Sunday, February 18, 2007

You can't fight here! It's the War Room!

This week's game was Twilight Struggle, a card-driven wargame (CDG) centered around the Cold War. This is a highly-rated game released just over a year ago. Tim hadn't played yet, and I've played four or five times, so I took the US. Twilight Struggle results tend to favor the Russians (between 3/5 and 2/3 of games are Russian wins), and Russian play is much more forgiving, so giving the less experienced player the Russians usually makes for a rather even game. I own the 1st edition of the game, but bought a 2nd edition card deck as there were some small changes made between the two editions. We also played with the updated, 2nd edition rules available on GMT's website.

Quick Twilight Struggle Rundown

Twilight Struggle is a relatively simple CDG. A game lasts 10 turns, and is broken up into three segments – Early War (turns 1-3), Middle War (turns 4-7), and Late War (turns 8-10). Your hand is dealt up to 9 cards (only 8 in the Early War) and you can play a Headline card and 7 more cards in a turn (6 cards in the Early War). Each game segment has its own deck of cards that's shuffled into the draw pile when that segment starts.

The board is split into seven geographical regions: Europe (East and West), Asia (and SE Asia), Africa, South America, and Central America. Each region consists of a number of countries which you try to control. Every country is given a stability rating from 1 to 5, and to control a country you must have a surplus of influence over your opponent in a country at least equal to its stability rating. So, to control Italy (SR=2), having 4 influence to 2 will control it. Some of these countries are deemed “battleground” countries, and attempting Coups there will degrade DEFCON.

When a region is scored, you can have three levels of involvement. Presence (you control at least one country), Domination (you control more countries AND more battleground countries), or Control (you control more countries and ALL battleground countries.)

The cards have three parts. An OPS rating, assignment, and an event. If you play a card assigned to your opponent, you get the OPS to spend, and your opponent gets to implement the event. If you play a card assigned to you, or to both, you get either the OPS or the event, but not both. Many cards are removed from play after the event is implemented. You can spend the OPS on Coups, realignments, or placing influence in countries you're already in, or any country adjascent to those.

In addition, there's scoring cards that trigger the scoring of individual regions. These can't be held from one turn to the next, so chances are if you draw a scoring card, you're playing it that turn. This is the primary way in which points are scored throughout the game.

There are four ways to win Twilight Struggle: An immediate victory if you reach 20 points (or -20 as the Russians – the scoring track runs from -20 to 20), an immediate victory if your opponent plays a card that ends up causing DEFCON 1, controlling Europe when Europe is scored, or having the most points after final scoring following turn 10. Most games end via an immediate victory at -20 points, or the US winning in final scoring. There's occasional DEFCON mishaps and European control.

TS is unique within this genre of wargames in that there aren't any armies, only influence towards communism or democracy. I believe this is also the only CDG that has a common deck split into three parts. Other games that split the decks also have separate decks for each side. (I could be wrong on this – please correct me if so.) The wars of the era (Korea, Vietnam, Arab/Israeli, Indo/Pakistani, etc.) are abstracted out via card events that happen throughout the game. The net result functions more like an area control game than a wargame. It's also playable in 3 hours. Short for a CDG.

Our Play

So... how did it actually go?

After getting set up we dealt out the starting hands and placed our initial influence. I can't exactly remember where Tim placed his optional influence, but I placed 4 in West Germany, 2 in Italy, and 1 in France.

In the early war, only Europe, Asia, and the Middle East scoring cards are in the deck. Tim miscalculated how scoring works and made a suboptimal play on Europe early on. He was thumping me pretty well in Asia, though, and the Middle East was going back and forth. He wasn't pulling too far ahead, though, so I was feeling pretty good about things. Prevailing wisdom on TS is that if the score is better than -10 when entering the Middle War, the US has a pretty good chance. The events tend to favor the US more and more as time wears on.

When we entered the Middle War, the score stood at -5. I was thinking things were going pretty well. I actually don't remember many of the details of what happened in the Middle War, but I created a strong position in South America (I think I was controlling it when it was scored) Tim had nearly shut me out of Central America, and Africa was bouncing back and forth. I think the only scoring card I was dealt the remainder of the game was South America during the Middle War. As a result, I was unable to effectively set up regions for scoring leaving me in somewhat of a reactionary mode through nearly the entire Middle War.

This changed with turn 8, the start of the Late War. I believe I had the China Card, and I was only dealt one Russian event – Aldritch Ames. Ames is painless if you can manage to play it last, at that point it becomes nearly a free 4 Ops card. Every other card in my hand helped, plus I had Chernobyl – this lets you shut down a region to the USSR placing influence. I decided I wanted to hold onto Chernobyl until I could get things set up, then play it as the headline event of turn 9. I spent all of turn 8 working on Europe. The score at this point was somewhere around -12 and given the board position I didn't think I could make that deficit up in final scoring. My best chance was to try to control Europe. DEFCON was high enough that neither of us could attempt Coups or Realignments in Europe, and if I shut it down to Tim via Chernobyl, he simply couldn't respond.

In nearly any other situation, my turn 9 hand would have been painful. I think I was dealt 6 USSR events, all of which where pretty nasty, but they were nasty outside of Europe. However, I was also dealt Tear Down This Wall. I headlined Chernobyl shutting Tim out of doing anything in Europe. TDTW not only places 3 US influence in East Germany, it allows you to either coup or realign in Europe regardless of DEFCON status. I think I played that first in the turn and spent all my ops the remainder of the turn trying to wrest control of Europe. I really didn't care what happened on the rest of the board. Europe was my only hope.

By the end of turn 9, I was one influence point in Poland short of controlling Europe. I nearly made it, and was really hoping to be dealt the European scoring card. Didn't happen. I did manage to gain control early in turn 10, and just tried to hang on until the end of the game where I hoped I'd win. It got dicey, though, as the score inched closer to -20, peaking at -17 at one point. I had two very painful USSR cards in my hand (The Reformer, and Pershing II Deployed), and I was intending to use the China card and the Space Race to avoid having to play either of them. Tim swiped the China card from me via a card effect, and I was almost forced to play one of the two cards which would likely have broken my control position in Europe. However, on Tim's last play he was forced to play Europe Scoring, giving me the game on literally the last action round of the last turn.

Our game took just about 3 full hours, about the max I've seen, and not unreasonable given that it was Tim's first play and we effectively played a full game.

Tim said the ending was a bit anti-climactic, and looking at it from his position, I can definitely understand that feeling. Without the auto-win condition for controlling Europe he would have soundly defeated me in what might be the rarest of results – a USSR win after final scoring. Beating me over 2/3 of the board yet still losing seems wrong until you realize the importance fully controlling Europe would have had on the situation in real life.

This is the first time I'd played Twilight Struggle in a few months, and it matched the good experience I'd had in the past. It provides a bit of a different mindset while playing – you're trying to mitigate the damage to your position as much (or more) as you're trying to improve it. And all the while your opponent is doing the same thing. As with any CDG, there are combinations to watch for, and certain things you shouldn't do when you don't know the locations of particular cards. A skill that only practice can bring. Fortunately, the game is short enough where it's actually feasible to develop the skill.


No game next week – Tim's got family in town and will be booked all week. Tim's choice is up next, and he hinted that he might want to give Twilight Struggle another go, but I haven't heard for sure. I'm not sure what I want to try next. Maybe Crusader Rex.

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