We like to conclude each group of monthly topics with our Design Analysis series where we can dive into some of our favorite games from both past and present. In the last half of 2014 and earlier this year we wrote about game design topics like Theme, Downtime and Pacing. This week I’m tackling a giant in the field, Twilight Struggle, which has spent years at the apex of BoardGameGeek’s top 100 list and has even gotten the attention of FiveThirtyEight in recent months, where it was called “the best board game on the planet.”
Of course, Twilight Struggle is not a new game, having been published just about ten years ago, but when Alex and I sat down to play the game back in August, it was new to both of us. Here, we’ll take a critical look at Twilight Struggle’s design in terms of its game-defining concepts, theme, satisfaction, and “second-level” dimensions of games (downtime, pacing, and player control).
Innovation – Game Defining Concepts
A Tangled Web of Decisions
The central idea in Twilight Struggle (and in geopolitics) is that nothing happens in total isolation. Your actions have long-lasting consequences that might not be immediately apparent but that might change your plan down the line–or might upend your opponent’s entire strategy. Twilight Struggle is defined by its innovative and possibly unique card mechanic, where any card that you play comes with a cost. Either you give yourself some resources but cause an event that directly benefits your opponent, or you must choose between causing an event that benefits you or giving yourself some resources.
Needing to balance advancing your own position without entitling your opponent to too much of an advantage might fall under both the “creating tension” and “presenting elegant resolutions to in-game issues” categories of game-defining elements that we discussed last year. Constantly assessing the tradeoffs that are inevitable when you play a card in Twilight Struggle drives the tension and competition of the game in a way that playing cards in, say, Race for the Galaxy or Seasons does not. And in addition to performing actions, playing cards is also the primary mechanic to generate points. Your opponent conducting military operations in a given part of the world might mean that he’s about to play a scoring card for that part of the world–or it might mean that he’s afraid that you will.
Limited Options, Flexible Choices
Riffing off of our example of San Juan’s “cards as resources” mechanic, Twilight Struggle does let you do some creative things with cards besides use them for special events. If you come across a card with an event that nominally benefits you but that doesn’t seem so exciting, you can always use it for military operations. Or, you can take the high-risk, high-reward path of the space race, where you aren’t guaranteed anything, but at least you won’t help your opponent either.
Probably nobody would call Twilight Struggle a card game because it features a panoply of components, including a vast map of the entire world. But it’s in how the cards are played and how the card mechanics interact with everything else going on in the game that Twilight Struggle defines itself the most.
Theme – Thematic Execution
Hands down, Twilight Struggle does one of the most remarkable jobs of integrating its theme with its design of any strategy game ever created, and if I had to pick out just one aspect that made Twilight Struggle so beloved, it would be its theme. The Cold War is still sufficiently recent that it resonates even with those of us not quite old enough to remember the Berlin Wall, and its backdrop of a paranoia combined with a postmodern search for meaning lends itself to the tense politics of a strategy game in a way that historically accurate Napoleonic war games cannot.
In our article on the “struggle” between theme and mechanics, Alex included Twilight Struggle as a prototypical example of a game with an “inseparable theme,” which is characterized by “theme-first design.” Twilight Struggle and games like it are designed with their theme at their core and would not make any sense as games about anything else. The advantage to such an approach is that Twilight Struggle is a game where you do really feel like you’re doing what the game tells you you’re doing: as a Twilight Struggle player, I absolutely feel like I’m making important geopolitical decisions that affect the course of the (fictionalized) Cold War.
Of course, complexity is the other side of the coin. We’ve talked extensively in this blog about the depth-to-complexity ratio: Connect Four has more rules than Tic-Tac-Toe, but those rules support it being a strategically deeper game. “Theme-first” games like Twilight Struggle almost require applying a different ratio, making the game more thematic at the cost of adding more complexity. “Inseparable theme” games pay the price of necessitating fiddly rules (that don’t necessarily add strategic depth) to keep up with the thematic immersion. Twilight Struggle has lots of these, limiting the cards per turn that can be dedicated to given purposes, requiring a set number of military operations per round, changing which actions are available in which parts of the world to keep up with the DEFCON level, and (my personal favorite) making Canada a part of Western Europe to make the map line up better.
