Tabletop Game: Twilight Struggle

"Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle..."
JFK's inaugural address, 1961

Twilight Struggle is a card-driven board game for two players which covers the entire Cold War. One player plays the United States and the other plays the Soviet Union. In each turn, both players are dealt a hand of cards, and then play them one at a time, alternating. The object of the game is to spread your superpower's influence into as many countries of the world as possible. By doing this, you score victory points when regions are scored, the timing of which is determined by cards. Cards are divided into three groups: Early War, Mid War, and Late War. This makes it more likely that events like Fidel Castro's coming to power in Cuba, OPEC's founding, Chernobyl, etc. will happen in their historical era.

All cards (except scoring cards) have both an event and an operations number (ops for short). Some events are playable by both superpowers, others are associated with one or the other. If you play a card that has one of your opponent's events, the event happens anyway. Cards can be used to play the event or for ops. Ops can be used to directly place influence on the board (adjacent to where you already are), or for a coup attempt. This involves a die roll plus the ops value of the card; if you roll well enough, then you can replace an opponent's influence in a country with some of your own, or at least reduce his influence in the country. Some countries are more vulnerable to coups than others. Cards can also be played to advance on the space race, though generally only one card can be used on the space race per turn. The significance of this is that if you play a card with one of your opponent's events on the space race, the event does not happen. There are also scoring cards, such as "Asia Scoring". When this card is played, the player with the superior position in that region (here, Asia) will earn victory points (VPs).

Some countries are battleground countries. These are more important than non-battleground countries - in addition for scoring a VP for each you control, controlling more of these than your opponent nets you Domination (worth more VPs), while controlling all battlegrounds in a region nets you Control (even more VPs; except for Controlling Europe where it's an Instant-Win Condition)note . Also, any coup attempt (regardless of success) in a battleground country reduces the DEFCON in the game. The DEFCON (which simulates Cold War tensions) can rise and fall during gameplay. For example, events like Nuclear Test Ban move DEFCON up (towards peace), while other events and coups in battleground countries push it down (towards nuclear war). As DEFCON drops, where you can do a coup attempt or realignment becomes restricted (for example, at DEFCON 3 coups in Europe and Asia are prohibited).

The points use a tug of war mechanic: Every time the Soviets score points, the VP marker moves in a negative direction. Every time the Americans score points, it goes in a positive direction. If it ever reaches -20 or +20, that is an instant win for the appropriate player. Controlling Europe is also an automatic win. Other than that, if DEFCON ever falls to 1, World War III starts and the game ends instantly. Whoever was the phasing player (the player whose card play was being resolved) when DEFCON hit 1 is blamed for the nuclear war and loses the game.

The game generally shows a tilt to the Russians in the early turns, as events in Asia and the Middle East will generally lead to an expansion of Soviet influence in those regions. The Mid War is wild and chaotic, with powerful events for both sides, and sees the Cold War spread to Africa and the Americas. Late War events, such as Chernobyl, Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech and Solidarity, help the USA to expand its influence in Europe, especially in the key battleground state of Poland. This is counterbalanced by Aldrich Ames for the USSR.

In December 2010, Twilight Struggle became the highest-ranked game on Board Game Geek, displacing Puerto Rico. It has also won several awards. Online play is popular, with tournaments being held annually.

A computer adaption was announced in November 2010, which is confirmed to still be in the works.

Has nothing to do with the rivalry between Team Edward and Team Jacob, nor with the game Twilight Imperium, nor with Twilight Sparkle. It is also not a before-the-end prequel to Twilight2000.


