There’s something beautiful about the way Twilight Struggle uses dice. Any time a die roll is necessary, it comes down to one toss of a single six-sided die. It’s simplistic, utterly mundane, and wildly chaotic—and yet it represents coups taking down established governments, national realignments in political ideology, and sending mankind into space.
It was during one of these momentous occasions that I realized just how random Twilight Struggle can be—and yet it gives the players so much grip on what happens that the more skilled player is far more likely to succeed. In the last game I played, as the United States, I secured an early lead and maintained it throughout the game, and yet two decisions—one by my opponent, one by me—ultimately led to my downfall.
First, I was lucky enough to draw the War Games card. As an event, I could give my opponent six points and, if I was still in the lead, end the game in victory immediately. I sat there trying to stay deadpan, even getting ready to apologize, play the card, and tell him he played well. After mulling over his hand for a few minutes, he realized it was best to use a card that let him steal one from mine before I played all the good ones. He was right. He stole War Games.
In the second case, I was one advancement on the Space Race track away from winning by points alone. Then I started going over the risks. I mean, it’s only a 50% chance of working. What if it doesn’t? My position in several regions is precarious, if not outright in my opponent’s favor. If he gets lucky with scoring cards… okay, I’m going to play Missile Envy, tale his highest value card, improve my position, THEN take a chance on the Space Race, and if it doesn’t work out, I’m still in a better position than when I started. So long as that event isn’t for the US or neutral and degrade DEFCON from two to one…
It was. Boom. Global thermonuclear war.
Technically that means the world ended, but it was my fault, so in game terms I assume the ragged band of survivors is slightly more miffed with my side of the conflict, assuming there are any survivors. Or maybe the ghosts of all human society will be making snide comments at me for all eternity. “Good going, jerk. This isn’t even a fun place to haunt anymore.”
This was after several hours at the game. I should have been annoyed that such a long progress towards victory can be upset entirely in a moment. For most games, I would be—but not with Twilight Struggle. We made those decisions. I decided which risks were worth taking. It went wrong because I didn’t know how to weigh those odds well enough.
The way Twilight Struggle uses random chance is brilliant. It gives a player caught behind hope. It can all be manipulated through the choices of the players. Perhaps most importantly, it adds tension in a way that I don’t think any other game has, especially in a setting as tricky to implement as the Cold War. You have to do away with the idea that nuclear war is bad because both sides lose, and impose on the game a winner anyway—but Twilight Struggle found a detour that does just the trick.