Sunday, March 11, 2007

Life's Too Short to Play Twilight Anything (Again)

Following my ambition to play more of the BGG Top 50, CyberKev and I sat down yesterday afternoon to play Twilight Struggle. I hadn't really heard much about it before, and had no particular prejudice against, but I was worried by the play time listed at 3 hours. Due to the rest of my life crowding in on us, we only had 4.5 hours available to play. I took the USSR and CyberKev took the USA.

I'd read the rules on BGG so I sort of knew what was going on. The big mistake I made was misunderstanding about playing scoring cards. I thought the rule that says scoring cards must be played meant that scoring cards took effect at the end of the turn even if you hadn't played them. That's not true - you must use one of your actions to play them. So when I found myself with 2 scoring cards in my first hand, I wasn't entirely satisifed. In the first turn we scored 3 regions despite having not much time to do anything in them.

I also struggled with the Space Race. I hate hate HATE HATE HATE HATE the mechanism where you roll a d6 to see if something works for you. You spend your card on the Space Race and if you roll right you can advance. If you don't, you get nothing. What, are we playing Talisman here? That's not a mechanism for a proper game! It's especially bad because you can't do anything to influence the result of the roll. In any game where the rule is "if you roll 1-3 on d6 you succeed, otherwise you fail" what's going to happen is that one player is going to succeed all the time and the other player is going to fail all the time. Game designers: don't do that!

Games which use d6 rolls properly include Igel Argern where you can space out your hedgehogs so as to take advantage of a wide variety of rolls; D&D where you roll fistfuls of the things so the numbers even out; and BattleLore where even if you roll Lore which doesn't kill anything, you still get some stuff. Talisman is the chief sucker paramount with regard to d6 rolls, where depending on the result you will become rich or totally screwed. Way too random for my tastes, and I was amazed to find such a mechanic in such a highly rated game.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yeah... the Cold War. So CyberKev started off really strong in Europe and took a commanding lead on points. He maintained his lead for several turns until I realised the value of military action and started coups in a few places. He allowed me to make up some points in mil ops, and some lucky play by me got me into the lead.

Let me share my thoughts on coups and realignment. By placing influence points you can gain up to 4 influence. A coup can potentially gain you 8 influence, and I can't remember the numbers for realignment but it can be handy. Therefore placing influence is often not the best option, and I think for the first few turns we didn't really appreciate that. Anyway, back to the game.

I really like the event cards - they're well designed. I don't like how most turns I had a fistful of American cards that I needed to try not to play - that caused a lot of anguish, especially as the Space Race was so clearly a waste of my resources. When I did have Soviet cards I wanted to play them for events AND for points, so there was a lot to think about there.

We found that the game involved a lot of racing around to different continents when we figured out that scoring was going to happen there. Bluffing might work, but I wouldn't depend on it. I felt a bit rushed - I was always trying to win one more battleground country so I could dominate, whilst making sure CyberKev didn't have all the battleground countries somewhere else. The other continents simply didn't exist for that turn. That felt strange. Also, I didn't much like the idea of battleground countries. Sure, I presume they were countries where the Cold War was contested particularly fiercely, but we're recreating history here - I would have preferred the option to choose our own battlegrounds.

After 6 rounds I lead by one point. At that point we'd been at the game for 4.5 hours, and it looked like we needed another 3 hours to finish. In my opinion, 7.5 hours is way too long for any game except cricket. For that reason alone I will never play Twilight Struggle again. Although the game implemented its theme very very well, it didn't really excite me. Yes, I agree, it's a decent game, but it's not a game for me.

So who won? Well I asked CyberKev to do a final scoring after I left because although I was ahead on the VP track I didn't feel like I was doing so well. Indeed, the USA was 10 points ahead after the final scoring after Turn 6. Hmm... if it had been much worse than that I think a thermonuclear war would have looked good. Last I heard Mrs CyberKev was battling on in my place, and the war continues...


ekted said...

The first time I played it took over 7 hours, and I felt sort of like you did, but for different reasons. I didn't mind the Space Race or the score cards. I disliked the events and their interactions; they put a huge kink in an otherwise elegant system.

After playing a second 4-hour game, it improved quite a bit for me.

Ken Lee said...

I've played the game on 5 seperate occasions now, and it has never lasted more than 2.5hrs for me. Of course, I always get squashed, but I'm sure that doesn't have anything to do with it... :P

I enjoy this game very much, because of how the events/ops points are handled. It leads to alot of difficult decisions, and forces one to make tough choices. I also like how one is forced to play another's event, as it helps to simulate a situation whereby one does not have control in, and may as well make the best of it. Having the choice, when that happens, to decide whether to have the event occur first, or to spend the ops points first adds to the game, I feel.

I also like the scoring cards as it gives me a goal to go for within the turn. And though you are right that some continents are ignored at times, I find that it doesn't feel odd for me. I rationlise that the spread of communism didn't quite follow the domino theory, and pockets of it sprung up all over the place at different points in time.

All in all, this is a game that I do enjoy very much, and would happily play.

Ryan Walberg said...

I'm with you here, John. Twilight Struggle is the most overrated game I've ever had the misfortune of playing.

Kevin S. O'Brien said...

The rest of the story: Mrs. Cyberkev took over and things got worse (or, more likely, the seeds of destruction inherent in Russia's form of Communism began to bear fruit). By the end of Turn 8, the USA was at 10 VP and still strongly positioned on the map. I'm not convinced Mrs. Cyberkev was playing badly - at least, I didn't identify any obvious mistakes - though she was less fond of coups than you. However, she was more technologically successful and easily caught up to my substantial lead on the Space Race.

On Turn 9, I drew "Wargames," which allows a player to end the game immediately (and with no additional final scoring) if DEFCON is at 2 and the player is willing to give his opponent 6 VPs. As I was 10 VPs ahead, I rapidly did three coups in battleground countries and then played Wargames.

That is, I used my superior position in the world to turn up the heat and then I threatened you with nuclear annihilation...and you blinked. What else, after all, could you have done?

But, you ended up ahead in the Space Race! Neither one of us got a man to the moon, but the USSR was a space ahead of the USA at the end of the game - and thus one space away from the 4 VPs that would have made the game a draw.

(I actually was not worried about Final Scoring, as I was very strongly positioned. But it seemed appropriate to grab the victory when I could, as well as put the USSR out of its lingering misery.)

I actually enjoyed the game quite a bit and would be happy to play it again (as long as I could find the time).

You wrote: "In my opinion, 7.5 hours is way too long for any game except cricket."

I chuckle. Isn't it funny how our environment shapes us? You don't like long games, but if your mind were to actually connect that thought to cricket, it would be challenging All That Is Good, Right, And Proper. So you have to allow yourself the exception.