  • Alternate History: The Early-Middle-Late division of cards means events go off roughly around the time they went off in Real Life (e.g., the Early War Castro card will probably go off earlier than the Late War Chernobyl card), though events can be deferred to a later turn. The situation on the board will likely turn out this way to varying extents as the game progresses (e.g., Italy or South Korea falling under Soviet control early on).
  • Arab-Israeli Conflict: Makes the US position in the Middle East tenuous until the "Camp David Accords" card is played.
  • Banana Republic: The Mid-War Junta card grants two influence in Latin America as well as realignment rolls or a coup attempt - presumably success results in this trope happening in-universe.
  • Boring Yet Practical: Getting influence onto the board using ops points.
    • Not so boring when you use a card with your opponent's event on it, which must occur either before or after you place influence. A key skill for players to learn is figuring out how to deal with cards with your opponent's events on it in order to minimize the damage it does to you.
  • Chess Motifs: As befitting a game set in the Cold War - as noted by the game's designers, entire countries are treated as little more than pawns in the grand game against the opposing superpower, with the occasional bishop in battleground countries like France and China acting as a rook or perhaps queen.
    • Also invoked in the "Wargames" card, which has the outline of a rook on it. It even has the famous "How about a nice game of chess?"
  • Cold War:
    • The Fifties: The Early War is mostly the 1950s. Kids doing civil defense drills at school, communist influence spreading far over the horizon, some guy named Fidel down in America's lake...
    • The Sixties: The Flower Power card, which penalizes the US for any "war" cards they may play, because you are supposed to make love and not war. Also there's a Vietnam War card (called Quagmire), and cards for both JFK's inauguration speech and for his assassination. There's also cards representing some more obscure 1960's events like the Ussuri River Skirmish.
    • The Seventies: Oil shortages? Oh yeah.
    • The Eighties: The Late War card with Reagan on it that cancels the effect of the above-mentioned hippies. Star Wars is in there too, as is Chernobyl.
  • The Coup: An action a superpower can initiate with ops or with certain events. Coups count towards military operationsnote  (to placate the hawks in one's camp that want to stand tough against those communists/capitalists), and coups in battlegrounds degrade the DEFCON meter and push the world closer to nuclear war.
  • Cuban Missile Crisis: An in-game card that can be used by either player. Sicking it on your opponent means DEFCON immediately goes to two and he is not allowed to coup anywhere on the board, or else it will start nuclear war and he will automatically lose.note 
  • Defcon Five: Used correctly; Defcon Five is the starting setting (i.e. "no danger"), while Defcon One instantly triggers World War III.
  • Follow the Leader: Twilight Struggle is by no means the first card-driven board game created (the concept had been around for at least a decade prior to its introduction) or even the first one published by GMT Games, but the success and popularity of this game means similar games almost inevitably get compared to it. This is especially true if the game in question shares the same publisher, one of its creators, or a not-strictly-military theme.
  • Forever War: If the US player is struck with "Quagmire" (mirroring Vietnam), he must spend his next round wasting a card with 2 or more ops and rolling a die to get out of it - if the die roll fails, he has to do it again the following round (ditto for the Soviets with "Bear Trap" to mirror Afghanistan). A string of bad luck can render a player entirely impotent for a whole turn or more (especially if the player is also struck with Red Scare/Purge).
  • Giving Khrushchev The Pointer Finger: "Kitchen Debates" is a Mid-war card that awards the US player two VP if the US controls more battleground countries than the Soviets. It also tells the US player to poke the Soviet player in the chest.
  • Guide Dang It: What do you mean, "Grain Sales" etc. can trigger nuclear war?!
    • So can Olympic Games (if you play it and your opponent boycotts, DEFCON falls by one. If it falls to one and nukes fly, it's the hosting country's fault.)
  • Herr Doktor: "Captured Nazi Scientists" is an Early War card that automatically moves your token one spot along the Space Race track.
  • In Spite of a Nail: As mentioned above, the separation of the deck into Early War, Mid-War, and Late War serves to keep some resemblance to the Real Life sequence of events.
    • Sometimes can lead to weird situations, such as a Soviet-backed North Korean invasion of a South Korea also controlled by the Soviets via influence placement.
  • Instant-Win Condition: Any time your opponent sets off nuclear war, or if you have control of Europenote  when the Europe Scoring card is played, or if one side has a 20-point lead before the end of the 10th and final turn.
    • "Wargames" can set up another one - if DEFCON is at 2, the player may immediately end the game after giving the opponent 6 VP. If the player is currently leading by 7 or more and gets the required DEFCON level, it's this trope. It's a Late War card designed to keep the ending time of the game from becoming a Foregone Conclusion, but without possession of the card becoming too much of a Game Breaker.
  • International Showdown by Proxy: On a broad level, the whole game is like this for the US and Soviet Union through control of countries or specific card events (i.e., Arms Race, Kitchen Debates, Summit, etc.), as measured by the VP track.
    • For the specific example of showdown-by-sports, you have the Olympic Games card, where the winner as determined by dice roll (host country gets +2 for home field advantage) wins 2 VP. Like what happened in the 1980 Moscow Olympics and 1984 Los Angeles games, the other country may choose to boycott them.
  • Iran–Iraq War: Unlike certain other "War" cards, this one can benefit either player.
  • Iron Lady: The Iron Lady is a Late War card that wipes out any Soviet influence from the UK as well as neutralize the Socialist Governments card (allows the Soviet player to remove US influence from Western Europe). It also gives the Soviets one influence in Argentina thanks to the Falklands War.
  • Kingmaker Scenario: The game itself only has two players, but China's role as the not-quite-superpower that nevertheless neither side can afford to ignore is reflected by "The China Card," a special card that gives a potential advantage to whoever is holding it... but playing it means that it becomes available to the other player at the start of the next turn.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Important to keep in mind so that you don't end up throwing good influence after a lost cause, or else your opponent can mop you up in the other regions.
