Twilight Struggle is quite hard to try before buying. This may lead to resignation from spending money on it by they who would really enjoy it, had they only given it a chance. You aren’t awarded the highest titles on boardgamegeek.com accidentally, especially more than once, but this by itself may still be not convincing enough. Let me present my point of view to what the pros and cons of Twilight Struggle are.
The Pros of Twilight Struggle
Multiple Times Playability
There are 110 cards in the game and each card has an associated event with particular, quite precisely described effects. This suggests that a few games may discover repeatable schemata driving the entire game boring. This is wrong. There are no two identical games. There are no two identical turns. I guess when both of players play two Action Rounds, the state of the game (including the cards in hands) is already unique. Even if it’s not, drawing cards and throwing dice will eventually make it so.
To convince yourself compare it with chess. There are 64 squares, 32 pieces, 6 types of pieces, and 5 types of move since the queen is just a bishop and a rook at once. There is no random factor. Nobody will however argue that chess is a very deep game, playable multiple times even between the same opponents. So is Twilight Struggle.
Each card in the game is connected with a particular event that took place during The Cold War and somehow affected the superpowers’ position on the international area, even if not initiated by either of them. The game tends to go similarly to how the history did. USSR starts with significant advantage which becomes weaker as the game goes on. Once US survives until the Late War, the USSR has to face a hard time until the end of the game. There’s not to say that US wins all the long games. The game designers tried to give playability the priority over the historical realism. This leads to some funny, paradoxical situations, like that the card about Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty is in practice best used just to coup one more country in a turn.
No Snowball Effect
Many games have snowball effect. Once you gain an advantage increasing it is easier. When you increase it further increasing is even easier, and so on. The effect is almost eliminated in Twilight Struggle. It appears sometimes when the advantage goes extremely close to victory and forces the losing player to some play that would be suboptimal under other circumstances. Even then the question is not: when the leading player will win, but: who is going to win this game anyway. Whatever the advantage, either player may make a losing mistake. What is more, many losing mistakes are irreparable once made and lead to defeat even if the opponent doesn’t help himself.
Handicaps appear in several games but Twilight Struggle is unique. You may design handicap to perfectly cover the difference between players’ strengths, and if you do this job well, the game will be kept in suspense until the end. Twilight Struggle handicaps can be of various type. Weaker player can get additional influence, or be awarded an extra VP for every Scoring Card that is played during the game, or have right to re-roll once a turn. The latter two were invented by my friend and have passed the practice tests as game equalisers.
If some Cold War event is missing in the game and important for you, why don’t you add it to the game (except there usually are no joker cards and the cards themselves are difficult to be bought separately)? You may also change rules as well. You will probably do so while playing your first games and realise it no sooner the game finishes. That’s OK, the game rules are complex and it’s difficult to remember all of them at the beginning, and you will probably invent why the rules are what they are and not what you supposed them to be. On the other side, you may find your extra rules more interesting.
While the rules of making moves is the same for USSR and USA, the strategy is not. The position at start is not symmetric as well. It seems impossible to make it symmetrical on the map that shows more or less how the world was like just after the 2nd World War ended, and it’s unnecessary. From the strategic point of view you buy one game and get two in reward: one as USSR’s part of Cold War and another as US’s part.
The Cons of Twilight Struggle
The game is supposed to last 2-3 hours. If this is your first game, adjust it rather to 4-5 hours. Moreover, it takes 3-4 games to „get in” enough to know more or less, what is legal and what is not in the particular situation. You will probably have to invest at least 10 hours before you can even know if this is a game for you. This investment proved to be right in my case but this is not guaranteed for others.
Card Knowledge Necessity
Some moves that can be good at first sight from strategic point of view are in fact critical mistakes due to remaining cards which can nullify their effects, or worse, make them pay for your opponent rather than for yourself. USSR investing 5 Operation Points to gain control over Japan? Why not: a stable, strategic country in Asia, adjacent to US which gives additional bonus. The answer to „why not” question lies in card that gives US control of Japan, no matter the current influence. All the USSR’s effort is wasted and 5 Operation Points (which is a huge investment in Twilight Struggle) is probably gone forever.
After you play a few games you will remember the most important cards and you will feel which cards to keep track of and which can be safely ignored. Before you play your first game, however, I strongly recommend reading all the cards with their associated events. Fairly annoying, the rulebook does not contain the events (but it contains the historical background for every single card).
Under normal circumstances the skillful play should make up for a little disadvantage in random factors, such as drawn cards and die rolls. Once in a while there happens a game when the randomness becomes a decisive factor. There’s nothing much you can do about it. With weaker randomness the game would probably be too static to enjoy.
The most annoying case is when the visibly weaker player plays a statistically wrong move which can pay off hugely if the player is lucky. In statistical case the weaker player loses „as planned”, yet a little faster. In a non-statistical case the stronger player has the feeling that he had been stronger, that the had played better, and that he had lost notwithstanding and could do absolutely nothing to prevent it.
I am completely OK with Twilight Struggle’s randomness (which, by itself, annoys me in some other games, like backgammon or SCRABBLE). I just wanted to point out that the potential of randomness in Twilight Struggle is huge, even if it appears very rarely, and the effects may be frustrating.
Just in case you were wondering: yes, the note’s title was inspired by Roger Waters’ „The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking”.
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