Monday, January 13, 2020

Complex but not complicated

To me, the best games are the ones with rules that provide a structure for making moves towards victory, then get out of the way and let you play. I don't like games where an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules gives an advantage, and I can't stand games where it's possible to win on a technicality. The advantage should come with the ability to understand the consequences of making a particular play, like thinking several moves ahead in chess.

Twilight Struggle is a good game for that reason. It gives players a relatively simple set of options on their turn, primarily by playing cards for one of two purposes: either to spread their influence on the board, or to enact a more specific game effect that targets a particular location or gives some other in-game advantage. Simple options, but a lot to think about and try to plan for.

In Twilight Struggle, two players vie for control of the world during the Cold War of 1945-1989. The board represents a map of the world, with players placing competing levels on influence in the various countries depicted with an eye towards controlling particular regions. Scoring cards are played at various points in the game, so the goal is to set up your influence to take advantage of the scoring cards you have, but also to anticipate what your opponent is trying to do based on where they are placing their influence.

Another option each turn is to spend cards to progress with the Space Race. Achieving space-based advances does give an advantage, especially to whichever player gets to each milestone first, so (much like in the real world at the time) it's something that can't just be ignored. I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, but in all of our plays we've found the space race to be an annoying distraction due to the amount of time a player needs to spend on it and the random, hard to predict results. I wonder if the military commanders of the time felt the same way?

There is also a Military Operations track which requires both players to engage in roughly the same amount of aggressive military action each turn, an interesting balancing mechanic that slyly represents the sabre-rattling and chest-thumping that often occurs between world powers. However, too much military action will advance the DefCon marker, and if it gets pushed too far nuclear war breaks out and the game immediately ends. This is where the real brilliance of this game lies, and where it perfectly reflects the world it takes place in, as the two players constantly need to look at how far they can push things without going too far.

Like the best strategy games, Twilight Struggle gives you a lot to think about during play, without bogging you down in complicated rules that need to constantly be referred to. The strategy and maneuvering

It's a great game design for what it is trying to do, and you could even argue that it's educational, sparking the imagination about this unique period in world history. Unfortunately the game's presentation is more textbook than Hollywood blockbuster, and the game's graphic design is very...utilitarian, which is what I think has held this game back from gaining a wider spotlight. On the other hand, it has been in print continuously for 15 years, so I suppose it's finding its audience.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) It's a 2-player game that takes a while to play so it doesn't come out that often, but we always enjoy it in spite of its somewhat dry presentation.

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