Tom vs Bruce: Twilight Struggle

twilight start

After a hiatus, Tom and Bruce are back with this round of Twilight Struggle, Playdek’s PC adaptation of the classic boardgame. The article will go live for everyone in a week, but in the meantime, we hope you, our backers, enjoy. We’ve got more games and videos in the works, and if you’ve got any requests, feel free to leave them in the comments below, or to hit us up on Twitter. Tom is @qt3 and Bruce is @spacerumsfeld.

On with the show!

After the jump, some actual history before the Twilight Struggle.

Tom: Here’s a true story. Bruce and I were doing a Tom vs Bruce article about some RTS in which he was hopelessly outclassed because he was too busy with other things to invest the necessary time it takes to get good at RTSs. I, on the other hand, have trained long and hard in a genre that no longer exists because MOBAs came along for people like Bruce who couldn’t meet the requirements a real RTS puts on one’s skill, dexterity, and quick thinking. At any rate, whatever we were playing was something where he had to be the Russians for once. Probably some silly Command & Conquer game. The only thing more fun that whupping Bruce Geryk in an RTS is making Bruce Geryk play the Russians in an RTS and then whupping him.

In the process of writing our articles, we suggest occasional edits to each other. Sometimes one of us will see an opportunity for some comment or joke or offhand cultural reference. So we’ll write it in for the other guy. A friendly “hey, this would be good right here” edit. At one point, Bruce had actually managed to accomplish something with his Russians. He wrote about it in his part of the text. As we were finishing up a final draft, I felt his rare moment of triumph need a bit more oomph. A bit more pizazz. Some chutzpah. I figured I’d punch it up for him.

I moved my cursor to the end of his text and considered for a moment. What would be funny here? I typed in for him the following words:

God bless Mother Russia.

For some reason, Bruce didn’t care for that. He deleted it and wrote in something that I’m sure what a lot less hilarious. It was one of the rare times one of us vetoed a suggestion so completely. I can’t figure why. I can’t figure why Bruce wouldn’t want his name attributed to a divine benediction for a nation associated with the most brutal regime in history, more brutal than the Nazis because they had more time and resources to spread a godless and brutal ideology far, wide, and deep, destroying the lives of millions through repression, deprivation, and outright slaughter.

But it probably has something to do with why he’s making me play the Soviet Union in our game of Twilight Struggle.

Bruce: I really couldn’t have said it better myself, so the only comment I’ll add is that I didn’t mean to hurt Tom’s feelings so much with my edit that he still remembers it ten years later. Ten years? Holy heck. We’ve been at this, off and on, for fifteen years? We started this series before Twilight Struggle was released. Before it became the #1 game on Boardgamegeek. Before it was overtaken by Pandemic Legacy. On that list, anyway. Because there is no way Twilight Struggle is a worse game than Pandemic Legacy. That’s like saying Ticket to Ride (#98) is a better game than Dien Bien Phu: The Final Gamble (#4361). Ain’t no way.

Tom: That reminds me. Here’s another true story. Bruce once explained to me that the only way to play Ticket to Ride is to know all the route cards so you can anticipate what a player is doing based on where he’s placing his trains and what colors of cards he’s collecting. Then you can block him to prevent him from scoring points. In the world according to Bruce, Ticket to Ride is a game for cuthroat calcuation to determine who can most frustrate whom.

(As far as I’m concerned, the only way to play Ticket to Ride is to leave it in the box and play something else. What a terrible game.)

But Bruce’s observation about Ticket to Ride applies tenfold to Twilight Struggle. You have to know all the cards so you can anticipate what a player is doing based on where he’s placing his influence and what cards he’s playing. Bruce knows the Twilight Struggle cards this well. While we’re talking about the cards, he rattles off some conventional wisdom about Romanian Abdication and Independent Reds. I know what all those words mean separately, but strung together in a sentence like the one Bruce has just used makes no sense to me. I’d have to be staring at the cards side-by-side. Apparently you’re supposed to only ever play one card after the other or some such thing. Because Bruce knows all this stuff, I’m going to have to be sneaky.

For instance, I have the Central America scoring card, but I don’t want Bruce to know I have it. So when I spend three influence, I only put one of them in Central America. It’s just enough to swing the balance ever so slightly in my favor. Just a smidge. And to keep my intention hidden from Bruce, I spend the other two points somewhere else, on the other side of the world. It’s like a magician drawing your attention to his left hand while his right hand palms a coin. And if you’ll direct your attention over here to Southeast Asia…

“Well, you obviously have the Central America scoring card,” he squeaks, merrily countering my single point of influence.

