Could You Win the Cold War?

Image: Nixon and Brezhnev. White House photo, public domain.

One of the best strategy games ever made puts players at the heart of the U.S.-Soviet struggle.

Perhaps it's wrong to be nostalgic for thermonuclear annihilation, but there are times when I miss the Cold War. Yes, it was a nerve-wracking time when life on Earth hovered thirty minutes away from near-extinction, and ordinary Americans and Russians went about their lives knowing that the Bomb could suddenly end them.

But at least the Cold War was predictable. It may have been the cold predictability of Mutual Assured Destruction, and stupidity and recklessness could have triggered Armageddon by mistake, yet we all knew that neither side would deliberately commit suicide. "Better dead than Red," and "We will bury you," vowed the antagonists, but that didn't stop Nixon from meeting with Brezhnev or Reagan with Gorbachev.

That predictability often led the Cold War to be compared to chess, or the Cuban Missile Crisis to poker. So it's fitting that someone has made a board game out the Cold War, and one that is regarded as one of the best strategy games ever made. Twilight Struggle puts two players into the shoes of the rival superpowers from 1945 to 1990.

Twilight Struggle is a mixture of chess, Risk and poker. The game consists of a roughly two-foot by three-foot board, a deck of 110 Event cards, and 260 small cardboard tokens (colored blue for the U.S. and red for Russia, of course). The board shows a map of the world with each nation depicted as a box, and with transportation routes connecting various nations. Each nation (except the U.S. and USSR) has a Stability number, from the Stability level 5 of Britain (rock-solid government) to the Stability 1 of many African nations (new El Presidente/Field Marshal/Supreme Leader every Tuesday and Thursday, holidays excepted). Certain nations, such as East and West Germany, India and South Korea, are marked as Battleground states that count extra for scoring.

Who controls a nation is indicated by Influence markers that quickly speckle the map in blue and red. A superpower controls a nation if it places Influence equal to a nation's Stability rating, and minus an opponent's Influence. So if the U.S. has 1 Influence point in Egypt, which has a Stability of 2, the Kremlin would need 3 Influence to count Cairo as an ally.

Players gain Influence points, and various other goodies, from the deck of Event cards. Each turn, players have six to eight cards in their hand that they alternate playing one by one with the Soviets throwing down the first card in each of the game's eight turns. Each Event card is marked with an actual event from the Cold War. There are a variety of cards, from "Korean War" and "Eastern European Revolts", to "Brezhnev Doctrine" and "Iran-Contra Scandal." These events, which usually favor either the American or Russians, mostly boil down to one player placing Influence markers in designated countries, or removing his opponent's Influence. An interesting, if frustrating, twist is that players must use all but one of the cards in their hands, which often means laying down a card that favors their opponent. Twilight Struggle's greatest moments include watching the Soviet player's face as he lays down the Marshall Plan event (extra American Influence points in seven Western European nations), or when the Americans must play the "Castro takes power" card.

Instead of an Event, each card can also be played for Operations points, which are the political-military currency of Twilight Struggle. Ops points can be spent to place Influence markers in countries, with the proviso that the target nation must be connected by a transportation route to a country where you already have influence. That last point makes a big difference. Algeria and Turkey, for example, are gateways from Europe into North Africa and the Middle East. No country in Latin America begins the game with any Soviet Influence, so Moscow can't spread Marxist gospel there until the Castro card turns Cuba into a Communist beachhead.

But who plays Twilight Struggle just to make Voice of America broadcasts or hand out copies of Das Kapital? A Cold War game wouldn't be Cold War-ish without a paramilitary angle. Thus Cold Warriors can spend Ops points to conduct coups, which turn an enemy-controlled nation into a member of your bloc. The chances of success depend on a roll of a die, with stable nations like Sweden hard to flip, while most Middle Eastern nations change sides as easily as a snake sheds its skin.

Yet be warned: coups are nuclear dynamite. On the Twilight Struggle board is printed the Defcon Track, which goes from Defcon 5 (lowest) to Defcon 1 (boom!). Every time a player conducts a coup, or various other actions specified by Event cards, the Defcon level worsens. Whoever goes over the edge and triggers thermonuclear war loses the game (not that his opponent will be any happier). The only real winner are the radioactive cockroaches that will inherit the Earth.

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