Twilight Struggle

This review was a difficult one to write, in the main because figuring out who the audience is for Twilight Struggle is modestly tricky. Conceptually, it lies somewhere in difficult terrain between German-style social games and American-style wargames, where it is surrounded by Memoir ’44 (towards the German end) and Hammer of the Scots (towards the American end); but because it’s not cleanly a part of an identifiable genre, it makes comparisons difficult. Another difficulty in fairly evaluating Twilight Struggle is my rocky personal experience recently with GMT and inexperienced designers. As a game company, GMT is incredibly hit-or-miss for me because they don’t do consistent development work, the one thing we have come to expect from a game company these days, and the one thing that is critical for many designers. So, when they have a talented and scrupulous designer or a good designer-developer team, GMT has given us some great stuff (Rick Young and Jesse Evan’s Europe Engulfed, Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Downtown, or anything by Vance VonBorries or Mark Simonitch). When they don’t, we get 30 Years War, Empire of the Sun, or The Napoleonic Wars, games which range from the dysfunctional to simply having an unacceptable amount of errata.

Twilight Struggle is set in the Cold War years of 1946-1989-ish, with the Soviet Union and America squaring off for world domination. Despite its obviously wargamey heritage, Twilight Struggle is easiest to describe as an old-fashioned area-control eurogame. The world is divided into countries, and these countries are grouped into regions. Players allocate influence to control countries, and control of these countries then dictates control of regions. Some countries (“Battleground” countries, like Israel, Iraq, the Koreas, Cuba, and Venezuela) are more important than others and worth points on their own, and the way to dominate a region is to control both more countries than your opponent and more of the battleground countries.

Influence is put on the board through card play. Each card in the deck of 110 cards has an activation rating of 1-4, which is how much influence you can play. To spice things up, though, each card also comes with a famous event of the Cold War: from the Marshall Plan through We Will Bury You to Tear Down This Wall. Each event is typically associated with one power or the other: the Marshall Plan, for example, is an American event. If you play a card to place influence, and the event on the card belongs to your opponent, he gets to do it. If you play a card with one of your own events, you must choose between the event and the influence. While the choice of how to play a card with your own event is usually fairly straightforward (most of the events are of the type that add or subtract some influence somewhere), the choices of how to dispose of your opponent’s events are usually more interesting. Usually the damage from events like Nasser or Reagan Bombs Libya can be mitigated, but sometimes you really need the influence now, and sometimes you have a hand full of your opponent’s events, and need to enter serious damage-control mode. As you look at the hand of cards you are faced with, you really need to plan, to figure out how much influence you need, and to decided which events can be played when for maximum or minimum impact.

The most important cards in this respect are the scoring cards, one for each region of the world (which older eurogamers will probably be unable to resist calling “Wertung” cards). If you have one (or more) of these in your hand, you’ll have to play it at some time during the turn, triggering scoring of the named region. Obviously, this can be good or bad, and the uncertainty about scoring is what gives the game a lot of its tension. Does the influence your opponent is pouring into Asia mean he or she is planning to score there? Or is it just coincidental? And can you get some more influence into the Middle East without telegraphing your own scoring card, drawing a response you can’t handle?

There are some more interesting details like country stability (stable countries are harder to control but much harder to wrest from enemy control, while low-stability countries topple if you look at them funny), coups which are a risky way to get influence into a country quickly, and realignment, which provides a “domino effect” by allowing nearby countries to influence their neighbors, all of which serve to give the game some tactical depth.
As you can see, Twilight Struggle has a lot of good and interesting stuff in it. Nontheless, it would be easy to write a lukewarm review for the game. The first problem is that Twilight Struggle could easily be thrown in the ring with classic German-style area-control games (or their variants) like El Grande or Blue Moon, against which it is not going to fare that well. Twilight Struggle is longish at 3 hours or so, and simply lacks the subtlety, depth or tension of El Grande. Blue Moon or Beowulf are similar “efficiency”-type games, where you are trying to use your cards to win a lot of competitions by a little and lose a few competitions by a lot, but both pack a lot more gaming punch into much smaller packages (and Beowulf even features a theme as good as, and probably even better than, Twilight Struggle).

OK, fair enough, so maybe Twilight Struggle should really be evaluated as a wargame? But here too we run into trouble. Twilight Struggle takes as long to play as (if not longer than) classics like Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, and certainly doesn’t have anything like the depth and tension of that game. It doesn’t fare well going up against low-end Columbia classics like War of 1812 or Hammer of the Scots either, being both longer (much longer in the case of War of 1812) and less efficient with our gaming time by providing a significantly lower density of interesting game choices. And Twilight Struggle certainly lacks both the depth and historical flavor of “true” wargames like Rommel in the Desert, Squad Leader, Ardennes ’44, Breakout: Normandy, EastFront, or Paths of Glory.

I should mention too that GMT is not making things easier with their by-now-typical productions problems: the scoring summary on the reference card is wrong, the DefCon track has a critical omission, the setup has a major omission, the player aid sheets have blank space and yet manage to be incomplete (a correct summary of how to control a region would be nice), and we have a fascinating new country called “Chili”. And the retail price ($57) is too high – although who pays retail for wargames these days?

