Twilight Struggle Review

Twilight Struggle game

One of the highest rated games of all time is Twilight Struggle.  So, of course, I felt the incessant urge to try it.

In Twilight Struggle, players re-live the Cold War.  One player takes the role of the US, and the other is (of course, if you know history) the USSR.  On any given turn, both players will start with 8-9 cards in their hand (depending on what phase of the war you are in).  These cards have both an Event on them and an Operations value.  At the start of the turn, each player selects a "Headline" event to occur first.  Next, players take turns playing cards as either Events or for their Operations value.  Some cards represent US events, some are USSR events, and some can be played either way.  Playing a card for it's Operations value allows you to place new influence in countries (after all, keep in mind that the Cold War was primarily a war of influence, and not of direct conflict), make Coup attempts, realign a country, or even in advance in the Space Race.  If you play a card for it's Operations value then the Event does not occur - unless it's your opponent's Event!  As the game progresses, players will score victory points back and forth; sometimes from playing "scoring cards" (which score various continents based on who influences the most countries and battleground countries), and sometimes Event cards will score points.  The game is played until one of the end of game conditions occurs: 1) one player has scored 20 Victory Points (keeping in mind that when the other player scores points, you just reduce your opponent's score, as Victory Points are a constant tug-of-war), 2) until Defcon is reached (the world blows up), 3) one player has Control of Europe during a scoring phase (they own more total countries, at least one non-battleground country, and all of the battleground countries), or 4) 10 turns have elapsed (at which point whoever has the most points after a final scoring phase wins).  There are a lot of things I skimmed over... like 5-20 pages of rules.  But then again, I'm hoping you're not here for me to teach you everything about how to play the game.

Twilight Struggle duck and cover cardHere's what I liked: first off, I loved the tug-of-war nature of Twilight Struggle.  Throughout the game, you rarely feel like you are truly winning.  You may have advantages in certain places, but you know that your opponent will be able to counter you somehow - and you're just hoping to be able to get a slight upper hand.  I don't have personal memories of living through the Cold War, but I think that Twilight Struggle does a good job of grasping the kind of tension that occurred during that time period (obviously without the fear of a nuclear holocaust - I do realize that boardgames aren't life and death).  Sometimes you will have to concede certain areas to your opponent to gain an upper hand in others - the winner of the game won't be the person that played the better cards; it will be the person that was able to repeatedly capitalize on small advantages.  The give and take nature of Twilight Struggle truly feels like a masterpiece of game design to me.  I can't express how highly I appreciate this aspect of the game.

The next thing that I appreciate about Twilight Struggle is how rooted it is in history.  Every card is based on actual historical events in the Cold War.  What's more, there is a section in the back of the rulebook that goes over each of the different cards, and what that history entails.  I really appreciate this, as it allows people (like myself) who don't necessarily have a strong knowledge about history to learn in a fun way; yet it also allows people who enjoy studying history to have an opportunity to relive an important historical time.

The third thing that I like about Twilight Struggle (that is really a "sub-pro" of my first pro) is that you have to make sacrifices in the game.  At some point, your opponent will perform an action, and you will have to decide if you want to counter them in that area (Space Race, a certain continent, etc), or if you want to counter them elsewhere.  The world is too big, and there are too many aspects to the game to be able to do everything that you want.  You are forced to decide where to allocate resources, and what areas you're willing to sacrifice.  Do you want to control Asia?  This will probably come at the cost of South America; or Europe.  To win, you have to make sure that you don't sacrifice too much, and make sure that you are sacrificing smaller benefits to gain larger ones.

Fidel Castro card from Twilight Struggle
Everyone's favorite dictator
The final thing that I will mention as a pro for Twilight Struggle is that it factors in realism in Influence placement.  What this means is: you cannot place Influence anywhere.  When placing Influence, the country you are influencing must already have your Influence, or must be adjacent to a country where you do have Influence.  Yet, with this, there are enough Events that place Influence in new territories that this rule is not crippling.  (After all, the USSR would have little to no chance of influencing Central or South America otherwise.)

Now, an interesting topic in Twilight Struggle are the scoring cards.  There is a scoring card for each continent where you can place Influence.  These cards might be drawn by a player, just like any other card.  The main difference is that scoring cards cannot be kept until the next turn (you typically have a card that you will keep at the end of each turn).  Scoring cards are interesting - they give you the advantage of knowing a continent that is about to score, and even having the power to decide when that scoring occurs.  Yet, there is a disadvantage in being dealt a card that has no operations value and no Event.  It may be advantageous to be dealt a scoring card, but it might be detrimental to be dealt two or more of them.  Whereas I don't see a problem with how the scoring cards work - I just view it as a part of the game, some people may dislike them.  The same can be said for how the Space Race and Coup/Realignment actions are performed.  These actions all determine whether they are successful based on rolling a six-sided die.  Again, I don't have any major problem with this, but it can be frustrating when the die roll goes against you.

There are some more things you need to be aware of in Twilight Struggle.  You could classify these as "cons", but I think that they are more accurately termed "points of note."  The first one is that Twilight Struggle is a complicated game.  There's not getting around that.  I've played this game many times, and I still don't know that I got every rule right in any of my play sessions.  With that said, however, every time that I've played Twilight Struggle, I've really enjoyed it.

warped Twilight Struggle first edition board
Why you want the Deluxe Version
Second, there are different version of Twilight Struggle that have been printed.  I highly recommend that you get the "Deluxe" version.  The map in the other version is made of cardstock and refuses to lay flat.  Most of my games have been played on this version, and we had to keep phones and mp3 players placed on strategic positions throughout the board to try to get it to lay flat.  After all, keep in mind that Twilight Struggle has tons of very small pieces that must be placed in just the correct place on the board.  And, these pieces can easily slide around on an uneven board.  The Deluxe version also has overall higher quality components, card text has been cleared up in a few places, and also has some color in the rulebook to make it less intimidating.

Overall, I give Twilight Struggle a 9.5/10.  Let's put it this way - I enjoy Twilight Struggle enough that I am tempted to stop reviewing games so that I can dedicate more time to re-playing Twilight Struggle and games like it.

If you like Twilight Struggle, you might also want to check out
1960: The Making of the President (same designers), 1955: The War of Espionage (similar feel but much shorter), and Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861 (two-player historical war game).


  1. Dude this game looks sweet! I might have to buy it now. Excellent review!

  2. I've been curious about Twilight Struggle for a while too - thanks for the good review.

  3. This game looks awesome! I have always been a big fan of strategy games, and I love trying new ones. I want to find this one and try it out. Thanks for the review.

  4. Halfway through our first game and stopped for sleep - probably started a little late on a work night. So far, great and well to expand in SE Asia.....

  5. This review has convinced me to give the game a go, so thank you!

    Thoroughly enjoying the rest of your blog as well.

    By the way, are you aware there is a kickstarter for a PC, Mac, iOS, Android and Xbox version of Twilight Struggle? It's already well-oversubscribed and has only 6 days left:

    Now to read the rules, wait for my digital version to come in the mail, and maybe play a PBEM using VASSAL or something with someone who already owns the rules...