Twilight Struggle is an epic board game for two players, taking as its theme the Cold War between the US and USSR from 1945 to 1989 – assuming you last the distance. It has huge pedigree, having been consistently ranked as one of the best board games since its publication in 2005. During that time it has undergone several revisions, adding new cards and upgrading the quality of the components, and has inspired a handful of other games that tackle large political non-violent conflicts with classic gameplay sensibilities.
The game takes its name from an iconic speech by JFK, and the term ‘struggle’ is an apt one. Not just because this can be a daunting game to learn; it is a real struggle for power across an enormous board representing most of the globe, as players play cards back and forth to exert influence and control over countries central to their political philosophies of Communism and Western Democracy. Alongside the map, many other aspects of the Cold War are represented on the board in the form of tracks, including the Space Race and the DefCon level. Each of the 11o cards, split into three decks covering the early, mid and late war, is themed around an actual event, and the rulebook includes an extensive section providing more background detail to the events depicted.
If this feels like overkill, it somehow manages to mesh seamlessly with the gameplay, which is rich, strategic and makes you feel very much as though you are one superpower fighting for control of the globe against another. Despite the wealth of information and rules here, once you wrap your head around it, the gameplay is surprisingly straightforward. Once you know the deck of cards well, the game really opens up, as you plan against devastating blows you know are coming, and fool your opponent into thinking you hold cards that have yet to come out.
The score track is like a tug of war, running from 20 US points to zero and back to 20 USSR points, with a single counter on it. If either player manages to pull the counter to their 20 spot they win. The game can also end instantly in a number of ways, including the DefCon level reaching one, which represents, as it did in real life, mutually-assured nuclear destruction. If neither player manages to hit 20 points before the end of the cold war, and the world doesn’t end, the player with most points wins.
The map is divided into regions, each region comprising a number of countries. Players spend their turns playing cards to add influence to countries, and can control a country by having a certain amount of influence there, compared to their opponent. Amongst the cards in hand are scoring cards for each region. When one of these is played, that region is scored, and points awarded for influence, control and domination of the region.
The above is a bald precis of over 20 pages of rules, and will give only a hint of the richness of theme and gameplay. Suffice it to say that this is not a game for the casual player, but neither should it be thought of as only one for the hardcore – anyone with an interest in 20th Century history who enjoys games will be mightily impressed, if they are prepared to tackle the learning curve. There are many strategy guides and videos to help ease in new players, and of course, if you know someone who already understands the game, so much the better.
Twilight Struggle makes good on the Epic promises of classic games like Risk and Kingmaker. A huge map of the world, serious theme and surprisingly intuitive gameplay – you will feel like the leader of a world superpower as you play. And you’ll walk away afterwards feeling you’ve conquered one of the modern classics of board gaming. Well perhaps not conquered – after a single game you’ll have barely scratched the surface – but you’ll want to play again.
Twilight Struggle is pure confrontation. But it's a grown up game, and is more likely to elicit cries of "So that's what the Warsaw Pact acheived!" than "You sank my battleship!". That said, there is a card that encourages you to poke your opponent in the chest. If you take this literally, be prepared to receive a sprained finger in return during a tense game.
There's surprisingly little down time here, and players will be totally engaged on each other's turn.
No maths, and the graphic design is extremely good, making it relatively easy to keep track of the game state.
Your first few games will be getting to grips with the flow of play, after that you can really start to strategise and mess with each others heads. If you enjoy it it's a game you'll want to play many times with a regular opponent. Games with beginners will tend to finish sooner; two experienced players will probably battle out the whole of the Cold War .