Theme – Integrating Theme
Games based on history have set themselves up with a wealth of historical precedent to structure their themes around. Both historical accuracy and historical inaccuracy lead to memorable thematic experiences in Twilight Struggle, an example of our “referencing real-world settings or events” category of fulfilling player expectations. I would brag about having won the Korean War as the Soviets one turn, only to have the Americans put me in my place by electing JFK the next; the Americans might not botch the Bay of Pigs invasion but then look really bad for boycotting my Olympics. I don’t remember the mechanics of the NATO card, but I do remember the irony of being forced to play it as the Soviets.
One area where Twilight Struggle’s theme is particularly well-integrated with its mechanics is in its scoring structure: the “tug of war” is a great thematic implementation. A standard VP track wouldn’t capture one of the most significant parts of the Cold War: the back-and-forth battle of two opposing ideologies in the minds of the people and governments of the rest of the world. Many games use a VP track, and no matter who is leading at some time during the game, you can’t really tell who will win–there are various final scoring elements, catch-up mechanics, and so forth that will impact the final scores. (This kind of system is one of the reasons I love Castles of Burgundy, and I’m consistently impressed with Stefan Feld for managing to design a game where someone might score 200 points, win by 3, and not know they’ve won until after the game is finished. But it wouldn’t work for Twilight Struggle.)
The reason that a simple VP track wouldn’t be appropriate here is that the back-and-forth reality (and/or perception of reality) of the Cold War is much better suited to a “gain some ground, lose some ground” method of scoring. In other words, I feel like I’m playing a high-stakes game of metaphorical tug-of-war because my score is constantly fluctuating in response to what I do and to what my opponent does.
If Twilight Struggle has any elements of failing to integrate theme and design, it’s that the game requires more suspension of disbelief the more you play it. The real-life Cold War was an anxious time because nobody knew what was coming next: what if another Southeast Asian nation falls to communism, or the US builds up too much military power in the Middle East, or one side or another actually launches the nukes? In Twilight Struggle, the more times you play, the better chance you have of seeing which mechanics are associated with which events. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union had no idea that Fidel Castro might rise to power and establish a communist regime within eighty miles of the United States, but someone who has played a few games of Twilight Struggle knows full well that the “Fidel” card is coming and approximately when in the game to expect it.
Mostly, however, Twilight Struggle succeeds brilliantly in its thematic design, especially in the Appropriateness, Accuracy, and Uniformity axioms of thematic execution. Not every game can, or should, be as much about its theme as Twilight Struggle is, but it really is the best and clearest example that exists today of the “inseparable theme” category.
Dimensions of Games – Downtime
Intrinsically limiting the game to two players, which is necessary for its thematic goal, also cuts down on Twilight Struggle’s perceived downtime. Particularly in the early parts of later rounds (when players generally have the most resources at their disposal), there are lots of decisions to make about which cards to play in which order, leading to the agonizing state of analysis paralysis caused by the paradox of choice.
But, as we discussed in our article about downtime, a player’s perception of being disengaged from the game is as important as the actual of length of time that he’s not doing anything. No matter whose turn it is in Twilight Struggle, both players need (and want!) to pay attention to see how the state of the world is changing.
Twilight Struggle’s solution for downtime occupies a unique middle ground between the “simultaneous actions” and “off-turn interactions” that we described in our Downtime article. The actions are sequential and not really simultaneous, but because each card has effects for both players, each turn really comprises actions for both players. The result is a rare game where it’s sometimes more interesting to see what the other player is forced to play than what you choose to play.
Dimensions of Games – Pacing
We structured our discussion of pacing around the idea of a five-act narrative arc, similarly to how dramatic theater is often analyzed. The first act of our dramatic pacing structure, Exposition, deals with “setting the table” for the journey to come. Alex described how good Exposition means determining a destination (in this case, burying your ideological opponent) and varying the “formula” of each turn. Twilight Struggle alters its formula similarly to our example game, Concordia, in that as cards are played in each round, each turn becomes progressively less complex because there are fewer options to decide from. The beginning of each round is the point where the most important decision, the “headline,” is made, creating a natural ratcheting to the tension at the beginning of a round followed by the slow release of tension toward the end.
