The Cold War era was one of the most uncertain periods in human history, with the nuclear threat being an ever-present fear for not just the involved parties, but also the entire world. Twilight Struggle does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the war.
The two players will command the USSR and the USA and engage not in a direct war, but in espionage, sabotage, political manipulation, and proxy wars to carve the world and become the dominant superpower.
Brief Overview of Twilight Struggle
The general idea is to control areas of interest and think of Twilight Struggle as a card-driven game, rather than a troops and resources game. Play sessions take between 2 and 3 hours but can end earlier if an immediate victory condition is met.
Twilight Struggle is a fairly complex game but it’s worth the time investment and effort as it will reward you with many hours of enjoyable playtime. Considering that it’s the #2 war game on BoardGameGeek, it’s clear that it has a lot of qualities that make it a great game.
Unboxing Twilight Struggle
The game includes the following components:
- 260 Full-Color Counters
- 22” x 34” Map Board
- 110 Event Cards
- 2 Six-sided Dice
- 1 Rulebook
- 2 Full-Color Player Aid Cards
There’s little to discuss in the unboxing section, as Twilight Struggle relies on just cards, cardboard tokens, and the game map to make the game. Still, we can take a look at what’s there in terms of functionality and how well it illustrates the theme.
The game board is of course the highlight of the set — a massive map of the world clearly divided into political zones. The game designers did not compromise the mechanics for the sake of visual appeal, so each state or area of interest features the same-sized rectangle to accommodate influence tokens.
Speaking of tokens, the game comes with two boards packed-full of punchout cardboard tokens. Aside from a couple hundred red & blue tokens, there are a few used to track progress and special events.
The cards are what really enhance the theme. The back features a simple Twilight Struggle template, but the front side is what matters. Each card looks like a cut out of a newspaper column, featuring the title, image, and a clear explanation of what the event entails.
The designers really nailed the components from the thematic standpoint, and make a great example of how you can do more with a minimalistic approach.
How to Play Twilight Struggle
Twilight Struggle is a card-heavy war game that is played over a series of 10 turns. Each turn represents 3-5 years of the war and accurately depicts certain events that took place during that time, like the rise of Fidel Castro, the founding of NATO, etc.
I’ll try to give you a basic rundown of how the game is played, but for a full picture, you’ll need to watch a lengthy Youtube video or go through the 31-page long PDF of the rules, which reads more like an encyclopedia than a game guide.
Before the rounds can start, the players must pick which side they’re going to play: the US or the USSR. Each player draws 8 Early War cards, with the USSR player getting the extra China card to play face-up on the board.
Next, the players distribute influence markers on the game board. The USSR player gets 15 influence markers, while the US player gets 25. Most of the markets have to be placed on predesignated areas, but some are left to the player’s own discretion.
We’re also going to track the Space Race, Military OP, Defcon track, and lastly, the Victory Point track starting from 0 VP.
Playing the Game
The 10 turns of the game are further broken into 8 phases, with an additional scoring phase during the final turn:
- Improve Defcon status
- Deal cards
- Headline Phase
- Action rounds
- Check Military operations status
- Reveal held card (tournament/competitive only)
- Flip the China card
- Advance turn marker
The Defcon status measures the global crisis situation and starts at Defcon 5, which is the peaceful state. Certain actions will move the Defcon tracker down, and if it reaches Defcon 1, the nuclear war will commence, and the player that caused it will lose the game.
At the start of each turn, the first phase involves moving the Defcon tracker back towards the peaceful state by 1 position. The next step for players is to draw from the deck until their hand contains a total of 8 cards.
The cards can be beneficial to both or either faction and as both players are drawing from the same deck, they’ll get a variety of cards, not all of which will benefit them. During the headline phase, the players will choose one of their cards and execute its effects.
The action round comes next, and now the players can use the remaining cards to influence the global political situation. You can influence the stability of different countries, and sway them to your cause, or roll dice against the opponent to reduce their influence.
Enacting a coup is another way to affect the opponents’ influence in a zone. This time, only the acting player rolls dice and if successful, they can remove all of the opponent’s influence tokens and even place some of theirs.
A coup will raise the players’ Military OP tracker, but also the Defcon status, bringing it closer to the nuclear war.
The rest of the phases are more or less straightforward and bring you back into the cycle of a constant tug of war for influence over areas and victory points.
