The Long Twilight Tutorial: So You Want to Learn How to Play Twilight Struggle Part II

Last week I started breaking down the elements of Twilight Struggle by breaking down what each part of the board represents. This week I will be discussing cards, influence, and scoring, the three cornerstones of Twilight Struggle.

Cards: Cards have several elements to them. At the top they have an identification number for their number in the deck. In the top left hand corner there is a number in a star, the number is the Operations Value or Ops of the card, which ranges from 1-4. The star can either be blue, for an American event, red for a Soviet event or half and half for an event that belongs to both sides.  Beneath this line, which also indicates whether it is an Early, Mid or Late War card is an image that represents the event in question. Below this image is the card’s name and possibly an asterisk. The asterisk indicates that once the event is played, the card is removed from the game instead of being placed into the discard pile. The final part of the card is the event text.

Playing a Card:  Turns of Twilight Struggle are played out as a number of action rounds, each action round each player is able to play one card. When playing a card, if the event either belongs to you or is neutral than you decide whether to play the card for the event or for the operations value. If it is an event that belongs to your opponent than you decide you play the ops before or after the event happens.

Headline Phase: The beginning of each turn, both players select a card to play for the event in the Headline Phase. After selecting their cards, both players reveal them and the card with the higher operations value goes first, the US goes first on a tie. Scoring cards can be played during the Headline phase and have an ops value of 0.

China Card: The China Card represents the People’s Republic of China and how it played both sides against each other rather than being firmly in one camp. It begins with the Soviet player and after being played is handed face down to the opposing player. It follows the rules of any other card except it cannot be played in the Headline phase and a player does not have to play it. At the end of turn 10 it gives the player holding it 1 VP.

Operations: Playing a card for operations can be broken into three broad categories: placing influence, coups, and realignments.

  • Placing Influence: You may increase the amount of influence you have in a country you already have influence in or is adjacent to a country in which you have influence at the beginning of the current action round. Influence is placed at a 1:1 ratio in regards to operations and can be placed in any matter is legal following the above rules. If you are placing influence into a country that your opponent controls then influence cost is a 2:1 ratio to influence being placed. Once that control is broken then it is placed on a 1:1 ratio as normal.
  • Realignments: In order to realign a country, an opponent’s influence must be in the target country. It cost 1 operations point per realignment roll and each player rolls a die. Add in the following modifiers as pertinent: +1 for each adjacent controlled country, +1 if you have more influence in target country than your opponent and +1 if your superpower is adjacent to target country. The winner of the die roll then removes influence equal to the difference between the two rolls. This does mean it is possible to lose your own influence because of the roll. Keep in mind that Realignments are under the same restrictions as Coups with regards to DEFCON and that influence is never added due to realignment. If you decide to realign for an Action Round then all of the Operations points must be used for realignments, they do not have to the same country however.
  • Coups: In order to stage a coup, the opponent must have influence in target country. The target country’s stability number is doubled, and then the player rolls a die. If the die roll+ the operations value of the card is greater than the doubled stability number than the coup is a success. In this case, first remove opposing influence and then add influence until the influence change is equal to (Roll+Ops value)-Doubled Stability number. Remembering that couping battleground countries degrades DEFCON. When you stage a coup you receive military operations equal to the ops value of the card used. Finally, coup targets are restricted by DEFCON limitations.

Scoring: The ultimate purpose of operations and events is to give you a favorable position when scoring cards are played. Scoring cards are played in an action round and may not be kept from turn to turn. Determining scoring is the same for each region, except Southeast Asia. Scoring is broken into three primary categories:

  • Presence: A superpower controls 1 country in the region.
  • Domination: A superpower controls more total countries (battleground + non-battleground) AND more battleground countries
  • Control: A superpower controls all the Battlegrounds in a region and has more non battlegrounds than the opposing superpower. Note that this means if a superpower has all the Battlegrounds and none of the non BG he is still considered to have Control.
  • Victory Points are also rewarded for each Battleground a superpower controls as well as any country adjacent to an opposing superpower.

When scoring a region, each player adds up the amount of victory points they receive and they are difference in victory points between the two of them is the effect on the victory point track. A scoring of all regions occurs at the end of turn 10.

That covers the fundamentals of how to play Twilight Struggle yet only scratches at the complexity of the game. Next week will hopefully be the last part of the Long Twilight Tutorial in which I showcase Turn 1 of a game. However there is no guarantee of that in which case the last part will be put up as soon as possible.

The Long Twilight Tutorial: So You Want to Learn how to Play Twilight Struggle Part I

As I alluded to last week, Twilight Struggle is a very complicated game that is hard to learn. So after having taught this game to several people I think I have a good enough handle on explaining things to make this into a series of blog posts. I am not saying that I am great player at this game, only that what I’m outlining here is enough to start.  Let’s get started, this week will be breaking down the different parts of the board and what they all represent. I highly recommend that you use some means of looking at the board, whether it’s a hard copy, Google Image or Vassal.

