It feels strange to review Twilight Struggle as there’s so much written about it already. I suppose I’ll target this as “what to make of the hype around the game if you’re a board gamer, but not a war gamer”.
What hype? Well, it’s the #1 game on BGG, it’s got its own article on 538 discussing why it’s the best game of all time, and its wiki is being made into a 400 page strategy book coming out pretty soon. And that’s before the many other review posts and videos.
So what is it?
It’s a 2-player card driven cold war war game. You get a hand of cards, you play them in one of few ways, and from that you update board state. Some of the cards cause scoring to happen, and when it does you check to see who’s winning a region, and update points.
There’s a couple hooks to this. The major one is that both players draw from a communal deck which gives out both USSR and US cards. Oh, if you haven’t guessed, one player is US the other USSR. Your own cards can be played as event, or just for numeric effect allowing a certain number of operations, but never both. Your opponent’s cards have to be played for numeric operations, and then the event will trigger. All but 1 cards (generally) have to be played.
What’s that mean? It means you draw a hand that’s half great for you, half awful, and you have to make the best of it when you do. This is the main hook of the game, dealing with how to best play these cards that on the surface look just terrible to play.
Keep in mind though the game is a war game and comes from that culture, so it includes a bit of a rule wall up front. Placement vs realignment vs coup. Keeping track of war points and measuring it against defcon. The space race. The China card. None of the rules are difficult but they take a few minutes of time to teach up front. But, and this is important, it doesn’t play like a war game once you get going.
In fact I should make this its own paragraph: Twilight Struggle doesn’t play like a war game once it gets going. Each phase takes maybe a minute, and then flips to the other player, so downtime is very short. The actual rules are quite simple and importantly there’s a very clear mental link between “I want to achieve X, what’s the best way to achieve X”.
So what’s the catches for people not used to war games? One, the game is long, and requires a lot of attention. Probably looking at 2.5 to 3 hours, but again, that’s 3 hours of seriously paying attention. I did ok with it, but Angelica needed to take a break about midway. The other is that the game has a lot of room for strategy growth. It’s not rules hard, but it is strategy hard, meaning a player who is good at it will win very easily over a player who isn’t. Some of the strategy comes very quickly (“Use space race to get rid of cards that will lose me the game”), but other things like “If you don’t use your own events they come back and your opponent might use them for you”, or “Use ops after enemy events to undo the damage” take a bit longer. And of course, there’s the final layer of “Remember every card and know what your opponent has and how they might play it”.
So is it worth checking out? If you’re willing to invest the time to learn the rules, the game is good. If you’re willing to invest the time to learn the strategy, the game is Very good. I can see what the hype is about cause the cards are interesting and a very good balance between “too swingy” and “not powerful enough”, the map is very well designed with chokepoints and dynamic relationships, and the famous flow of the game (Russia starts strong and ends weak) is very much there.
It really is a very good game. I’m hoping it gets to hit table as often as it can.