I was having dinner with some people a few years ago when a friend of mine, who is actually a well-known role-playing game designer, started making fun of euro games. “It’s just a bunch of abstract concepts wrapped up in gameplay mechanics,” he said, “except that the red cube represents Catholicism.” I bristled at that, because sure you can make a lot of very historical mechanics about Catholicism when you’re playing a role-playing game about being the pope, but how are you going to get enough people to represent all of Europe? Answer me that, smart guy. I went away thinking I was pretty smart, myself.
Turns out he was right. And not just about the Reformation.
Over the years, I’ve become less and less interested in games that tell me that I’m a pharaoh or Viking when the only difference between them is that I’m choosing whether to pick up blue or yellow cubes and put them on the picture of a longship or pyramid. But I didn’t start out there. Once upon a time, I didn’t mind one bit that I had to pretend that the cards I was picking up represented things that had no obvious connection to the things I was doing with them. Pick up some cards that represent Central European principalities and use them to place
cubes I mean post offices, for no reason other than that’s what they’re shaped like? Sure! But that changed at some point after the Catholicism incident. To be honest, I think it’s just the proliferation of so many games with similar mechanics, about so many things that I’m interested in, that I can finally be picky about how they’re represented. I remember playing a game which even though it was named after a famous Danish hero, you were only a minion of that hero, and your adventures consisted of participating in a bizarre auction game where you could bid for treasures but receive wounds. I dunno, either. But hey, it was designed by a famous guy.
So when I read that 13 Days was a new game that “played like Twilight Struggle in one quarter the time,” I was both hopeful and skeptical. Twilight Struggle was a game that stayed at the top of the Boardgamegeek all-time best games list for like a decade. (You can read my review of the digital version here.) It’s a game that portrayed the Cold War as a set of mini-crises, each fit into a separate turn and represented by a hand of cards that you used to spell success or disaster based on how you chose to play them, and what your opponent did in response. The dominant geopolitical philosophy of falling dominoes placed an anchor in the game space that filled up perfectly with elements whose gameplay function reflected their historical reality. The escalating defcon track set the game’s pace in the form of the constant saber rattling that empowered and constrained the superpowers’ actions. The need to dominate various world regions or lose global status came out in the inexorable cycling of the scoring cards. And throughout it all, major historical events were represented by cards that changed the game state in a way that seemed natural and obvious. The later in the game the Eastern European Unrest card was played, the more influence the USSR lost there. US influence in the Middle East could take a big hit with the play of Muslim Revolutions card, but not after the US sold AWACS planes to the Saudis. Solidarity could seriously undermine Soviet control over Poland, but only after John Paul II was been elected pope. Socialist Governments could weaken the US hold on Western Europe until Margaret Thatcher entered the scene late in the game. I could go on, and it all would make perfect sense.
But a brilliant game often requires a confluence of timing, mechanics, and subject, and Twilight Struggle had all three. So comparing a game to Twilight Struggle will only ever be able to address one of those three things, because you can’t make a game on the same subject with the same mechanics, and the timing was a once-in-forever thing as boardgaming was going through a transformative era. So why even bother?
13 Days is about one small part of the Cold War (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) and comes at a time when a million games come out daily about every subject. Yet just the fact that it has US vs USSR influence placement using cards makes the comparisons inevitable. Which almost does the game a disservice, because (1) there can never be another Twilight Struggle, and (2) why would you want another Twilight Struggle when you already have it?* But since it’s such a familiar point of reference, it can be useful to describe a game by explaining what it isn’t.
13 Days is not a long, twisting, up-and-down story about the battle for world ideological supremacy. Unlike games like A Feast for Odin that advertise their epicosity with a huge box, or ones like the revised Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation that try to use a big box to hide their lack of it, 13 Days presents a compact game about a compact incident, in a compact playing time. The box fits the components just so, and packs into a briefcase or backpack with room for more. Once you unpack it, if it takes you longer that 45 minutes to play one session, you’re doing it wrong.
13 Days is not a clever card-based retelling of familiar events. The event cards you use won’t instantly make you think, “Oh, that’s how shooting down a U2 would affect the game at this point!” There’s nothing as evocative as canceling the victory point effect of Khrushchev’s “We will bury you” speech with a timely UN intervention. Instead, 13 Days is all about the mechanics fitting a story you know, and driving it the way you would expect them to, if you were actually in a Cuban Missile Crisis.
13 Days is not a struggle for a known objective. There are no scoring cards that you can expect to turn up every few rounds – scoring cards both players know and expect. Because the Cuban Missile Crisis was about personal confrontation, the scoring in 13 Days is, too. Each round, of which there are three, players draw three objectives from a deck and secretly choose one. They mark all three on the map, though, and only score points for the one they (or their opponent) chose. Winning an objective through influence gains you prestige. So each round becomes a bluff and counter-bluff exhange.
What does the Cuban Missile Crisis evoke in your mind? In mine, it’s brinksmanship, making the other guy blink first. But to back up from the abyss, you first have to walk up to it. As the crisis develops, you flex your muscle in three arenas: politics, military, and world opinion. This is as simple as placing influence cubes in boxes labeled Italy, Cuba, The Atlantic, or the United Nations. What keeps the boxes from being labeled The Diet of Worms and the red cubes from just as easily representing Catholicism is that the number of cubes you place determines how much you drive up the defcon. And you have a finite number of cubes available.
Those two things keep 13 Days from being a pale copy of Twilight Struggle. There is no evolving, turns-long narrative, no complex interplay of cards and events. Instead, 13 Days is the proverbial-knife-fight-in-a-bathroom-stall-at-the-United Nations, where calculated bluff and bluster win, just like in 1962. Because you elevate defcon tracks with the placement of more cubes, you get a convincing feeling of “raising the pressure” when you go big into Cuba, as the corresponding defcon track skyrockets. But because defcon tracks themselves can be objectives, you have to ask whether the island is the objective, or just the defcon. And if you pump up the defcon just to score points, you had better back off elsewhere or you risk pushing off the chart, into nuclear territory. You can only push so far, though, because you only have 17 influence cubes. At some point, you may find yourself overextended, and need to remove them (which lowers the defcon, natch). Since you can only place from offboard (except by card event) and can only remove to the offboard pile, each turn is a balance between escalation and de-escalation, all via game mechanics. It’s the best theming I’ve seen in a game in a long time.
The lack of true card interplay (you don’t have multi-turn persistent events that you need to worry about, for example) is mitigated by the fact that it’s a three-turn game. Each turn is just four rounds long, and feels like a boxing round: sometimes decisive, often tense. An interesting post-round Aftermath phase allowed players to dump their remaining card into the Aftermath pile, to be examined after the three rounds have ended. It’s like the space race in Twilight Struggle, except that while you can dump enemy cards there safely, at the end of the game, you tally the value of the Aftermath cards, and the winner of extra prestige is the one who has the most card value in his own color showing. So if you don’t use valuable cards during the game, you may earn the world’s respect for your restraint. Did I mention how well themed this game is?
So the next time you’re going to play a game where you have to collect reeds to build a house by playing your wooden peg on the reed space, you can think to yourself, “there must be a better way to do this.” Because there is.