5 Tips for Twilight Struggle

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In this video, I detail 5 tips that I’d recommend for playing Twilight Struggle.

Trigger the Marshall Plan event as the US

Especially in the Early War, when US ops points are at their most precious, it can be tempting for the Americans to play this 4 op card for influence or a coup. However, it’s my opinion that the US should trigger the Marshall Plan event as soon as possible, ideally as a Turn 1 headline.

The Marshall Plan event gives the US a head start in spreading influence in western Europe. In particular, it gets Canada and the three 2-op countries to within 1 influence point of being under US control. Canada is nice for the US to control in order to gain the NORAD benefit, but it’s my opinion that controlling Europe goes to whichever side can seize the 2 op non battlegrounds along the Mediterranean. Even if the US loses France to De Gaulle, their control of these 2 op countries makes it extremely difficult, and prohibitively expensive, for the USSR to achieve domination in Europe. If I was playing as the USSR, I would consider Europe a lost cause after a Marshall Plan headline and would simply work to get a stalemate in the region until the Reformer comes around in the Late War.

A US headline of Marshall Plan allows the US to focus its efforts on the Middle East and Asia during the Early War. Because the US has a difficult starting position in Twilight Struggle, it’s in the US players best interest to limit the areas where they need to add influence. Asia scoring can be more important than Europe scoring over an entire game, so it’s best to have the US make as strong an attempt as possible to get a foothold in western Asia. This can’t be done as effectively if they’re also scrambling to protect Europe.

Thailand is possibly the most important battleground in the game

Asia tends to produce bigger point swings than Europe or the Middle East, so it’s a vital region to gain influence in the Early War. The USSR starts the game with the advantage of possessing the China Card, so it’s an uphill battle for the US.

Out of all the Asian battlegrounds, Thailand tends to be the most important. Typically, the US will hold onto South Korea and Japan, while the USSR will control North Korea, Pakistan, and India. It can be devastating for the USSR if the US can seize control of the western Asia battlegrounds, but it’s more common for the USSR to be there after a first turn coup of Iran or 1 influence placement into Afghanistan.

This leaves Thailand as the make or break battleground. If the US controls it the region is deadlocked, but if the USSR takes it they’ll likely dominate.

The US starts off in nearby Australia, but they can’t move into Malaysia until DEFCON drops to 3. The best case scenario for the USSR is to play an early Vietnam Revolts or Decolonization, but they’re in a similarly problematic position if DEFCON is still above 3.

For either side, getting into Thailand gives you a strong position in both Asia and Southeast Asia. If possible, the side in control of Thailand should work to control the SE Asia countries adjacent to Thailand, for both SE Asia scoring and to protect Thailand from enemy influence placement. This is slightly easier for the USSR if they can play Vietnam Revolts, as they’ll have an extra op point for any card played completely in SE Asia.

The China Card Battleground Flip

Players must be aware of the fact that the China Card can completely flip control of a 2 op country in Asia due to the fact that it provides 5 ops in that region.

Players who control either Pakistan or Thailand, but do NOT hold the China Card, must be sure that those countries are either not bordered by a country with enemy influence or they need to have a 3 influence advantage to prevent the flip.

This can be expensive for the US in the Early War, but the USSR gets a bit of help from Decolonization (where I usually put 1 op into Thailand and the rest into Africa). A battleground flip completely changes the scoring of a region, so it’s very important to be able to prevent that from happening due to a single influence placing card play.

Destalinize into South America.

Short of discarding Destalinization after the Turn 3 reshuffle, the next best thing the US player can do to get around this powerful card is to play it early enough where the USSR player might be limited in what influence they can move around, or to have them be at a point where they might consider it more important to play Destal into the Early War regions.

In my opinion, the vast majority of Destalinization plays should have the USSR putting 1 influence into Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Of course, this is most ideal when DEFCON is 2, but you might be able to do it at a higher DEFCON against a weaker US player who mistakenly considers other priorities.

Although the US will get Mid War cards that allow the US to freely place influence into South America, an early USSR presence can make this a non-threat, one easily corrected with cheap influence placement. The most dangerous situation for the USSR would be to not build influence into South America, only to have a Voice of America pop up and wipe out everything.

After an effective Destalinization play, the USSR will be in a position to score control, and the US will either have to waste ops points going for control of more countries in the region or hoping to get lucky with Voice of America, Brush War, Junta and cards that allow coups.

If the USSR controls South America during a game where the South American scoring card pops up twice it can easily turn into a 20 VP win.

Small Advantages Win the Game

Twilight Struggle is a game about creating and maintaining several slight advantages. Newer players can be drawn into a mentality where they try to rack up points in a region that they already dominate, which ends up being counter productive. A good strategy throughout the game is to try to maintain very small but significant leads in as many regions as possible, with a priority on the higher scoring areas like Asia.

It can sometimes be a more strategic option to play a deadlocked scoring card during the headline phase, or to simply score a region immediately after gaining dominance or a battleground advantage. It is a mistake to pour an entire turns worth of ops into a region that you already have the advantage, as the amount of ops points being put in will not give you a suitably appropriate outcome in increased scoring.

It can be said that it is more important to understand how to play scoring cards that have you at a disadvantage than it is to be able to maximize scoring in a single region. Over the course of a game, the winner will likely be the person who played defense for the majority of the game by protecting their small advantages across the map.

What Did I Play? [05/30/16 – 06/05/16]

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A vlog about the board games and video games I played between 05/30/16 and 06/05/16! Some quick thoughts about Evolution, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Dark Moon, and Suikoden.

 

Labyrinth: The War on Terror iPad App

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There’s an app (in beta) for the jihadist AI of Labyrinth! This video examines how the app works and I give some thoughts on why I enjoy it so much.

