Type: Card Driven / Area Control

Time to play: 60 – 90 minutes (Teaching: 15 – 20 minutes)

Best played with: 2 Player (Only)

Twilight Struggle is iconic. It was #1 on Board Game Geek for years and there it comes from a prestigious publisher with a roster of games in this genre. This epic 2 player is the pinnacle for many players because it is perhaps the original card driven war game to implement many of these mechanics. There is a small expansion to this, but I won’t cover that in this review – here I will focus on the base game, both tactile and digital.

So you want to replay the cold war but with you taking the role of one of the two most powerful men in the world? You can either control an expansionist America gaining influence across the globe, or perhaps a power hungry Russia bringing that iron curtain ever closer to the west. The play style of the two parties is asymmetric and mirroring history – vying for control of regions, focusing on key battle grounds in those regions and following the lead of the pace setter for that era.

In general Russia leads this game – starting player and with a slight advantage in the early war card. Set the stage for the fight – start in the middle east? Take over Asia? As the game progress that first turn remains important but the deck tilts back against you as the influence of communism falls away.

The American player’s experience is reactive – contain, control and plan. If you can position for ties, play the scoring at the right time or perhaps set up your position for South America – you are making strategic gains for the future.

So how does the game play? Well it’s a card driven game where you have four possible moves: (i) play the event, (ii) place influence, (iii) start a coup or (iv) re-alignment. The last of these is a niche strategy but the first three are the key to the games.

The first is to play the card as per the text – there’s an opportunity to gain a powerful but specific advantage. Sometimes it plays to your strategy, sometimes it boosts your chances that round, but watch out because a powerful move without follow through is irrelevant or even wasteful. Also, watch out because if you play a card with your opponent’s event it will trigger anyway – sometimes this is manageable but sometimes this is damaging. There’s a small variance to the four options above – space race. The option to through a card to avoid playing it. Useful, but not to be over used. You need to manipulate the board and sometimes that requires you to take small negative events.

The second option then is to place influence – pushing your agenda in a region. If it’s contested or undefended that’s easy, but if it’s dominated by your opponent then it will cost you 2 for each 1 influence – this is a highly wasteful way of spending points but sometimes necessary.

The third and fourth options swing the board from one player to another – coups can’t cause you loses, and can regain loss territory. However, coups and re-alignments require a dice roll and this luck can be managed but remains unpredictable. With either you must also over come the country’s natural defense – a marker shown on the top left of the country. These are situation specific and again typically led by Russia. One particularly important note is that coup’s in battlegrounds degrade the DEFCON. If the DEFCON goes to 1, then the player whose turn it is loses. Note that’s the player whose turn it is and not the player who caused it – some events will cause this in your turn or give your opponent the option to cause this in your turn, and these are really dangerous cards to carry through the game.

That’s enough on core mechanics though, because this game is more about reading the other player – is the Russia player leading in the Middle East because they have the scoring card or because they want you to ignore the smaller gains in Asia? The players control when regions score – cards that come through the deck. Initially it’s only Europe, Middle East and Asia but as the cold war grows and the sides ambition develops, you score for the rest. When these score is important and controlling that from your hand (or defending against it) is essential.

This then becomes a tense game of cat and mouse across a number of regions, and unless one player makes a mistake with a DEFCON card then it’s likely that neither player will reach the 20 points of absolute victory, or the harder still European domination. This game then plays through to a natural cold war conclusion – leaving players to see which superpower edged the influence over the globe and is best placed for the 21st century.

Now if you are a fan of rewriting history why wouldn’t you go for this? Well simply put this is a masterpiece of strategy but the masters of this have good memories. The masters of Twilight Struggle learn the cards, learn when scoring cards come out, learn when it’s important to coup (in Iraq turn 1). For that reason it can be daunting for new players – thrown around the roller coaster of the card events, and feeling that their more experienced teacher is all the time manipulating you with every suggestion.

The only other thing that might deter you is the setup and administration of this game. This is at first quite large, but the routine of this becomes simple quickly. Also, there’s a digital implementation if you need it / want it / can’t find someone to play against. The online community is well supported and the game plays excellently.

Last notes;

  • If you like a deep mix of strategy and tactics in a tense two player – grab this classic
  • If you need no random cards, no dice – there might be an edge too much here
  • If you win, try the other side! (and watch out for your opponent learning your moves!)