Tom vs Bruce: Twilight Struggle

TURN 1 – Stalin – Early War cards only


Bruce: One of the best part of the Twilight Struggle design is the evolving deck. The whole card-driven game genre, invented by Mark Herman in 1994 with We the People (subsequently revised as Washington’s War; try it, it’s a great game) is built on the idea of historical events being moved out of the general rules and being placed on cards. Washington crosses the Delaware? Maybe. Or maybe the Washington player just uses it for Ops. Players get a hand of cards from a deck, and can use them as events or to perform actions. Certain events are removed from the deck once their events occur (Washington can only cross the Delaware once). Paths of Glory, a fantastic game about The Great War, uses three decks: a Mobilization deck, a Limited War deck, and a Total War deck, to portray the accelerating rush to war. Twilight Struggle starts with an Early War deck, and then adds Mid-War and Late War cards to ensure that the temporal relation of at least some events is preserved. You can’t play Solidarity as an event until John Paul II Elected Pope happens. But Pope John Paul II might never be elected if the card is never played for an event. It’s incredibly thematic, and leads to interesting gameplay considerations.

Tom: It’s worth noting that among boardgamers, the acronym CDG — card driven gameplay — is as familiar as the acronym RTS, RPG, or MOBA to videogamers. At this point, I should explain that we’re not playing the boardgame proper. We’re playing Playdek’s videogame implementation, ported 99% intact to digital format and tailor-made for online asynchronous games.

Bruce: Because of the starting position, the US position in the Middle East is tenuous. America controls no countries, and its door to the Indian subcontinent goes through Iran, where it has one influence point. I guess this is a good time to talk about coups.

The coup is a fundamental mechanic in Twilight Struggle, and this would be a good place to explain it. You get to play a card and add a die roll to its Ops value. You then compare this to twice the target country’s Stability value. If you win, you get to reduce your opponent’s influence by that much. Any extra over and above the existing amount of influence gets replaced by your influence.

This is great because you don’t have to be connected to a country by influence. So if the Soviets take Zaire, for example, the Americans can instigate a coup there even if they don’t have any influence in adjacent states. So you have to be careful because placing influence somewhere might allow your opponent access to a new region. It’s a great representation of the idea of a region being “in play.”

If the US loses its influence in Iran, it will have a very hard time finding a connection to India and Pakistan, which are two crucial battleground states in Asia. American will be forced to push west from Japan and Australia. So an early successful coup in Iran can really hamper the spread of democracy.

Furthermore, you can’t just coup when you want to coup. The most important regions are limited by Defcon, so that you can’t instigate coups in Europe unless the Defcon is 5 and the superpowers are relaxed. I mean, you really want to drum up trouble with the Stasi in East Germany? Once the Defcon goes to 4, you’re locked out of European troublemaking. At Defcon 3, no coups in Asia. At Defcon 2, no coups in the Middle East. Africa? Central and South America? Coup whenever you want – that’s what those countries are for (in the geopolitical sense).

Tom: A friend of mine says that Twilight Struggle should really use 2d6 to mitigate its randomness. He feels that the stakes are way too high for a simple d6. After several coups that don’t go my way, I’m inclined to agree. But bad rolls can’t last forever. The Middle East eventually goes my way. Bruce pulls ahead, but I play a Middle East scoring card and knock his lead back to zero, thanks to Iraq and Syria being totally into whatever I’m selling them. Probably arms.

Bruce: Tom moves on the Middle East, but he places influence instead of trying a coup in Iran. And instead of taking advantage of this by placing influence in Pakistan, I coup Poland. Poland! It’s 1956 all over again!

Tom: See what I mean? You’d think he was keeping me from getting the pink cards I need to run my trains to Duluth.