The game that puts you on a first-name basis with third-world dictators
March 24, 2013 3:29 AM   Subscribe

"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, Inaugural Address

TWILIGHT STRUGGLE is a card-driven board game simulation of the Cold War. It has been called a game of crisis management; dealing with them yourself, creating them for your opponent, and their proper timing. There is a extensive blog about the game, Twilight Strategy. This is that site's article on starting out play. This page could help you decide if it's for you. ("Do you enjoy games that are extremely tense and nerve-wracking?") Here's a YouTube video on how to play it. And, although I suggest learning to play with a physical set, the online multiplayer wargaming client Warroom has a Java Twilight Struggle client/server program available. There is also a VASSAL module, but it currently doesn't work with VASSAL 3.2 or later. There's a lot more on the game after the break....

Twilight Struggle is currently at the top of BoardGameGeek's massive rated list of over 60,000 games.

One player plays the United States, the other the U.S.S.R. Through ten turns they play event cards, which represent various happenings in the world. Each turn, both players have a hand of cards, and they must play almost all of them, whether the event is good for them or bad.

There is also a variable tracked by the game that measures world tensions called DEFCON (DEFense CONdition), that can go up and down between 5 (best) and 1 (extremely bad). If DEFCON ever drops to 1, the player whose turn it is sparks a nuclear war and immediately loses the game. The thing is, some cards give your opponent opportunity to act, and if he can drop DEFCON to 1 on your turn, you lose. This is called DEFCON suicide, and its causes are at times subtle.

The board is a map of the world. Through their actions, each side tries to gain influence in various countries of the world. Their main objective in this is to gain control. A superpower has control of a country if they have X more Influence Points in that nation than the other side, where X is that country's stability value. The U.K. has the highest stability, of 5, while weak nations like Lebanon, Nicaragua or Nigeria have a value of 1. The higher the stability, the harder it is to gain control, but the easier it is to keep it.

Some of those cards that players must play are scoring cards, one for each region of the world. In the Early War, the scored regions are Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In Mid-War, added to those is Africa, Central America, South America and a special card for Southeast Asia. When a scoring card comes up, each side earns victory points depending on how much of the region they control, most notably, of how many battlefield countries they have compared to the other side. Score is counted using a two-sided scoring track; at the start, the game score is 0, in the middle. When the US earns points the score marker is moved one way, and when the USSR earns points it goes the other way. Thus, every point earned by one side is a point lost by the other, the two players each pulling the scoring marker their way kind of like a tug-of-war. If one side ever gets to 20 points in its direction, it immediately wins the game.

On their turn, players play one card less than they had at the start of the turn; if they start with eight, they must play seven. The last card is "held," kept for the next turn. There are three kinds of cards: US cards, USSR cards, and neutral cards. So, a player will frequently have all three kinds of cards in his hand at the start of the turn. If you play a card "for" your side, or a neutral card, then you either play it for the event, which is described on the card and is something good for you, or for its Operations Points, or "Ops." However, when you play a card belonging to the other side, both happen: you get to play the Ops points on the board, but the other player gets his event. Remember what I said above about DEFCON.... (Scoring cards are neutral, but have no operations value; they are always played for the event, and also must be played that turn, they cannot be "held.")

Ops points can be used to buy Influence, to stage a Coup, or to make realignment rolls. Influence bought is simply placed, one Op per point, in any nation you have Influence in or adjacent to same, spread out however you like; however, if the other side already has control of that country, it costs 2 Ops to buy one point. A Coup involves a die roll, and can be staged in any nation your opponent has Influence in: roll the die, add the Ops value of the card, and compare to twice the nation's Stability, if you roll over remove the difference in enemy Influence, and any excess becomes your own Influence added in. But... Coups in Battleground Countries lower DEFCON by one level. Realignment rolls don't come up often, for they are even more random than Coups, never add Influence to a country, and also can result in you losing influence yourself, but you can make one roll per Operations point in any nation in which your opponent has influence. Further note: Low DEFCON levels also restrict the players from staging Coups or Realignments in some regions.