But at the end of the day, I did rather like Twilight Struggle, and I think both of these comparisons are wrong. The niche that Twilight Struggle occupies is, I think, the “American-style” game. In terms of current games, it’s up against the likes of Fantasy Flight, Eagle, Warfrog, and maybe Z-Man or Phalanx before its mid-life crisis: games like War of the Ring, Parthenon, Struggle of Empires, and Conquest of the Empire II. While it’s going to get beat up here on components in most cases, especially considering the price (it contains precisely zero detailed plastic models, despite being at the same price point as War of the Ring), from both a gameplay and flavor standpoint it trounces these games while arguably being simpler, rules-wise, and in a field of terribly over-long games Twilight Struggle’s playing time turns into an asset instead of a liability. While I still have some underlying uncertainties about the balance of Twilight Struggle (both in terms of play and game balance), things are in much better shape than these games, in general.

The questioning reader may be asking at this point whether this is just an exercise in pointless gerrymandering. Can I really give Twilight Struggle a thumbs-up just by moving it into a category dominated by lousy, underdeveloped games? And that’s a fair question. I think there are a significant number of readers who will play this game and be unimpressed, immediately going back to Hannibal, Rommel in the Desert, Hammer of the Scots, El Grande, or Blue Moon. But if you wanted to like War of the Ring but couldn’t, quite (or at least not as much as everyone else did), or find yourself always tempted by but slightly dissatisfied with Warfrog or Eagle games, I think Twilight Struggle will fit the bill. The game has a very nice historical fun factor, especially for those who personally remember some of the events in the deck. The game really does grasp the grand sweep of the Cold War – you start with an empty board and the Marshall Plan, work your way through Sputnik going “beep … beep … beep” and influence and coup your way through 50 years of closely-fought competition to a congested board and The Iron Lady. By the time it is done, maybe you won, maybe you got hosed by the cards, but you feel like you’ve been through something – the game has had a momentum and an ebb and flow that is interesting in and of itself. Capturing this sort of dynamic can really breathe life into a game, and is surprisingly rare in this category of games – the absence of it in games like Wallenstein, Parthenon, Antike, Conquest of the Empire II, or the new Arkham Horror is probably what ultimately condemns those games for me, while its presences in Beowulf or Lord of the Rings is remarkable. Whatever it is, exactly, Twilight Struggle’s got it. This is combined with an underlying game that, while not strong enough to compete with true German games, is strong enough to do the job. There is tension in the card choices, and enough tactical depth in developing networks of controlled countries to satisfy the gamer.

This leads me to the best comparison I have: this is a very similar game in style to Histogames’ (and soon Rio Grande’s) Friedrich. While they are different stylistically, they are both low-complexity games built on top of very German-ish engines. They both are wedged in somewhere between euros and wargames, trying to emphasize historical flavor. They are both games of card efficiency. For me personally, Twilight Struggle manages a few things that Friedrich couldn’t quite: keeping the playtime under control (if just barely), keeping the density of interesting decisions higher, better capturing the historical flavor, and generally condensing the play to give a better feel of historical sweep. I like both games, but while Friedrich couldn’t quite grab me, Twilight Struggle did.

2008 Addenda: While I enjoyed Twilight Struggle for a time, ultimately it got kicked out of my collection and if I were to write this review today, I’d be somewhat less positive. I think what has turned out to really hurt the game are serious questions about play-balance. With Twilight Struggle, there are a few little systemic details that bug me – it’s a little long, realignment doesn’t quite work, there are too many high-stakes, low-control die rolls, it’s thematically a little weak – but what really killed the game for us was the literally endless string of crushing Soviet victories.

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Euro Roundup

Beowulf: I have a reputation as a bit of a contrarian, something which I find a bit overblown. For the majority of games, the difference between me and the online “conventional wisdom” is usually just a matter of degrees (I think Puerto Rico is very good, for example, but nowhere near the second coming; I’m not a huge Princes of Florence fan, but I do think it’s a good game; I think Caylus is good but nothing spectacular; and so on). There have been a few larger exceptions, notably Shadows over Camelot (which I didn’t like much at all) and War of the Ring (which was at best OK), but I never felt like I was seriously out on a limb.

In the case of Beowulf, though, the yawning chasm between me (easily the best game of 2005 and one of the best games of the last 5 years) and BoardGameGeek (overall rank of 1042nd) is arresting, even if you factor in that other critics have had nice things to say about the game. Am I missing something here? Seriously, I do worry about this. There is this shadow in the back of my mind, like the next time I play, whatever it is that all those BoardGameGeek raters see will suddenly become apparent to me, and I’ll have to retract all the nice things I said.

It hasn’t happend yet, though, and it’s comfortably past the 10-play mark. Every time I play it, it’s a facinating and exciting game. Everyone I’ve played it with has liked it. Nobody I’ve played it with has out-and-out disliked it, which is saying something these days. Needless to say, there are no retractions in the works.