The second “act” of Pacing, Rising Action, is marked by an expansion of options or difficulty, or by players beginning to set the pace of the game themselves, perhaps striving to reach scoring checkpoints. Twilight Struggle behaves similarly to Lewis and Clark in with regard to slowly opening up more decisions over the course of the game: in the “early war” phase, the number of cards per round (and the craziness per card) is lower than in the “middle war” and “late war” phases. Both phase transitions could be considered “points of no return” in the game, as we described with the Climax act of Pacing, mirroring the “Step 2” and “Step 3” inflections in Power Grid. Once these boundaries have been crossed, some resources and concepts from the earlier parts of the game remain in place but are no longer driving the bulk of the action.
Probably the most important principle of Falling Action and Resolution is that a game should neither surprise the players by its ending nor run so long that the players wish it had ended half an hour ago. Twilight Struggle can end in one of four ways: winning by reaching either end of the victory point tug of war or by achieving a territory victory represents a fulfilling end to a well-executed strategy; hitting DECON 1 is perhaps a little anticlimactic, but it’s memorable and never happens without warning; and a regular old “last turn of the game” ending is at least a foreseeable finish line. As with San Juan or Seasons, one particularly aggressive player can set the pacing in the middle- to late-game and force the other players to adapt.
I’ll end the analysis of Twilight Struggle’s pacing by describing my epic Soviet victory over Alex from the first time we played. The USSR has the headline advantage early on, so it benefits the USSR player to play aggressively from the start, while the US is much better off playing the long game (in an interesting example of how external balance choices create novel approaches to pacing). I was able to parlay that early advantage into an early lead, though I knew that allowing the Americans to stick around for much longer would invite them to retake the lead.
If you’re close to winning Twilight Struggle, you can choose to “go for it” by focusing entirely on one aspect of the game and neglecting the others. When we played, I pursued a deliberately high-risk, high-reward strategy once I was at ~15 VP by devoting all of my resources to the space race. I got some good rolls, so it worked, and I seized victory by landing the Bear on the Moon. But if I’d gotten bad rolls, I would have opened myself to losing a lot of ground in the VP tug of war. Allowing players to seize the advantage and accept the risk of singularly pursuing is Twilight Struggle’s most clever solution to reasonable pacing.
Dimensions of Games – Player Control
We call the extent to which a player’s actions determine the outcome of a game “player control,” and we’ve identified three ways in which player control might be gained or lost: quantity of luck and ways to mitigate luck, dependence on player skill and experience, and player-driven chaos.
There is certainly variance in Twilight Struggle through its random card draws: you don’t know beforehand which cards you’re going to get, and you also don’t know which cards your opponent might be holding. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to mitigate variance in Twilight Struggle (committing more operations points to a realignment roll, attempting a coup in lower-risk territories) or to rely on variance if you’re desperate (high-risk, high-reward strategies if you’re trying to rush to a win or are on your last legs). Even though the card draws are random, there are lots of cards at once, and they can be played in any order a player wants, either for operations or for events. Finally, Twilight Struggle features multiple paths to victory–the space race, a territory victory, forcing the other player to DEFCON 1, or from good old fashioned victory points.
Players have an interesting level of control over the deck construction over the course of the game. Playing favorable events for your side will remove the number of “friendly” cards for the remainder of the game, leading to more outcomes favorable for your opponent down the road. By avoiding the play of pro-US events (if you’re the USA) or pro-USSR (if you’re the USSR) you can gain a long-term advantage over an opponent who is not taking this approach. Investing in your space program is the one way to ensure that your opponent won’t gain the benefit of the card you’re playing, another method of “stacking the deck” in your favor.
Twilight Struggle, much like our example game Puerto Rico, is obviously designed for players who are equally comfortable with the rules and the strategy. If one player knows relatively little about what’s going on, he can make suboptimal moves for himself and through the reciprocal nature of the cards, unwittingly give his opponents an advantage. Of course, a game between two beginners fumbling through the rules can be as fun as one between two experts, but a gross mismatch in skill level would not play out very well in Twilight Struggle.