Events are a variety of things, most of which are some way of placing your influence on the board or removing that of your opponent. Many cards, once played for their Event, are removed from the game, while others will come up again after the deck runs out and is reshuffled. There are 103 of these in a typical game. Here's a selection (all the cards are linked here):
COMECON (3 Ops, USSR): Add 1 USSR Influence to each of 4 non-US-controlled countries of Eastern Europe.
FIVE YEAR PLAN (3 Ops, US): USSR player chooses one card in his hand randomly; if it's a US event, it triggers immediately, if not it's simply discarded.
FIDEL (2 Ops, USSR): US loses all Influence in Cuba, then USSR gains enough Influence for control.
BLOCKADE (1 Op, USSR): Unless the US immediately discards a card with an Operations value of 3 or more, remove all US Influence from West Germany.
Containment (3 Ops, US): All Operations Cards played by the US this turn receive +1 to their Operations value (up to 4).
OLYMPIC GAMES (2 Ops, Neutral): The player who plays this is sponsoring the Olympics. The other player can choose to either participate or boycott. Participating means both players roll a die, with the sponsor getting +2 to his roll, and whoever rolls highest gets 2 VP. Boycotting lowers DEFCON by 1 and gives the sponsor 4 Ops to spend as he wishes. But really, Olympic Games is a fiendish trap: since they give your opponent the opportunity to raise tensions on your turn, playing this Event means losing the game if DEFCON is 2.
DECOLONIZATION (2 Ops, USSR): Add 1 USSR Influence to any 4 countries in Africa and/or Southeast Asia.
CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS (3 Ops, Neutral): DEFCON goes to 2, and any Coups by your opponent will lose them the game. But the event may be canceled at any time if the USSR removes 2 Influence from Cuba, or the US removes 2 Influence from West Germany or Turkey.
QUAGMIRE (3 Ops, USSR): On the US's next Action Round, instead of playing it must discard a card worth at least 2 Ops and then roll 1-4 (on a six-sided die) to end the effect. If it fails, do it again the next round, again and again until 1-4 is rolled. If the US is out of cards worth at least 2 Ops it cannot play cards at all but must still roll each round until 1-4 comes up until the event ends.
KITCHEN DEBATES (1 Op, US): If the US controls more Battleground Countries than the USSR, it gets 2 VP, and the US player gets to poke the USSR player in the chest.
MISSILE ENVY: Your opponent must choose one of the cards from his hand that has the highest Ops value. If that card has your event or a neutral one, it occurs then and there; if it's an opponent's event, you get the Ops to play and the event doesn't happen. The opponent gets Missile Envy in return, but must play it for Ops in his next round. There is a slight danger for DEFCON suicide when playing it though.
FLOWER POWER (4 Ops, USSR): The USSR gets 2 VP every time the US plays a "War" card.
OPEC (3 Ops, USSR): The USSR gets 1 VP for controlling each of: Eqypt, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Gulf States or Venezuela.
PANAMA CANAL RETURNED (1 Op, US): Add 1 US Influence to Panama, Costa Rica and Venezuela.
CHERNOBYL (3 Ops, US): The US designates one Region; for the rest of the turn, the USSR cannot buy Influence there.
WARGAMES (4 Ops, Neutral): If DEFCON is 2, spot the opponent six Victory Points and end the game immediately.
THE CHINA CARD (4 Ops, Neutral): A special card, this isn't part of anyone's hand but resides on the table in front of its owner. At the start of the game this is the USSR. On the posessor's turn, instead of a card from his hand he can choose to play The China Card instead; its Event text is to play it as a 4 Ops card, unless all the points are spent in Asia in which case the player gets 5 Ops. Then the card is given to the other player and put on the table face-down, unavailable for play; at the start of the next turn, it's turned face-up again. Not only is it a powerful play, but since it's used instead of a hand card it means the player can get away with holding an extra card at the end of the round, useful for delaying harmful events. In final scoring, having this card is worth 1 VP.

