Monday, March 5, 2007

Twlight Struggle and Evoking the Cold War

I'm going to take a different tack today, and focus more on elements I like about Twilight Struggle rather than giving you a plain-vanilla session report, although I should probably get at least a cursory one of those out of the way, as it leads in to what I want to discuss . . .

Eric and I played another game of Twilight Struggle Thursday - I was the Russians, and other than entertaining tidbits such as winning the Korean war (and taking over South Korea), turning Israel into a Communist stronghold in the middle-east (off-set by the back-and-forth battle over Egypt), and dominating Europe for much of the game, I got my behind handed to me, in no uncertain terms (US automatic victory - +20 VP - on turn 8, IIRC). I also had at least two of the WORST CASE hands of nothing but events for my opponent, which resulted in a two-turn VP swing on the order of 26 points or so (from -13 to +13 in two turns). And yet, I still enjoyed the game - in fact, I enjoyed this iteration more than our last effort, where in absolute terms I did much better.

That leads me into what I want to discuss - what is it about Twilight Struggle that made me enjoy a thorough beating more than a respectable showing?

A few things occur to me as important here:
  • Our first game ended with an anti-climatic loss of control of Europe, despite having done relatively well on the rest of the board, and while I saw this coming, it felt like there was little I could do about it within the game
  • In the first game, I must admit to having little idea what I needed to do in order to do well in the game - what the different actions in the game would cause to happen were largely opaque to me (this likely aggravated my first point about feeling a lack of control)
  • The second game, I can definitely point to mistakes I made throughout the game that led to the result - this is mostly a factor of the game play and "arc" becoming less opaque, and my understanding what was going on better than last time (even if my responses and actions weren't as effective in this game)
  • Both games had a definite element of "story" or narrative to them - by that, I mean that there were events and occurrences in both games that allow my imagination to go to work, and imagine what might have been rather than what actually was (witness my notes above about interesting situations occurring in our game - not much in the way of rules detail, but a lot in the way of "flavor")
I'm still a long way off from having a good grasp of how to do well at this game - I handed Eric several points over the course of the game by forgetting that I could use coups in non-battleground countries without affecting the DefCon level, and I definitely didn't play the Middle East very well, despite the entertainment of having taken Israel fairly early and holding it for the rest of the game.

On the whole, though, Twilight Struggle has that elusive element of "fun" about it - it engages my imagination, but does so by evoking events and situations that ring true. This "ring of truth" is important - especially for games like Twilight Struggle - in that the arc of events needs to feel like it makes sense, at the very least internally to the game, and ideally they make sense in general. The game structure of Twilight Struggle, which immerses you in the cold-war belief system, including the domino theory of geopolitics and the general perspective of the world as bi-polar (between the United States on one pole, and the Soviet Union on the other), definitely works to evoke an internally consistent "story" that also happens to feel like it could have been the way things went in the real world but for a few changes in the course of history.

I find that the games I like (speaking generally, now) are, indeed, those that have some element of narrative to them - barring some abstract strategy games I enjoy, most of my favorite games have at least a veneer of this element to them, even some of my favorite, thinly-themed Eurogames, have some portion of the game that my imagination can grab onto and develop a narrative about the events that occur (even if only inside the dark recesses of my own mind).

In short - OK, too late ;) - Twilight Struggle definitely does a good job of engaging my imagination, and even in cases where my performance on the board is less than ideal (as was the case in our game Thursday), the experience of playing outweighs whatever the outcome of the game might be. That being said, I'm definitely going for the victory in these games (little point in playing if I'm not - especially a game like Twilight Struggle that relies on the tension of your opponents actions to evoke the cold-war) - but I'm must admit that the final outcome is less important than whether the game engages my imagination in the course of it's internal narrative.

I'm not sure what we're playing next week - Eric has hinted at either Crusader Rex or Commands & Colors: Ancients, either of which I'm fine with. So - I'll see you next week with my thoughts on whatever we end up playing!

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