Finally, the capacity for player-driven chaos is minimized because the number of players is capped at two. There’s no opportunity to “gang up” on one unfortunate player because so much of Twilight Struggle is a zero-sum game. Put another way, a game of Twilight Struggle (or any two-player game) is half under your control and half under your opponent’s, where in a few-player game, a majority of the outcome is outside of any given player’s control.
Satisfaction – Generating Satisfaction
In discussing Satisfaction, we recalled the appeals to Power, Affiliation, and Achievement that we discussed in one of our very first introductory posts. Gamers tend to be motivated by one (or more) of these factors, and games tend to promote satisfaction by giving each of these types of gamers something to latch onto.
Appeal to Power
Twilight Struggle appeals to Power by giving each player a small dose of what we call “legitimate power” at the beginning of every round. When you play a headline, you are in complete control, and the thing that you say happens happens no matter what the other player does. The headlines are satisfying because they give the sense of you telling your story and making your own version of the game happen. Of course, the other player gets his moment too.
Appeal to Affiliation
Though a necessarily antagonistic, not affiliative, game, Twilight Struggle still manages to appeal to the “freedom and creativity” element of Affiliation. Although Twilight Struggle is not explicitly a roleplaying game, I found it difficult not to inject some self-professed narratives or speak in awful Russian accents at critical moments. It’s a ton of fun to roleplay a bit and be the great purveyor of liberty and freedom or to enact your repressed Soviet fantasies. Playing the “Olympics” card is one thing; hosting the rigged Helsinki Olympics and setting a world record in the pole vault through nefarious means is much more memorable.
Appeal to Achievement
Finally, Twilight Struggle appeals to Achievement by letting players pursue difficult tasks, aware of the inherent risk of attempting them but reveling in victory if it ends up working. Pulling out a scoring card that corresponds exactly to a territory that you have complete control over feels like a huge achievement because it’s a goal that you’ve been working toward and that will probably collapse the very next turn. Choosing to pursue very difficult tasks (like coups of highly stable countries or winning historical wars as the “wrong” side) offers a smaller chance of success but is highly satisfying if you can pull it off.
Satisfaction – Avoiding Dissatisfaction
Our “companion” piece to promoting satisfaction was discussing ways to avoid dissatisfaction in gaming. Through a crowd-sourced discussion, we identified six or seven key elements that might cause a player to be less than satisfied with a game and discussed ways designers can avoid those common pitfalls.
Although Twilight Struggle is a two-player game, meaning that both players necessarily play the whole game, a flavor of player elimination can occur in two-player games when one player fulfills the game-ending condition so quickly that the other player never has the chance to catch up. In Twilight Struggle, though, it’s actually very hard to trigger a game win on purpose, and most of the time, the game goes the full length. Even when one player does trigger an end-game condition, the game’s various tug-of-war ropes are so long that the other player always has a chance to pull back.
In terms of avoiding false decisions, Twilight Struggle’s internal balance is so precisely tweaked that any given decision might conceivably be appropriate under some game state or another. That’s not to say that every strategy in Twilight Struggle is created equal or has exactly the same probability of success, but in general, the strategies that are least likely to succeed carry the greatest benefits if they end up working out. However, as we’ve discussed already, Twilight Struggle is definitely not a game that caters to new players learning it by playing against more experienced ones, and new players would probably not be aware of certain “openings” or approaches to mid-game strategy that might be obvious to people who have played the game before.
While certain cards in Twilight Struggle are more powerful than others, and certain cards present one side with a bigger advantage than they would if the other side had drawn them, there is no “win the game” card, and variance is mostly mitigated (as described in the Player Control section above) through the sheer number of cards that are drawn throughout the course of the game and the multiple uses that each card can be dedicated to.
Avoiding an overabundance of rules is something that basically nobody would argue that Twilight Struggle does well. Too many, and too-complex, rules is almost certainly the biggest source of dissatisfaction among people trying to pick up Twilight Struggle and likely continues to plague experienced players as edge cases continue to arise. When Alex and I first played the game, we went over the rules for over half an hour and still discovered two or three major rules that we failed to implement. Everything is a little fiddly, from the slight adjustments to the number of cards dealt in each round to the military operations requirement changing from round to round. Worst, basically nothing on the board or the cards explains how to play–someone who opened the box would have no clue how to start playing this game if they didn’t pore over the rulebook first.