Sometimes, while you're playing, you'll end up with a card you want to dump, not play at all. A scant few cards let you discard other cards, but the main way to do this is to SEND IT TO OUTER SPAAACE. That is, play it to the Space Race track. You're allowed to do this once per turn, if the card is worth 2 Ops or more (3 Ops later), and this prevents any enemy Event on the card from triggering. There are other benefits (and VPs) that come from advancing in the Space Race too, but they end once the other player catches up to you. Spaced cards get discarded, so they could turn up again later, "on reentry," once the deck gets reshuffled....

At the start of each turn, each player picks one card from his hand to "headline" the turn, and plays it face-down. Both players then turn the card over at once; the Event on the one with the higher Ops value happens first, then the other. Ideally you'll pick an Event that will happen over the whole turn, or creates a crisis your opponent must react to. One US card, Defectors, has as its only effect, if played as a headline, the cancelation of the USSR headline. Even if DEFCON is 3 at the start of the Headline phase, if both players play a DEFCON lowerer, it could still result in nuclear war.

At the start of the game the deck consists of the "Early War" cards. After three turns, a much larger deck, the Mid War cards, are shuffled in. After turn seven a small set of Late War cards are added. These cards serve to modify the nature of the game as it continues, as well as the cards that get excluded from the deck due to Event play.

To win the game:
At the end of ten turns, each region is scored one more time, and the winner is the player with more points.
Alternatively, when the Europe is scored, if a player controls all five European Battleground Countries, and more of Europe than the opponent, he immediately wins. This even applies during final scoring.
You also win by causing DEFCON to drop to 1 during your opponent's turn, or by being ahead by seven points and playing Wargames for its Event.

One interesting thing about the game is that it's far from perfectly symetrical. There are many US events that the US doesn't get, and vice versa. The USSR gets to go first in the Action Phases of every turn, while the US gets to go last. The USSR has a small advantage overall, especially in the first turns, and should try for an early win. The US, however, gets better events in the Late War, and had the advantage if the game goes to term.

Twilight Strategy has two detailed, annotated playthroughs on the site, which make for surprisingly entertaining reading:
#1 (Turn 10 win by USA from Wargames)
#2 (Turn 8 win by USSR from 20-point lead)
posted by JHarris (42 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
My only complaint about Twilight Struggle is the round counter, which is annoyingly fiddly, but that's a small thing. The game is just a great simulation of the Cold War. There's tension every turn. Each card you play must be carefully considered. After your opponent makes a move, paranoia grips you. Why did he make that move? What's he planning? In fact your opponent will be thinking exactly the same about your move, reacting to you as much as you're reacting to him. If that's not great storytelling, I don't know what is.

Along with Tigris & Euphrates and Puzzle Strike, it's one of my favourite modern board games.
posted by smorange at 4:37 AM on March 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Between this game and Diplomacy, which should I learn to play first? I understand they play quite differently and are about different subjects, I'm just trying to pick one to start with.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:05 AM on March 24, 2013

Between this game and Diplomacy, which should I learn to play first?

I haven't played this one, but Diplomacy should only be played with people you do not anticipate keeping as friends.
posted by Malor at 5:55 AM on March 24, 2013 [22 favorites]

I'd somehow never heard of this, but it's right up my alley. Thanks for posting!
posted by xbonesgt at 6:30 AM on March 24, 2013

Between this game and Diplomacy, which should I learn to play first?

I haven't played diplomacy, but i just finished up a game of twilight struggle. Twilight struggle is fun, but there are a few issues that keep it from being one of my favourite games. Most important is the length of the game. You really need 3 or 4 hours to finish up a game (at least, that's how long it's taken me), and that's a bit of a problem for me. This is compounded by the fact that, IMO, you need to know all of the cards well to really play a deep strategy (i.e. need to know that DeGaulle is around if USA is investing in France, etc). So it feels like a game that needs a big investment to really pay off. In addition, there's a fair amount of randomness in both dice rolls and card dealing, which is a little off-putting in a strategy game of this length and depth. I find the asymmetry to be fun though.

