Review: Twilight Struggle18 Apr 2016 1
Review: Twilight Struggle
Released 13 Apr 2016
I went into my first game of Cold War simulation Twilight Struggle with low expectations. For me, the Cold War wasn't interesting history: it was the early part of my life. I ended that first game with a burning hunger for more. Eighty odd plays later, there was still enough appetite left for me to immediately jump on the Kickstarter for the digital version.
In spite of slapping down the money, my expectations for a computer version remained low. Part of the genius of the game is its card system. Players take turns to play cards, which can either be cashed in for action points and spent on a variety of effects, or can be used to trigger a historical event keyed to either the US or USSR. If you play a card keyed to your opponent, you get the points but the event triggers for them automatically. Each and every play is thus a vast web of interlocking possibilities. Far too many, it would seem, for a computer AI to properly grasp.
On these foundations is built an astonishing artifice of strategy. Your goal is to spend your action points to bring countries under the sway of your superpower, either by safe diplomacy or the dice-based violence of a coup or political realignment. This must be balanced against the need to mitigate the effects of enemy cards you've been unlucky enough to draw. If, for example, the US draws the Brezhnev Doctrine card, which gives the USSR player bonus points on every card, it's wise to play it at the end of the round to minimise their chances to use it.
So a pattern is established. You draw a hand, plan how you're going to use your cards and minimise damage from the enemy ones, then watch as the game shreds those plans over the course of the round. It's a constant twisting, turning mess of tweaking strategies that's so beguiling and addictive because no matter how much you think you know, there's always a spanner round the corner. There's always a card in your opponent's hand you weren't expecting. There's always something you could have done better, will do better next time.
To succeed, you'll need to master a multitude of skills. Memory to recall the deck and the cards played, bluff to keep your plan secret, logic to figure out the best plays from each position, and statistics to know when to risk a dice roll. Twilight Struggle is all-conquering and is, in fact, my favourite game. So it's one I've written about a lot in the past. Every time I do, I ask myself the same embarrassing question: have my descriptions really done this game justice? Trying to detail what makes this game so special feels like staring up at a sheer cliff. How is one supposed to describe the face of God?
History is stuffed into the game like feathers in a pillow. Most of the cards represent well known events from the cold war, and they're separated into early, mid and late war decks so that some semblance of order is maintained while giving you viable alternative history. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Ussuri River dispute may happen earlier or later than they really did, but they'll likely come to pass and likely with similar effects. Sideboard mechanics give you the chance to compete in the space race or incinerate the entire world through nuclear war.
It's got a neat I-go, you-go structure that makes it well suited for online play. So, naturally, there are already a number of ways you can do so. This, however, is a professional version made by Playdek, a developer famed for their smooth digital implementations of online games. It's leaps and bounds better than the rough-hewn versions built in Java and Excel but it's not quite as user-friendly as you might like. There are a few minor display bugs even in this finished version, and information about the game state isn't always readily available at a glance. It also uses Playdek custom accounts for matchmaking rather than Steam, but that's for cross-platform play down the line so it's forgivable.
A bigger draw of professional polish is accessibility to new players. Here, Playdek's version scores well. There's a fine tutorial to guide you through the game mechanics which eventually lets you play the game to completion without guidance. And, to my surprise and pleasure, the AI on offer is good enough to challenge players on the initial learning curve. Old hands will beat it handily most of the time but even then it's capable of making the odd inspired play. A couple of times I've had to reconsider tried and tested strategies in the face of its decisions.
For those familiar with the game, online asynchronous play is straightforward both against friends and in random matches against strangers. It's as fun as it's ever been, just slightly smoother. The real draw here is for the many who may not have come across Twilight Struggle before. Here's a sweet package that will teach them to play and help them hone their early strategies. I hope this adaptation has the power to reach out beyond the converted, to those who were daunted by the tabletop game or who have never heard of it because every strategy gamer should play Twilight Struggle without fail: it's just that good.