Finally, zugzwang is present, but in a way that completely works because it drives the theme. In real geopolitics, sometimes there is no correct answer, and it would be a lot easier for a major national government to do nothing, but because of their geography or influence, they are required to. (Consider a situation like “our soldiers are trapped in X country, and we can either do a military operation to rescue them but draw the ire of that government or leave them there and abandon our own people.”) Twilight Struggle captures this experience very well by, seemingly every round, sticking you with a card whose secondary effect helps your opponent much more than the card helps you. The reason this phenomenon is tolerable here is because of the game’s symmetry: if it happens to you, it’s happening to your opponent too.
Mechanically, zugswang arises in Twilight Struggle in those turns when it would be preferable to just “pass” were it possible. Part of the fascinating frustration in the game is simply being compelled to play one of many cards that will set you back, knowing your opponent is probably in a similar situation. Yet again, Twilight Struggle actually manages to convert a major potential source of dissatisfaction to one that works within the theme to increase the intrigue.
Conclusion – Rating Twilight Struggle
In our first articles in the Design Analysis series, I described my system for rating games, focusing on aesthetics, flexibility, fun per time, strategy, and mechanics in largely equal measure. In response to some insightful reader feedback from last time, I’m going to use the same categories to shape my rating but focus more on a holistic score and less on a category-based summary score.
Aesthetics: Though Twilight Struggle is not particularly beautiful, its implementation of a Cold War-era war map is spot-on, and the historical illustrations on each card bring the game back to reality nicely. The theme in Twilight Struggle is executed in a way that basically no other strategy game can even dream of, let alone match.
Flexibility: Supporting exactly two players hurts Twilight Struggle’s flexibility, and it’s not really possible to play in a way that’s not a full-blown, evening-consuming simulation of the Cold War. That said, there are so many decision points, and so many things that can happen that it’s unlikely you could make Twilight Struggle play out in the same way twice even if you wanted to. Exactly how often you’d want to play Twilight Struggle (thanks to its time commitment and its accompanying intellectual exhaustion) is another question.
Fun per Time: This is not a fast, snappy game meant to accommodate two or three games in the same setting. You might want to approach Twilight Struggle like it’s test cricket and schedule breaks for lunch and tea. Like some other “medium-heavy” games, setting it up and getting it rolling becomes much easier once you’ve done it a time or two. Twilight Struggle is not a game to induce delight and laughter as much as the “good soreness” that comes from a tough workout, except Twilight Struggle’s is mental and emotional.
Strategy: Twilight Struggle is enormously complex, but its strategic depth supports that complexity. To win, you can’t choose one strategy and pursue it successfully, the way you might be able to succeed in Dominion. Here, you have to choose all of them and not fall too far behind on any. Your cards, your opponent’s cards, the map, and the scoring tracks interact in ways you could never predict from just studying them, and every game of Twilight Struggle you play leaves you with a deeper appreciation for its intricacy.
Mechanics: Twilight Struggle’s calling card is the reciprocity of each card you play, continually reminding you that no action in geopolitics takes place in a vacuum. The ability of each player to accept how much variance and how much risk he wants to assume, and to pursue strategies accordingly, was novel ten years ago and is something that not many games have been able to replicate since then. However, some of the mechanics (the military operations track) seem like an afterthought, and some (the verbiage surrounding how much influence you have in each region) seem unnecessarily complex.
Matt’s Verdict: 4.25/5. Per BoardGameGeek, this rating corresponds to a game that I would “never turn down,” but I would certainly turn down Twilight Struggle a lot of the time. It is long and deep and can at times be more of a philosophical think-piece than a strategy game. But based on its design alone, its ability to tell a story and make you think about the world in a different way–not to mention its flawless integration of theme and design–Twilight Struggle is absolutely one of the best-crafted games I have played and deserves its stranglehold on the top of the BGG rankings.
Over the years I’ve evaluated games using an unnecessarily complex set of seven attributes which reflect my personal preferences. Three significant attributes carry additional weight (Originality, Pure Fun & Replay Value) and four more represent my preference for a few specific attributes in games (Theme, Strategy/Luck Ratio, Scalability & Parity).
