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 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 or her influence in the country. Countries with lower stability are more vulnerable to coups. 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 these cards are played, the player with the superior position in the region will earn victory points (VPs).
Some countries are battleground countries. These are more important than non-battleground countries - in addition to 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 the spy Aldrich Ames for the USSR.
In December 2010, Twilight Struggle became the highest-ranked game on BoardGameGeek, displacing Puerto Rico. It has also won several awards. Online play is popular, with tournaments being held annually. In fall 2019, the game got a huge publicity boost when it was featured in an episode of South Park
A computer adaption was announced in November 2010; it was released on Steam on April 14, 2016.
- Actually Four Mooks: Several "countries" on the board are actually several countries being represented as one space: Spain/Portugal and Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) in Europe, Laos/Cambodia in Asia, the Gulf States in the Middle East, and a bunch in Africanote .
- All Muslims Are Arab: "Muslim Revolution" is a powerful Soviet Mid-War card that allows them to remove all US influence in two out of eight countries: Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. All but Iran are Arab-majority.
- All Your Base Are Belong to Us: As noted by the game designers, Central America and the Caribbean had historically been basically the United States' geopolitical private pond (the game starts with 1 US influence in Panama and the US can always try to place influence into the region with ops via Mexico or Cuba) - any serious Soviet sally into the region would be more a bigger black eye on US prestige than a bolster to Soviet prestige. As such, Soviet Control or Domination of Central America is worth a bit more in VP to the Soviet player than to the US player thanks to two of the region's three battlegrounds (Mexico and Cuba) being US neighbors (players get 1 extra VP at scoring for controlling each neighbor to the other superpower). Scoring Soviet Control isn't that uncommon thanks to a bunch of Soviet cards that are focused on the region ("Fidel", "Liberation Theology", "Che", "Ortega Elected in Nicaragua").
- Alternate History:
- The Early-Middle-Late War 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. As the game is based on real life events, almost assuredly the game's playthrough creates an Alternate History of the Cold War.
- The "Turn Zero" expansion enables this to six different events that took place either during World War II or just after it. Depending on the die rolls, it makes even more alternate history. For example:
- V-E Day could have the Allies reach Berlin before the Soviets do, creating Allied support in East Germany. Alternatively, the Wehrmacht could collapse early, creating Soviet influence in West Germany and Austria.
- The Chinese Civil War could allow the US to give Chaing Kai-Shek more material support, creating a battleground state in Taiwan and allowing the Nationalist China card, which allows the US to place Influence in Asia.
- Balance of Power: The game designers were able to accurately convey the bipolar balance of power that was an integral part of the Cold War, and which was a consequence of the confrontation between the two superpowers. Each of the six regions (and one sub-region) has its own status depending on the number of countries controlled by each superpower and their belonging to the battlegrounds and non-battlegrounds. The statuses can range from No Presence (no superpower has managed to take control of any country in the region) or Presence (both superpowers have approximately the same number of controlled countries) to Domination (one superpower has more battlegrounds and countries in general under its control) or even Control (one superpower controls all the battlegrounds of the region and more countries in general). There is also a conditional similarity of the general balance of power at a particular moment, which depends on the location of the marker on the scale of victory points and the ratio of the number of pro-American and pro-Soviet battlegrounds.
- 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. Though it's 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: 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. In-game it's invoked in the "Wargames" card, which has the outline of a rook on it and includes the famous "How about a nice game of chess?".
- Compensating for Something: Invoked with the "Missile Envy" card, which forces your opponent to give you the highest-ops card (event goes off if it's your event or neutral, get to play ops for free if the card's event is your opponent's) in his hand and then must play "Missile Envy" themselves for ops on the next Action Round - the card is only worth 2 ops. The idea behind the card (termed by Dr. Helen Caldicott) was that some decisions made by the superpowers (and their generally-male leadership) were influenced by the desire not to appear "un-manly" in front of their adversary, which led them to make otherwise fairly nonconstructive decisions. The background text for the card makes it more explicit:When one examines the terminology of "deep penetration" and "multiple reentry" one wonders if she had a point.
- 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.
- Darkest Africa: To the extent that the focus remains on the continent's politics in the Cold War era. The Africa region of the map (the whole continent minus Libya and Egypt, which are placed in the Middle East) contains a slew of 1-stability countries (including several "countries" which actually represent several real life countries such as "Saharan States"), including the only 1-stability battlegrounds (Angola, Zaire, and Nigeria). Given that coups are allowed here even at DEFCON 2 and the region can be very valuable if Controlled, this region usually sees a lot of coups in a given game.
- Defcon Five: Used correctly; DEFCON Five is the starting setting (i.e. "no danger"), while DEFCON One instantly triggers World War III and a game over to whoever started it (which isn't necessarily the one who actually brought it down that far). The DEFCON level also determines where on the map a player is allowed to perform aggressive actions like coups via ops - the lower the level the more regions that are closed off.
