Colin Y.J. Chung

So, this past Friday afternoon, I played Twilight Struggle for the second time ever in my life and I finally “got” it. And since that afternoon, I’ve played three more games.

I am obsessed. I can’t stop thinking about the depth of the gameplay. The subtleties of the decision tree. The nuanced strategies that affect the outcome three, four turns out. But most of all, I am in love with the inherent tension and drama created by the core mechanic of the card system.

I seriously regret not playing Twilight Struggle earlier.

Personally, I’ve been playing Euro and designer board games since 2002 when I discovered Carcassonne at this out-of-way board game shop in North Vancouver (I don’t even remember why I was there).

And in the last 14 years, I’ve played a lot of medium to medium-heavy games like Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Tzolk’in, Castles of Burgundy, El Grande, Tigris & Euphrates, etc.

And... I’ve always had my sights on Twilight Struggle as the #1 board game on Board Game Geek. For years I’ve wanted to play it, but… I dunno, maybe I was intimidated, maybe I couldn’t’ justify the higher price point of GMT games, but I never got around to it.

But in the past two years or so, my brother and I have had a “renaissance” in playing games again and last year on his birthday, I got him Terra Mystica, Hannibal and Twilight Struggle. It was a easy way to justify buying expensive games for someone (It’s a gift! It’s totally OK!).

And they all sat on the shelf.

For months.

We finally got around to cracking open Terry Mystica. I loved it. It was rich and complex. A nice x4 game (minus the eXtermination). And we’ve invited friends over to play it. But Twilight Struggle and Hannibal both sat on the shelf with their intricate maps with a million spots to place pieces… and billions of chits, and counters and etcetera.

So August of 2015 rolls around and I said, fuck it. We should just play it. I played USSR, he played USA. And while we understood the basic logistics of the game (do this, then do that)… I wasn’t blown away by it. It felt really weird how when you drew cards, you could draw your opponents, and it benefited them. And it just seemed like the card system was broken.

In fact, in our game, I won as USSR by early turn 3 and my brother… he actually rage quit the table. He’s like the mellowest “I-don’t-care-about-anything” type of guy I know. Works at home in his pajamas all day in an IT job and is the essence of calm and neutrality. But Twilight Struggle made him threw down his cards in anger because the whole game seemed like it was against him. It felt like we both kept drawing USSR cards (which favored me, but stacked the game against him as USA).

So after that, we didn’t really touch it again. I texted him the table flip ASCII a few times as a joke. (FOR REFERENCE: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ ). But it felt like Twilight Struggle was too luck-based or something.

But that didn’t really make sense.

I mean, how do you become the #1 game on Board Game Geek for almost 10 years (until Pandemic Legacy came along)… if you’re too luck-based? Luck-based games are for those simple American games like Risk, Monopoly and Yahtzee we left behind when we discovered designer games. What’s going on?

So nothing happens for the rest of the year with Twilight Struggle. We play Castles of Burgundy, Villages, Imperial Settlers, Lords of Waterdeep, Merchants and Marauders, Stone Age, Alchemists, Orleans, Five Tribes… Medium games.

See, the thing with medium games is, if you play enough of them, it’s not hard to grok them by turn 3 or so. The majority of them are worker placement, so you kinda look at which spots gives you resources, which spots gives you bonuses, which spots gets you more workers, etc. Once you see medium games through that lens, you figure out most of them.

They also all seem to have a “big swingy end game” side quest as well. In Terra Mystica, it’s the cult track. In Orleans, it’s the political office. In Five Tribes, it’s the series of merchandise. In Villages, it’s the traveling. In Carcassonne, it’s placing farmers. If you can quickly grok that most new players will ignore this weird side quest or super long-term play the designers threw in… and you see it yourself first, you can usually win the first few games until everyone else catches on. Those “side quests” usually (but not always) gives you a big fat VP bonus at the final scoring.

But Twilight Struggle — being my first “heavy” game, didn’t have that. (I haven’t played a game that lasted until late war yet, so if there is a swingy final VP count, please excuse me). What is immediately prominent is the zero-sum VP system.

Now that’s a neat mechanic.

