Twilight Struggle (Games about the Cold War, #8)

Ah, the Cold War. By now, a firm trend in historical board gaming. Every five minutes there is a new release full of Soviets and Americans and espionage and nuclear threats. But you know who liked Cold War board games before it was cool? – Yep, that hipster was me. I just went overboard and decided to dedicate the rest of my (short) academic life to those games. My original inspiration for that was a quaint little game which I found very interesting from both a gaming and a history perspective. And so I come full circle. The game which first prompted me to think about board games in an academic way now makes the last installment of my Games about the Cold War series – a worthy capstone. Its name is Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games). Maybe you have heard of it.
Okay, enough of the irony. Of course you have heard of Twilight Struggle! Everybody has. The game, the myth, the legend! Twilight Struggle had such a massive impact on the development of board games and especially on those about the Cold War that it cannot just be analyzed by itself. Instead, after a short intro on what Twilight Struggle is, I want to share some thoughts on Twilight Struggle‘s paradigm shifts in Cold War board game design and its legacy.

The Cold War as a Game

Do I really need to say what Twilight Struggle is? Well, maybe you lived under a rock the last 15 years. Or you lived in an underground bunker for at least 30 years, hoping to survive the inevitable doom of all-out thermonuclear war. Now you’ve run out of canned food and are forced to forage in the outside world. Hopefully the fallout has hit other places harder than your remote and highly classified location. If that is in fact why you did not hear about Twilight Struggle yet, than the game might be highly interesting to you.
Twilight Struggle puts two players in the shoes of the highest political decisionmakers of the United States and the Soviet Union. These two superpowers fight tooth and nails over global influence. One’s gain is the other’s loss. Therefore, all means are fair game: Treaties. Diplomatic realignments. Coups. Espionage. Full-blown proxy wars. Did I say all means? – One option is off limits: Whoever starts a nuclear war immediately ends and loses the game.

DEFCON track

There is no 1. Only nuclear war. Detail from the Twilight Struggle map board, ©GMT Games.

Twilight Struggle‘s Legacy

Twilight Struggle marks a paradigm shift in Cold War board gaming. First of all, it was the first successful Cold War themed board game to be published in a long time – in fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union. Once the Cold War was over, Cold War games suddenly fell out of fashion because their subject matter did not make the headlines of newspapers anymore. Twilight Struggle, instead, treated the Cold War not as current events, but as history. That also freed the game from having to be a very detailed, serious simulation (like Ultimatum (J. Michael Hemphill, Yaquinto)) or instead taking the madness of one’s time with bitter satire (like Nuclear War (Douglas Malewicki, Flying Buffalo)). This style of presentation – influenced by the merger between the American style of war game design with euro games – has since then been the dominant mode of games about the Cold War (of course, there are still both simulationist and satirical games on the matter).
Mechanically, Twilight Struggle was innovative and influential as well. The designers have taken a well-known central mechanism – alternatively playing a card for either its operations points value or the printed event – and added a twist: Whenever you play a card associated with your opponent, you get the operations points, but you must also trigger the event. That is a very simple way to add some very complex strategy: My opponent couping on my turn due to CIA Created would make me lose instantly, so how can I avoid it? Would Ussuri River Skirmish or Voice of America wreck my position more? Is it better to suck up De Gaulle first and then rebuild France before I play Nasser and lose my foothold in the Middle East? Can I salvage the presence of Fidel by realigning the Soviet influence out immediately with the operations value of the card? – Since then, quite some Cold War board games have directly borrowed this mechanism – for example, 1989 (Ted Torgerson/Jason Matthews, GMT Games) or 13 Days (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games).


A tricky card to have for the USSR! The US using the Operations to coup a battleground on the USSR’s turn would lead to nuclear war and cause the USSR to lose! Card “CIA Created”, ©GMT Games.

Twilight Struggle has especially influenced one type of Cold War games which I have called the „global“ games: Their Cold War is one of high-level foreign policy which shapes a bipolar struggle between the USA and the USSR. These two superpowers are black boxes of whose inner affairs we know nothing (think of the superpowers not even being playable spaces in Twilight Struggle!) , and so they also function the same way. The use of nuclear weapons is not a winning move, but they need to be considered in the struggle for power and influence. The general feeling is one of high tension, a tough tug-of-war, and lots of paranoia. Other games which have employed this perspective on the Cold War are Iron Curtain (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games) or Twilight Squabble (David J. Mortimer, Alderac Entertainment Group).


The most important thing about the USA is that you can get from there to the really interesting places. Mexico. Cuba. Canada. The country itself? – Meh. It’s just a big, untouchable flag. Detail from the Twilight Struggle map board, ©GMT Games.

In case you have not heard of the latter: Yes, the title is purposely derived from Twilight Struggle. Which brings us to the last part of Twilight Struggle‘s legacy: It is so synonymous with Cold War board gaming, and so successful, acclaimed, and popular that it makes for an excellent sales pitch. Not everybody goes as far as to name their game with a wordplay on the „daddy of [Cold War board games]“ (David J. Mortimer’s words), but other Cold War board games have been advertised as having the feel of Twilight Struggle, but playing in a shorter time, or, simply being „Pandemic vs. Twilight Struggle“ (Days of Ire (Katalin Nimmerfroh/Dávid Turczi/Mihály Vincze, Cloud Island)). And what’s more flattering than others being inspired by you?
This post concludes my series on Cold War board games (at least for the time being). You can find the previous instalments here:

Games Referenced

Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
Ultimatum (J. Michael Hemphill)
Nuclear War (Douglas Malewicki, Flying Buffalo)
1989 (Ted Torgerson/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
13 Days (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games)
Iron Curtain (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games)
Twilight Squabble (David J. Mortimer, Alderac Entertainment Group)
Days of Ire (Katalin Nimmerfroh/Dávid Turczi/Mihály Vincze, Cloud Island)


8 thoughts on “Twilight Struggle (Games about the Cold War, #8)

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