Thursday, January 05, 2006

Twilight Struggle - OOTB and First Play

I'm a big fan of CDG wargames in all stripes, from the multiplayer games like Successors and Sword of Rome to the political control games like Hannibal to the military ops games like Barbarossa to Berlin. As such, I was very excited that a CDG focused on the Cold War - events that took place in my lifetime! Yay! What has been a surprise is that Twilight Struggle is almost exclusively about political control. In fact, other than a Space Race track, that's really all there is. Think Hannibal with no armies or SP, but with varying amounts of control markers needed to control various spaces. Also, think of essentially random scoring of various regions of the board instead of on a turn by turn basis. That's TS.

There are other differences - it is very difficult to avoid events getting played. Like Hannibal, the cards are all in one big deck, with some cards playable by the Sovs, some by the US, and some by either. Unlike Hannibal, the cards come into play in stages, although in this game the interval is set (Mid-War cards come into play on turn 4, regardless of player actions). What is new in this game is that when you play a card that "belongs" to your opponent for Operations (for example, the US playing a card with a red star), you must execute the event as well. The only exception is if you use the card for the Space Race, and that's effectively limited to one card per turn.

In a sense, this is a bit of an advantage. For example, if you hold a "scoring card" (these must be played during a turn, much like the Declaration of Independence in WtP), you cannot hold it in your hand into the next turn. You cannot use it for the Space Race. You must play it. However, if you also have a card that will benefit the Soviets in Eastern Europe, you can sequence the card play so that you first score Europe, then help out the Soviets later on. It is also possible to hold a card long enough to prevent the event ever happening if there is another card that prohibits it. Similarly, if you were the US and drew both Warsaw Pact and NATO (the former is a prerequisite for the latter), you can control the sequencing to allow the play.

However, it can also go against you. If you as the US draw nothing but Sov cards in turn 1, you know that there is enough time to get at least all of the Early War cards out before turn 4, but if you get the bad draw instead on turn 3, you will have a deck going forward that will have the remaining US cards that weren't drawn on turn 3, but mixed in with a fairly large Mid-War deck that dilutes the chances of an equivalent swing back in a soon-to-happen turn. I believe that this is why discards aren't mixed back into the deck when a new deck is added, to minimize this damage. Still, if you get the wrong cards at a critical moment, you could be in real trouble. While I can't say for sure yet, this setup makes it less valuable to play your own events as there is every chance that next time your opponent will be forced to do so for you. This is in direct opposition to the usual state of affairs in a CDG, as usually you have to decide whether or not to play the event or the OPs, whereas now you will always play OPs unless the event is critical (getting you into a region where you don't have much presence, for example).

As for components, this is something of a mixed bag. The map is of the new "heavy" stock that I'm coming to really like. Paper maps are great, but they aren't intended to be folded and refolded over time. With a single-sided map, you can at least fix tears by taping the back, but if the map is double-sided there isn't really any good solution. With anything I purchased before 1997, I used to laminate the maps to prevent too much wear and tear, but it also makes them effectively untransportable, and if something went wrong with the lamination, you got to buy a new map (this happened to several XTR game maps, and the printing house refused to take responsibility for the damage). Which is just a long way of saying that having a map that will fold repeatedly without significant damage is a good thing.

The rules are very short, and printed on good-quality paper. The actual rules only take 8 pages, the rest is listings of what the events represent (a welcome addition) and a full-game example of play! There are two player aid cards that outline all of the rules you need to know, plus what cards are in which decks. The actual events aren't listed, but you do have a decent sense of the relative strength and ownership of every card. These cards are also printed on good-quality cardstock that will put up with a decent amount of abuse.

What does worry me is the poor quality of the cardstock used for the cards. I'm really wishing that I had an extra 104 card sleeves laying around to put these in before I ever play it, but alas, the closest I can get with any of my extras laying around is about 75. I've already had a bit of near-damage to one card just in shuffling, which strikes me as disappointing. If you've seen Hasbro/AH's reprint of History of the World and the card quality, these are pretty close to that bad.

There are also two smallish dice that will be perfectly serviceable. They are in different colors for each side, although the only time both dice are rolled is when you try to remove your opponent's influence markers.

That's it for the OOTB assessment, now for reports on the first two playings, one solitaire to make sure I had a good grip on the rules as Chuck has already played a game.

The solitaire outing, which is a bit tricky because it's very handy to know what your opponent holds in hand, not to mention that some cards actually require players to reveal them, was through turn three. I forgot several things immediately: having to do coups and events in order to qualify for Military Operations, which isn't that hard. One good coup is usually enough to get you set up, even less if there's a lot of brinksmanship going on around the Defcon Level. I completely forgot about the technique where you roll to remove your opponent's influence as well, although it seems that in most cases it would be better to place your own if you can rather than try to knock down your opponents unless you don't have any influence in the immediate area. Otherwise, things seemed to go well. Some things I noted:

o It is important to preserve at least some presence in an area. In my solo game, the US lost all of it's influence in the MidEast, and they had no influence any closer than Thailand and Italy. In the absence of an event that allows you to place influence in specific places, you can only generate influence through coups, which are a bit expensive and first has to remove your opponent's influence first. In a country that has stability 2 and 2 of your opponent's influence, for example, a 3 OPs card would require a dr of 5 to remove all of the opponent's influence, a 6 to get even one of yours on the board. Countries with a stability of 1 would be a bit easier, but that goes for your opponent getting it back as well. An effective pissing contest would result in no improvement at all for you.

o Be aware of what events affect specific countries. For example, Israel, the Koreas, Japan, Cuba, India/Pakistan, Romania, Vietnam, and pretty much everything in Europe can be be screwed for one side or the other with a single event card, often times played by the person it screws. And that's just in Early War!

o Remembering some of the effects of events can be a bit tricky, especially if there is no game marker to remind you. These events typically add or subtract one from all of your OPs numbers, but there is no counter or other reminder other than the card itself. I don't know about you, but if I put a card somewhere away from the cards in play, I typically forget it's there which is bad when it comes time to reshuffle (assuming it isn't discarded after play as an event). Considering that there are at least four counters in the mix that are useless (proof of purchase?!? What about actually owning the game?), I can't understand why a simple +1/-1 OPs counter for each side couldn't have been included. As a developer, I would be trying to figure out how best to use those four counters rather than putting in unusable counters...

o I also forgot that the Space Race gains you VP on occasion, as well as temporary advantages, depending upon where you are on the track. It's not just for dumping your opponent's events!

Otherwise, the game is very clean. One exception is how you control a country. Rather than two convoluted conditions you have to meet, it's just as easy to think of it as having as many points as the stability of the country plus your opponent's influence. Hit that number, and you have your very own banana republic.

That's about it for the solo game. What was strange was that the map was going quite well for the Soviets, but for much of the time the score was tilted towards the US. When regions get scored is really crucial, and I think this will drive activity in general. Early on, only Europe, the Mideast, and Asia score, but later on the map effectively doubles, and SE Asia gets it's own one-time scoring card. Knowing what you have to work for (and bluffing your opponent into thinking that you have a card for a different area) will be a central focus of the game. I'm also a bit concerned that you may get "stuck" into playing a card that ends up sending the planet into nuclear war, which (sadly) loses the game only for you. As though someone's coming out a winner in anything other than name in that situation.

This post has gone on long enough, so I'll incorporate the actual play session into a later posting.

No comments: