Twilight Struggle Review

By Chris / November 3, 2017
Twilight Struggle - header

Re-enact the Cold War in this tense head-to-head strategy game.

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Platforms

Android & iOS

Game Length

60 Minutes

# of Players

1 - 2

Game Publisher

GMT Games

App Developer

@Playdek

Our Rating

Multiplayer Options
  • Cross Platform
  • Asynchronous Online Play
  • Local Pass And Play
  • Random Matchmaking

Overview

Twilight Struggle is the classic two player area control campaign game in which players act out the Cold War as the United States or Soviet Union. Many gamers know Twilight Struggle from its position atop the Board Game Geek top games list, a perch it held for years before being knocked down to its current spot at number three. Players take turns playing cards that depict Cold War events, using them to attempt to gain control over countries all across the globe and earn victory points. The player who does the best job of asserting control over the globe, without starting a nuclear war, wins the game. There are instant win, and loss, conditions, but a full game usually takes at about an hour.

There is a lot going on in Twilight Struggle. I couldn’t do it justice in the space here, instead I will attempt to outline the basic concepts.

The board for Twilight Struggle is comprised of the globe, with dozens of countries in play, each available for controlling by either side. Players are dealt a hand at the beginning of each turn from a common deck. Each card contains a Cold War event, from something general like an Olympic Games being held, to something more specific like Fidel which simulates Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. Some cards have neutral events which can be used by either side, while others have US or Soviet-specific events. Cards can be used strictly for their events, or to attempt to gain influence in specific countries around the globe, among other things. The game is split into three periods: Early War, Mid War, and Late War. Early and Late War lasts three turns, while Mid War last four. With the introduction of each new period, a new set of cards are shuffled in and may end up in either player’s hand.

The goals in Twilight Struggle are to accumulate a net of 20 victory points over your opponent, not start a nuclear war, and assert more control over the globe than your opponent. Either of the first two cases will result in the game instantly ending early. If all ten turns are played without one of those two things happening, the two sides’ level of control is scored using scoring cards (which pop up throughout the game), and whoever has the most points after this scoring wins. Victory points can be gained by playing scoring cards which essentially measure the control each player has in a specific region, although there are other avenues to VPs. The scoring cards are unique in that they must be played in the turn they are dealt or you lose the game, this gives you a few rounds to try to gain the necessary influence in the scoring region of that card to earn a net point gain over your opponent when you do play the scoring card. A simplification, but you essentially want to control as many countries as possible in the region being scored to ensure you earn a net gain in VPs.

I must reiterate that the above brief overview is woefully incomplete in explaining the depth of this game. For example, each time you play a standard card, you have five different options on how to use it. Ranging from simply using the event described to attempting a coup to trying to advance your space program, each choice having inherent advantages and disadvantages you must weigh. You also have to deal with the fact that, in most cases, if you play a card with an event your opponent can use, they will get to use it after you play the card. This provides immediate and sometimes significant benefits to them. Since cards are dealt, you can find yourself with a hand consisting mostly of cards which benefit your opponent, escaping such a tough spot can be very rewarding, or, most likely, lead to a painful defeat.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a game named as aptly as this one, “Struggle” is simply the perfect word choice here. The game is a constant struggle from start to end. There is the entire globe to try to influence and you have endless choices as to how you want to tackle the task. Early on in your Twilight Struggle career, you will probably spend the time chasing your opponent, countering their control attempts to try to keep up. As you get more experience you will understand how the three periods play out and the available cards in each, particularly when the scoring cards will show up, which will allow you to act out more advanced strategies. Compounding all of this is that many of your actions will give benefits to your opponent. Figuring out the balance of advancing your cause while trying to limit your opponent is a key component here. It is a game that demands, but also rewards, multiple plays.

One of the really great parts of this game is that, despite using a common deck between players, the game certainly isn’t symmetric. The USSR will almost always find success easier earlier in games, while the US must battle to hang in the fight in order to give themselves a shot at a Mid and Late War comeback. If you choose to play as the US exclusively early on, you may find this game maddening. Playing as the Soviet Union has its own challenges, it essentially flips the game on its head. Instead of playing a long game, just trying to survive early as you would with the US, with the USSR you want to go for the quick win using those high powered Early War Soviet cards.

This game won’t be for everyone. I was not exaggerating earlier when I said the game demands multiple plays. You have to have a solid knowledge of the cards and scoring if you want to have any chance against experienced online players. The learning curve on this is substantial. However, this was the #1 board game for a long time on BGG, so clearly there is an excellent payoff.

Barrier to Entry

Did I mention there was a lot going on in this game? A tutorial, no matter how good, was never going to have the chance to completely teach the game. Luckily, the tutorial in the app manages to come pretty close. It steps you through a full first turn and makes sure you exercise each available option for using your cards. All aspects of the game are explained, which is great. The challenge is that there is simply too much going on to have one run through be enough to hammer home all of the options. You will need to play a few games versus AI before you are comfortable with it. Also included is a rulebook and card reference which both help as a useful reference while you are learning.

