Taking Over the World, One Card at a Time: Twilight Struggle

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The Cold War presents challenges for wargamers, particularly those drawn to the hobby by the desire to replay, examine, and sometimes change, history. Most of the possible Cold War battles remained, thankfully, merely possible, so there’s no history to recreate in pushing T-72s through the North German Plain or planning a defense of the GIUK Gap: it’s all conjecture.

I’ve never had a problem with hypothetical wargames—the levels of abstraction necessary to simulate any battle turns every game into a more-or-less hypothetical exercise, so as long as a game remains true to its intentions, I’m happy to accept whatever backstory it proposes—but they do suffer in the marketplace and seldom appear these days. The biggest exception is GMT‘s blockbuster Twilight Struggle (2005; rev. ed. 2007), a card-driven treatment not of any particular Cold War battle but of the Cold War itself.

A bit of the struggle in Twilight Struggle

Cards drive the play, providing points with which to influence (and topple) governments and events that follow the course of history, from the Berlin Blockade and the waves of decolonization through to Solidarity and the rise of Maggie Thatcher. Regional wars pop up here and there, and the increase in tensions between the superpowers can result in nuclear war, an Idiot Rule being in place to penalize the player who pushes the world over the edge, a common feature in Cold War wargames.

My first playthrough, I decided not to look through the deck to see what events were pending or possible, so as to recreate some of that sense of being “in the moment,” unblessed by foresight. And though I knew the outlines of history and what might happen, to see events take place out of the original sequence, to have the Marshall Plan enacted in the 1950’s and Castro come to power in the immediate post-war era, to see the US put a satellite into orbit first and Karol Wojtyla ascend to Peter’s throne in the early 1960’s, provided me with a fresh look at the interrelatedness of all those historical events. To me, this ability to alter the timeline a bit, while still remaining a historically valid take on the forty-odd years of the Cold War, provides most of Twilight Struggle’s appeal.

Too, there are never quite enough points to shore up your own position and counter your opponent’s plays. Twilight Struggle leaves both players feeling as though they’re reacting to the other player, and it takes nerves to make a move that furthers your own plans rather than counters your opponent’s (apparent) plans. One must play offense and defense at the same time.

I began playing Twilight Struggle because one of my regular PBeM opponents had a copy and wanted to give it a spin via VASSAL. GMT is one of the more enlightened game companies as regards making games available for play via the major PBeM/online applications and providing “living rules” that can be downloaded. Though they run the risk that people will merely download the rules and the game module and never buy the physical product, I can provide a personal data point and note that had I not had the ability to play Twilight Struggle online first, I wouldn’t be the proud owner of a physical copy of the game right now.

Some game companies simply don’t get it where living rules and PBeM modules are concerned. If I can’t play a game online, I probably won’t bother to buy it. I have enough shelf queens to last a lifetime, and while I love playing face-to-face, time is a bit of a bugbear for all of us. I want games that will get played at this point. So the fear of losing a sale to me because I might not buy a physical copy translates into a guaranteed lost sale because I can’t play it online. Sure, margins are slim, but if this hobby doesn’t grow, margins are nil.

Twilight Struggle is certainly not a game I’d ever want to play in a tournament situation. I can already see how certain openings are nearly de rigueur, and various kludges are in place in competitive play to balance the perceived Soviet starting advantage. I prefer to leave the starting situation as is—it provides a fair look at the long odds facing the United States in the immediate post-war era and suggests what a near-run thing it all was. That’s not to suggest that the United States player has an impossible task, as the highly random nature of the card draws leave every match in doubt. Compensating for the initial Soviet advantage may make for more balance, but it lessens the game as a simulation for me.

For me, Twilight Struggle is one of those rare games that succeeds both as a game, entertaining and compelling, and as a simulation, recreating some sense of the tension of international relations. One sees that the Cold War was definitely a war.

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