Monday, April 03, 2017

Twilight Struggle

One of my goals for 2017 is to get a game played at least 5 times in a given month so I can re-evaluate its place in my collection. This month, that distinction falls to Twilight Struggle. Interestingly enough, I did not play this on the tabletop once, but I did play it 5 times on my iPad (and Mac via Steam). This evaluation is still based on the game itself, though I will include my thoughts on the electronic implementation as well.

As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up in a world where The Cold War was a fact of life. Now that doesn't mean when you ask about a game theme, my first inclination would have been - let's relive the Cold War! But, when Twilight Struggle first hit the gaming scene and I started hearing how great it was, the theme didn't dissuade me. In fact, after my first playing, I was enamored by it. It brought back the feelings I remember from growing up and watching the news - a lot of tenseness and uncertainty. This is one game where the theme is not tacked on, it is integral to the game.

So first mechanically - this is a card driven game. There is a large deck of cards that are divided into three smaller decks. There are 10 rounds to the game and the game starts with the Early War deck. After a few rounds, the Mid War deck comes in and finally the Late War deck for the last few rounds. The cards themselves have a couple parts - an Operational value (Ops) from 1-4 points, an event, and an indicator of who the event belongs to (USA or USSR or either). Players are trying to exert their influence to countries across the globe in an effort to control them. There are a few scoring cards in the decks that have the players compare their influence of contries in various parts of the world (Europe, Asia, the Middle East, etc) and gain victory points based on the number of countries and important countries that each has in that region. Some cards also deliver a point or two as their event. Points themselves are tracked by a sliding back-and-forth track. If one player ever gains 20 points more than their opponent, they win. Then there is the DEFCON track, that runs from 5 down to 1. If a player ever causes the DEFCON to drop to 1, they cause nuclear war and lose the game. Certain actions and events can change the DEFCON level and the DEFCON level also limits the actions players can take in various parts of the world.

Each of the game's 10 rounds starts with each player receiving cards from the current deck. If a new era has started, the new era's cards are shuffled in to the current set of cards. Each player is dealt cards so that they have the same number. The first thing players do is "headline" an event. Both secretly reveal a card and the event on the card is executed. Some of the cards are marked with an indicator such that when the event itself happens, the card is taken out of the game, otherwise, after playing, cards are put in a discard pile and shuffled back in when the deck runs out of cards.

During the turns, players alternate playing a card (typically one, though some few cards change that) for the Ops points (which can be used in a couple of different ways) or the event on the card. If the player chooses to play a card for the Ops points AND the event is their opponent's event, the event happens in addition to the operations being conducted. This is one of the key mechanisms in the game. Often, you are saddled with a hand of your opponents event cards and have to figure out how to play them in such a way as to minimize their effect. At the same time, for the cards that go out of the game once the event happens, you sometimes have to suffer the event in order to try and reduce the number of cards that have your opponent's events that will be in the deck when a shuffle occurs. These tense decisions are what make every round and every card played interesting.

Now, if it sounds like I enjoy the game, you are right. I like this game a lot - it is well balanced and the theme is an integral part of the game. If you've been reading this blog, you know it hit my Top 40. However, it isn't perfect. There is a pretty good learning curve to the game. Mechanically, it isn't too bad to pick up, but by learning curve, I mean the cards. Knowing what cards that are in each era, knowing when scoring cards enter the game, knowing where you can avoid wasting precious Ops points are all important and a player that is more familiar with those will easily dominate a player that doesn't. There are some great subtleties to the game that you can only see after a number of plays and if you are constantly beaten quickly, it is hard to learn them. Of course the flip side to that is that there is a lot of hidden beauty and depth here. Every playing is different, even with the same cards and events. Your hand might dictate trying to better your position in a way you never have before.

On the tabletop, there is a lot to keep track of and it isn't easy to glance at the map and understand your position. This last point is remedied by the electronic form, as is the problem of finding an opponent and the length of the game. After a few plays, games can be played (electronically) in fairly short order. On the tabletop, there will be a fair bit of counting to try and understand whether or not you should use a card a certain way. In the electronic form, you are given odds and lots of quick summary information of situations. There is also a little bit of randomness in the game. Not just the shuffle of cards, but a number of the operational outcomes you try to perform in the game are determined by the roll of a die. You can attempt a coup (a radical swing of influence), and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. This can lead to some small frustration in a game where everything feels tense and each move feels like it might be the wrong one. It can feel capricious that a single die roll determines the outcome, but in 15+ games, only once have I felt a string of bad rolls cost me the game.

I can look past the minor flaws because the game is sooo fun. As I said, every play feels important. You never quite know if your opponent is doing something to rid themselves of cards, feint interest in a certain area, or plowing forward with an agenda. This being a two-player only game, the length of playing face-to-face and the need for an opponent of equal skill/exposure to the game does keep it from my top 25.

About the elctronic forms. The game is pretty well done and available for most platforms (Win/Mac via Steam, iOS and Android). The game (as far as I can tell) is identical on each, which leads to one shortcoming - the UI isn't perfect on the iOS platform - the slight rigidity of the screen size means that part of the visible chat window is cut off from view by another part of the UI. This is a minor quibble to be sure, but a little annoying. Otherwise, the game is really well done. You can play live, but async play is available and you are notified by email when your opponent has taken their turn. It is easy to see any bit of information you need from the game - far easier than on the tabletop. It plays well and is easy to see what an opponent did on their turn. When you want to execute and action that has a die roll, you usually get "the odds" so you can decide before actually taking the action. You can see how an entire region will score if a scoring card comes out, so you are informed on whether you should take action in a region.

After all that, I am slightly undecided about whether I need to keep a physical copy of the game in my collection. I'm leaning towards - NO. The electronic form provides a satisfying (and faster) expereience. The table top is a lot of fun as you can try and read your opponent's anguish level, but the pace of play is going to be much much slower. I'd highly recommend this game, and would be happy to sit down and play at the table on occassion, but I think I can retire it from the "owned" column of my personal collection.

(pictures from BGG and all credit to the original contributors)

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