|The Cold War, 1945–1989|
First edition box art
Rodger B. MacGowan
|Setup time||5–15 minutes|
|Playing time||3 hours|
|Random chance||Medium (dice, cards)|
Twilight Struggle: The Cold War, 1945–1989 is a board wargame for two players, published by GMT Games in 2005. Players are the United States and Soviet Union contesting each other's influence on the world map by using cards that correspond to historical events. The first game designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, they intended it to be a quick-playing alternative to more complex card-driven wargames.
It achieved critical acclaim for its well-integrated theme, accessibility and introduction of Eurogame elements to a wargame. After being voted the number one game on BoardGameGeek from December 2010 to January 2016, it has been called "the best board game on the planet". Twilight Struggle is played competitively and was unofficially adapted for play-by-email and live online play. GMT released a Deluxe Edition in 2009, as well as a Collector's Edition as part of the crowdfunding campaign for the game's official adaptation into a video game; this Digital Edition was released in 2016. With over 100,000 copies sold, the game is GMT's all-time best-seller.
According to its designers, "Twilight Struggle basically accepts all of the internal logic of the Cold War as true—even those parts of it that are demonstrably false." The game board thus presents a map of a bipolar world where the US and USSR spread influence to all other countries according to domino theory. Depending on the stability of a country, the power that has the most influence establishes control.
Gameplay is divided into ten turns. Each turn players randomly draw a hand of event cards from a single deck. The starting deck contains only early war cards, with historically appropriate mid war and late war events shuffled in on turns 4 and 8 (for a total of 103 cards in the first edition). Each turn begins with a headline phase and consists of six to eight action rounds for each of which players use one of their cards.
Operations and events
Cards have operations point values that let a player take one of three actions on the board: to place influence markers in countries where he already has influence or adjacent to them; to attempt realignment to remove influence, with bonuses depending on existing influence; or to attempt a coup that can reduce an opponent's influence and increase his own influence in a single country. Realignment and coup attempts partially rely on dice rolls to succeed.
However, if the card is associated with the opponent, the card's event occurs as well. For example, the US player can use two operations points from playing the Soviet event "Fidel", at the expense of its effect: "Remove all US Influence in Cuba. USSR gains sufficient Influence in Cuba for Control." If an event is instead associated with that player, or neutral, the player must choose either to conduct operations or get the beneficial effect of the event. A fourth operations option is to attempt to advance in the Space Race (which grants benefits to the leading player), avoids the card's event.
Most cards are discarded after being played, and the discard pile will be reshuffled to form a new draw deck when it runs out. Some cards are instead removed from play when their event occurs, e.g. the "Korean War" can occur only once. China cannot be influenced like other countries but is represented by a special card: "The China Card" starts the game with the USSR and is passed directly to the opponent each time it is played.
Scoring and victory
Regional scoring cards award victory points to both players based on their respective level of influence—presence, domination or control—in that region when the card is played. The regions have unequal values: domination of Central America is worth three VP but domination of Asia is worth seven. Normally players will hold one card per turn into the next, but scoring cards may not be held.
Player actions are constrained by the DEFCON and required military operations tracks. A coup attempt on one of the battleground countries reduces DEFCON by one each time, restricting the regions where coups and realignments may be attempted. If DEFCON 1 is reached during a player's action round, that player is said to cause a nuclear war and loses immediately. Each turn, however, players will also lose victory points if they do not conduct military operations (primarily coup attempts) at least equal to the DEFCON level.
Victory points are gained or lost on a shared one-dimensional track, and a player who reaches 20 VP in his favor wins immediately. Control of Europe when its scoring card is played also awards an early victory. If neither player has won by the end of turn 10, a final scoring occurs in which each region is scored at once.
Wargaming hobbyists Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta met in 1998. They hoped to take advantage of a resurgence in wargaming led by card-driven games, but wanted a quick-playing game to fit their own schedule—more in the vein of We the People and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage than the likes of Paths of Glory. They rejected a Spanish Civil War theme after realizing they did not know enough about the period. Gupta suggested the Cold War theme, which fit well for Matthews, who had studied it extensively when majoring in international relations in the 1980s. Early versions were more complex and simulationist, but through playtesting eventually almost every mechanic was abstracted and the event deck made much smaller: "Many clever and interesting ideas were discarded as being contrary to the fundamental guiding principles of the game – fast play, simple rules, and getting a lot of gameplay value out of the cards."
Design drew on many other games. The influence-based scoring system derived from History of the World, and scoring cards from the work of Alan Moon. Using game mechanics to incentivize historical behavior came from experience with For the People. The futility of nuclear war, and its relation to conventional military operations, came from the video game Balance of Power as well as Supremacy. Twilight Struggle takes its title from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.
By the summer of 2000, Matthews and Gupta were promoting a prototype at the World Boardgaming Championships. Their first choice of publisher was GMT Games, where Gupta had had a playtesting job. GMT founder Gene Billingsley immediately felt drawn to the theme but had doubts about the game's marketability, and placed it on the company's Project 500 list—it would be published if it achieved 500 preorders. The game ultimately shipped in December 2005 with a retail price of $57.
