DESIGNERS: Ananda Gupta & Jason Matthews
ARTWORK: Viktor Csete, Rodger B. MacGowan, et al.
PUBLISHER: GMT Games
TIME: 180+ minutes
The Cold War has proven to be a fertile period from which to draw artistic inspiration. Maybe it’s the fact that those who came of age during the conflict’s 40-odd years are now the ones making the art. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the clarity of binary power struggles amidst today’s seemingly fractured world. Looking back, knowing how the Cold War reached its ultimate resolution, it is tempting to weave its dispersed events into a cohesive “great game”-style narrative. Which is convenient nomenclature, since games are woven into Cold War History.
Sport, for one, was rife with cross-cultural conflict. The Olympics had their various boycotts, 1980 had its “Miracle on Ice,” Rocky Balboa fought Ivan Drago, and the tension even spilled-over into board games. In 1972, Bobby Fischer bested Boris Spassky to become chess champion of the world. From one perspective, it was just a young upstart taking down a respected champion. From another, it was the West’s triumph over the USSR. I can only imagine how delighted Nixon must have been as a result: “Take that, you Commies!”
Oddly, given the notable prominence of board games in the Cold War, the Fischer victory is one of the few historic events that isn’t depicted on the cards in Twilight Struggle–a two-player, card-driven strategy game from GMT Games. Before I go any further with this review, you should know that Twilight Struggle is widely considered one of the classics of modern boardgaming, and thus a great deal has already been written about it. It long sat atop the rankings at BoardGameGeek as the “best board game” in history (though it has recently been dethroned) and has been studied and dissected like chess, with a multitude of its potential plays and counters cataloged and discussed at length (nearly 4.6K forum posts on BGG).
“Ah, Ruy Lopez–a fine opening.” vis a vis “You’re really countering with ‘The Cambridge Five’?”
So what’s all the hubbub about? Before we talk about whether the hype is justified, let’s talk about the gameplay. As you might expect, in Twilight Struggle, one player represents the Soviets, the other the U.S. Players duke it out over a series of up to 10 rounds, with hands of eight cards (nine once you get to the mid-war rounds). The choice each turn is simple enough, choose a card and play it for the operations points or the text event. This straightforward choice will leave players at wit’s end sometimes–“But I want to do both/none of these things!” Sorry, you must choose. Each card is themed around some real-life piece of history drawn from the Cold War. “We will bury you!”? Check. Duck and Cover? Check. The invasion of Malta? No, that’s not a real thing.
The cards making up the deck can be good for one side and disastrous for the other, so you might think your choice is obvious: “Duh…I’m only going to play the bad events as operations points!” Haha. When you do that, the event will still trigger to the delight and benefit of your opponent. Such is life. So really, a lot of the game is about timing and mitigation. When to roll out the negative effects in a way such that you can counteract them and tip the ultimate balance in your favor. For those absolutely abhorrent cards, you get the chance to spend one per round on the Space Race. “Ta-da! Fidel is now in space!”
With the countless possible combinations of cards, each game will proceed in telling its own unique amalgam of Cold War history. In high school, I remember taping all 24 episodes of CNN’s Cold War, eagerly awaiting Kenneth Branagh’s sober-voiced explanation of what had happened in the preceding decades (brought to you by Qwest: “Ride the Light.”). As much as I enjoyed watching that series, Twilight Struggle has it beat as a learning experience. The interplay of the cards and mixed-up order of the events help underscore how much random chance was a factor in our successfully exiting the period without being engulfed in a thermonuclear holocaust. Sometimes world leaders are just making the best of the bad hands they’ve been dealt.
“Why are we playing all of these cards anyway? Isn’t there a map in this game?” Very astute. Yes, the card play resolves itself across a number of zones on a large board depicting the world map. Across the map are dozens of countries where players can spend their precious operations points on spreading influence, realigning governments, or even launching coup attempts. The Cold War was a proxy conflict more than anything else–in Twilight Struggle, you’ll learn that the Americans and Soviets mainly spent their time trolling each other via puppet governments and regionally confined, microcosmic conflicts.
So what? Recreating history does not necessarily make a game good. Twilight Struggle certainly does a fantastic job of immersing the player in the giant tug-of-Cold-War. (One design choice that highlights this is the score track which only has a single marker that fluctuates between two extremes.) It is a game most definitely alive with history. Thankfully, the underlying gameplay is a fantastic complement to the immersive setting. Difficult decisions abound. Player interaction is part-and-parcel with most two-player experiences, and Twilight Struggle feels like an especially exciting battle of wits, full of unexpected reversals and tables being turned. This review doesn’t really capture the complexity and nuance of game’s central mechanics, but rest assured, they are there.
And great mechanics breed acolytes. Which leads me to my final point. Toward the end of his career, Bobby Fisher grew tired of the mechanized, rote memorization that high-level chess had evolved into. Thus, he invented a chess variant called Fischerandom, or Chess960–so named because the pieces are randomized into one of 960 possible starting positions. One might worry that Twilight Struggle approaches the rote in its most serious circles. There are people who memorize the cards, analyze the best interactions, and play accordingly. For me, the sooner I “solve” a game, the sooner it loses its magic. Though I’ve played Twilight Struggle at least half-a-dozen times over the years, the plays have always been far enough apart that I have no real recollection of the cards in the deck. In some ways, my foggy half-understanding is a better approximation of what world leaders experienced during the Cold War. Consider it role-playing. The Cold War was never a game of chess–it was a game of fumbling forward as best we could. Twilight Struggle captures that feeling perfectly, and it’s a feeling I look forward to experiencing again. But not too soon lest mastery steal away my joy.