- Defector from Commie Land: "Defectors" is a US card that, when played during the headline phase, cancels whatever the Soviet player had played for their headline event; Soviet play of this card during an action round also gives the US player 1 victory point. The card is reflective of the fact that while defections to the other side happened in both directions, going East to West was more common and reflected poorly on the Soviets.
- Discard and Draw: "Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You..." allows the US player to discard as many cards as he wants from his hand and draw new cards to replace them. Very useful if said hand is holding a bunch of Soviet events and/or scoring cards (which would otherwise have to be played) for regions that the Soviet player is dominating.
- Extra Turn: A few US cards allow the taking of extra turns ("North Sea Oil") or the forcing of the opponent to skip theirs ("Kremlin Flu", unless if it's a Scoring card). "Quagmire" and "Bear Trap" can force these situations if they are out of cards with a high-enough ops to discard and try to roll out of (especially if their opponent was able to slap "Red Scare/Purge" on top of them).
- Faction Calculus: As a general rule, the Soviet Union tends to play as a Powerhouse while the US tends to be Subversive (especially in the Early War) for a few reasons:
- Since the Soviets go first in normal Action Round play on a given turn, they are usually the one able to coup battlegrounds while the DEFCON level allows it - without card event chicanery to avoid pulling the DEFCON level to 1, the US player will usually have to be content with couping non-battlegrounds to satisfy military ops requirements.
- Most of the good Soviet cards are Early War which encourages aggressive play to try to gain as much of an early advantage as possible (even try for a 20-VP auto-win) before the more US-favorable Mid- and Late War decks enter.
- As for the US, they have more cards that can manipulate players' hands and the deck in their favor, either in dodging Soviet events like "Lone Gunman" or putting the screws on the Soviets indirectly by forcing a discard.
- Even the two Soviet events that involve the US possibly having to discard a card in his hand ("Blockade" and "Latin American Debt Crisis") are worded and act more like threats, as they go "If the US player does not discard a card worth 3-ops," followed by a bad thing that happens to the US' position on the map if they don't ("Blockade": Lose all US influence in West Germany; "LADC": Double Soviet influence in up to two South American countries).
- Fog of War: Provided by the event cards in players' hands. The mapboard is seen by both players with no hidden information, but generally neither of them know what historical events the other player could set in motion. A few cards such as "CIA Created" can lift the fog for a moment; process of elimination via meticulous tracking of cards played prior to a deck reshuffle can also be done to ascertain hand info, though this latter method is of use mainly for those playing on computers or possessing really good memories.
- Forever War: If the US player is struck with "Quagmire" (mirroring Vietnam), they must spend their next round wasting a card with 2 or more ops and rolling a die to get out of it - if the die roll fails, they have 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 Someone the Pointer Finger: Khruschev, specifically. "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.) There are cards throughout the deck that can cause the playing player to lose automatically like this; the website Twilight Strategy calls them "DEFCON suicide" cards.
- Many of the "DEFCON suicide" cards, though, are that way because they permit the opponent to coup a battleground country and reduce DEFCON from 2 to 1 (since you're the one who played the first card in that sequence, the fault and defeat lies on you). However, if they're under "Cuban Missile Crisis" (coup anywhere and you lose automatically) and can't cancel it by forfeiting the necessary two influence in the required countries (Cuba for the USSR, West Germany or Turkey for the US), they lose instead because the fact there was a coup supersedes the reduction of the DEFCON level.
- Heartbeat Soundtrack: The computer game adaptation features a slow music theme in this fashion, punctuated by steel percussion, gunfire, radio static, telegraph and air raid siren noises, and era-appropriate sound bites from both sides of the Iron Curtain. The resulting mix really gets across the tense, uncertain Cold War atmosphere.
- 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. It can sometimes can lead to weird situations, such as a Soviet-backed North Korean invasion of a South Korea already controlled by the Soviets via influence placement.
- Instant-Win Condition: Any time your opponent sets off nuclear war, or if you have control of Europe (more controlled countries in Europe and all battlegrounds of France, Italy, Poland, and both Germanies) 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 (e.g., Arms Race, Kitchen Debates, Summit, OPEC, 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 and 1984 Los Angeles games, the other country may choose to boycott them.
- 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. Also, if the game gets to Final Scoring the holder gets an extra VP.
- 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.
- Lethal Joke Character: Or "card", rather. 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. The "First Lightning" Soviet card can cause this for both players, since it will degrade DEFCON one rank if either player plays it for anything other than the Space Race.
- Luck Manipulation Mechanic: The optional "Our Man in Tehran" card allows the US player to draw the top 5 cards in the draw deck, discard what they want, and shuffle the rest back (provided there is at least one US-controlled country in the Middle East). The alternate space race track also allows this for a player that reaches the sixth spot when the other hasn't gotten there yet: they may re-roll a coup attempt once per turn.
- Mini-Game: The space race functions a bit like this.