Matthews subsequently wrote a set of optional rules to simulate the Chinese Civil War, and Volko Ruhnke developed a scenario starting in the late war era. Both were included with the Deluxe Edition in 2009, in addition to event text revisions and a set of new optional cards.
Following a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, Twilight Struggle Digital Edition was released in 2016. Developed by Playdek and published by Asmodee Digital, this paid version allows play against a computer in addition to another player. It was released for Windows, macOS, iOS and Android; the campaign had also promised a Linux edition.
In addition to a Collector's Edition made with luxury materials, potential bonuses with Digital Edition preorders were a set of new cards and the Turn Zero mini-expansion, which adds an earlier starting point. GMT made a reprint of the new cards and expansion available for general purchase.
Initial reviews were positive but sales were lagging. Soon after the game was endorsed by Alan Moon, an influential designer of Eurogames rather than wargames, the first printing sold out. According to one account, "Twilight Struggle came out the same weekend as the Boardgame Players Association's Winter Activation Meeting ... Though it was not an event on the schedule, Twilight Struggle was the talk of the show ... At PrezCon a month later, the dealer sold out in the first few minutes he was open."
Jon Waddington for Gamers Alliance Report was positive but noted problems with unclear card and rule book texts (in the first edition). "I cannot quite give Twilight Struggle an unqualified recommendation, and yet I consider it one of the best games I've played in the last few years." Rating the game 93%, Armchair General reviewer Kaarin Engelmann pointed out that "One of its strengths is that few other games deal with the subject, yet it is not important to remember pre-Glasnost years to enjoy the game." Game designer Zev Shlasinger commented: "Twilight Struggle gives you a compact history lesson about the Cold War ... Coupled with that is the game's accessibility and the design's cleverness, all of which make Twilight Struggle stand out among the crowd of recent political wargame releases."
Users voted Twilight Struggle the highest-ranked game on BoardGameGeek from December 2010 until it was unseated by Pandemic Legacy in January 2016, and as of July 2019[update], it remains the oldest game in the top 10. This led later commentators like FiveThirtyEight's Oliver Roeder to call it "the best board game on the planet". Vice Motherboard's Michael Gaynor called it "the best board game ever created". It became GMT Games' all-time best-seller by far; as of July 2016[update] it had lifetime sales of approximately 100,000 copies and annual sales were still growing.
According to a scholarly analysis of the game's design, "In some respects, Twilight Struggle resembles a modern-style Eurogame more than a wargame." It summarized the game play thus: "Rules and limited strategic choices governing Event triggers combine to ensure a roughly-accurate historical experience; within this framework of bad and suboptimal choices, one player will eventually squeak out a victory." Although the treatment of events as disconnected or the existence of a defined winner are not historical, the game mechanics do succeed in "drawing players through a recapitulation of most of the Cold War's dramatic events, in which they behave according to its internal historical logics."
Twilight Struggle has received numerous awards and nominations, including:
- 2005 – Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Modern Era Boardgame and James F. Dunnigan Award (to Gupta and Matthews)
- 2005 – Nominated for Origins Award for Historical Boardgame of the Year
- 2006 – International Gamers Award for Best 2-Player Strategy Game and Best Historical Simulation Game, the first game to win two IGAs.
- 2006 – BoardGameGeek Golden Geek Award for Best Wargame and Best 2-Player Board Game
- 2006 – Nominated for the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming
- 2007 – Nominated by Games magazine for Best Historical Simulation
Competitive and online play
Twilight Struggle has been played annually at the World Boardgaming Championships since 2006, and was the event's most popular card-driven wargame tournament for the first four years, peaking at 70 players. The original rule book included the tournament rule of revealing held cards at the end of a turn, to prevent cheating by holding a score card. The Deluxe Edition rule book includes an annotated "Extended Example of Play" taken from a Boardgame Players Association play-by-email tournament. The Collector's Edition rule book provides for tournament players to bid starting influence on their preferred side.
Play can be assisted by unofficial software tools like the Automated Card Tracking System and Cyberboard Gamebox (for play-by-email), or the TwiStrug virtual board. Adaptations for live online play include a module for the open-source Vassal Engine and Internet Twilight Struggle, which predate the official Digital Edition. GMT Games sanctions personal, non-commercial use of electronic adaptations if at least one player owns the board game.
Jason Matthews reused mechanics of Twilight Struggle in several games. For example in 1960: The Making of the President, the countries are replaced by states, and victory points are replaced by electoral votes deciding the 1960 United States presidential election. Similar adaptations are Campaign Manager 2008, 1989: Dawn of Freedom and Founding Fathers.
Matthews and Gupta collaborated again on Imperial Struggle: The Global Rivalry Between Britain and France, 1697–1789; Gupta characterized Twilight Struggle as an "older cousin" to Imperial Struggle.
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