Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Twilight Struggle Review

By coincidence I played my first two games of Twilight Struggle, a new game about the Cold War during the same week that I started reading John Lewis Gaddis' We Now Know, a Cold War historian's review of how our understanding of the great superpower struggle has changed in the light of new information gleaned since the collapse of the USSR and its empire. Just as Gaddis' book combines leavens the extremely familiar events of the Cold War with surprising new twists, Twilight Struggle combines familiar elements of card-driven wargames like We the People with mechanics imported from other games, like History of the World. However, Twilight Struggle (TS) presents many new twists that make it eminently worth your while. Few games have tried to simulate the Cold War, even though many games have depicted real (the Korean War) and hypothetical (the feared Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany) conflicts that were framed by the Cold War. For depicting as well as they did this woefully "ungamed" conflict, at least as worthy of an armchair historian's or general's attention as World War II or the American Civil War, the designers deserve praise.

The game pits American and Soviet players in a struggle for influence and control on a global map. Each country is rated for its stability, which represents the difference between American and Soviet influence markers needed to give one side "control" over the country. (In fact, what "control" means is how solidly the nation is part of one superpower's alliance.) For example, a relatively volatile country like Nigeria requires only a difference of one influence to give a superpower control. Others, like Costa Rica and Japan, require a steeper investment of influence tokens to win control. Some countries are "battleground" states, important to win for reasons understood by anyone playing the game, but which have no meaning within the game other than scoring.

When and how scoring occurs is, perhaps, the key mechanic in the game. Mixed in the event deck typical of card-driven wargames are scoring cards, one per region (Middle East, Africa, etc.). When you have one of these in your hand, you must play it during your turn. In fact, your entire turn can hinge on how well you time the playing of this card, so they tend to focus the mind when they appear. When you score a region, you get points for control of at least one country (Presence); somewhat more points for having a control of a majority of battleground states, and at least one non-battleground state (Domination); and quite a lot of points for controlling all of the battleground states in the region (Control). You also get one more point for each battleground state you control in the region. There are special rules for scoring Europe, which takes into consideration its East and West divisions, and Southeast Asia, which is scored only once in the game. You also score all regions one more time at the end of the turn 10, the last in the game. If the track moves 20 points in the US direction, the capitalist running dogs win. If the track moves 20 points in the Soviet direction, the totalitarian tyrants win.

You have several options for manipulating the map of the world, preparing the ground for scoring a region. Each card played can use its numeric rating (from one to four) to place that many influence markers on the map. You're limited to placing them only where you already have influence in an adjacent country, and it costs double to place them in a country that your opponent already controls. Alternately, the number on the card can be the number of realignment rolls you make that turn. If you already have substantial influence in a region or in a particular country, you can use realignment to squeeze out your opponent's influence markers. For each realignment attempt, both you and your opponent roll dice, with bonuses added for neighboring countries controlled and influence already placed in the country. If you succeed, you remove your opponent's influence from the country.

In contrast to this gradualist approach to spreading influence and control, you can play the card to initiate a coup. The value of the card (one to four) becomes the bonus added to your die roll. You compare this total to twice the stability rating of the country. The difference becomes, first, the number of the opponent's control markers you remove, and if none are left, you use the remainder of the difference between your modified die roll and the stability number to place your own influence markers.

Coups have the added benefit of giving satisfying a certain number of military options that are required each turn, based on the current Defcon level. You lose the difference between the military operations performed and the current Defcon level in victory points. The more heated the global situation becomes, the less military activity the superpowers need to take. (Presumably, they have their hands full with the crisis at hand.) The more things cool off, the more pressure there is for the Americans and Soviets to win military victories through their proxies—Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, and the like.

Players manipulate the Defcon level through events, the alternate way to use the cards. The events depicted on the cards—which can be everything from the Red Scare to the Solidarity movement—give players temporary advantages or disadvantages. Some are pinpricks, such as Salvador Allende's election in Chile, giving the USSR some small influence there. Others change the complexion of entire regions, such as the way the Cuban Revolution opens the door to the destabilization of many parts of Latin America previously closed to Soviet meddling. Others, such as the quagmires the Soviets faced in Afghanistan, or the US in Vietnam, are real disasters. The mix of cards changes as the game progresses. The "Early War" cards are supplemented by the "Middle War" (from Kennedy to Nixon) and the "Late War" (Carter to Reagan) event cards.

