4 Lessons from Twilight Struggle for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

Twilight Struggle has been considered one of the best board games of all time. It’s been on the Board Game Geek Top 10 for as long as I can remember and for a while was the #1 game. Twilight Struggle is in equal measures incredible and frustrating, needlessly complicated and elegant in its simplicity. No matter how you feel about it, there is a lot that new board game designers can learn from it.

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To give you a sense of what Twilight Struggle is like, I’ll borrow an explanation from an old post of mine from 2016:

In Twilight Struggle, you play as either the USA or the USSR during the Cold War era from 1945 to 1989. This is strictly a two-player game. The objective is to score the most points by the end, be the first one to reach 20 points, or to run the DEFCON meter all the way up to DEFCON 1 (thermonuclear war) on your opponent’s turn. It’s played over 10 rounds, split into three eras with different cards: Early War, Mid-War, and Late War.

I won’t get too much into the DEFCON meter, since that’s a whole can of worms that’s outside of the scope of this breakdown. To score, you want to have control of certain regions of the board when scoring cards come around. Broadly speaking, if you have more countries in Africa, you get points when the Africa scoring card comes around. Other scoring regions include South America, Central America, North America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Asia, and Europe. Instead of both players racking up separate tallies, the score rather moves along a two-ended 20 point track (40 points total) with an advantage to the USSR or USA.

1. If you are going to make a game hard to learn, make it worth learning.

From the explanation above, you can tell Twilight Struggle is a complex game. The rule book is long and confusing. Even the basic premises take multiple paragraphs to explain. I once found a strategy guide over 400 pages in length for this game.

For all the talk of accessibility and gateway games, I think some games are meant to be complex. Some games make you work to uncover their secrets. Instead of trying to quickly appeal to you, the games say “no, you play on my terms.” In a weird way, this works wonders and the effort required to learn makes you really appreciate the game.

Maybe it’s your aspiration to make a heavy wargame. Indeed, many of the greatest board games of all time are complex, drawn-out affairs meant for gritty battles of intellectual prowess. If that’s the case, you must internalize one key lesson. Your game better be worth it.

If your game is going to take hours to learn, and many more hours to master, people need to love it. You need die-hard fans to come out of play-testing sessions. Your game must make fanatics so consumed with affection for your game that they proselytize its merits to others. Otherwise, the effort required to learn simply is not worth it.

2. Pacing is crucial.

In that old post I linked above, I talk at length about how Twilight Struggle is incredibly proficient at maintaining tension for the entirety of the game. In my opinion, pacing is one of the most underrated aspects of board game design. This is something we even considered when developing Tasty Humans, an entirely different sort of game.

Put simply, board games have to be interesting for the entirety of their run time. For relatively long games like Twilight Struggle, which tend to be an hour and a half or more in gameplay time, this is especially crucial. The game must evolve and change over time.

Twilight Struggle, because of its structure, has a rhythm to it. It’s split into Early War, Mid-War, and Late War. Different cards become available at different times. The USSR tends to have an early advantage, and they want the game to end early. The US tends to have a late advantage, and they want to drag the game out. The constant, subtle fluctuation in viable strategies keeps the game fresh over its entire runtime.

3. Luck is not evil. Powerlessness is.

A lot of heavy games stay away from dice. In general, the heaviest games stay away from anything remotely resembling chance elements. The idea being that long games need to have less chance in them so that the most strategic player wins.

It makes sense for long games to reward smart, dedicated players. I don’t think anybody could dispute that. But I think the aversion to dice shown by many hardcore hobby gamers is shortsighted.

Twilight Struggle uses dice, and by extension, incorporates a luck element. However, at no point is a player truly powerless. Before every dice roll, a player can calculate the odds of a particular maneuver going one way over the other. They can say to themselves, “I have a 70% chance of getting what I want, so may as well try it.”

What’s really important here is that the dice never become the boss of the player. The player holds all the decision-making power, and they choose to play or not to play certain games of probability. That’s infinitely more nuanced than, say, Chutes & Ladders.

4. Reward creative play.

Heavy games are intellectual exercises. Like a reader reading James Joyce or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, players want to be challenged. They want to fight for every tiny victory. Lovers of heavy board games are motivated by becoming competent at something difficult.

When a game functions as an intellectual exercise, you have to reward creative play. In Twilight Struggle, you are given ample opportunity to sabotage your opponent by forcing them to make tough decisions. You can pursue different scoring strategies by dominating different regions on the map. You can initiate subtle transitions of power by realignment or dramatic ones by staging a coup.

No two games of Twilight Struggle are ever the same. Sometimes the US wins by controlling Southeast Asia. Other times, the USSR takes over South America via Cuba and Africa via Egypt. Players cannot come up with strategies well in advance, they have to constantly respond to events on the board.

From these factors, you have enormous potential for creative play. (Another wonderful example of creative play? Terraforming Mars.)

Final Thoughts

Twilight Struggle is a gritty, difficult, complex game that rewards players seeking a challenge. For those dedicated enough to unlocking its secrets, you can learn from its perfect pacing, clever use of chance elements, and its abundant opportunities for creative play.

If you’re developing your first board game, I strongly recommend you buy a copy of Twilight Struggle. Even if you don’t have someone to play it with, the Steam store has a version available for $14.99. You can play against the computer or friends online. Worth every penny 🙂

6 thoughts on “4 Lessons from Twilight Struggle for Aspiring Board Game Designers

  1. Interesting food for thought, thanks for the breakdown and analysis of Twilight Struggle! It hadn’t been on my radar previously but I will definitely check it out. Does the version on Steam play a little easier for first time players than the board game itself?

    1. Steam’s definitely a little gentler. The bots aren’t particularly smart, though they are enough to provide adequate challenge, especially early on. They’ll help you learn the ropes until you’re good enough to teach others, which is how I find opponents now!

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