Set Up: Sort out the influence markers and place the appropriate markers on the board. When it comes to choosing sides have the more experienced player be the USSR. The reason for this is that the USSR has an advantage in the game, especially early on. It is better that the more experienced player be the USSR and explain how they are seizing advantages instead of having a new player not understand this advantage and be beaten. When it comes to using variants I highly recommend only using the optional card and maybe the Chinese Civil War. The reason why I say maybe about Chinese Civil War is that there are a few intricacies that only add to the number of things that need to be kept track of, the flipside being that it is a rather good variant. Any sort of variants that affect realignment should be decided once both players know what they are doing in order to properly learn the rules first.  If both of you are new than just amicably decide who is which side.

The Board: The board is broken up into a number of regions that are color coded. Europe is purple, the Middle East is blue, Asia is orange, Africa is yellow, South America is dark green and Central America is light green. Keep in mind that within these regions there are sub regions, Europe is divided into Eastern Europe, which is paler than Western Europe. Austria and Finland count as both Eastern and Western Europe while Canada and Turkey are Western Europe as well. Asia has some countries that are of a lighter shade; these are South East Asia countries and will be scored independently at some point in the game. There is also the DEFCON track, the military operations track, victory point track, action round track, turn track and space race track, each of will be explained below.

Countries: Countries have several components to them. Along the top they have a flag, followed by the name and a stability number that is in either yellow or red. Stability number indicates how much influence a superpower needs in a country in order to control it. If both superpowers have influence in a country than control is given if a superpower has a difference of the stability number. For example, if both the US and USSR have influence in Italy, than either side needs to have 2 more influence than the other one to control it. If the number is in a red box than it is a battleground country, yellow means it is a nonbattleground country. Stability is also important with coups, which will be covered next week.

DEFCON Track: This indicates how close the world is to ending via global thermonuclear war. The game begins with DEFCON at Five, total peace. As DEFCON is degraded the regions in which you can commit coups and realignments is cut off. DEFCON is usually degraded by couping battleground countries but there are a number of cards that can do it as well. At DEFCON 4 Europe is no longer possible, at 3 Asia is no longer possible and at 2 the Middle East is no longer possible. If DEFCON drops to 1 then the game ends with the phasing player a.k.a the player whose action round it is loses the game. At the end of each turn DEFCON is improved by 1.

Military Operations Track: Often abbreviated to MilOps. This track refers to how much military activity each superpower has committed during the current turn. The most common way to increase it is to carry out coups. When you commit a coup, regardless of the result, you get military operations equal to the operations value of the card you used. If at the end of a turn a player does not have military operations equal to or greater than DEFCON, then that player loses the difference in victory points. At the end of each turn the military operations track is reset for both sides.

Victory Points Track: The Victory Point or VP track ranges from -20 or 20 Soviet to +20 or 20 American. It is a zero sum game and means that whenever someone loses victory points than the other side gains them and vice versa. If one side ever reaches 20 VPs then they win the game.

Action Round Track: Each turn is played out in a number of actions rounds, 6 in the Early War a.k.a the first three turns and 7 thereafter. An action round is the resolution of one card from a player’s hand.

Turn Track: Indicates what turn you are on, important in keeping track of when Mid and Late War cards get shuffled into the deck as well checking the general flow of the game.

Space Race Track: The Space Race Track represents each superpower’s space program. As an action, once per turn, a player may discard a card with equal to or greater operations value and then roll a die to see if they advance on the track. The Ops value starts at 2, and eventually raises to 3 and then 4. When a card is discarded, the event does not trigger, the value of that will be covered next week. Some spaces reward victory points while others reward the player with special abilities. The spaces that reward victory points will be formatted as 2/1, which indicates that the first player to get to that spot will receive 2 victory points and the second player will receive 1 point. The spaces that reward special abilities such as being able to space 2 cards instead of 1 only last until the other player reaches the spot where that ability is granted, at which point neither player has it.

Hopefully this has proven to be informative, next week I will be covering cards and what to do with them.   

Review: Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle

What is it: A game that follows the course of the Cold War as players take on the role of superpowers and fight it for control over the rest of the world while avoiding global thermonuclear war.

Great what does that mean: Players take the side of either the USSR or the US and play out the Cold War over ten turns using cards that represent key events during the time period.  The goal is to win the Cold War by influencing other countries and bringing more of the world under your sphere of influence. However there is always the hanging specter of global thermonuclear war, which will end the game and cause the instigator to lose the game.

Scaling: Two players only, you can theoretically add more people as teams but its straight up two players.

