board, and if it’s a card of neutral or your own alignment, you’ll have to choose between using it for its ability or for its Deployment rating. If it’s of your opponent’s alignment, you take the Deployment value but must also trigger its ability – invariably, one that is helpful to your opponent.
You’ll need to weigh up your choices all game long, whether to make a key deployment at the cost of giving your opponent the edge or play it safer with one of your own cards. You’ll have to play almost every card in your hand each game turn, so if you have a hand full of your opponent’s cards, you’ll need to choose carefully when you want them to resolve so that they’ll have a lower impact on the game state. Fortunately, if you have a hand of your opponent’s cards, there’s a good chance he has a hand of your cards, and he’ll need to make the exact same excruciating decisions.
Twilight Struggle is evocative of the culture of fear and sabre-rattling of the Cold War. Neither side wants to take the final step towards nuclear war, but will constantly be looking for a way to gain the edge on the other. You’ll have the Defcon rating to worry about; as this heads towards 1 (or, all-out nuclear war), there will be less options for you to instigate armed response. In many cases, you’ll want to race the Defcon towards 2 as soon as possible, to prevent your opponent from taking advantage of relaxed tensions to intervene in crucial conflict zones.
Each card in Twilight Struggle is different, and can be game-changing if you don’t know to take it into account. The Arab-Israeli War, for example, can convert all US influence in Israel to USSR influence, which can be a major thorn in the side of the Allies. Fidel is another powerful card that gives the Soviets a base of power in the Americas. Learning these cards and when they might come up is key to longer-term strategy in Twilight Struggle, and will be a barrier to new players.
Twilight Struggle also relies on dice for many of its resolution mechanisms, with large rewards for success and harsh punishments for failure. For example, the Bear Trap or Quagmire cards can cause a player to simply not be able to play the game for several turns in a row if they happen to roll poorly. Some will find this reliance of dice frustrating, but it is key to the game’s balance; not all results of war are known, you can only do the best to tip the balance in your favour.
If you want a tense two-player wargame with lots of depth, Twilight Struggle comes highly recommended. New players should expect to need a learning game or two before they come to terms with the range of cards available in the game, but once they do, there is a rich and compelling game awaiting them.