What is it? A cagey, cerebral face-off set during the Cold War
How many people? Two
How long does it take? 60-180 minutes
Who is it for? History buffs and/or keen gamers
Buy it: On Amazon here
Why we recommend it
Best Play started out making content all about games that got people round the table. The accessible titles that made board games for everyone. That’s still very much our mantra, but sometimes we take a look at something a bit more complex, but Twilight Struggle is certainly capable of bringing new players to gaming – just in an unconventional way.
That’s because rather than being appealing to mum and gran, Twilight Struggle is entrenched firmly in history buff territory, potentially attracting those that just love things like the Cold War (ie. me) and think that the idea of a board game about it is just brilliant (ie. me). It also occupies the space that Chess tends to sit, with two crumbling old men – and it usually is men – battling to outsmart one another. For these kinds of people, Twilight Struggle is for you.The game starts in 1945, with one player assuming control of the thriving post-war US, and the other plays as the secretive communist superpower, the USSR. Interestingly, these powers are asymmetrical so each has different strengths and advantages that make playing as one is a very different experience to the other, and requires a different blend of tactics to succeed.
Unlike many other games of this nature, there are no tanks, battles or territorial occupation. Instead, the game plays out at a much more subtle pace, with each nation attempting to influence overseas regimes through coups and other political interference. Establishing friendly ‘our bastard’ dictators in strategically advantageous locations is just one of many ways to get an edge on your opponent.
Others include getting a foothold in the space race, or picking the winning side in a distant conflict – such as the Pakistan/India split or the Chinese civil war.
You’re also able to select and play event cards, which are based on real life incidents. Interestingly, although you’ll be given a stack of new cards each round, many of them are likely to benefit your opponent more than yourself. For example, one might grant victory points to whomever has a better presence in the middle east – meaning you’ll want to play it late on in the round and spend lots of the early turns ramping up activity in Syria.
Problematically, others will simply grant a benefit to the USSR no matter what you do, so your job becomes a case of damage limitation and strategic time management. Crucially, there is always a choice of when and how to play a card, and so much of the game is trying to second guess and preempt your opponent, making the experience of playing Twilight Struggle pleasingly similar to the hallmarks of the real Cold War.Also satisfying to the pedants out there is the historical accuracy in terms of the events that play out, from the mutual dick-swinging surrounding the Olympic games to the cagey tension of the Cuban missile crisis. These milestones happen in semi-random but generally chronological order, although players can also find ways to avoid them happening altogether at certain conditions.
The objective is simple: reach 20 victory points before your opponent does, or have more than they do once the calendar reaches 1989. Points are scored on a pendulum scale, meaning if the US are ahead by 5 points and the Soviet Union scores 2 points, then the US are pulled back to 3 rather than the USSR gaining anything.
On top of the vast number of fronts to worry about, players must also be acutely aware of the Defcon status. This meter not only dictates which actions can be taken (eg. meddling in Europe becomes off-limits if nuclear tensions are particularly high), but also can spell disaster if the balance isn’t maintained. Should actions push the status right to the top, then mutual assured destruction becomes a reality and the guilty player automatically loses. This element adds yet another layer of intrigue to the play, with both superpowers desperately trying to expand their dominance over mankind without veering into global annihilation. Again, just like the real cold war.
So step forward the intelligent, the cerebral and the ambitious. Just a single round of Twilight Struggle is a real undertaking, and even when you don’t win, it feels empowering and enjoyably challenging purely to experience it.