On the plus side, twilight struggle has, for me, the strongest integration of theme i've ever seen in a board game, and was worth me playing once just to read the historical text associated with the cards. It's hard to over-emphasise just how right it feels to play muslim revolution, and have the USSR grab a bunch of control in the middle east, and so on.

Also, describing the game as tense is right-on for me. You spend a lot of your time trying to neutralise crises brought on by the event cards played by both you and your opponent, and there always seems to be a round or two where you seem to do nothing but go backward.

So my summary is to play twilight struggle if you want a very deep strategy game, and aren't afraid to spend time playing it. In contrast to Malor's comment above, i don't think there's much contention in the average game of TS. The two players are opponents, and everything is fair game.
posted by nml at 6:32 AM on March 24, 2013

One of the many games I own and have never played. :(
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:44 AM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

My friend wanted this when he visited a few years ago and picked it up at the game store in town, we proceeded to take about 8 hours between reading the rules, playing and an eating break. He loved the Kitchen Debates card, he so wanted to use it on me, and I think he did. I was curious before then, but definitely had to get it afterwards. I've only played it once since, but I already put it at my #1 on BGG. I've never played Diplomacy, so I can't say how it is with that, plus - Diplomacy is more for multiplayer, no? and TS is really only for 2. So it's win win! I love the tug-of-war approach with TS.

What I like most is that I'm kinda sorta playing a wargame, but yet, not nearly as grognardy as many/most are. I'm more of a moderate-casual type player (Belfort and First Sparks are probably the most fiddly game I have, 7 Wonders is pretty easy once you know all the stuff, but I'd say it's moderate to learn)... So, TS is right up my alley, because I don't often get to try wargames since they're a bit deeper than I care to play with (nor any of my friends).

posted by symbioid at 6:54 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always wanted to try it, but you really need to have a hardcore circle to play it and are into this style of high-intensity/big-drama gameplay. Unfortunately, Dominion is about as intense as we get.
posted by Think_Long at 6:57 AM on March 24, 2013

Because this post is obviously a little thin...

Twilight Struggle and Card-Driven Historicity

I for one am glad that tricking your opponent into starting a nuclear war was not usually considered a "win" scenario during the real cold war.
posted by Winnemac at 7:43 AM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I might have to check this one out, if for no other reason than that I would finally get a chance to see something in our house with the word twilight on it that doesn't suck.
posted by Rykey at 7:45 AM on March 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

TS is OK, but I will say to my dying day that the cards you are dealt determine your fate more than how you play the cards you are dealt. Other CDGs are better.
posted by Windopaene at 9:27 AM on March 24, 2013

How many points do I get for punching a sparkly vampire in the balls?
posted by Dr. Zira at 10:11 AM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I used to play a game like this on my 1984 Mac 1... I think it was called Defcon 4 or 5 or something? Remarkably similar. I never won, and most often got annoyed and instigated nuclear war. I think you have a natural advantage if you're willing to go all SACPOP on the other player's maps.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:47 AM on March 24, 2013

I might have to check this one out, if for no other reason than that I would finally get a chance to see something in our house with the word twilight on it that doesn't suck.

Note to self: Put together a post on Twilight Imperium.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:06 AM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've wanted to play this since I heard of its release. I don't have a group of friends from which I could draw opponents, so I've left it on a list of things to do when my life is better sorted. The theme intrigues me: My father commanded a tank on the East German border, and he still calls his political bugbears communists.

Nthing the general sentiment about Diplomacy. It's a great game, but prepare whomever you play with for the bad feelings it generates. I can't play it. I've tried an online version, but it distracted me whenever I left my computer, and the games took too long. I would make a terrible move and quit in despair, having failed my allies, my enemies, and myself.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:46 AM on March 24, 2013

Also, I love fourth-wall-breaking stuff like Kitchen Debates.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:50 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

TS is OK, but I will say to my dying day that the cards you are dealt determine your fate more than how you play the cards you are dealt.

