The bright boardgaming dawn of Twilight Struggle comes to a PC near you

, | Game reviews

There’s an old saw about how when you get exactly what you want it might not end up being what you expected. If that ever happens to you, let me know if it’s true. Until then, I’m going to go with the digital release of Twilight Struggle as being the closest thing we’ve got.

I’ve been saying for a while that board wargames have long since outstripped their computer counterparts in design, aesthetics, innovation, and any other positive adjective you can think of, depending on whether or not you ascribe a positive connotation to the word, “detail.” Boardgame ports, on the other hand, have a history of leaving somethingsometimes many things — to be desired. So when a company releases what many people consider the best wargame ever designed, and the PC port actually comes out almost perfect, and it’s about the Cold War of all things, there shouldn’t be much to say, except for “Praise Reagan!” Right? Right??

After the jump, haters gotta hate

Twilight Struggle is a game that the grandees at Boardgamegeek declared their #1 overall game for basically an entire decade. (It was only recently knocked off by Pandemic: Legacy.) I declared it my #3 best wargame on my podcast, and played a public game with Troy Goodfellow via VASSAL on his website. That was nine years ago. When GMT Games announced that they were planning a digital version to be developed by Playdek, the ensuing Kickstarter raised almost $400,000. And then the beta came out, and was buggy and unplayable, and everyone held their breath.

But this review, just like the game, isn’t a history lesson, nor is it a suspense novel, so I can just go ahead and tell you that despite any development problems that may have occurred, the final result is tremendous.

Twilight Struggle is a brilliant demonstration of the possibilities opened up by Mark Herman’s card-driven game design, which I have discussed so many times I should just make an index and point to it. Instead of making special rules for the Berlin Wall, or glasnost, or Margaret Thatcher, you make a game and then put special rules on individual cards that also allow you to take different game actions. Tie it all to an area-control rubric set in the world of geopolitical shadow conflict, and you have a thematic bonanza that just happens to be anchored to a rock-solid set of turn-based strategy mechanics. While Mark Herman invented the general idea, Jason Mathews and Ananda Gupta (the latter of whom also was the lead designer of XCOM: Enemy Within) polished it to such a perfect sheen that the notoriously fickle boardgame community agreed that it was the best game out there for longer than Reagan was president.

The essential conceit of Twilight Struggle you have to accept, or at least be open to, is that the assumptions that drove the early Cold War held true for 45 years: falling dominoes, quagmires, and the arithmetic of regional dominance conferring ideological superiority. The world is a series of boxes, connected in roughly geographical terms, into which the superpowers place influence. The higher a nation’s Stability rating, the more influence necessary to “control” that country. Control must proceed through linked boxes, because you can’t just push a domino on the other side of the board from this side. Coups, on the other hand, can explode anywhere, and are a handy way of taking control of distant regimes. But push too far and you’ll send the Defcon sliding scale of nuclear terror to 1, at which point the missiles will fly. And you’ll lose. As Chris Crawford said in the loss screen in Balance of Power, there is no reward for failure.

The associated design assumption is that you can get imaginative satisfaction from a bunch of numbers changing places on a network of boxes simply because those boxes represent Central America. I think this is the real problem when people complain that the mechanics are too obtuse. It’s just that they don’t connect taking a card with the number “3” written on it, rolling a die, and calling it a coup in Panama. Which, by the way, is fine. There are plenty of people in the tiny little community of humans who move real or virtual markers across representations of historical times who prefer an almost indecipherable black box of numbers processed through military-industrial algorithms, representing all of life’s philosophical and material possibilities which you then manipulate by mouseclick. This game is not for them. Others love the idea of color-coded geopolitical symbolism. And Twilight Struggle is their siren song.

You can classify Twilight Struggle in any of the myriad ways that gamers like to organize and label things, but for me, the essence of the game is that it’s a hand-management game. In each of ten turns, you will be dealt a hand that contains cards with a variety of numbers on them, and each will have an associated event. If you want to use the card for operations (such as to place influence, stage a coup, or re-align the political landscape) and the card has your event on it, then you will have to choose between the operations and the event. If it has your opponent’s event, you can use the number for operations, but the event with automatically happen. Events can range anywhere from tolerable to catastrophic. Each turn will test your ability to maximize the effect of your good cards and minimize those of your bad cards. Thematically, it perfectly represents the Cold War as a series of crises, which the two superpowers have to manage to the best of their ability given the hands they have been dealt (literally) while avoiding plunging the world into thermonuclear war.