There’s one marker on the VP counter. If you score points, you moved the marker towards your side. If your opponent scored VPs, they moved the marker back towards their side. So there’s this constant tug-of-war. There are no “surprises” of final bonus VP scoring at the end of the game…. where players smack their foreheads and go, “oh, I didn’t think that was important. I didn’t see that coming.”

Anyway - I guess tensions had died down enough after four months when my brother agreed to play last Friday afternoon. I wanted to give this game another shot.

The second game we played, again, we had to muddle through it, the moves seemed simple enough, and this time the card draws were a little more fair. We both drew equal amounts of red and blue cards. And we both did our best to mitigate cards that didn’t benefit us. But I still didn’t fully understand why this was “fun”.

We only played until end of turn three as he had to go out for dinner and I had my own kids to deal with… but this time around (since we didn’t leave the table sour), I went online to see what I was missing. That’s when I discovered Twilight Strategy.

You see - the INHERENT BEAUTY in the game is BECAUSE you are forced to draw your opponents cards, and this is actually a GOOD THING in a lot of cases.

Let me step back a bit for people who have never played Twilight Struggle.

Here’s the core mechanic of the card system simplified as ELI5 as best as I can:

  1. At the beginning of each turn, both you and your opponent draw 8 cards from the deck.
  2. These cards have two elements you need to pay attention to: *An ops score and… *An event.
  3. The ops score is a number between 1 and 4 that you can use to affect the board. Think of these ops score like moves or dice rolls that lets you place counters or attack enemy ones.
  4. The event lets you place or remove counters on the board as well, but in unique ways. BUT — here’s the catch. The event could be in the USA’s favor or the USSR’s favor.
  • If it’s YOUR event, you have to choose whether to play the cards for the ops points or the event.
  • If its your OPP’s event, you can play the card for the ops points, but your opponent gets to play the event.
  • But — you get to choose if the event takes effect first, or the ops points. (This is where the decisions get hard).
  1. You take turns playing cards for 6 Action Rounds, then the turn ends and you draw cards again.

Here’s where it gets frustrating… in a delightful way.

You see, if you draw cards that favor you, you have to choose between two potentially good decisions. DRAMATIC TENSION!

If you draw cards that favor your enemy, you have to choose when to play it during your turn, whether to have the event take effect first, or your ops points… or in some special cases, discard it for use in the Space Race… but lose out on affecting the board in any meaningful way. INTERNAL CONFLICT!

This - my friends - is what gives this game DEPTH. You are constantly being forced to make tough between-a-rock-and-hard-place decisions. You’re constantly shuffling your cards (TANGENT: Furious Flicking) to reorder, reorganize and re-strategize which ones to play first or next as you react to your opponent.

It also creates what most Euro-Games LACK… which is INTERACTION. The thing with most of the medium games I’ve mentioned in this post is that… they’re basically solitaire. I mean, I sometimes have to react to what my opponents are doing because there are limited spots for worker placement, or there’s a limited number of resources (wood, wool, ore, whatever) in the pool… but aside from that… we’re racing side-by-side, not fighting face-to-face. I can be in my own world in Terra Mystica or Castles of Burgundy or Orleans, and almost not pay attention to what the other guys are doing.

But with Twilight Struggle, I oftentimes have to play cards that BENEFIT YOU. So I have to choose when to do it and you have to pay attention to my moves.

So anyway — after Friday, I was just jonesing for more. I haven’t been this excited about a game in ages. I felt like I had reached a higher level of gaming with Twilight Struggle.

BUT — There was no way my brother and I could get together face-to-face because I dedicate weekends to my family. My son had a birthday party to go to, I had errands to run, etc. etc. But I knew there were online options. And… if all the kids and wife was in bed, I could play until late. I sound like an addict now. I know.

Anyway - that’s when I started checking out the options…

I tried War Game Room first. I wanted to use this one because this was where all the best players hung out apparently. I figured, let’s get my ass kicked early and often so I can get good at it. Why not. What it also has going for it is there are tons of other GMT games on there, PLUS… it’s rules enforced. That means the software will keep things moving for you and prevent you from making illegal moves.

I also liked this community because they were a bunch of elitist snobby nerds (in the best definition of the term).

My conversation with them went something like:

Me: Twilight Struggle is my first heavy game.

Them: Oh, that’s actually medium to us. Paths of Glory and Sekigahara are more “heavy”.