From what I've seen this is recognized, but the law of averages smooths it out a bit, plus to a limited extent it's better for you to draw enemy events, because you can see them coming and space them, put them off, or take measures to neutralize their effects, and you still get ops out of it. Plus, if your hand is full of enemy events, it's likely that he's got an above-average number of yours, only that's harder to see because the opposing hand is hidden information.
posted by JHarris at 11:51 AM on March 24, 2013

One of the many games I own and have never played. :(

Yeah, I'm somewhat lucky in that I've got a weekly gaming group right now. But because it's a group TS isn't really suitable to it, because it's two-player only. It's nice though.
posted by JHarris at 11:55 AM on March 24, 2013

Note to self: Put together a post on Twilight Imperium.

Failing that, there's always this.
posted by Rykey at 12:04 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes. It is legitimate to win the game by causing your opponent to start a nuclear war. I interpret that as either meaning:

1. The resulting conflagration not being world-ending, and the surviving world is so shocked at what happened that the causing side is shunned and immediately loses all influence.
2. The ghosts of one side going "nyaah nyaah nyaah" to the other as they float on towards the afterlife. It still fits with the in-hindsight ridiculous logic of the times.

In fact, in the Designer's Notes for Twilight Struggle in the rulebook, they mention that they were specifically inspired by Chris Crawford's Balance of Power, and they explicitly mention that screen. It might make for an interesting game where if nuclear war starts BOTH players lose, so they have to cooperate to an extent to prevent it while also doing whatever they can short of it to further their interests, but it wouldn't be Twilight Struggle.
posted by JHarris at 12:51 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

My only complaint about Twilight Struggle is the round counter, which is annoyingly fiddly, but that's a small thing.

I can agree with this, both times I've played so far we constantly forget to advance the counter after cards are played, and so it's easy to lose track of how many we should have played or have left to go, and it doesn't help that starting with turn four you're both drawing and playing an extra card each round, and that the counter goes up to 8 even though an AR8 is exceptional.
posted by JHarris at 12:57 PM on March 24, 2013

Also, regarding my comment-before-last, if there were three end states, You Win, He Wins, and Neither Wins, according to board game logic "Neither Wins" is the same thing as Draw, which is a preferable state compared to He Wins. So, at the end the side who's behind would have an incentive to start a war, unless some design insight could overcome that, such an a substantial omnipresent random come-from-behind factor, which is problematic for other reasons (see: Mario Kart).
posted by JHarris at 1:03 PM on March 24, 2013

Reading the first couple of the pages of the rules Bwithh, there are some similarities: it's got a map with spaces with Stability numbers and a two-sided, 20-point victory track between the Communist and the Democrat. The board looks a bit similar, with the box representing a region resembling a TS nation's box. It also has one of the designers of TS on board. It looks interesting, at least on the face of it.
posted by JHarris at 2:37 PM on March 24, 2013

Wow... the further I read, the more it starts to look a lot like Twilight Struggle, down to the card-based system where you have your own and enemy events, the use of influence (here named "support") the use of Ops, and so on. It has an analogue for the Space Race track too, but it doesn't have a version of DEFCON. It's interesting, thanks for pointing me to it.
posted by JHarris at 2:57 PM on March 24, 2013

Been meaning to play this.
Nice post!
posted by doctornemo at 3:36 PM on March 24, 2013

Sigh, I've really gotta proofread posts more before I hit the fatal button:

There are many US events that the US doesn't get

The second US should be USSR. The intent was to explain that the two sides' cards are overall quite different from each other, not mirror images. There are a few other typos as well. Sigh.
posted by JHarris at 4:19 PM on March 24, 2013

I saw "Twilight S-" in the lede, saw it was a JHarris post, and dared to hope for ponies.

I'll kick this by my gaming group.
posted by mikurski at 5:03 PM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've already made the pony joke. Actually, I made it months ago, search for Twilight Sparkle Struggle.