Originality: My experience with card driven wargames is admittedly limited but among comparables, Twilight Struggle blends plenty of great ideas I haven’t found elsewhere. I’m always a fan of games that utilize multiple victory conditions as the more complex they are, the less likely you’ll encounter similar gaming experience. Twilight Struggle’s two greatest strengths are ongoing tension and theme and surprisingly that is a rare combination of traits to excel at in the tabletop industry.
Theme: We usually learn and reflect upon history as indisputable facts and certain outcomes but one of the best aspects of Twilight Struggle is how it places you in the moment to revisit an extremely uncertain time period. It is wonderfully immersive that you can’t just take certain actions and attain a guaranteed result. The Space Race was full of uncertainty and the Bay of Pigs Invasion wouldn’t have taken place the way it did had the end result been known in advance. Everything from the randomness of your hand of cards to the outcome of a die roll represents the challenge of leading a world Superpower without the luxury of correct answers.
Pure Fun: My only real complaint about Twilight Struggle is a matter of personal preference and at times the game just isn’t my style – and that’s okay. There is a lot to love here that makes it extremely engaging even if it isn’t your style either – the entertaining card play and some exciting die rolls for control of a territory.
In one game, there was a great moment early in a round where it became very obvious that both Matt and I had entire hands of devastating self-effects and we were tiptoeing around to minimize our personal damage with each card play. Counter to typical card play in games, my favorite moments were his turns while I was trying to order my hand and anticipate how card effects might change. This was a great moment that highlighted everything that Twilight Struggle does right – it paints you into the corner and then it builds the Berlin Wall around you so you can’t leave.
…But then we had two more turns almost as extreme immediately after that. Eventually TS becomes emotionally draining – you’re battling over which ground you’re willing to give up and you feel powerless at times. For around three hours. It’s a game I’m only looking to play once or twice a year, but with a willing opponent the whole experience is always worth it.
Replay Value: While the end goal is consistent between games, the tone and pace of the eventual outcome is swayed by both early card play and mid-game adaptations in strategy by both players. Knowing what cards can pop up can affect how you decide on the order of cards you play and in combination these variables in game play don’t imply any limitations in longevity. Nearly limitless possibilities for what the game is working to achieve.
Strategy to Luck Ratio: Even in our first game of Twilight Struggle, the presence of dice and randomness of cards didn’t strike me as a concern over luck. This game is entirely rewarding of skillful play, even if that tends to correlate to familiarity of cards and experience. The die rolls are under your control and there are enough opportunities that you probably won’t lose because of them. Trying to initiate a Coup in a target country under unfavorable conditions is reflected by equally unfavorable odds. Your success in taking big chances prior to scoring opportunities is reflected only by your willingness to put the game on the line.
My favorite luck mitigation technique was the deck manipulation Matt and I discussed after our initial game. Having the long-term ability to make the deck more favorable to your side while your Soviet opponent continues to use their Pro-USSR events (thus removing them from the next reshuffle) is such a fascinating idea. Of course considering this approach isn’t always feasible when your back is against the Iron Curtain much of the game.
Player Scaling: Ordinarily a two-player maximum would be a detriment to a game but Twilight Struggle succeeds in a low-population quadrant of player count and game length. Given the extremes of only two players and approximately three hours, the game is probably a superior choice to almost anything else with those two criteria. That secures it on my gaming shelf and I’m sure plenty others around the world.
Parity: I have yet to play a game of Twilight Struggle that felt lopsided for an extended period of time. Sure, I’ve been in tough spots with limited room for error, but I always saw a potential light at the end of the tunnel. The only real concern I’d have is that I simply wouldn’t be able to compete with someone who has played this game significantly more than I have, but that isn’t a fault of the game so much as a testament to it’s learning curve.
Alex’s Verdict: 4.0/5.0. From our first match Matt and I knew Twilight Struggle was a game we should dig into for a game design analysis – not only because we enjoyed it but because it could be a strong example for nearly any aspect of game design. It’s easy to see why TS has achieved so much success; it’s not a genre or style of game I’m usually attracted to, but the experience of playing it just a few times won me over.