The People's Republic of China is a special event card, "The China Card," that acts as an operations card worth a whopping five points playable in Asia. Unfortunately, you then have to pass the card to the other player, who can use the Chinese (the "happy third" of superpower politics, particularly in the d├ętente era) against you the next turn, at which point the China Card passes back to you…

My favorite mechanic is the way Twilight Struggle forces you to play events you might not want to see happen. Each card is designated as playable by the Soviets, Americans, or both. If the Soviet player uses a Soviet or American/Soviet card for "operations" (placing influence, rolling for realignment, attempting a coup), life is good. If the Soviet uses an American card for operations, he triggers the event—which is always bad for him. The American player faces the same problems with Soviet cards. With a limited hand of cards, the pressure to sew up a region before it's scored, the military actions that need to be taken, and other priorities, you're faced with some real dilemmas what to do with these cards. What struck me about this mechanic is how well it depicts the fact that events frequently spun out of the superpowers' control. While you may want to keep your spheres of influence neat and tidy, Anwar Sadat, Pope John Paul II, and other world leaders may have plans of their own.

One way to relieve this pressure is to play cards to advance your position in the space race, which represents the technological advances and national prestige that landing astronauts or cosmonauts on the moon could bring. In game terms, advances along the space race track lets players increase the number of cards playable per turn, forces the player behind on the race to show the first event card played each turn (during the special "Headline Phase"), and more frequently, reap victory points.

The game can end in more ways than reaching turn 10. If the Defcon level runs too high, the player triggering a nuclear confrontation automatically loses. The game automatically loses if, during a scoring round, one of the players has Control of Europe. There is also one event, Wargames (a nod to the 80s movie about the Cold War), that gives a player the option of ending the game with a final scoring round if the Defcon level is high enough.

As any veteran of card-driven wargames can tell, Twilight Struggle is both like and unlike its predecessors. But how good a simulation is it? And how good a game?

Although the designers take great pains to say how unrealistic Twilight Struggle is, creating the fiction of a neat superpower conflict, I think they're being unduly humble. Cold War politics did frame world politics for decades, when the superpowers did significantly meddle in nearly every country in every region of the world. While they may not have enjoyed the predictability the game depicts of what happened when a superpower exerted its power and influence, the game does have the mechanics described above to make regional or national politics less predictable than they might otherwise be in a game like this one. The game also shows how, as soon as one superpower began pushing on a region like the Middle East, the other superpower began pushing back in the same places. What made a particular country like Nicaragua interesting was the appearance that the other superpower was already interested in it. The game also shows how fluid the situation in Europe really was in the late 1940s, and why later the two superpowers got very persnickety when its adversary tried to meddle on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The one part of the game that seems "gamey" is the military track. Sure, the Cold War did get progressively militarized because of events like the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it didn't need to play out quite that way. The "architect" of the original US policy of containment, the diplomat George Kennan, felt it was a mistake to overemphasize military responses, even to counter Soviet military actions. The Cold War ended with a whimper, not a bang, which belies the significance of military action as a road to victory. Still, as a game mechanic, it does make sense—yet another priority to juggle in a game all about making choices with limited means among varied, global priorities.

After a couple of plays, it's hard to tell if the space race is one priority too many. It's a neat idea, but it does not seem to contribute that much to the game overall. Would you rather score two or three points by advancing in the space race, or score big points this turn in the Middle East while strengthening your position in the same region for a future scoring turn? I'll need more plays under my belt to render a better opinion on this corner of the game.

I'm also a bit concerned that the Soviets have a somewhat harder time in the game than the Americans. Since the event cards mirror history, Soviet options narrow over time, while resistance in Eastern Europe mounts. In both games I played, the Soviets started strong, then watched their position erode to the point of defeat by turn 10.

Twilight Struggle may sound complex, but it's not. In fact, it's one of the most approachable in its family. Even if it turns out that the Americans have an advantage in the game, it's a blast to play—enough so that I'm thinking about how to test new strategies in the next game I play.


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