If I had to choose between the two of them though, yeah, this.
posted by JHarris at 5:33 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Joshua: Shall we play a game?
David Lightman: Oh!
Jennifer: [giggles] I think it missed him.
David Lightman: Yeah. Weird isn't it?
Jennifer: Yeah.
David Lightman: [typing] Love to. How about Global Thermonuclear War?
Joshua: Wouldn't you prefer a nice game of chess?
[Jennifer laughs]
David Lightman: [typing] Later. Let's play Global Thermonuclear War.
Joshua: Fine.
posted by pashdown at 5:54 PM on March 24, 2013

Wow... the further I read, the more it starts to look a lot like Twilight Struggle, down to the card-based system where you have your own and enemy events, the use of influence (here named "support") the use of Ops, and so on. It has an analogue for the Space Race track too, but it doesn't have a version of DEFCON. It's interesting, thanks for pointing me to it.

1989 is frankly an improvement on TS in many ways. The deck self-destructs faster because more events are one-shots, so repeating use of powerful cards isn't an issue, and the game is better balanced than TS (where the USSR has a minor but distinct advantage - experienced TS players account for this by bidding victory points for the right to play the USSR). More importantly, the power struggle subgame that determines victory in the scoring rounds means that neither side is explicitly hamstrung by bad cardplay in the main round.

It's a better game, but the inherent conservatism of the boardgaming community means that TS still gets the plaudits.
posted by mightygodking at 6:01 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I thought they bid spotted additional starting U.S. European influence for the right to play USSR, which seems a more organic and interesting way to give a side an advantage, but I'll admit that while I've read a lot on the game in the past few weeks, I am no expert.

As for whether TS ranks higher than 1989 due to conservatism, well, 1989 came out in 2011, it's a much newer game. This thread is the first I'd heard of it, for instance. If only I had the time and money to really dive into board gaming, but no, society has decided I'm better off delivering pizzas, BAH.
posted by JHarris at 6:28 PM on March 24, 2013

It's also much more fun if you put on a good Cold War soundtrack. Since the game lasts about four hours you can make the progression of the game sync up with each decade's music.

And don't forget the beer (Czech Pils and American Ale, preferably).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:33 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hey now Rustic Etruscan, that's pretty cool right there! Thanks!
posted by JHarris at 9:50 PM on March 24, 2013

Actually Spotify has some Twilight Struggle playlists if you search.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:31 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bwithh: "Oh what would be a good playlist?"
Here's a good place to start looking for inspiration. And here. And here.
posted by brokkr at 2:55 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Twilight Struggle soundtracks are a thing that's weirdly awesome enough that, if I had known about it before I started making this post, the post might have ended up being about them entirely.
posted by JHarris at 4:23 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is one of those games that I theoretically love to play, but the stars only align every few years to make it possible. When I get old, I'm going start a retirement community for gamers. We'll all sit around and play great games every day. Actually, we'll probably sit around and argue about which game to play, but that's a different problem...
posted by diogenes at 6:39 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

PBEM is great, also for Twilight Struggle. You don't even need to own the game, as long as your opponent does (and yes, this is obviously an honour system). If you'd like to try it out, post a thread on BGG asking for someone willing to show a rookie the ropes.
Windopaene: "I will say to my dying day that the cards you are dealt determine your fate more than how you play the cards you are dealt."
Then how come the same people consistently end up at the top of the tournaments and ladders running? Are they better at being dealt cards or what?

Twilight Struggle is in my opinion the slickest and quickest playing two-player CDG out there. There are some others I like better for theme, but they either have pretty big flaws or take 8 hours to play instead of two.

If you have enough people around for a game of Diplomacy, I'd much much rather play Here I Stand. It is hands down the best 6-player game I've ever played, with rich opportunities for diplomacy and backstabbing.
posted by brokkr at 7:29 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would love to play something like this with friends, but I learned the hard way that there's a certain limit of complexity friends are willing to face with board games. I bought Axis and Allies a few years back and my friends were immediately turned off by the rules and the time necessary to set up the board.

Years later, I still have the same problem. I used to go to a Meetup for nerdy people and every time they had a game night they either ended up playing Apples to Apples (and now people are trying to be "edgy" with Cards Against Humanity) or some variant of Munchkin. And I hate Munchkin.
posted by FJT at 12:09 AM on March 29, 2013

I echo your annoyance with Apples, CAH and Munchkin. Munchkin can be fun once in a while, but not frequently. I am not the kind of person Cards Against Humanity was made for, and Apples is not particularly deep. If those are the games being pulled out every time then I can only assume the meetup wasn't as nerdy as they thought.

