Turning Weakness into Strength: Benefitting from Opponent Events in Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games) is a game of tricky hand management. Its chief innovation in the field of card-driven games (CDGs) is that both players draw from a joint deck, and if you play a card with an opponent event, you get to use the operation points (ops) from this card, but the event is triggered nonetheless. You’ll try to solve the puzzle of how to play your cards best every turn, maximizing your gains and minimizing the obstacles from opponent events in your hand. Newcomers to Twilight Struggle often think that a hand full of opponent events is a bad hand. However, if you draw all the Soviet events as the US, chances are that the Soviet hand is full of American events, so it evens out. And you’d rather defuse many of the opponent events on your own terms than allow the other player to unleash them on you.
In addition to that, quite a few events offer a benefit even to the nominally disadvantaged power. As they also get the ops when playing the opponent event, this allows for some kind of ops/event double move – all the fun, none of the regret! These events typically fall in the categories of discarding or manipulating DEFCON. There is one event that just allows you to possibly flip a battleground to your side. Let’s dive right into the cards.

To the Ash Heap of History: Discarding

Quite some events force the opponent to discard – which you can use to get rid of an annoying opponent event. Now, discarding is usually a bad thing as it cuts your hand size and thereby diminishes your flexibility, prevents you from holding any cards at the end of the turn, and sometimes even puts you at risk of a loss by thermonuclear annihilation if you are forced to play a card that lowers DEFCON. So, you’d often rather hold opponent cards or send them to space. However, if you don’t have DEFCON worries, discarding can be an attractive option.


Image ©GMT Games.

The first event that forces a discard is Five Year Plan. The Soviets have to discard one card at random. A US event on that card will be triggered, neutral or Soviet events just discarded. Normally, this puts the USSR at risk of losing a strong card or having a good US event triggered, but if you play it when you only have one other card left, you know what you’ll be losing and can plan accordingly. For example, you can use it do confront a low-ops US event with the 3 ops from Five Year Plan. Even better, you can get rid of disadvantageous scoring cards (as they are neutral events and will not be triggered)! Historically, it’s food for thought that the planned economy represented by Five Year Plan is normally a liability for the USSR, but a well-executed plan can work to its benefit.


Image ©GMT Games.

Blockade requires the US player to discard a card with an ops value of at least 3 – if not, they lose all their influence in West Germany. Obviously, this can be used to discard a strong USSR event. For more considerations on the Blockade card in Twilight Struggle (and the Berlin Blockade in history and board games), see this article.


Image ©GMT Games.

A very similar card is Latin American Debt Crisis. Here, the US player must choose between discarding a card with an ops value of at least three and allowing the USSR to double their influence in two South American countries. It can be used the same way as Blockade. Rather fittingly, the debt problems of the Latin American countries during the 1980s did not turn the continent red (although they put pressure on some US-backed governments, as in Brazil or Chile).


Image ©GMT Games.

Aldrich Ames Remix is an outright brutal event for the US if the USSR plays it: The US player must reveal their hand of cards, and the USSR discards one of these without triggering the event. If, however, Aldrich Ames Remix is in the US hand, it can be quite a boon: Play it like Five Year Plan when you only have one card left and enjoy the face of the Soviet player when you discard the Asia Scoring card from which she had expected so many VP! I see this as an alternative history in which Aldrich Ames betrays the USSR and becomes a triple agent.

Now we venture a bit into imaginative territory, but bear with me. Quagmire and Bear Trap are two very annoying events to be saddled with. Taking action is everything in Twilight Struggle, and these cards preclude you from doing just that. Instead, you discard a card of an ops value of at least 2 and roll a die. If it’s 1-4, you’re free. On a 5 or 6, rinse and repeat next turn. That’s even worse if you brought that on yourself – as after the play of Quagmire/Bear Trap your opponent basically gets to take two consecutive action rounds (with you discarding and rolling a die to get out in between). So why would you ever want to play that on yourself? Frankly, it’s a last-ditch attempt to deal with a really challenging hand of opponent events. Let’s say you’re the USSR and have Bear Trap, Grain Sales to Soviets, and Ussuri River Skirmish in hand. All of those are awful if triggered, but you can only space one (and hold one). So, you play Bear Trap, discard Grain Sales on the next action round, and space Ussuri. At least you only had to deal with one of the events now. Your situation could be even worse when you face a DEFCON loss: Say, as the US you have Lone Gunman still in hand when DEFCON is at 2 and cannot hold a card because you had to discard earlier in the turn. Lone Gunman allows the USSR to conduct operations, so they could just coup a battleground when you play it and lose you the game. It’s a 1-op card, so you can’t even space it. You cannot even discard it with Quagmire for the same reason, but if you play Quagmire as your second-to-last card, your remaining action round in the turn is just skipped (as you are out of appropriate cards to play). Next turn you’ll hopefully find a way to get rid of the pesky Gunman.

Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: DEFCON

Speaking of DEFCON: Several (opponent) events manipulate DEFCON (usually lowering it) which can be used to the player’s advantage. Of course, playing around with DEFCON has its own risks (see some tips on how to deal with DEFCON here). Normally, this DEFCON manipulation via opponent events comes at a VP loss, but (especially in the early turns), board position beats VP most of the time, as it translates into VP itself: If you can flip a battleground state, that’s a net swing of 2 VP for the next scoring (1 more for you, as you control it, 1 less for your opponent, as she does not control it anymore). Each region gets scored up to three times during the 10 turns and once in final scoring (if you get so far). Therefore, if you wrest a battleground from your opponent and control it yourself before the scoring card of that region is played the first time, that’s a swing of up to 8 VP! And that doesn’t even take any of the VP benefits from the changes to presence/domination/control into account (nor any of the access your new satellite state provides to you). So, let’s see what you can make of fondling your opponent’s bomb.