I can’t say for sure and I have no intention of ever finding out, but I’m sure Bruce Geryk is just as annoying playing Ticket to Ride.

Bruce: Watching Tom try to hide his intentions in Twilight Struggle is like watching a three-year-old try to hide candy that he or she isn’t supposed to have. “No, I don’t suspect anything. I’m sure there are tons of reasons that you could be holding both of your hands behind your back and smiling, even though I told you you couldn’t have any more cotton candy.” Tom plays one point of influence in a non-Battleground country that gives him Domination in Central America, and then plays two points of influence in other regions that change nothing and open no new routes of play. Plus, one of those regions has already scored and I can see the card lying in the discard pile. Plus we just got into the Mid-War, when the Central America scoring card is added to the deck. Go ahead, eat your cotton candy.

But Tom is dead right that you really need to know the cards to play Twilight Struggle effectively. For example, in the Early War, right off the bat, the Soviets have access to a card called Warsaw Pact Formed. It allows them to remove ALL American influence from up to four countries in Eastern Europe. Blammo! Goodbye, capitalist imperialists! So playing a bunch of US influence into Poland or East Germany or Yugoslavia doesn’t make any sense until that event has been played, because there is nothing more useless in Twilight Struggle than having the product of multiple turns of high-Ops cards being wiped out by a single event. Likewise, the US doesn’t need to play influence into Yugoslavia because once a card called Independent Reds comes up, they will be able to match the amount of influence the Soviets have played into that country (or Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Romania). So how does the Soviet player counter this? By avoiding playing into these countries until Independent Reds has happened. How does the US counter that? By playing Romanian Abdication early so that the Soviets get three influence in Romania, so that Independent Reds can be played for 3 US influence there.

I could go on and on like this. To avoid losing control of Poland, the Soviets need to have six influence there by the Mid-War so that John Paul II Elected Pope still leaves them with a three-influence advantage, which is equal to Poland’s stability rating and thus confers control even if they lose two influence and the US gains one, which is what that card does. And even that won’t protect against Solidarity. France isn’t safe until De Gaulle Leads France and Socialist Governments have both been played and dealt with. There are a million more examples.

So yeah, you need to know the deck. And so…what, exactly?

I don’t really understand the objection to this. In our Eurogame-patterned brains, I think we want to believe that we should be able to suss out a game’s subtleties with logic alone. But that’s a fallacy. Are you going to be able to optimally play A Study in Emerald until you see what all the cards and characters are? How about playing Voyages of Marco Polo without knowing what the contracts are? Ok, I’m stretching it. But the main reason I think people have this enmity towards expertise secondary to experience (apart from the whole “death of expertise” thing you can read about in memes near you) is that people want to jump right into a game and have a reasonable chance of winning, and they don’t want to stick around long enough to become really good at a game, because there are fifteen games coming out Wednesday, never mind what’s in store for next week. Why spend months or years learning a game really well?

Which is a real shame, because just like a real-time strategy game, a boardgame like Twilight Struggle is fascinating to watch when it is well played. If that requires some familiarity with the cards and an ability to remember them, so be it. No one complains about having to remember which stack the Titan is in. It’s the point of the game.

Tom: See what I mean? I mean, he’s right. About Twilight Struggle and the expectation that we should have a reasonable expectation of winning as soon as we jump into a game. But see what I mean?

Bruce: Each turn in Twilight Struggle starts with a Headline Phase. This is a way of setting the stage for the rest of the turn, with each player choosing an event that will almost certainly take effect (unless the Americans cancel it with a special card, Defectors, that only they have). It focuses attention on the two events (one American, one Soviet) that will set up the rest of the play in that turn.

The key to Twilight Struggle is its philosophy of falling dominoes. They probably should have included a set of dominoes in the box for emphasis. Influence in one country leads to influence in another connected country. So if the Soviets get their tendrils into Vietnam, it’s only logical that they will use this geopolitical position to extend those tendrils into Thailand. There are some anomalies, like Austria is connected to East Germany, but you have to make some concessions to gameplay and balance.

Furthermore, each country is associated with a region, and the six regions are not all equally important. Europe is the key. Controlling Europe ends the game. Since that almost never happens, there are different levels of ideological conquest.

Presence means you have an ideological beachhead in a region, but that’s it. Maybe you have some friends in Burkina Faso. That will get you a few victory points. Domination is the next step, and that requires you to control more Battleground countries (as well as total countries) than your opponent in that region, as well as at least one non-Battleground country. Control means you control all the Battleground countries in a region. So you can see why controlling Europe would end the game.

Tom and I will be fighting over these countries with influence, coups, realignments, and good ol’ Cold-War-themed events.