Twilight Struggle, a two-player Cold War simulator is occasionally available on Steam for a few euros. I tried it out and make my Twilight Struggle Review: Board Game and Video Game.
The review will focus on the video game version of Twilight Struggle, but I’ll make comparisons with the tabletop version along the way, so you’ll get a feel for what makes them similar and different. I do not own the tabletop version – when you read the article, you will understand why.
Theme and Setting
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Winston Churchill, 1946
Not many board games are so focused on the theme as is Twilight Struggle. It’s soaked in the Cold War, through and through. Art, atmosphere, events, and the board are made around the theme, not the other way around.
You’ll be playing as a leader of one of the superpowers: the United States or the Soviet Union. Your task is to dominate the world: by spreading your sphere of influence, interfering into nations’ internal affairs, using historical events (like the Cuban crisis or the Korean War) to your own benefit, and competing in the Space Race on the side.
No direct war between players is possible – unless nuclear war happens, which means it’s game over. You’ll be making your 45 year-long duel (unless you win or lose sooner) on the map of the world, using other nations as pawns in your grand game of manipulation, intrigue, and deception.
Twilight Struggle Facts
Players: 2 players only.
Playing time: 120-180 minutes for the tabletop version, 30-60 minutes for a digital game against AI.
Average rating (according to BGG): 8.3/10
Complexity rating (BGG weight): 3.57/5
Recommended ages: 14+
How it’s Played – The Rules
By game mechanics, Twilight Struggle has easy-to-understand fundamentals. It’s made of 10 turns, and in every turn, you will play out several action cards one by one, which are all unique and based on historical events. There are both USA and USSR associated events, as well as neutral events. That’s where the complexity comes from – every event is historically unique and unique in what it does.
For every card, you will have an option to use its operational value for influence (increasing your influence in certain countries) or play out the event, which can have all sorts of benefits. If the event is one-time, the card will be removed from the game after that – if you use it for influence, it will get discarded and re-shuffled later on.
You can even use your opponent’s event cards for influence, but in this case, the event will play out automatically. The trick is to use a certain card at just the right moment so that the opponent doesn’t benefit too much.
Occasionally you will draw a scoring card for a certain region – these must be played until the turn ends. Comparison over the region’s control will be made and one of the powers will get victory points, depending on how much they dominate.
You want to play scoring cards, when you have as much control over the region as possible, of course. On the other hand, if the enemy is focusing his influence in Asia, there’s a good chance he has the Asia scoring card, so you better not neglect that.
Besides events and influence, you will also have the option to initiate a coup. This is a very powerful action, that can flip the allegiance of a nation instantly, but can also lower the DEFCON status – if you’re the one to initiate the nuclear war, you lose!
For a more peace-loving player, there is an option to invest the cards into Space Race, which gives its own useful benefits, as well as victory points. It’s the only way to play your opponent’s card if you don’t want his event to occur.
” … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard … ” JFK, 1962
Placing influence and playing out events are pretty straightforward. But, when realigning influence, going for coups, or the space race, you will be obliged to throw dice to decide the outcome. But you can somewhat tip the chances in your favor by playing smart.
As said, victory points are based on influence (presence, domination, and control) in regions and other factors (Space Race or certain event cards). For the victory, you need to:
- have 20 more victory points than your opponent or
- because Europe was pivotal in the Cold War, you win immediately if you control it when the Europe scoring card comes up (which is very hard to do) or
- the opponent initiates the nuclear war.
As turns advance, played events from event deck will get removed and ones from Mid-war and Late-war will get shuffled in, which symbolizes the passing of time nicely and fits in the context perfectly. But it’s not easy to make it into Late-war, games will usually end sooner.
“Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan, 1987
If the game drags out all the way to the fall of the Berlin wall, endgame scoring is used to determine the winner.