  • The Korean War: Like the Arab-Israeli War card, it can cause headaches for the USA player (though it goes out of play once it's played for the event, unlike the other).
  • Lethal Joke Card: The Early War US-only CIA Created card is only worth 1 op point, but if the Soviet player has it and doesn't treat it with care it can make him automatically losenote . Ditto for the Mid-War "Lone Gunman" card for the American.
  • Mini-Game: The space race functions a bit like this.
  • NATO/Warsaw Pact: Present as cards in-game. Oddly enough, in order for NATO to become playable as an event either Warsaw Pact or Marshall Plan must be played first, when in Real Life it was the formation of NATO that spurred the establishment of the Warsaw Pact.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: "Flower Power" is a Mid-War 4-ops card that gives the Soviets 2 VP every time the US plays a card with "War" on it (unless he launches it into space). The card is cancelled/prevented when "An Evil Empire" is played.
  • Nonstandard Game Over: Triggering World War III, which means your side immediately loses.
  • Nuclear Weapons Taboo: Starting a nuclear war loses you the game, no questions asked, even if you did it by accident or were forced to by the cards you drew.
  • Puppet State: In-universe accusations aside, the card "Puppet Governments" gives the US one influence in three countries that don't have influence from either superpower yet. As this is a Mid-War card and the vast majority of countries in Latin America and Africa are low-stability, the US usually ends up placing the influence in such countries (higher-stability countries are usually the first ones targeted, thus disqualifying them from this card), giving the player either outright control of a country like Zaire or close to it.
  • Red Scare: Can certainly feel that way for the US player early in the game, as the Early War cards as well as the fact that the Soviets start with the powerful China Card seem to give them an edge. Games with handicaps often give the US a couple of extra influence for balance; the Chinese Civil War variant (where the Soviet player must spend influence on China before it can utilize the China Card) can also serve to dull the edge.
    • Also a card in the game (actually 1/2 of a name pair that smacks a -1 ops penalty on your opponent for a turn - the Soviet equivalent being called Purge)
  • "Risk"-Style Map: Countries are grouped into regions (Europenote , Asianote , Middle East, Central America, South America, and Africa). Individual countries border each other via lines drawn on the game board rather than strictly by geography (e.g., Chile and Bolivia physically border each other in real life but do not border each other in the game owing to historical animosity). Borders come into play chiefly when playing a card for ops for influence (you can only place influence in a country where you already have influence or a country bordering it) or realignment (controlling neighboring countries gives you a +1 to your roll) - some card events also take borders into account (i.e., rolls for war cards have a -1 for each neighbor of the target your opponent controls).
  • The Space Race: Operates as a safety valve in-game in that players can rid a card from their hand that would help their opponent each turn. If successful, it also awards VP as well as special benefits, such as forcing your opponent to show his headline card first, if you're in the lead (at least until he catches up).
  • Stiff Upper Lip: The UK is the only country on the board with a stability of 5. With the way coup attempts are resolved (ops value of card + one die roll - double the stability of the target country = change in influence if positive), it is impossible for the UK (and only the UK) to lose any influence by coup attemptnote 
  • Sword of Damocles: Some cards derive their most utility from the threat of their play rather than actually playing them. The biggest example is probably the Early-War "Warsaw Pact Formed" card, where the Soviets have the choice of either placing 5 Soviet influence in Eastern Europe (max 2 per country) or removing all US influence from four Eastern European countries. That second option can be utterly devastating to any US attempt to break into Eastern Europe, but the card is single-use (once it's played it's out of the game) - as a result, if the US player gets it in his hand in the Early War he will usually play it and set off the event quick while he has little or nothing to lose, rendering it safer for him to make forays into Eastern Europe once that card is gone with Mid- and Late War events like "John Paul II Elected Pope" and "Tear Down This Wall".
    • Other cards that can have this effect include "De Gaulle Leads France"note  and "Blockade"note 
  • Variant Twilight Struggle: The most notable variant is Chinese Civil War, where the Soviet player has to place influence in China to control it before he can use The China Card (until he does, he can't use "Red Scare" and if the Korean War breaks out his roll gets a -1 penalty). Later editions of the game also include a "Late War" start scenario, as that deck frequently doesn't get used (and worn) as often as the Early and Mid-War decks owing to automatic victories.
  • The Vietnam War: The Quagmire card. The Soviet cards Vietnam Revolts and Decolonization (and the latter's American equivalent Colonial Rearguards) serve to focus attention on SE Asia as a whole. In fact the region is set up to become a flashpoint because of the Mid-War Southeast Asia scoring card, which gives it sudden strategic importance, though unlike other scoring cards it is single-use.
  • Who Shot JFK?: "Lone Gunman" is the Mid-War Soviet counterpart to the Early War "CIA Created" (peek at the US player's hand, then play 1 op). The game itself makes no claim that the Soviets had any involvement with Kennedy's assassination; rather, it represents the Soviets' willingness to capitalize on the chaos in the US caused by it.
  • World War III: With a twist — whoever becomes responsible for triggering it (whoever played the initial card in the whole sequence) loses the game automatically.
  • You Lose at Zero Trust: What happens if your opponent gains control of Europe (all five battlegrounds of Poland, both Germanies, Italy, and France; he must also have control of more European countries in total than you) — you lose automatically the next time the score is calculated for that region. Pushing DEFCON all the way down to one (i.e. launching the nukes) will also lose the game for whichever player played the first card to trigger that chain of events.