Twilight Struggle, a non-war gamer’s review

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?

Twilight Struggle, round 2. Please do not mock our beginner strategies
Twilight Struggle, round 2. Please do not mock our beginner strategies
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”.

Twilight Struggle, also new vest
Twilight Struggle, also new vest from Santa
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.

The Hobbit Card Game, review

More from the FFG clearance sale, Martin Wallace’s least Martin Wallacy game, The Hobbit Card Game.

Hobbit the Hearts Game
Hobbit the Hearts Game

Look, this is not a deep game. It’s also not not Hearts. With a tiny bit of extra complexity, sure, but it really is Hearts. This is a game for bringing it out after Thanksgiving or Christmas when you have family in town and no one is interested in learning the finer points of how a panda moves in Takenoko.

So how does it play? 5 suits, each card other than a suit and value can have one of 3 symbols: a star, a black helmet, or a pipe. Good players want stars on their characters and to avoid helmets, the evil players want opposite, and everyone slightly wants pipes which give you an extra choice of card in the second round. After every trick the winner distributes the cards in a certain way, depending on their personal character role. There’s two layers of complexity to the game: first is that since the good characters all have different trick distribution methods, it’s in the players favor to try and make sure Gandalf wins instead of, say, Thorin. Second, if it’s apparent that the evil player(s) will win a trick, you need to start thinking which cards to give them based on what symbol you want them to distribute, not just “lowest card of suit you want least”.

That’s pretty much it though. Quick 5 minute plays. And like Hearts, your success or failure is pretty determined by what starting hand the Smaug player has. Smaug with a great starting hand is very difficult to beat, while a Gandalf who can “shoot the moon” can pretty much single-handedly carry the good players to victory. Which, again, is fine if you understand that that’s what you’re getting in the box and not expect the next Steam or Brass.

Epic Card Game review

Our kickstarter of Epic Card Game arrived, and it got played a good few times.

Exactly one of which was played with the correct rules.

Epic Card Game: 4 Moon Moons and a crap hand
Epic Card Game: 4 Moon Moons and a non-synergic hand

The rulebook needs help. There’s going to be an improved online one soon, as well as how to play videos, and both will help a lot I’m sure. If nothing else, before playing, make sure you understand how dealing damage works. Oh, and make sure you get that “You can attack multiple times per turn” and “You get mana on your opponent’s turn” are rules. Those two in huge red letters would have saved us a good chunk of time.

Huge bonus for teaching (and playing, in my opinion), is that there’s no stack, in the MtG sense. Every action always happens as intended, though there might be a reaction after. Reaction though, not interruption. Also, getting rid of mana was a very good decision. The game does not feel more shallow for it, much like I never thought to myself that Hearthstone is poorer for not having to worry about drawing lands.

The cards themselves are very interesting. The “You win if your deck is empty, but opponents have cards to recycle you graveyard into your deck” is a very interesting mechanic and leads to a lot of hard choices (in a good way).

Flipside, the default mode of “Pick 30 cards and go!” really doesn’t highlight the strength of the game. Feels very random and would be comparable to just playing Star Realms by drawing random cards until one player wins. I definitely recommend either constructed play, or draft.

Overall I like it, though word of disclosure, Angelica is not nearly as excited about this one as me, heh.