Twilight Struggle Board Game
Designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, Twilight Struggle was originally released in 2005 and received an updated Deluxe Edition in 2009. It’s ranked number 7 on the overall BGG ranking, and number one among wargames.
It does fall slightly behind (modern games) in terms of component quality, but the fact that we’re still talking about it more than a decade later is proof that it has stood the test of time and became a modern-day classic.
Tabletop version comes with a great 32-page rule book, where the last ten pages are nothing but historical material about the in-game events. Frankly, I learned more about the Cold War from the rule book than in school.
If you have someone to play against and enough time, this is one of the best back-and-forth two-player games. Immersion level is very high, and you’ll feel like great leaders immediately (and start quoting JFK or talking with a Russian accent). Highly recommended by critics.
Twilight Struggle Video Game
In 2016, the more accessible of the two was released – the video game. It’s a lot cheaper, plays faster and you don’t need a sparring partner. Let’s see its features in more detail:
- As is usually the case with Asmodee Digital games, Twilight Struggle is fully ported. Everything that is in the tabletop version, is also here and all the rules are exactly the same.
- The theme looks great and sound effects (with politicians speaking in the background, “spy” sounds, etc.) are fantastic. Immersion is great, I almost longed to be alive during the era (well, I was actually alive for the last couple of years of the Cold War, living just behind the iron curtain).
- The user interface is very functional, all the buttons are where you expect them to be, although sometimes it demands a couple of clicks too many for a simple thing.
- One thing that every digital version has problems with, is the feeling of holding the cards in your hand. It just doesn’t feel right and there’s a reason card playing is not a popular mechanic in video games.
- The games are a lot faster (no need to keep track of all the rules), so you can play more of them in the same period. This also means you will learn much faster, especially about those late-war events, that you will otherwise encounter less frequently.
- The AI is somewhat slow. I have no idea why it has to take 15 seconds to make a move (yes, I have a very powerful PC). It’s very competent, though. It will make counter-plays to yours, knows when to play certain events, scoring cards, and so on. Definitely a tough nut to crack.
- Turn Zero DLC is available, but not included with the base game.
- With the current price of just under 10€, I suggest you wait for a sale and get it for half of that. It’s definitely good value for money.
- Online multiplayer is surprisingly populated and it’s easy to find a game. You don’t have to be online for the whole sitting (you can if you are both online at the same time) – you make your move and you can close the game until your opponent makes his, to which you will be kindly informed by email.
How Does Twilight Struggle Feel Playing
I’m going to be brutally honest here: in order to fully enjoy Twilight Struggle, you’ve got to fulfill some conditions:
- You need to be a history enthusiast, specifically enthusiastic about the Cold War and events around it. If you don’t like that part of history, there’s no point in getting Twilight Struggle.
- The game is hard, sometimes frustratingly so. There are a lot of things you would like to do, but you can only ever play one card. You’re pushing for influence in a region and then your opponent comes in with a well-timed event, a coup or just a lucky dice roll, and wipes all your hard-earned progress in a heartbeat. (But you’ll do those nasty turnovers to your opponent as well.) It can be really demoralizing (and not much fun, to be honest). You were warned.
- With events hugely differentiating in power, it feels you’re not in control of what you do. Luck plays quite an effect – the variance is high.
- If you’re willing to accept all this and have a sparring partner, that accepts them too (or you play against the AI), congratulations. You’re in a strategic Cold War heaven.
“I can deal with Stalin. He is honest but smart as hell.” Harry Truman, 1945
I want to end this on the positive note because the game deserves it. It’s a very good two-player war game with a lot of strategic options and paths to pursue. The educational factor/historic accuracy is exceptional, as already mentioned.
For me, it lacks the fun factor slightly, but as far as I understand, the Cold War itself was not a very fun event, so in that regard, I understand that the authors wanted to catch that atmosphere.
And they succeeded in doing that, which is probably the greatest compliment I can give to Twilight Struggle.
Any comments or questions are most welcomed. Leave them below.