Twilight Struggle, once called "the best boardgame on the planet" by FiveThirtyEight.com with only mild hyperbole, is the king of period-specific historical boardgames. With two players competing as the respective leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union, Twilight Struggle at once captures the broad themes of Cold War competition as well as the specific moments that defined the ideological deathmatch. After years as the darling of BoardGameGeek, XCOM: Enemy Within designer Ananda Gupta's tabletop masterpiece has finally been adapted to PC by Playdek.
At heart, Twilight Struggle is about influence: who can bring more countries into their sphere of influence and dominate the strategic no-man's land between East and West. The genius here is that rather than being weighed down with abstract systems and resources to simulate the Cold War, Twilight Struggle uses history itself to drive the action. Almost every major event and personality of the Cold War has a playing card associated with it, and the two sides trade rounds playing cards from their hand.
The catch is that some events favor the other side, but you'll still need to do something with them if they end up in your hand. You might have no choice but to play a bad event in order to use those operations points… even if that causes the event to trigger and hurt your cause.
That might be a cost worth paying, because in Twilight Struggle, timing is everything. This weekend I was playing a game as the Americans and, in the late 1950s, I got a bad deal. I received both the European and Middle Eastern scoring cards, which meant that I had to play those cards and score those regions before the end of the turn. But I also had a lot of bad cards in my hand that harmed me in both regions. I had one advantage: I knew those two regions were scoring this turn, and my opponent did not.
I started the turn with the East European Unrest card, which eliminated Soviet control over Poland, Eastern Germany, and Czechoslovakia. My next card scored the region when my enemy was at his weakest. I dominated the region and the key battleground states, which tilted the game hard in my direction. Then I noticed my opponent making aggressive moves in Asia: he triggered the Korean War, and launched a coup in Malaysia to break my hold over it. His single-mindedness tipped me off that he was probably about to score the region.
Which suited my purposes, because he ignored the fact that I used my Marshall Plan card in the Middle East rather than Europe to take over Iran and Saudi Arabia. Then I used the de Gaulle card to launch a coup in Iraq, which chased the Soviets out of the region entirely while costing me a (now useless) position in France. That coup also brought the game to DEFCON 2, which meant that nobody could launch any more coups without triggering nuclear war. By the time the dust cleared, I'd dominated Europe and the Middle East and denied my opponent a major victory in Asia, despite having a hand full of Soviet cards that should have sunk me.
All this bluffing and lateral thinking is what makes Twilight Struggle a great boardgame, but boardgames aren't always easy to bring over to PC. Fortunately, Playdek's adaptation does a terrific job of both nailing the basics and also providing just enough enhancements and effects that Twilight Struggle on PC captures not only the core rules and mechanics of the game, but the experience of playing the boardgame itself. That's true even playing it single-player against a capable, if slightly slow-moving, AI opponent.
It's chock-full of thoughtful touches: as you play, little meters in each region let you see at a glance where the balance of power currently sits between the Soviets and the United States. Each action you take changes what the contextual help button will tell you, so you can always get a refresher on the relevant rules.
While I recommend turning the music off, I loved the sound effects that accompanied the game. It reminded me a bit of Introversion's superb DEFCON (though perhaps not quite as eerily evocative). As you play, the changing eras are marked with a distorted audio recording of a famous American or Soviet leader. You'll hear aircraft flying overhead, cheering patriotic crowds, and the loud wail of air-raid sirens.
I think what I like best is that Twilight Struggle embraces the convenience of the electronic format without taking away the tactile satisfaction of playing with chits and cards. It lets you see and experiment with different possibilities without ever giving your opponent a clue about what you're up to or upsetting the board. It enforces its rules with a light hand, always allowing you second thoughts in light of new information. It even taught me a minor rule that I've been misapplying for years with a helpful bit of subtle highlighting.
This weekend I was mostly playing intense one-on-one games that lasted an hour or so, which is about a third the length of a typical Twilight Struggle game if you include time spent setting up the board. The matchmaking is flexible. You can create a game to be played over a few hours or a few days or even a couple weeks by giving each player a period of hours or days in which to make all of their moves. So even though the clock is always ticking when it's your turn, you can still play asynchronously just by allowing each player more time to complete their game. I even played it in the same room with a friend, laptop-to-laptop, and realized that it's just as fun and a lot more convenient than busting out the boardgame.
Twilight Struggle's creativity and elegance sets it apart from most of what's available on PC. It's a great strategy game, but one that behaves according to completely different logic than we're used to seeing. As a strategy game, Twilight Struggle is a revelation. On PC, it's one of the best head-to-head strategy games around.