Thursday, January 05, 2006

Twilight Struggle - The First FTF Game

In my last post, I outlined some of my concerns and first impressions of the new GMT CDG, Twilight Struggle. I had a few concerns that I enumerated, but wanted to wait for a game to really review this title.

In a word, this game rocks.

OK, that was three. Sue me.

Chuck got to my place around 6pm, but since everyone needed to eat a little food before tottering on the brink of nuclear annihilation, we didn't get started until closer to 6:15pm. Chuck gave me the Soviets, saying that he felt they had a little edge in the early game. By 9:30pm, we had finished an entire 10-turn game, which surprised both of us (Chuck thought it would be more like 5 hours based on his earlier play with Dave). From a time perspective, the game was exactly right - right around 3 hours, perfect for a weeknight game.

The components held up well. I'm still concerned about the cards, but they didn't feel as flimsy as I was worried about. We only had four reshuffles, which is pretty good considering two are mandated. At game end, we had worked through the very last card in the deck, so every Late War card had a shot at getting played. The counter mix might have added some more of the 3/4 value influence chits and taken away some of the 1/2 chits, as we never came close to getting all of the smallest counters on the board. Perhaps GMT will add some to the next C3i magazine, although to be honest this wasn't a huge issue. The map was fine, we didn't run into any problems that we noticed with the connection lines, which in some places are a little hard to parse. What was a problem was trying to scan the board to see at a glance who was dominating in a given region. While I think an offboard track would be the best idea (and a good use of those extra 1/2 chits), you can also get by with putting an appropriate influence chit in the region to keep track of how many you control (although this exacerbates the counter mix problem). I will put together a simple track and put it up on the 'Geek in the near future, unless someone else does this before me.

As far as rules/card text went, I was quite impressed. This is usually where CDGs fall down, as adding errata to the cards is pretty much not going to happen with my set, even with card holders. However, we didn't run into any serious problems, although we did have two questions. As for the rules, I believe we looked in the rulebook twice. Wow. Here are the questions we had:

1) If a card says "attack," does this count as a coup? We said "no," but a definitive answer would be good.

2) If you play a card for ops which has an event that gives your opponent OPs, do they get to use them? This only came up once for us (the CIA card, although there are others), so it was a question of one extra OP for Chuck, and the game wasn't that close. We answered this "no" during the game (at Chuck's insistence, I was willing to give him the OP), but I think it should be "yes".

And that, my friends, was that. Think of the last time you played a wargame for the first time with a grand total of four questions. Astonishing.

And to really mess with your head, the game was fun. Fun, fun, fun. Even up to the final scoring, it seemed like it would be pretty close, although I went from around 4 points at the start of the final turn to 17 after the final scoring, so knowing how many points can be scored in the Americas and Africa (where I cleaned up, we essentially washed in the Mideast, Europe, and Asia). It certainly felt closer to me.

As for the flow, it was awesome. Quick play, ample opportunity for screwage, and even better was having to figure out how to play your opponent's cards in the least damaging (to you) way. I was concerned about the potential for bad draws at critical times (like turn 3 and 7, just before the extra cards get added in). In fact, this happened to me on turn 3, when I drew one card I could play as an event for me, the rest were all US only, meaning that Chuck got the Marshall Plan, NATO, and a bunch of other goodies essentially for free. A few turns later, I had none of Chuck's card, and got to keep one of my own cards! Sweet!

The Space Race was the only element that didn't feel like it really fit in, even though Chuck scored an extra 8 points out of it and on the one turn he got to react to my headline (when I played S American scoring), he was able to wipe out any points for me while keeping his own - an 8 point swing! However, having the chance to dump off a junk card is really critical, as that allows you to have two cards in hand that you won't have to play for your opponent's benefit.

On the other hand, the military track forced us to attempt coups to get our numbers up high enough to avoid VP losses. I think Chuck lost one VP all game, although I don't think that this game is quite as bad as Paths of Glory where a single VP loss because of a brain fart can kill you at game end. It's one more thing to think about, although in a game where we flirted with MAD at Defcon 2 almost the entire game, it does tend to protect you, and if there are no non-battleground candidates outside of Eur/Mid/Asia (no coups if you're at Def2), you can cause or receive screwage. This was an elegant mechanism that had enough interactions to make it important, but without much cost to complexity.

Sure, Cooley's Law applies, and I did win handily as the Soviets. Chuck thinks that there may be a balance problem, although it will take a few more playings (and there will be more playings, I'm already predicting that this will be the most-played release from GMT this year) to know for sure. And even if there is, you simply bid VP for side. How easy can that be?

For a freshman design from Ananda Gupta, this one is an excellent start. While I think that it may be a pretty loose simulation, it is a fantastic game for anyone looking for a longer 2-player historical game that doesn't require remembering 20 pages of rules and chrome. This is a home run for GMT, and I think it has the potential to actually grow the hobby, not something you hear much in an age where publishers almost never put out a wargame at this complexity level.

I'll even go so far to say that this is my favorite CDG since Hannibal, and perhaps, just perhaps, it's the best yet.

I'll stop gushing now. Pick this one up and give it a shot, you'll be glad you did.


dave said...

I pretty much agree with everything except the "possibly better than Hannibal" part.

To address the balance issue, maybe Chuck should play the Soviets the next couple of matches. ;->

We attempted 0 realignments in our match. How often did you guys use that?

Dug said...

We did only one realignment attempt. However, these will become much more important if you play with the correct rule about Domination - you need majorities in both overall states and battleground states. Since you can't coup a battleground state at Defcon 2, it makes more sense to use realignment when you have a lot of control in neighbors than spending 2 OPs for one influence placed (assuming you even can). Note that at Defcon 2, you can't even do this in the eastern hemisphere other than Africa.

BTW, the problem is with the reference card, not the rulebook. I only caught this after checking the errata on the 'Geek, see my latest post on the subject for more info.

dave said...

"Since you can't coup a battleground state at Defcon 2, it makes more sense to use realignment [...]"

Defcon also limits your ability to take Realignment actions (e.g., at Defcon 4, you can attempt neither a coup or a realignment in Europe). Perhaps I misunderstand you here...

Dug said...

Yeah, I figured I wasn't clear enough.

At Defcon 2, you can't realign or coup anywhere in Eur/ME/Asia, and you can't coup in any battleground state in SAm/CAm/Africa. However, you can realign in battleground states in SAm/CAm/Africa. Since battleground states are more important with the correct rule, I'd see this happening much more in the mid and late game, since this is when those regions score.

Why realign? If you have a scoring card (or think your opponent might have one), better to take out control of a critical battleground state. Even more important if you can't place influence there yourself if you aren't adjacent.

I don't know that it would happen a lot, but it does give you an extra strategic choice in a fairly small set of circumstances.