Production quality: The board is decent quality although it didn’t take that many plays for some minor wear and tear to show up on it. The cards and influence chips are of good quality. The biggest problem is the reliance of chips to keep track of everything, which can create clutter as well as being somewhat inefficient. Especially when it comes to events, I find it better to leave the card by the board as a reminder.

What’s good: It’s a deep, complex game that is rewarding when you understand it. It engages both players and creates situations that are memorable and rewarding. It also has plenty of historical flavor dripping from it., even if the rulebook giving historical context for the cards is filled with typos.

What’s not good: It’s a deep, complex game that has a rather high barrier to entry. The reason for this being that the game’s complexity is in no small part based upon its internal metagame. Actually understanding how to play this game well is not easy. The game takes 4 hours on average in my experience, with that number including a fair amount of vassal plays means that the number should really be closer to 5 hours probably due to the physical handling of pieces and how automated Vassal is.

Overall: 3/5. This game deserves being ranked no. 1 on Boardgamegeek, but that doesn’t change the fact of it not being easy to actually teach the game to new players or that it takes a long time to actually play. The result is a game that when I want to play is awesome but the time when I don’t want to play it is not insignificant.  

Twilight Struggle at BGG
Twilight Struggle at Amazon

Good Games make Good Players

A while ago I wrote about how good players make good games and it recently occurred to me that the inverse is also true, even if it means something very different. So let’s see how good games make good players.

You can break games down into certain concepts and categories such as card game, or worker placement. The ideas that they embody don’t’ fundamentally change drastically from game to game.  Before continuing I should point that I am framing this based upon card games primarily, but I believe the idea has a certain amount of universality. Now the thing is that not all games are created equally, there are some really good games, really terrible ones and most games that fall somewhere in between. As I established last week, part of the reason to play games at all in my opinion is the instinctual challenge they provide. This is not to say that every part of a game should be challenging however.

What exactly do I mean by fundamentals though?  I mean something as broad and generic as the idea of looting, or decoupling the idea from Magic, card filtering. It’s the ability to replace what you have in your hand with the potential for something better. The idea on its surface can be unintuitive to some due to the cost of discarding but its value in general is well understood.

By understanding these fundamentals and recognizing them across games, you pick up on what works and what does not in general terms. There is another advantage to this, if you understand something well enough than you don’t have to actually think about it. Instead these fundamentals just become rote knowledge that you don’t have to spend time and energy actually processing these facts. Instead that time and energy can be spent on processing the finer points of each game. This in turn improves the quality of your game and makes you a better player.

Now why does it have be good games? Cause good games will definitely teach you these fundamentals. There are many things that make bad games bad and for the purpose of this blog post I’m defining them as games that don’t challenge you or require you to learn these fundamentals to succeed.

Unfortunately playing good games isn’t necessarily going to address the other part of being a better player. While playing good games can make someone more amicable to be around, that’s honestly cutting it close to being a good gamer.

Until next time, be a good gamer and play good games.

Why I Game

Addressing the underlying issue of why I write on this blog just about every week seems like a good idea. While individual blog posts have their own idiosyncratic motivation behind them, I have never addressed the general reason for this blog. the most concise way to answer the question of why would be for the experience. This also covers how I game in all the various iterations.

What that experience is changes from game to game and the way in which that game is played. I can play Ticket to Ride or Duels of the Planeswalker on my computer in order to play the game and also just unabashedly win.* I still get the intellectual stimulation from playing the game but little else.

For the most part this is also true for playing games online, by which I primarily mean Magic Online and Dominion. While playing against other people does mean that I want to be a better player and be courteous. Otherwise it is still not really a social experience for the most part.

These two are fine, cause sometimes I just want to be able to play a game and not have to deal with people, or the physical components and all that entails as well.

Play By Forums and Play By Emails are a bit amorphous by definition. It really depends on the group and game in question. It’s still a matter of enjoying the game, but at this point on the spectrum you also start to enjoy the social aspect of gaming.

The natural end point of this progression would be face to face gaming**. This is where both the social and intellectual elements are present. However the intellectual element is decreased due to the time constraints of playing face to face compared to playing over the internet. There is less time to process every angle of a board state  and make the most optimal move based upon that. In practice is isn’t as large as it is in theory 99% of the time On the other hand, the people you’re playing with won’t be totally fixated on the game and conversation about the game will happen. Part of the experience of gaming is doing something with your friends, and through gaming I have become friends with some truly great people. I’ve also met some of the most insufferable and vile people that I”ve ever had the displeasure of knowing; but that’s the way it breaks.

Gaming is an experience and the ways in which you can game offer a variety of experiences that are all valuable in their own right.

*’Duels in particular is rather good for this as the AI being bad means that you have more leeway to win more and go deep.

**VASSAL basically counts for this as well, you just dont’ have to worry about the internet dropping when you play face to face.