Twilight Struggle Game Review

Now the trumpet summons us again not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call to battle, though embattled we are but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle John F. Kennedy.

Its the highest rated game on Board Game Geek, and one of my all time favorites, this week I review Twilight Struggle in all its Cold War glory. Twilight Struggle is an awesome game, but complicated is the first word I would use to describe it. The game isnt overly complex to grasp, but there are a lot of mechanics to keep track of and everything needs to be done in a very precise order. However, if youre willing to sit down and learn, you wont be disappointed.


Twilight Struggle is a two player game that typically takes between 3 and 4 hours to play. The game simulates the Cold War from the end of WWII in 1945 through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Players compete as either the United States or the Soviet Union as they struggle for supremacy over the world. The game incorporates actual historical events through event cards, which shapes the game and tracks history. The game board is divided into six regions, and numerous countries within those regions, that players battle over by conducting military operations within those countries. Over the course of a game, players will walk through many of the most important events of the cold war while trying to beat the other player to the moon and avoid a nuclear war. A player is declared the winner if they: (1) reach 20 points on the victory point track, (2) control Europe when the european scoring is played, or (3) opposing player causes a nuclear war.

The Game

The game starts with each player choosing their side: USA or USSR. Each side comes with their own set of pros and cons, but in my experience, the USSR tends to be much more aggressive in the early game, where the USA really excels mid to late game.

Each game of Twilight Struggle has 10 turns, and 7 action rounds within each turn. Players are dealt 8 cards at the beginning of every turn.

Cards can either be event cards or scoring cards. Event cards have historical events listed on them that benefit one or both sides.

Scoring cards correspond to a region and must be played during the turn. When a scoring card is played, each players score is calculated based on the countries that each player controls. Presence means a player controls at least one country in the region. Domination means that a player controls more countries than their opponent and more battleground countries than their opponent. A player controls a region if they control every battleground in that country. If a player ever controls Europe when Europe scoring is played, then they automatically win the game.

Because players have 8 cards, and there are 7 action rounds, player will hold one card from turn to turn. At the beginning of the game, players are dealt cards from the early war deck. As players advance through history, the mid and late war decks will be shuffled in.

Each player starts the game controlling several countries and having influence in several others. Players may only influence countries adjacent to countries they already influence, so the initial setup is key to a good start.

The goal of Twilight Struggle is to score victory points. Victory points are awarded in a number of ways, but the most common way to receive them is through influencing countries. Victory points are represented by the victory point track. Victory points are like a tug of war between the players. When the USA gets a victory point, then the USSR losses a victory point. This means that the score fluctuates between players as the game progresses. If a player ever makes it to 20 victory points, then they automatically win the game.

The board is divided up into six regions including: Europe, Asia, Central America, South America, Africa, and the Middle East.

Each country within those regions has a box indicating the country name, battleground status, and stability score. Battleground countries are strategically important, and their status is indicated by a purple background. The stability score, as the name suggests, indicates how stable a given country is. Stable countries like the U.K. have a stability score of 5 and unstable countries like Vietnam have a stability score of 1. The stability score represents the amount of influence a player needs in the country to control the country.

Players gain influence in countries through events and operations. Each event card is associated with one or both superpowers. Cards with red stars benefit the USSR, cards with white stars benefit the USA, and cards with red/white stars may benefit either side.

In addition to the event, each card has an operation point value indicated by the number in the upper left. Players my choose to play a card for its event or for its operations value. If a player plays an event associated with their superpower for its operations value then the event does not occur.

  • Example: USA plays a USA event card for its operations value and the event does not trigger.

However, if a player plays an event associated with the opposing superpower for its operations value then the event does trigger.

  • Example: USA player plays a USSR card for its operations value and event triggers.

This means players must be strategic with when they play cards for their operations value or for the event. Additionally, players must decide the opportune time to play opposing event cards for their operations value. Players want to minimize any benefit an event confers on the opponent.