I’ll just focus on one thing here, and that is the luck complaint. Setting aside the question of just how much luck there is for a moment, one of the neat things is that Beowulf seems to stay robust as a game in the face of bad luck. A legitimate complaint about Settlers is that if your numbers don’t come up, you’ve got nothing to do because you’ve been cut off, all the good settlement numbers are gone, and the game just isn’t fun. That’s occasionally true (although rarer than you might think, given the amount of whining sometimes going on), and this is only palatable because the game is short. Anyway, this is a key bit of brilliance in Settlers; it would have been so easy to drag it out into a much bigger game.

In Beowulf, if you run into a buzz-saw of bad luck on the risks … you get scratched a lot. However, you still have cards and choices and can more or less fully participate in the game. When it’s done, if you came in second, you can say “hey, I did pretty well considering how badly I did on the risks” (I recommend saying it only to yourself, however). You’re never out of it from a participation standpoint. That, and, like Settlers, the game is short at 45-60min.

Hacienda: I think I’m maybe 15 games in on Hacienda, and I find it’s slowing down a bit. I still like it a lot, but I think it’s time to break out that map generator to try to give the game a bit of variation. I’m not a huge fan of the basic, symmetric map other than for introductory purposes; too bad Hans im Glück couldn’t have given us a slightly more interesting map instead. Given the dry theme and lack of large-scale variability, I think finding a few more good maps will be key in extending the game’s life beyond the 20-play mark.

Wings of War: Burning Drachens: For me personally, Wings of War is a game that has never quite managed to deliver on the potential I thought it had, although I am still fond of it. The dogfights in Famous Aces were cool but not endlessly replayable, then Watch Your Back! took forever to come out and didn’t have great scenarios. But Burning Drachens is cool. Having that large, fixed target (the Balloon) and anti-aircraft guns adds a lot of interest to the maneuvering. And the scenarios seem somewhat better thought-out. You don’t even need previous sets to play, although they’ll help for bigger games.

Memoir ’44: Eastern Front: My biggest (although not only) complaint about Memoir ’44 was the egregiously unbalanced scenarios. You’d sit down to play Omaha Beach, and when it was done it felt like it was a waste of time given the virtually pre-ordained results. It has been a relief then to play four scenarios from the Eastern Front expansion and have them all be reasonably tense and closely-run. The game is still hugely random of course, so whether or not it is interesting can depend a lot on drawing somewhat reasonable cards, but still, the new expansion has revived my interest in the game. It’s never going to be a great game for me, but it is one that I can enjoy in the right spot.

Rumis: I first played Rumis last year, and I thought it was OK, but nothing I’d be remotely inclined to play instead of Educational Insights’ other, higher-profile game, Blokus. That time we played on one of the “giant blocks” map. Having now played it on a step-pyramid board, I have to say I liked the game a lot more. For those who haven’t played, Rumis is sort of a 3d Tetris game, where you are dropping blocks onto the playing surface. Each time you play a block, you have to play it so that it touches one of your existing blocks along at least one face. The object is to have the largest number of visible faces (when looking down) at the end of the game.

When you’re just filling in a giant 8-height square block, everything played in the first half of the game is just going to be paved over, so for me there was a sense of pointlessness to the early game, a jockying for late-game position that wasn’t all that interesting. With the step-pyramid layout, though, where the first column is height 1, second height two, and so on, the game was much more consistantly interesting. With maximum-height scoring positions available almost all the time, you always had a tension between locking in points now and risking getting completely locked out of later rows if you don’t have enough block faces to play against on later turns.

It’s still not the sort of game I would buy (I don’t own Blokus either, even though I do like it; I sometimes wonder what my favorite game I don’t own is, and Blokus is certainly a candidate). But it was definitely more enjoyable that it had been on first inspection, and I would certainly play again.

Bolide is a new race game from Ghenos Games, an Italian company. The basic idea is pretty simple: each turn you move your car. After moving, you place your “inertia” marker ahead of you on the track by exactly however much your car moved. So if you moved ahead 4 spaces and changed lanes once to the right, your “inertia” marker will be 4 spaces ahead and one space to the right. Next turn, you can then move your car to anywhere within two spaces of your inertia.

While easy to state, this can be a bit confusing to play – but once grasped, it’s really neat. No longer are you just taking a turn at or below the maximum speed rating, but you actually have to figure out how to get your momentum going in the right direction and manage your way through the entire turn as you get your inertia going in the new direction.

The core idea here is really, really clever. But there is a showstopper: the game is way, way, way too long. One lap took us 2 hours and change, and the game really is balanced for two laps. We decided that there was no way we were investing 4 hours in the game and called it after one. Even if you played with the timer and forced people to move quickly, I see no way to bring the game down to the 60 minutes or so that would be acceptable. The one idea here, regardless of how clever it is, just simply can’t justify the game’s length. For Bolide to have a shot, it would need to bring the play time way down, and ideally add a second idea.