This is where the rule-bending text on the cards turns a clever game mechanic into a game for the ages. Some cards change the Defcon, limiting which regions are eligible for coups and ideological realignments. Some cards require the other player to discard cards. Some award influence and block certain events. And the scoring cards, which drive the game through the awarding of victory points when they are played, present their own dilemmas: the player who holds them controls when during the turn they are played, but they have to be played in the turn they are dealt, and they don’t allow for any other actions. Just scoring.

But even those who accept the design assumptions can trip over the underlying narrative. For example, a card called “Brush War” allows players to “attack” a country with Stability 2 or less, and convert enemy influence to friendly influence. It’s clearly meant to represent the conflicts in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, with proxies and mercenaries battling for control of pawns in the superpower struggle. Yet this card can be very effectively used against Italy, which like all the Mediterranean “democracies” (Turkey, Greece, and Spain/Portugal) has a Stability of 2. Since the European battleground countries are generally split 3-2, this can be decisive. Do you accept the idea of the Soviets yanking Italy out from under the Western umbrella in the Late War and taking control of Europe? Seems farfetched.

Yet the designers intended exactly this, because there is an event card called NATO which makes all European countries immune to the Brush War card as long as they are US-controlled. So for Italy to fall to the Brush War means that (a) the US didn’t control it, and (b) the US didn’t establish NATO. This is a clear political comment by the game designers, whether they intend it or not: rather than escalate tensions by dividing Europe into two formal military blocs, NATO provided a shield for the Western democracies to defy Soviet aggression. So if you lose Italy to the Brush War card in the 1980s, you’ve failed to make the West safe. And you get your just punishment.

This variable narrative goes a long way towards making the game compelling to me, and probably to other history nerds who lived through some significant part of the Cold War. It’s variable history presented in the best possible way, with equal parts nostalgia and possibility. Pope John Paul II enables Solidarity and undermines the Eastern Bloc from within, while “The Reformer” (with a photo of Gorby, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush in front of the Statue of Liberty) gives the Soviets a big boost in Europe if they are ahead on victory points. But what if the Soviets keep Karol Wojtyła from assuming the papacy? Or what if the Soviets, and not the Americans, land a man on the Moon? It all unfolds according to the designers’ assumptions, which are that in the simplified algebra of the game, a resurgent Gorbachev could have established control over a group of long-captive nations whose only desire was independence, or that a Soviet space program could have overcome the challenges of technological development that the USSR was so poorly positioned to face. A Soviet coup in Mexico? It’s die roll after card play, card play after die roll.

And the digital version presents these boardgaming knobs and levers with almost perfect transparency, while wrapping them in an aesthetic perfectly in tune with the theme. Experienced players can just sit down and start playing, and watch the game say, “here is this, and this is what happened, and what would you like next, comrade?” All the information you could want is available, the turn log records every card play and die roll while making it easy to access, and the game implements the rules so flawlessly that I was once fooled into thinking it was bugged. I was trying to use a card to perform a coup in a way that would cause my opponent to commit “Defcon suicide,” an automatic loss when you give your opponent the chance to trick you into launching the nukes on your turn, but I couldn’t. I even wrote it down as a bug report — until I realized that there were no coup-eligible countries on the map due to the Defcon lockout of certain regions. Nice work, game!

There are some tiny quibbles, like the fact that the game warns you about impending losses in every way except when you accidentally go to Defcon 1 by card event, or that Rodger MacGowan, the art director for the boardgame version and a fixture in wargame art design for over four decades, has his name misspelled in the credits. But that’s almost it. The tutorial is great, the matchmaking system works nicely, and the game even knows enough only to send you an email reminder about your turn when you are not logged in. It’s like Playdek thought of everything. (One thing people have complained about — a lack of strategy help — is more than addressed by a guide available for free on the website www.twilightstrategy.com.) It’s not so much about whether the game is any good. It’s whether it’s any good for you. It’s more than just good for me.

  • Twilight Struggle

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Twilight Struggle is a two-player game where players play as either the US or USSR during the Cold War. Using actual events from history, players must plan out their strategies in order to obtain world dominance. Play Twilight Struggle and change the course of history.
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