Friday, July 5, 2013

The strategy review - Twilight Struggle

I have always been against the concept of game designers acting as game reviewers, especially when it came to giving rating to games. It seems like an unfair competition and a bad rating given by a designer-reviewer to a competing game carries almost no meaning for me. It would be like BMW rating Mercedes and saying "it's not that good... ours are better".

So, what I plan to start here is a different kind of review, or maybe not a review at all. My focus is on the strategy, on the small tweaks which will make the game so much more enjoyable   First of all I will only talk about the games that I enjoy and I will strive to point out the good mechanism, focus on the DOs rather on the DON'Ts and for sure I won't rate the games. I will not pretend I can be perfectly objective, it's still a personal opinion, but I will do my best to focus on the game itself and highlight its strong points. Well, this was my short ars poetica, now let's move on to the core of this post.

photo: BGG
Twilight Struggle is a strategy game for exactly two players and it has been at the top of the charts for the past few years, so there's o doubt that it's a great game.

The game depicts the struggle for power between USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, while both superpowers are trying not to act as the initiators of a nuclear holocaust.

While the game is card driven, the main mechanism to assert your influence in Twilight Struggle is area control. The players influence at any give point in the game is reflected on a -20 to 20 score track where positive number shows the US player in advantage and negative numbers show the Soviet player in advantage. The game ends after 10 turns or whenever a player reaches the end of the VP scale (20 VP). The game may also end with the victory of one player when the other one causes the start of a nuclear war.

The world map is divided into countries grouped in regions. Every region gets scored at least once per game and the struggle is to have more influence than your opponent in the scored region.

photo: BGG
The cards represent major events of the Cold War and the flavor immerses the players into a tense atmosphere, a great depiction of the long years of the US-Soviet power struggle. With the constant threat of nuclear war, both players are trying to avoid pushing the button while 'encouraging' the opponent to do so. The game play is divided into Early War (3 turns), Mid War (4 turns) and Late War (3 turn) with card increasingly more powerful but also slightly more difficult to play from a strategic point of view.

Being a decent player of Twilight Struggle means being able to avoid defeat during the Early War. An experienced player knows when to play each card (and knows all the cards) and will not depend on the roll of the die to win. 

The major milestone in learning how to play Twilight Struggle well is to know when to expect the scoring cards and how to prepare for them. For beginners, the best way to stay in the game longer is to keep focus on the zones most likely to be scored and to always stay close to his opponent in terms of countries controlled in every region. And with special focus on Europe since controlling all the relevant countries means during Europe scoring leads to instant victory.

The second freebie is to avoid giving away easy VP. At the end of each turn each player must have a number of Military Ops, otherwise he will lose points. It seems like a small amount, but forgetting about them is a sure way to a quick defeat.

Most beginners complain that the hand they were dealt contains mostly opponent's cards. No need to panic, if you're Soviet and your hand is full of US cards, most likely your opponent's hand is full of Soviet cards. You must trust the game with this one, the ranking of this game should be proof enough that the game is balanced (but we'll deal with balance later). Do not forget that there's is a good way to get rid of overpowered enemy cards and make a few points in the process - playing cards for the Space Race. Focusing on the Space Race with the hope that it's a game changer is a sign of beginner's naiveté. Look at this option as means to get rid of certain cards rather than the means to score a significant amount of points.

Now, let's assume that you already know how to play the game and you've managed to survive at least one game until the final scoring against a more experienced player. It's time to move to the next stage.

The China Cards is a "jolly joker" card that moves constantly between the player and holds a significant amount of power. Beginners, especially when playing with the USSR, are usually afraid of using the China card because then they have to give it away for one turn. Since the China card 'belongs' to the Soviets, as a Soviet make sure that you have the means to retrieve it at the right moment in the game. You may do so by placing influence in China and there's not much your opponent can do to stop you. If you're American, well... you already know that the Soviet player has the means to take away the cards, so with your wits make the best of using the China card early in the turn and try to anticipate when your opponent plans to use it.

The rules of the game state that the Scoring cards may not be kept from one turn to the next, so most players see them and use several rounds to prepare for that one card. While this is not technically wrong, there are a few more aspects easy to overlook. Let's assume that you have the Central America scoring card (US player) in some turn during the Mid War. Focusing on achieving control may take a few turns during which the following can happen: 
- your opponent may have two scoring cards in his hand and while he may use one round to pretend to combat your strategy, he will play his best to get a few points on his scoring cards which may end up being more than what you get from yours
- your opponent has no scoring cards so he will estimate which are the scoring cards still left in the draw deck, let you score high on Central America and focus on the future. You may suspect something, but at the end of the turn when you see no other scoring cards played, you will lose focus and stand to lose a lot more points in the near future

The lesson learn is that Twilight Struggle is a both of game of anticipation and patience and a game of seizing the moment. While a scoring cards played late may bring one or two extra points with a lot of effort, a scoring card player early may bring a 1-point or even no advantage when you have a tough hand.

After a dozen plays you'll probably know if not all at least most of the cards, so it's time to look for unwritten connections between them. There are certain sequences which will allow cards to boost the power of other cards. This is what I am usually looking for. There are also a few cards which can get you out of trouble if you know when to use them. UN Intervention is one of them, the one card that cancels the event of the opponent. Playing this card in a meaningless moment is one of the rookie mistakes. It's a personal opinion  but I am willing to keep this card in hand for several rounds until I feel I am gaining the right advantage or getting out of the biggest trouble when playing it.

Last but not least, Twilight Struggle is not balanced and it was not meant to be. With equal players (even though we very well know there's no such thing) I was told that the Soviets have a slightly better chance to win. The reality is that I won as many times with the US as with the USSR and I lost as many times with the Soviets as I did with the Americans. The game is asymmetric and the key is to find the right cards and the right order to play. It seems that in a very strategic game the Soviets have the edge in some key moments, but I would say that it's not significant enough to affect the great quality of this game.

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  1. "You may do so by placing influence in China and there's not much your opponent can do to stop you"

    I don't understand this sentence. There is no way to "place influence in China". You are correct otherwise that the USSR can regain control with another card.

  2. I played the deluxe edition, in which China is a region in which the Soviets may place influence to regain control of the China card.