Review: Twilight Struggle05 Jul 2016 23
Review: Twilight Struggle
Released 24 Jun 2016
No game has ever launched for iOS which more perfectly suits the desires Pocket Tactics was founded to serve than Twilight Struggle. It shares a designer with XCOM, held the top spot on BoardGameGeek's list for ten years, is wargame-adjacent, plays best when both players are fairly experienced (and is thus difficult for many of us to find ideal opportunities to play), and was developed by Playdek. Tournaments are already planned in the forums. Seven years ago, my friend Mike and I set aside a month to learn two two-player games, and for seven years I have wished we had enough time for a third, because Twilight Struggle was both of our second choices. After so long a wait, I've lost my taste for suspense--this is a five-star game. You'll be seeing it mentioned again in December.
A detailed rules explanation would be tiresome, but the basics are that this is the Cold War played out on a world map using cards. Each card depicts an event which favors one side or is neutral. These events are generally valuable, but you may play the card for "Ops Points" instead, which gives you a few ways to gain power over the countries of the world, and you'll often prefer this option. However, if you do that with a card which has an opposing event, the event also happens. Much of the game involves managing your hand so that you slap yourself as little as possible. I'd like that to have been a reference to Dr. Strangelove's alien hand syndrome, but really I just had an older brother who went through an immature phase.
Unlike chess, you're allowed to make a move which dooms you immediately (and, in rare circumstances, you may have to). In one early game, with tensions running high, I decided to host the Olympics. A little international understanding, friendly competition, some positive PR--I figured it was a nice, safe play. The trouble is, the Soviets boycotted, which presumably drew enough attention to the behavior of my CIA that meant, long story short, I caused a nuclear war. If I had reflected on what I know about hockey, this might not have come as such a surprise. As a result of that blunder, every move I've made since has been fraught with a little extra stress. It's exactly how a game about trying to navigate the Cold War ought to feel--push too hard, and nature starts again (with the bees, probably), but don't push hard enough, and your way of life will vanish from the earth just as completely.
Another painfully clever bit of design is the China card. Unlike all the other cards, if you use the China card, your opponent gets it for the next turn. So you'd think you'd just hang onto it and gain the bonus for holding it at game end. But it has four ops points (five if they're all used in Asia), so it's one of the most powerful cards in your hand at any time, and situations constantly crop up in which that power is tremendously tempting. Since you know it'll be just as tempting for your opponent, you might as well use it, because you're virtually certain to get it back. Of course, if you do get it back, that means your opponent just used it to do something pretty powerful, and you probably need to respond, which renews the temptation. Not only that, you're also always wondering where to use it--if it were always sensible to use it in Asia, where it's most powerful, it would just bounce back and forth between players essentially spending more and more resources just to maintain parity there, and would accomplish nothing. But if you spend it anywhere else, your opponent will be able to use it to gain the upper hand in Asia. It puts me in mind of my father's maxim about windfalls: "I have to hurry up and spend it before I don't have it."
That same tension, in which the desire to avoid falling behind in any critical way constantly pulls you away from your goals, is present throughout. The Space Race, for example, is mostly a way to throw away all but the weakest cards with events which benefit your opponent, but it does have some benefits for whichever player is ahead. Left unanswered, those benefits can become very powerful, so once your opponent starts committing to space, you have to either let them snowball that into some frightening gains and hope to make it up by a similarly lopsided win elsewhere, or you have to overtake them. Of course, if you do gain the upper hand there, your opponent is in the same position and may well prioritize taking back the lead.
Whether or not this is genuinely realistic, it evokes the tragic dynamics reported about the Cold War--brinksmanship, limited control, gradually escalating commitments to wars or competitions of little inherent value to either side. Even the use of famous events and references to popular media reinforce the impression that what you're playing isn't a game about the crucial (presumably often secret) occurrences of the actual conflict, but is instead a game about the war we saw on TV and in movie theaters. There are occasional audio cues which evoke those media: snippets of famous speeches, the sounds of various machines of war. I panicked momentarily the first time I heard a low-altitude overflight by warplanes, thinking it must be a sign of something terrible happening. And then, like children coming out from under their desks following an air-raid drill, I realized it was nothing--I was as safe as I'd been before I heard anything. It was a brief comfort before the realization that this was not very safe.
As a source of insight into history, what Twilight Struggle does better than any other game I've played (as if it needs more trophies on its mantel) is provide some perspective on how different it felt to live during the Cold War. The world contained exactly one enemy worthy of the name, and everything bad that happened seemed to either be authored by that enemy, or so quickly be co-opted that it made no difference. If it seemed paranoid to regard the election of a new president in Egypt as a plot to undermine the one true ideology, the forces of the evil ideology of deception would quickly work to make that fear seem justified. There was no way to praise the virtues of your opponents, to seek any but the most fragile compromise, without risking apostasy at home with some quite frightful consequences. It leaves me wondering whether our modern political polarization is just the attempt to fit politics into a mold developed during that unrelenting opposition in which generosity and understanding became taboo, and all events were simplified to their impact on the balance of power.
The few concerns I have about the app, that it doesn't support multi-tasking and that there is only one level of AI, simply cannot outweigh its excellence. Also, Playdek have their exterminators at DEFCON 2, and deployed their rapid bug-response teams already just three days after launch. With response time like that, I'm inclined to believe their claims that they're working on exactly those concerns. Their long investment in their own multiplayer system has paid off with what has, for me, been a flawless cross-platform experience. This game makes me feel, not just like the world is walking a tightrope and it's my job to hurry it along, but also like the pressure of grappling with another mind for the highest of stakes is irresistible to me. In real life, I'm a stay-at-home dad who reviews games and largely shuns power, but in Twilight Struggle, I'm arrogant enough to think the world is safest in my hands, and aggressive enough to enjoy it.