Twilight Struggle - start

New game board

Twilight Struggle - menu

Main menu

Twilight Struggle - actions

Choosing a card action

Look and Feel 

The app does a fantastic job of both conveying all of the information necessary for the current game state and allowing players to choose their actions. Neither is a trivial task in this game, so it is a true compliment to say they pulled it off well. Some of the scoring tracks aren’t super obvious upon first glance, but will make sense by the end of your first game. The graphics are true to the board game. Mostly bland, but that’s fine. The menus all look good and are easy to traverse, they do a nice job of carrying the Cold War/CIA aesthetic.

Controls are handled well, playing cards can be done with a couple of clicks or drag-and-drop. One minor complaint is in the handling of certain cards which remain in play. These are represented by a small square on either side of the screen. In order to see the card you must press and hold the small square. On a tablet, this isn’t much of an issue, but on a phone it is due to a small area in which the press registers properly. One other complaint is sometimes the board will “freeze” a bit where you can’t pan around. A zoom in and back out will fix this. It’s a minor nuisance, but it is there.

Twilight Struggle remains tablet-only for iOS, but plays on both phones and tablets for Android. Playdek has reportedly been working on an iPhone version, with a rumored December 2017 release date.

Multiplayer

Online games can be played asynchronously or synchronously and can choose from a few game modes, described later. You choose the timeout which is a timer that decrements when it is your turn and never replenishes. The timeouts range from 45 minutes to 45 days, with a bunch of steps in between. Online matches uses the ELO chess rating system. Start at 1500 and raise/fall with each win/loss. Games are joined via a lobby system, I’ve never seen an empty lobby in this game. If you plan on playing Twilight Struggle frequently, you will want to do so online, thankfully the online player base is quite active.

You can choose to receive system and/or email notifications when your turn comes up. Unfortunately, the system notifications don’t seem to work. On Android, you simply don’t get notifications, at least running on the latest version of the Android OS. On iOS, there have been reported issues of the notification not properly clearing, leaving it in a state where it always makes it look like you have a turn to play. In either case, this is an annoying situation to have to reply on email notifications or frequently check the app yourself.

Single Player

In single player you can pick sides, or be assigned random sides, and play with a few different game options, just as you can in multiplayer. One is the Turn Zero expansion, described below. You can also choose to play the Chinese Civil War or Late War variants, both of which offer changes to the game.

The most notable aspect here is that single player games of Twilight Struggle are played against a single AI level. This gives raise to the most common complaint for this app: the AI is too easy. I’m not good at this game by any means, but I can still earn super quick victories against the AI at times if the cards break the right way. As an example, during one recent AI game I played I was at 14 points (remember 20 gives an instant victory) as turn 3 started. I was dealt the Asia Scoring Card so I spent a few rounds obviously gaining influence in Asia, a clear indication I had the scoring card. The AI didn’t bother to counter my influence growth and I was able to score the 6 points needed for victory. This was a cheap win as any human opponent with a game or two under their belt would understand what was going on and act. On the flip side, I don’t beat the AI every time, in fact sometimes I get soundly crushed. The end result is that it is tough to play an AI game once you have the basics down, as you might get an incredibly poorly played game which is no fun for anyone. As it stands, the AI’s practical purpose is to help teach the game to new players, not to challenge veterans.

Twilight Struggle - card

Card reference

Twilight Struggle - win

Victory!

Twilight Struggle - China

All-important China card

What Else?

The Turn Zero expansion is available as an in-app purchase. The primary change in Turn Zero is adding some additional pre-setup steps to the game which can greatly alter the starting state of the game. The expansion has proven to be a bit hit-or-miss for fans of the original game. If the rolls go the wrong way, it could lead to an even more advantageous starting position for the USSR. Of course, the opposite is true as well, but these powerful cards can put one side tremendously behind from the start which can understandably diminish the fun of the game.

The game keeps basic stats for you in both online and offline games. Your record overall and as each side. There are a slew of achievements to chase for the completionists out there.

The Wrap Up

Twilight Struggle is a truly unique game. It is a genuine struggle each time you play. A significant portion of your actions in this game are you trying to cause yourself as little pain as possible. You must weigh accomplishing what you want to achieve with what some of these cards will allow your opponent to achieve. Many games have this mechanic, but not to this degree. The games are long and you have to play a handful of times before starting to form a strategy. All of this is to say, Twilight Struggle, perhaps more than any other app we’ve reviewed, is not going to be for everybody.

However, if it is for you, you can rest assured you’re getting a quality implementation with this app. The active online community is the reason to buy this app, as it will provide endless replayability. There are a couple of UI issues, but they are minor and can be easily worked around, the system notification issues loom larger in our book. The other major complaint is lack of AI levels and lack of any added features. There is no campaign or challenge mode, for example. In the end, that’s just fine given the depth of the game, but it holds the app back ever so slightly compared to some others.

Despite a few blemishes, Twilight Struggle delivers a strong port of the classic game.  The online play will keep fans entertained for as long as they'd like.

What we like


- A well implemented port, runs well with easy to use controls

- Strong online player base

- A fascinatingly deep game with a bit of a history lesson thrown in

What we don't like


- AI is lacking, you have to play online to get longevity from the app

- A few bugs with notifications and some controls


- App doesn't add any unique play modes


Our Rating

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