Me: What do you guys think of Memoir ’44?

Them: That’s like a 2/10 complexity. POG is 8/10

Me: Ha ha. If Memoir is 2/10, where do you put light entry games like Catan and Ticket to Ride? Do they even register?

Them: Nope. Those are for ordinary people.

Listen - I know there are a lot of new gamers on this subreddit and this kind of exchange completely turns off most people, but for someone who’s been playing board games for over a decade now, that kind of conversation is funny because if you’re like me, you’ve moved beyond Catan and you’re just bored by entry level games.

But unfortunately, for some weird reason, after an hour of fiddling on War Game Room, my brother and I couldn’t get my Macbook and his PC to connect on their system. What’s funny is, we were both able to create two instances of WGR and technically “play ourselves”… but Mac and PC didn’t want to talk to each other.

Then we tried Vassal. Vassal works like a charm. And despite what you might read on the forums or elsewhere… it is 100% fully rules-enforced. In fact, it’s nice enough to warn you when you make a move that may cause DEF CON 1 and end the game. There’s a good number of players on there and you could play strangers if you want. But my brother and I just played each other until 3AM in the morning on both Friday and Saturday.

Late Sunday night, I was going through all the old reddit threads with any mention of “Twilight Struggle” and I came across “Chantry”. It’s a purely online version of Twilight Struggle you can play in your browser. You don’t need to download any software, you don’t need to fiddle with stuff. You just register and you can start playing people. That’s neat. I was tempted to play my fourth game that night… but thought better of it. I had work.

Of course… this morning (Monday), instead of working, I explored Chantry, then I browsed a bit, then I tentatively pinged the main room saying, “hey I’m new here, can someone test a game with me just so I can see how it works?”… and then… I said to myself and my opponent, "yeah, I just want to play two turns to get a feel for it".... and then, inevitably, of course, I ended up playing a whole game.

(Don’t worry, I’m my own boss and the only person getting in trouble was me, myself and I).

But what’s really funny is who I ended up playing with:

[10:20:03] arry: sorry about the lag, I’m working on it.

[10:20:41] jinnzhong: omg

[10:20:49] jinnzhong: you're the developer?

[10:20:58] arry: yes

[10:21:05] arry: it's very unstable nowadays :/

[10:21:30] jinnzhong: This is funny. I'm playing my first game here with the developer.

[10:21:32] jinnzhong: That's wild

[10:21:44] arry: heh

[10:21:59] arry: i just checked the stie, and your request was posted a minute ago

[10:22:05] arry: so i decided why not :)

[10:24:07] jinnzhong: This is pretty neat. How'd you get their permission to license this game for free?

[10:24:15] arry: emailed them

[10:24:27] jinnzhong: It's amazing what happens when you simply ask huh?

[10:24:31] arry: yep :)

[10:24:49] arry: GMT is pretty supportive of its fans

Now, that might not be the best endorsement for Chantry and the awesome guy behind it, Alexander Rymasheusky… But trust me, the lag is no big deal. It freezes up once in a while, you have to hit refresh a few times, and you’re good to go. You see, it’s NOT a big deal because it’s online and your game is constantly being saved on the cloud. So you don’t lose your moves or anything.

Vassal doesn’t have these problems, (based on my uber-scientific sample size of two games), but I dunno. The GUI in Chantry just feels smoother and cleaner than Vassal.

Of course - one caveat about all this online play: DON’T DO IT unless you’ve played this game face-to-face with someone first. Twilight Struggle is NOT a game you want to learn online. It’s just too complicated. The physicality of shuffling the cards, placing your markers on the board and having someone to talk to in real life helps the learning process much better. (Plus, please support GMT by buying their games, of course).

Anyway - I’ve ranted for waaaay too long now.

Short of it is, I feel like Twilight Struggle, as my first “heavy” game has taken my hobby to the next level and now I’m jonesing to get my hands on “Here I Stand”, “Paths of Glory”, “Sekigahara” and “1960: The Making of the President”… and of course, finally crack open Hannibal which has now sat on my brother’s shelf for over ten months.

TL:DR - Gave Twilight Struggle a second chance this weekend, got lost in the woods and am now utterly smitten and obsessed.

Originally posted on Reddit here