Winning the Game
There are several ways to win in Twilight Struggle: you can gain total control over Europe, score 20 VP during the game, or the opponent may push the Defcon track into nuclear war.
If none of these game-ending events were met, the game carries on until the end of the 10th round, when the final scoring takes place. The points are determined based on the influence on the board, and the player with more points is declared the winner.
Your First Game of Twilight Struggle
Twilight Struggle is going to be quite a challenge for a first-time player, not only because of how many strategic choices you can make, but also how many trackers you need to pay attention to.
With a game like this, preparation is key, and if nothing else, your game partner and you should delegate at least 5 hours to the preparation and playing of the first session. My advice would be to start in the early afternoon on a weekend, just so you don’t exhaust yourself mentally halfway through.
Not staying on top of tracker resetting and shifting between turns can really mess the game up, so stay on top of them as much as possible. The only real advice here is to avoid getting the Defcon tracker to the final position, as that will immediately lose you the game.
Pros & Cons
- Historical Cold War Game
- Card-Driven Gameplay
I always like to emphasize when a game nails the theme, and not just use it as a gimmick to sell a game about worker or army placement.
The more knowledge of the period between 1945 to 1989 you have, the more sense Twilight Struggle will make. Throughout the game, you’ll find cards named: “Panama Canal Returned”, “The Iron Lady”, “Five-Year Plan” or “Fidel”.
Even though there’s only an image and no flavor text to them, the actions on these cards are in line with the event’s outcome. If you’d like to learn more about each of the events, the rulebook has a section that provides summarized explanations.
There’s a lot to love about the classic war game genre, but Twilight Struggle deviates from the classic formula and makes for a very different experience.
I haven’t talked about it in the how to section, but to enact the influence power of cards that favor the opposing player, the effect of the card must play out. This will force the players to think hard about every turn, as well as where and when they want to act on the board.
- Information Overload
- Poorly Written Rulebook
I’ll start the cons section by saying that a game as difficult as Twilight Struggle is never going to appeal to everyone. War games in general require a lot of time and effort just to grasp the basic concepts, let alone play the game at a competent level.
The information overload in Twilight Struggle comes from a large number of small rules and details that have to be respected, otherwise, the imbalance would quickly tip the scale in one player’s favor.
I’m talking about not paying the correct influence cost to contest an area your opponent is already in, forgetting to move the trackers, executing realignment rolls properly, etc.
The only way to keep track of every little rule is to frequently shuffle the pages of the rulebook, which brings me to the main issue with the game.
The rulebook is formatted like a mix of old-school newspaper columns and an encyclopedia. Yes, nailing the off-white paper, the header formatting and the font is all well and good for the theme, but in practical terms, this rulebook is not easy to follow.
Having a well-organized rulebook is a must for a war game, and Twilight Struggle just doesn’t have that. I’ve personally struggled to concentrate while reading the rulebook, as its thematic look makes me want to skim it rather than read it in-depth.
Fortunately, the fans and board game YouTubers have made a lot of video and written guides, as well as reference cards, so you can lean on those while learning and playing the game.
Twilight Struggle Review (TL;DR)
Twilight Struggle is one of the best and most popular war games ever made. A lot of the success comes from the unique approach to the genre — instead of fighting with troops, tanks, and battleships, the players will engage in a war of political influence.
Incredibly deep, replayable, and competitive, Twilight Struggle is a game for true fans of the war game genre, but it can also be an enjoyable timesink for a couple of people looking to engage in a battle of strategy and tactics.
The trouble with being a board game reviewer is that there’s never enough time to truly play out a game, which is especially true for games of this caliber. I only managed to play a few games with a friend that’s an experienced war game player, and even though I lost every match, I felt like I was gaining a deeper understanding of the game.
The game is clearly meant for players that like a real mental challenge. There’s casual, there’s engaging, and then there’s Twilight Struggle. I’m sure that if you start playing it, you’ll find yourself leaning over the table like a general in a smoke-filled room, anticipating your opponent’s next move while planning your own.
If you can find one or a few people willing to play it with you, and you’ve all got time to spare, then I strongly recommend picking up Twilight Struggle. It may not be a game for me, but that’s only due to the time restraints, but even after a few games I’ve played, I can see just how much potential and spirit this war game has.
We hope you enjoyed our Twilight Struggle review! Have you tried this heavy political war game? Drop a comment below and let us know what you think! We’d love to hear from you.