Twilight Struggle by GMT games is an intellectual arm-wrestling match masquerading as a (digital) board game. Its a little bit like Risk in that it has a map, and its a bit like Pinochle in that it uses cards, but in every other way it bears little resemblance to those games. The premise of TS is that players adopt the role of one of the Cold War superpowers, spread influence around the world, overthrow enemy governments, and build enough technology to dominate the planet. Points are awarded for successful play. The first player to score 20 points wins. If either player dominates Europe, they win. If either player triggers nuclear war, everyone loses.
|Purchase for iPhone:||No. Buy an iPad now!|
|Purchase for iPad:||
Play is turn-based. Turns are fairly quick. Cards in hand are used either for the text they contain, or for spreading influence into countries, or for triggering other abilities like pushing the space race or staging coup d’etats. Each turn typically has several options for play, each of which will impact the long term strategic picture. This leaves the tension high because very few choices are so obvious that they are automatic.
There is an element of area control to Twilight Struggle, but spreading your blue or red blob across the map is not as simple as generating armies and stomping the enemy flat. The only thing on the board is “influence” — an abstract metric that encompasses the financial, political, and cultural muscle befitting a superpower. Influence is mainly used for scoring purposes, but it also impacts how easily other actions can be performed, such as adjusting the government of an unfriendly country or loosening your opponent’s grip on a particular region.
The heart of Twilight Struggle is the cards. Except for a handful of scoring cards, the cards represent events that actually happened in the Cold War, broken up by era just as the Cold War was — Early, Middle, and Late. The fun here is that the events from each era happen in random order, so you might find yourself dealing with the headache of Castro without having the benefit of NATO already in place, or Vietnam might rebel prior to the US making a defense pact with Japan, etc. The randomness allows for each game to feel different, but since there are only a small number of cards in the came at any given time, there is predictability, too.
Another important mechanic in the game is “Defcon” status — a measure of the global crisis level. Each time one player overthrows the government of the other, or does something equally aggressive, the world slips one step toward nuclear armageddon. While this ordinarily has minimal impact on a player’s turn, as the clock creeps toward doom, low Defcon status acts as a wet-blanket for players hoping to just muscle their way to victory. In addition, players who have not engaged in aggressive military operations during a turn will be penalized with lost points. And so tweaking with the global hysteria level to earn a few points or corner your opponent into acting less aggressively is a vaunted, if subtle, strategy.
To explain all the reasons this game has grabbed the imagination of boardgamers everywhere would be impossible, but close to the top would have to be that the risks-and-rewards in this game are finely tuned. Every risk taken needs to be a calculated one, and aggression is not always advisable, but a player who plays purely defensively will never win. As far as I can tell, the USSR plays strongest in the early game and the USA player plays strongest in the late game. Odds are presumably equal in the long run, but this leads to an interesting and ever shifting game-state, like an arm wrestling match. The fact that the gameplay dynamics are merged so seamlessly with the Cold War theme makes TS a joy to play.
One of the helpful features for new players of TS is that there is a built in handicapper that can keep the scales balanced. Prior to initiating a match, players can adjust the amount of influence they start with by as much as +10 over an experienced opponent. This facilitates hot-seat play between players of varying skill levels, in addition to enabling players to get an edge over the AI without the need for programmers to create “dumb” AI that makes irrational choices.
A final gameplay feature that is worth mentioning is that the designers added two additional “scenarios” to the game beyond the normal ruleset. From what I can tell, the Chinese Civil War variant makes certain events more difficult for either player to influence without certain other things happening first. If that doesn’t make sense, don’t sweat it. It was a favorite mod of TS geeks, and it exists for a reason. The other scenario — Late War — allows for a short but dirty brawl to the finish. Although I haven’t tried either scenario, thumbs-up to the deciders who opted to include this content.
The company entrusted with digital-delivery of TS was none lesser than Playdek. This is the studio that brought us digital adaptations of Summoner Wars, Ascension, and Agricola — need I continue? All of these games absolutely shine on iOS. The programmers “get” the difference between board games and video games — they don’t try to merge the two experiences by adding too many graphical whistles and bells that distract from the core contest.
One of the advantages of the digital port is that the tutorial does a reasonable job of walking new players through the mechanics of the game. Although learning the details and strategies would obviously take a while, the tutorial is an effective introduction.
The User Interface is a work of art. Unlike the beta-version, which had been released months ago, the graphics in the finished product are clear and colorful. Contrast is clear, and buttons are big and obvious. Cards are readily accessed with touch-and-zoom functionality, and are played by sliding them upward toward various option choices that helpfully vanish once the card is played. It feels smooth and cardgame-like. The cards themselves are functional, with minimal clutter and appropriately terse rule descriptions.
One problem with the digital implementation was, no doubt, the size of the physical board. It is a world map. It is massive. Playdek resolved that problem by putting inconspicuous zoom buttons at the bottom of the screen so that players can focus on one region at a time. It adds a small amount of clutter on the screen, but it solves the board-size problem.
The sound of the game is the only thing I would change. There is a constant classical and percussion sound track, which is fine, but it is somewhat too dramatic for the pace of the board game, which has a steady pace. Ambient noises fire off from time to time, and there are random buzzers and scary-sounding speeches from historical figures. While the speeches add to the mood and the noises add tension, I find them disruptive to concentration. Call me a boardgame purist, but the only thing I want to hear when I play a boardgame is the mewing and wheedling of my defeated enemy begging for mercy.
III. Closing Thoughts
Twilight Struggle is not a game for fair-weather iOS boardgamers. It is a complex but not unapproachable title that will absolutely satisfy people who are looking to play a deep, thoughtful game requiring concentration. If you tend to pick up iOS games for fifteen to twenty minute increments at a time, Twilight Struggle is probably not for you. It requires sustained concentration for about an hour. If, on the other hand, you enjoy deep strategy games or find yourself stuck at a niece’s piano recital, this title will be a godsend. After committing to the likelihood of losing your first four or five games, you will soon be playing the world for puppets in no time. Will it be morning in America, or darkness at noon? Only you can decide.
- Deep, satisfying strategy
- Excellent theme
- Solid UI and visual appeal
- Somewhat complex
- Sound could be improved