Image ©GMT Games.

Duck and Cover is the prototypical opponent event to manipulate DEFCON for one’s own designs. The event lowers DEFCON by 1, then the US gets 1-3 VP dependent on current DEFCON level. The first Soviet use for that card is to lower DEFCON without couping. As DEFCON rises between turns to 3, it allows for precisely one battleground coup the next turn – which will bring DEFCON back down to 2 again. Therefore, the USSR usually coups on its first action round to get this coup herself and deny it to the US. Sometimes, however, the USSR finds herself wanting to do something but couping on the first action round (like placing influence). Duck and Cover allows for that while still bringing down DEFCON to 2, so that the US cannot use the battleground coup in return. Often, the US used the last action round of the previous turn to break USSR control in a European or Asian battleground (which cannot be couped due to DEFCON restrictions), so the USSR is forced to choose between couping and defending that battleground (and thereby giving the battleground coup of the turn to the US). Duck and Cover is the perfect antidote. A second use of Duck and Cover is to lower DEFCON by 2 with a battleground coup (one for the event, one for the coup). This can be used to deny the US a coup altogether when DEFCON is at 4 or to lock the US out of coups in Asia when DEFCON is still at 5.


Image ©GMT Games.

Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007 works in a very similar way. It also lowers DEFCON by 1, and the US receives 2 VP. However, if the US controls South Korea, they can then spend 4 ops on influence placement or realignments. In the latter case, the card is a bad investment for the Soviets, but when South Korea is not under US control (for example, because you just broke that control with the ops from the card itself), Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007 is even better than Duck and Cover: You only lose 2 VP (as opposed to the usual 3 when DEFCON drops from 3 to 2) and get 4 ops (instead of 3 for Duck and Cover).


Image ©GMT Games.

“We Will Bury You” works similar to that as well – DEFCON is lowered by 1, and the USSR gains 3 VP (if UN Intervention is not played on the next US action round as an event). It would be used differently from the two previous cards as it is a Soviet event and the US normally begins its action rounds at DEFCON 2 already – so playing “We Will Bury You” would lose them the game. Instead, the card can be headlined to lower DEFCON and prevent the USSR from couping on their first action round as DEFCON will already be at 2 by then. Ideally, you’d want to couple this with UN intervention on your own first action round, cancelling another strong USSR event and saving the 3 VP. In most cases, it will be better to just space “We Will Bury You”, but under certain circumstances (you don’t have a good headline to play instead of “We Will Bury You”, you have UN intervention in hand as well as two more strong Soviet cards (one to cancel via UN intervention, one to hold/space)) this play might be worth it.


Image ©GMT Games.

The last opponent event that manipulates DEFCON but may give benefits to the non-aligned player is Nuclear Subs. Its effect is that US battleground coups do not lower DEFCON this turn. This can save a desperate USSR from a DEFCON loss via a card event in their hand that allows the US player to conduct operations (like CIA Created or Grain Sales to Soviets). You pull this off by playing Nuclear Subs on your penultimate action round, then follow it up with CIA Created or whatever coup-granting card gave you the trouble in the first place. The US can still use it to coup, but the coup will not lower DEFCON anymore. Still, playing Nuclear Subs like this gives the US up to three battleground coup opportunities: One right after playing Nuclear Subs (their penultimate action round), one with the card you play that allows them to coup, one on their last action round. This can pretty much wreck the Soviet position in the Third World. It is therefore paramount that you apply as much pressure as possible with the ops from Nuclear Subs and your last card to force the US to choose between capitalizing on those coup opportunities and responding to your threats elsewhere.

”I want my Argentina back!”: The Iron Lady


Image ©GMT Games.

Margaret Thatcher was an atypical politician for her times – female, confrontational, strongly committed to the individual instead of the community – so it is only fitting her card event should be atypical too. While it offers quite some benefits to the US (1 VP, Socialist Governments is not playable as an event anymore, all USSR influence is removed from the UK), there is also this small sub-clause adding 1 USSR influence to Argentina (referencing the Falklands War). Often, the US benefits are mediocre, though – the USSR is unlikely to have influence in the UK anyway, and Socialist Governments would often not show up anymore in the US hand either. The 1 influence in Argentina, however, can be enough to flip one of the few South American battleground countries: If the US controls Argentina (stability 2) by exactly 2 influence more than the USSR, the 1 influence breaks control and the 3 ops from the card can then turn it to Soviet control (for example, from 2/0 influence in the beginning to 2/4 at the end of the action round). Keep in mind, though, that you need to have influence in a country or adjacent to it at the beginning of an action round to place more in it – so USSR needs to have influence in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, or Uruguay to pull this move off.

What is your favorite opponent event to use for your own benefit? Which exploits did you make with it – or which tricks were played on you by your esteemed gaming partner?

3 thoughts on “Turning Weakness into Strength: Benefitting from Opponent Events in Twilight Struggle

  1. Daniel B

    Playing Bear Trap or Quagmire on yourself is risky, but sometimes you can mitigate it in the rare chance you have both of them. Play one on your opponent, and then on yourself next. 1/3rd of the time, you’ll be both discarding simultaneously.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. cliosboardgames Post author

    I think the chance is lower than 1/3 – your opponent has to fail their roll and you have to succeed with yours. So it’s 1/3 * 2/3 = 2/9 or about 22%. Still might be worth a shot in the right circumstances.


  3. Pingback: Farewell 2018 – Highlights on the Blog | Clio's Board Games

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