- 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 the card is launched it into space). The card is cancelled/prevented when "An Evil Empire" is played.
- "UN Intervention" lets a player play a card with the opponent's event on it without the event going off - the card gets discarded and the player gets the operation points.
- The US card "Defectors" also allows them to cancel a Soviet headline card if played at that phase.
- Several other cards have events which explicitly cancel and/or prevent other cards' events, such as "De Gaulle Leads France" cancelling "NATO" for France and "Camp David Accords" disallowing "Arab-Israeli War" events.
- Non-Standard Game Over: Triggering World War III, which means your side immediately loses.
- Not the Intended Use: "Five-Year Plan" is a US card that forces the Soviet player to randomly pick one card from their hand - if it's a US event it goes off, otherwise it gets discarded. If played by the US as an event it can be quite troublesome for the Soviets, as a hand reduced by one card generally means all the cards being held must be played if they can't use The China Card (including ones that could cause the Soviet player to auto-lose). However, the Soviet player can use this (which, as a US event, must happen if the card is played from the Soviet hand) to their advantage if they also have a scoring card for a region that the US would stand to gain a bunch of VP from if scored (holding a scoring card at the end of the turn is an auto-win for the other player) - if this card and the US-favorable scoring card are the last two cards in the Soviet player's hand, they can play "Five-Year Plan" and the scoring card will by default be the card discarded without the event (i.e., the scoring) going off. The US can do something similar with "Aldrich Ames Remix", though in that case Soviet events can also be dodged.
- 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.
- Proxy War: Several cards are wars where a given country on the board can be attacked. If the die rolls in your favor, you get victory points and all of the opponent's influence in that country is flipped to yours.
- 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.
- Rage Quit: A player who gets tired of his opponent's antics can decide at almost any moment to do the necessary moves to intentionally start a nuclear war - losing the game, but in style.
- 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. Separately, it's 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).
- 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 .
- Turbulent Priest:
- The Mid-War "Pope John Paul II Elected" card for the Soviet player, the counterpart for Poland what De Gaulle is for France - remove 2 Soviet influence and add 1 US influence. Actually, the card is potentially more damaging than "De Gaulle", as its play also allows the Late War "Solidarity" event to happen (add 3 US influence in Poland).
- For the US player, "Liberation Theology" (Soviets add 3 influence anywhere in Central America, max two per country) is an Implied example as the card doesn't represent any specific priest or theologian so much as a movement that started in the Catholic Church in Latin America.
- Unwanted Assistance: "The Iron Lady" is a US 3-op card that gets rid of all Soviet influence in the UK and prevents "Socialist Governments"(remove 3 US influence in Western Europe, max 2 per country) from taking place. In practice, though, this card tends to help the Soviet player more often than not, since the card also grants 1 Soviet influence in battleground Argentina (thanks to the The Falkland Islands) AND 3 ops (if played from the Soviet hand); the US benefits are of only marginal-at-best utility in many games because there is rarely much Soviet influence in the UK anyway (the UK starts US-controlled and is not a battleground country) and "Socialist Governments", while annoying in the Early War, is usually less of a problem for the US to deal with later in the game as its 3-ops value matches the influence damage it does, making it generally a wash.
- Variable Player Goals: Both players are trying to win, of course, but there are a few ways to do so. The most common is by attaining a 20 Victory Point lead (usually by means of region scoring cards, though other ways of gaining VP directly exist) before the end of Turn 10. It's also possible, though, to force your opponent to drag the DEFCON level to 1 (and therefore lose automatically) if you can, say, force him to discard cards so that he must play a "DEFCON suicide" card during the turn. Controlling Europe is an Instant-Win Condition regardless of the current VP lead when Europe Scoring is played or at Final Scoring after Turn 10. In the Late War, one could also end the game earlier with a smaller lead via "Wargames". A player that finds himself significantly behind in VP near the end of the game may switch tactics and go for one of the other ways to win, keeping the one in the lead on his toes since his victory isn't yet a Foregone Conclusion.
- Variant Chess:
- The most notable game variant is Chinese Civil War, where the Soviet player has to place influence in China to control it before the player can use The China Card (until the player does, they can't use "Red Scare" and if the Korean War breaks out the player's 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.
- In 2015 an expansion pack called "Turn Zero" was released (first to those who donated to a Kickstarter campaign) whose big selling point was allowing for more variable starting set-ups and alterations to the deck via possible Alternate History outcomes of six events that happened at the close of World War 2, as well as some additional cards. For example, if the Soviets get past the Elbe River (i.e., they get a really fortunate roll for the "VE Day" event resolution) they would get both 2 additional influence in Eastern Europe during starting set-up (for a total of eight) and 1 extra influence in Austria and West Germany.
- Voice of the Resistance: Invoked with the US Mid-War card "The Voice of America", which removes four Soviet influence anywhere besides Europe (max 2 per country).
- 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; your opponent 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.