– John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, 1961
He goes on to the bit about thinking not what your country can do for you but the idea of a twilight struggle is the most intriguing. It casts the whole sorry mess in a rather romantic light but it fits – conflicts playing out behind closed doors and in far-flung corners of the world – murky, secretive affairs… And so the designers of my new Cold War board game felt; the same quote opens their generous (32 page) rulebook. Its name? Twilight Struggle of course.
Board games have had a renaissance in recent years and a thriving sub-culture exists out of sight from ‘normal’ people. As such, there is a fair bit to catch up on. Firstly, they have not heard of any of the games anyone is playing. In fact, if they have heard of a game, we aren’t playing it. “I like Monopoly” someone offers plaintively – we don’t. “I love Cluedo” – kill yourself. “Risk is awesome!” – seriously, I would rather dine on my own head with a side of erm…your head than play Risk. I know this seems a little inconsistent – “but *sniff* you said you liked board games”. The thing is, it was a phoenix from the ashes style rebirth; the old, long, dull games died (in awesome Final Destination-ish ways) and a host of well-designed and imaginative games replaced them. If this is all news to you, go and play Catan but remember now you’ve heard of it, we don’t want to play it anymore. Sorry, I’ll be nice now.
Board Game Geek is the bible of this humble hobby and its games list, the gospel, with 57387 games by today’s count and since popular games have 20000+ votes, the rankings are pretty stable. New games are sometimes briefly overrated as everyone plays them for the first time but on the whole, it’s an accurate indication of quality. Imagine the excitement then, when it became clear that a game appeared to be bucking this trend and mounting a slow but steady climb up the list. Twilight Struggle now sits atop this list-y Olympus with statistical air between it and its nearest rival. “How does this happen?!” I hear you wail in anguished horror. No. Desperate curiosity? No. Faint interest? No answer. I’ll take that as a yes.
Twilight Struggle looks like a war game: big map, endless little counters, historical theme – your average board gamer assumed it was one step from battle re-enactments and gave it a wide berth but slowly its true colours were revealed. Now I would dearly love to tell you that when it was released, in 2005, I had the prescience to take a punt on it but I am an arriviste; I bought it when it reached number 1 and – no zealot like a convert – am atoning for my tardiness by proselytising here, there and everywhere (any excuse).
It’s a two player game, although I’ve played with teams of 3, which worked fine. You take control of the US or the USSR and you aim to earn influence around the world. You do this by playing cards which are all historical events or people, for example, playing the Che Guevara card will remove any US influence in Cuba and give the USSR enough influence to control it. Cards can also be played for their ‘operations points’, which allow you to simply add influence to any country you are connected to on the map or to stage coups in countries where your opponent has influence. Players aim to have enough influence in the world’s 6 regions to dominate or even control them, when their scoring card is played. Judicious scoring, winning the space race and satisfying your populace’s bloodlust without triggering nuclear war will see you win the war but if the game lasts all 10 turns you may not get much sleep. This is a long game. The really scary thing is I’m not sure I’d have it any other way. It’s just so fun, the time flies. My soviets finally eked out a very close victory on Saturday night after 9 hours and I loved every nail-biting minute of it. So sue me.
The reason Twilight Struggle is so engaging is because it creates the impression that the problems you are solving, the tools you are using and the way you are feeling is how it really was. I usually coo about clever mechanics, theme is bonus, but this game has opened my eyes to what is possible with some real attention to the source material. That’s not say it doesn’t have great mechanics, it absolutely does, but it also has cards that outline all the key events and people of the war and a rulebook which goes even further, giving a paragraph of historical context for every card.
But that’s the easy way to add theme – you write it on a card – the difficult bit and what the designers have done so well, is making the mechanics themselves reflect the theme, something Extra Credits is huge on. The mechanics are set up to create the same sorts of decisions that JFK had to make. They can tell some of the story by putting the player in classic Cold War situations. For example, you want to gain control of a country in Central America to establish a presence there – you must stage a coup to do so. Coups are easier to pull off in countries with a low ‘stability’ and the countries that fit the bill: Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti – sounds familiar right? Their stability is fixed and often, when you feel that you need to alter the balance of power in a region, you can only afford to target these unstable countries even though you know that your opponent will have little trouble reversing your actions. Its these mechanics, working as gameplay tools and as features of the Cold War theme, which make playing the game feel like leading a superpower through 30 years of…twilight struggle.
I used to think that board games were destined to continue as a thriving but perennial ‘sub-’ culture. I’m not so sure anymore. It’s a sign of the times that two successful video games writers have set up a board game internet show – Shut Up and Sit Down – and fantastic it is too. Twilight Struggle is proof that board games can continue to improve in pace with their computer-y cousins. They are similar enough that as video games grow, board games can piggy-back on their success snapping up gamers curious for a different experience. But they are also different enough to be an enjoyable counterpoint to what is largely a one-man-and-his-machine pastime. Or maybe we will see a fusion of board and video games – a board game controlled by software, which allows face-to-face play with a system more complex than two people could control. Iain M. Banks seems to think so. Personally, I’d be happy just to see more games like Twilight Struggle with all the mechanical elegance of a modern board game but also utterly immersed in a fascinating theme.