Operations points allow players to:

  1. Place influence markers,
  2. Make realignment rolls
  3. Attempt coups
  4. Advance in the space race

Players may place an influence marker in any country where a player has influence, or any country adjacent to country where a player has influence.

Players may pay one operations point to place an influence marker in an uncontrolled country. Once a player has influence greater than the stability score, then that player controls the country. If both players are battling over the same country, then the controlling player must have influence equal to the opponents influence plus the stability score to control the country.

Players may also make realignment rolls, which reduce an opponents influence in a country. Realignment rolls are made by paying one operations point and having a rolloff with the other player. This means that if a player has 4 operations point, that player may attempt 4 realignment rolls.

In addition to realignment rolls, players may also attempt coups in countries. Coupes are vitally important and allow a player to not only reduce influence in countries, but actually flip those countries to the players side. The other main difference between coups and realignments is the cost. Players must pay the entire operations value to conduct a coup and only one die is rolled.

Players may advance in the space race as well. Players pay one event card and a die is rolled. If the die is greater than the number indicated on the space race track, then the player advances to the next stage. The space race is most valuable for its ability to dump cards. Cards that are sent to space, including opponents event cards, do not trigger the event, so players my dump their worst card once per turn.

Game Sequence

Each turn of Twilight Struggle is broken up in the following way:

  1. Improve DEFCON status
  2. Deal cards
  3. Headline phase
  4. Actions rounds
  5. Military operations status
  6. Flip China Card
  7. Advance turn marker

At the beginning of each turn, the DEFCON status is improved by one space (Ex: DEFCON 4 to DEFCON 5) The DEFCON status is a 5 1 scale with 1 indicating nuclear war and 5 signaling peace. The DEFCON marker is advanced whenever there is a military operation, which include coups and certain events. Every time the DEFCON status is advanced, certain regions will be off limits from military operations. If a player ever causes the DEFCON status to go to 1, then a nuclear war is triggered and the player looses the game.

Cards are then dealt to bring each player up to 8 cards. Each player then selects an event card for the headline phase, and each player reveals them simultaneously. These events trigger immediately, and the event with the higher operations value takes place first.

Players then conduct 7 action rounds by playing cards for their events or operations value. After the action round, points are assigned based on each players military operations status. Players advance the military operations status marker by conducting coups or playing certain event cards. At the end of every turn, players loose victory points for not conducting enough military operations. The number of military operations a player must conduct is equal to the DEFCON status.

The China card is back in play. The China card is special in that it trades between the USA and USSA. Each time the china card is played, the opposing player receives the China card face down and may not play the card until the following turn. The China Card starts the game with the USSR, and the card never counts toward the 8 card hand total.

The turn marker is then advanced and the whole process is repeated until a player achieves victory.

Final Thoughts

Twilight Struggle is my go to rainy day game: its complex, its strategic, and it takes hours to play. I would strongly recommend the game to any history buffs or players looking for a challenging card driven game. Twilight Struggle is similar to other card driven games like We the People, and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. Like other card driven games, Twilight Struggle can take well over 3 hours to play, so everyone need to be in for the long haul. With that in mind, I wouldnt recommend this game to anyone with a short attention span or for most novices. The mechanics are complex and the intricate way in which each turn is constructed may be daunting to new gamers. That being said, history buffs love this game, so if thats the novice youre dealing with it might be worth giving the game a try. For advanced gamers, Twilight Struggle is a blast to play. Each time I play, I feel like I gain a better understanding of the cold war. As events transpire, you start to understand why each side was forced into the moves they made, which I find really satisfying. Games tend to mirrors history, but each player has ample opportunity to rewrite certain aspects of the past. Because of its effective depiction of the cold war, and its addicting gameplay, Twilight Struggle is a worthy addition to any game collection. You can pick up your copy on Amazon or from my local game shop Card Kingdom.

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