There are well-known gateway games for such groups, Catan and Ticket to Ride chief among them. I personally prefer to use Puerto Rico, since it has very deep strategy yet it's really not that complicated, and it's always nice to see the light dawn in people's eyes when they realize that this game in which you can't directly affect your opponents is in fact a lot more vicious than it first appears. (If you're in a game with newbies, you can trigger this moment yourself with a single timely choice of the Captain phase.)

TS isn't really *that* bad. The chief difficulty is how different it is; although it's one of the less complex card-driven strategy games of its type, its use of the cards, less as a hand of weapons to use against your opponent and more as a roster of upcoming events you only have limited influence over, is alien to many players. You might be able to convince someone to play it by citing its (largely illusory) similarity to Risk, and it also helps that it's two players only, meaning it can be pulled out at times where there's only one other interested player.

My suggestion for teaching it:
- First, remind them that they aren't expected to remember all of this now, that you're explaining the most important points now to serve as a framework, to help him take a crack at understanding it, and to help make sense of a teaching game to follow. True understanding comes later, and when it does it'll be not through memorization of rules but just by playing.
- Then, explain the overall concept. To help them buy into the theme, which is a major part of the fun of Twilight Struggle.
- From there, discuss influence and control, demonstrating with the counters what is needed to control a country. Because almost everything in the game involves getting and keeping control of nations.
- Then, the nature of scoring: Battleground States are most important, other states less so. To help them see what the ultimate aim of the game is.
- Then, find an example of a US, a USSR, and a neutral card in the deck. Show them the difference between them, the Ops number, and the Event text.
- This is a good point to give them the turn overview. Tell them each turn they'll have a hand of cards, and they must play almost all of them. When you play your own side's cards, or neutral ones, you get the Ops OR the Event, but when you play the other side's, you get the Ops AND he gets the Event. Some cards are good and some are bad; mostly you try to play them in an order that limits the bad parts and gives you the most advantage of the good parts.
- Next: what you can do with Influence. I'd explain buying Influence and Coups now and save Realignment rolls for the teaching game. Setting up situations on the board helps greatly with this. Especially buying Influence, since this is what you do most turns.
- We're approaching information overload now, so I'd do DEFCON next, then how to get rid of cards: hold cards and the Space Race.
- Finally, deal out a hand of eight Early War cards face up and go over them with the player, plan out loud what you would do with the cards, strategist over how to reduce the effect of the bad ones and increase the effect of the good ones. Particularly note those cards that lower DEFCON, so he'll be properly fearful of suicide.

Save the rest for a teaching game, covering:
Game start Influence Placement, Headlines, Realignment rolls, Mil Ops, The China Card, the Scoring cards (Presence, Domination and Control, explain them in the first turn), the USSR's early-game advantage, the US' late-game advantage, the hand size increase at turn 4, one-time events, the Mid- and Late War cards, and Final Scoring.

Don't forget to give them the info card that comes with the game for reference during play. Printing out a turn order summary sheet from BGG is also useful. Be sure to remind the newbie that they won't do well their first game, that this is a teaching game, and offer advice when he asks for it.

Although the USSR has the advantage, the blog Twilight Strategy mentioned in the FPP suggests that new players play the US: although they'll get steamrollered quickly, they'll see how the USSR's job is to drive the game, pushing the US with crises and forcing responses. I leave it to you to decide if that's a good idea, but if you're experienced and he's a newbie, he's not going to have much chance of success unless you pull your punches, which doesn't really do him any favors.
posted by JHarris at 1:27 AM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

McKittrick: See that sign up here? "Defcon." That indicates our current defense condition. It should read "Defcon 5," which means peace. It's still on 4 because of that little stunt you pulled. Actually, if we hadn't caught it in time, it might have gone to Defcon 1. You know what that means, David?

David Lightman: No. What does that mean?

McKittrick: World War Three.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:33 AM on March 29, 2013

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