Saturday, September 12, 2009

Getting down to business?

I'm still working on my setup for that game of TS@VASSAL. This isn't because the rules are particularly difficult- they're not, as is evidenced by the mere 8 pages of actual rules in the 28-page rulebook, a whole page of which furthermore is devoted to components and setup; no, what's holding me up is the complexity of the gameplay resulting from the essentially simple elements. In other words, there is a lot to think about! For the benefit of readers, let me explain how the game works.

The world of Twilight Struggle
The world that was the superpowers' playground during the Cold War is depicted in Twilight Struggle on a map which divides the globe into 6 regions, each showing the most important countries in that region. The mapboard also features various information panels and record tracks as you can see.

Structure of gameplay
Nuclear apocalypse (DefCon 1) or outright ideological hegemony (20VP) aside, Twilight Struggle is played through 10 turns, each turn comprising 6, 7 or 8 Action Rounds. All the action in the game is driven by cardplay; each action round first the Soviet player then the US player plays a card from their hand. A sample card is shown left:
  • Operations points: spent to conduct the crucial influence-peddling operations.
  • Period: the game is divided into 3 periods; early, mid and late war:
  1. There is a section of the card deck for each period, to be added to the deck at the start of each period.
  2. There are 7 action rounds in the mid/late war instead of the 6 in the early war.
  • Event: the events translate into game terms significant happenings and personalities from the actual history of the Cold War; some will benefit only the USSR or the US, while others can benefit either side.
Core systems of gameplay
There are 3 core systems of gameplay in Twilight Struggle:
  • Influence.
  • Operations.
  • Events.
The essential currency of the game, influence is represented by markers used to track each side's influence (no!) over the countries across which the 2 behemoths of the Cold War waged their struggle for supremacy. Sample US/USSR influence markers- right, show:
  • Coloured backgrounds (LHS): Control.
  • White backgrounds (RHS): Influence.
The function of the influence markers is straightforward and is based on the Stability Values, key indicators present in each country represented on the game map. The sample U.K. map space- left, shows the stability value of 5, which determines when influence becomes control and vice versa according to the varying fortunes of both sides in each country; the higher a country's stability value, the more influence is needed to control that country.

Their regimes thus weak and unstable or strong and enduring, countries in Twilight Struggle come in 2 additional flavours:
  • Ordinary countries: yellow name/Stability Value background, eg. Czechoslovakia.
  • Battleground countries: purple/red backgrounds, eg. Poland.
Control of battleground countries is crucial to high scoring so players will be competing strongly over these territories; while excessively heavy handed interventions can heat the Cold War to the point of conflagration (DefCon 1 again), so players have to temper aggression with caution.

Operations are the most important way in which players vie for influence over the countries that are their pawns in Twilight Struggle. There are 4 kinds of operation:
  • Gaining influence: Ops pts are spent to add influence markers to countries on a 1-for-1 basis (2 Ops pts/influence in an enemy controlled country).
  • Realignment: realignment reduces enemy influence in a country; realignment attempts' success or failure are based on a contested 1d6 roll; each Ops pt allows 1 realignment attempt.
  • Coups: coups reduce enemy influence and might increase your own if they are sufficiently successful; each card played allows 1 coup attempt; coups attempts' success or failure are based on a 1d6 roll- modified by the card's Ops pts value, against a country's stability value x2.

  • The Space Race: attempts to move up the space race track; these ops don't affect influence, but advancing up the space race track brings VP and other advantages; in addition space race operations don't cause events, a very important consideration.
"Events dear boy, events."
Harold Macmillan

Cards from each period with pro-Soviet, neutral and pro-American events

The events enter play in 3 different ways:
  • Headlines: before the action rounds begin each player secretly selects a card; these are then revealed and their events are executed.
  • Cards played for events: during action rounds a player may play a card for its event instead of for operations.
  • Cards played for operations: cards played for operations which also contain the opposing superpower's event still trigger that event.
This last point is perhaps the single most fiendish feature of the entire game (it certainly felt that way during my first play last year), meaning as it does that most turns you will be unable to avoid giving your opponent something to their advantage; unless of course you can dump it into the space race. The net effect is that each turn becomes an exercise in damage limitation even before you've seen what your opponent does.

Onwards to victory?
As in many games of its ilk Twilight Struggle can be lost by the klutz who provokes the outbreak of nuclear war: if one battleground state coup attempt too many or the untimely play of an event reduces the DefCon to 1, then the phasing player loses immediately. Otherwise victory, instant or not, is dependant on scoring controlled regions.

Like everything else in the game, scoring in Twilight Struggle is based on cardplay: a region is scored when its scoring card is played- see above for sample Europe scoring card (NB. the instant victory condition for Europe is unique). As you might expect, there is a twist: you can't hold on to scoring cards; meaning that scoring must take place the turn you are dealt the card. I'll leave readers to imagine for themselves the tensions this adds to those already generated by juggling operations and events.

Early postwar Europe in some unknown alternity...
The map below shows the core of the situation over which I've been puzzling:

  • I have 6 influence to place in Eastern Europe.
  • The US player then places 7 in Western Europe.
  • We'll each choose our Headline events.
  • And then I'll take my first action round.
After all this I think I know where I want to set up. It turns out that the VASSAL interface for adding influence is so simple to use that I sent my setup off in no time at all after completing the rest of this. Now I've just got to wait for my opponent to get back in front of a computer, and we'll be off! In the meantime, I wonder how VASSAL and/or ACTS handle simultaneous card selection? ;)


Anonymous said...

So who do you play with?

Anonymous said...

The usage of Vassal / Acts combined will lead to confusion because there is no way to pull the right cards out of the vassal deck. Its easier to let vassal manage it.

Presumably you know your opponent and can trust them enough where cheating is not an issue

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

@ Aneliya
I'm playing the game I've just started with a fB friend. We met on the Consimworld (CSW) discussion forum for the Combat Commander boardgame. ;)

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

@ anon
My opponent suggested using ACTS; he said that it made card management easier. You're talking about one of the issues I've been wondering about. I've just had to assume that it'll work out.

I've also noticed that ACTS made my opponent's headline card visible before I'd played my own. Not ideal, as you can imagine. ;)

Anonymous said...

well I dont see how it makes card management easier, except within acts itself. Vassal manages cards in pbem perfectly. If the opponent pulls a card from the deck, it wont be available for you to pull when you get log file back and so on - pretty straightforward, just like regular ftf