What Did I Play? [3/14/16 – 3/20/16]

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A vlog about the board games and video games I played between 3/13/16 and 3/20/16! Some quick thoughts about the Twilight Struggle beta and 7 Wonders: Duel.

The Twilight Struggle Beta A.I.

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The beta for Twilight Struggle on Steam recently updated, and the new version of the game includes a rudimentary artificial intelligence which can act as your opponent. Previously, the game required you to find an opponent via online matchmaking, so this is a big deal for those anti-social types who’d rather wage a potential nuclear war against a faceless robotic enemy.

This video is the first game I played against the new AI. As a note, the developers released this with the caveat that the AI is extremely raw, and that the games against it will be nothing compared to a real, human opponent. Is this true? Does it matter? You can find out in the video!

Let’s Play: Labyrinth: The War on Terror [Solitaire]

Labyrinth: The War on Terror is a 2010 board game that simulates the state of affairs in the world, and the Muslim world in particular, after the events of 9/11. In the game, one player takes the role of the US and the other the role of the jihadist forces. While built as a two player game, a remarkable feature of the game is its ability to be played as a solo game experience.

In the solitaire game, the single player controls the US forces, while the artificial intelligence of the jihadists is determined through a complex series of flow charts.

In this video playlist, I play a single deck game against the evil AI flow chart!

Splendor: Steam Version

Splendor, the award winning board game released in 2014, has returned to the gaming scene in a digital version. Available on Steam and iOS, the Splendor app is priced at $10. So is it worth the cost?

I recorded a game of Splendor on my PC and put down a couple of my thoughts about this shiny new digital port.

Star Realms

I work in a corporate office.

Sometimes, I’ll get up and leave my cubicle to get a cup of coffee. Sometimes I don’t even want the coffee. I just want to stretch my legs. Sometimes I already have a cup of coffee, and I’ll pour that one out and try a different Keurig blend. Other times, I’ll simply get a cup of water.

Then I go back to my desk.

Sometimes I go out to lunch. Occasionally I’ll walk fifteen minutes down the road to get a Subway sandwich. Sometimes I even go to the Subway store which is only five minutes away. The days where I go to the farther store are random; it’s just how my mood strikes me.

Then I go back to my desk. I always end up back at my desk.

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Star Realms reminds me a bit of these tiny adventures in working a 9 to 5. An assorted group of random actions that, at when viewed in hindsight, seem less random than they actually are. My days in the office always seem to build to something. If you were to view these days at an extremely high level, you’d almost think there was some strategy to it.

There would be times where I’d show up to the coffee machine and discover that some kind soul made cupcakes! Through sheer strategy, I timed my coffee break to coincide with the arrival of a sugary desert!

But then, on the other hand, there would be times when I’d walk to the farthest Subway only to change my mind halfway and grab a bagel instead.

Star Realms is a deck building card game. In a deck builder, the players start with extremely weak cards and use those cards to gain other, stronger cards. This, in turn, strengthens their overall deck. Efficient players will try to shed their weaker cards in order to strengthen their hands. The engine runs on simplicity and strategy is to be efficient. Efficiency is a king maker.

Star Realms is, at its most basic, a two player game. Opponents square off with identical starting decks and use a “Trade Row” of face up cards on the table to strengthen their respective decks. The simple mechanics rely on three stats: authority, trade, and combat. Players start with 50 “authority” (in the normal world we call this value, “health”), and they use trade (money) value to buy more powerful cards from the Trade Row. Combat (damage) values are essentially attack values, and the combat damage that you deal to an opponent results in a reduction in their total authority value. When a player is reduced to 0 authority, the game ends and that player loses.

The cards which are purchased can also have special abilities. They can draw additional cards to your base hand size of five. They can force opponents to discard cards. They can allow a player to “scrap” cards they own, which allows for decks to become more efficient and powerful via the removal of weaker cards. In addition, each card is aligned with one of four factions, and when cards of a similar faction are played together they can sometimes synergize if they have “allied abilities”. Essentially, factions of the same type can allow for additional actions if they are played in the same turn.

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On a turn, a player throws down their hand of cards. Since all cards played perform an action, the order of card play is irrelevant. However, a small advantage lies in having more cards to play, or to cause your opponent to have fewer cards to play. The player then sorts through their hand, enacts card abilities, and determines the sum totals for authority, combat and trade, and then uses those total values against their opponent. They might also choose to “scrap” certain cards in order to gain an additional advantage, at the expense of permanently losing that card.

Once finished, the player discards all the cards they played, removes scrapped cards, and draws five new cards to refill their hand. Then their opponent takes a turn.

It’s a simple process. Games rarely take longer than ten minutes and the individual turns are extremely quick. It’s quick, brisk, and any other adjective for speedy that you can conjure up.

Star Realms sits at an odd crossroads. It’s the sort of game that seems to teeter on the edge of the good/bad divide, and its placement there leaves you with a neither favorable nor unfavorable opinion. I could imagine a few rule changes that would make the game play much worse than it does, and I can also see a few improvements that could be made. The odd thing is that the improvements I would make would change the overall game play and we might end up in an even less favorable spot.

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Let’s discuss a few of the issues with this game.

As I mentioned in the opening, a game of Star Realms feels like a game playing itself through a random collection of actions. The human players are simply there to shuffle and deal cards. The “AI” of the game is disconnected from a physical boy: the game is SkyNet and we are T-100s. SkyNet does all the thinking and we T-100’s are there to do all the heavy lifting and savior-of-humanity assassinating. Random events come and go, and only appear strategic in hindsight (and only for the victor).

There is precious little decision making in Star Realms. Hands of cards are simply dropped on the table (if you’re playing correctly, this is being done in various dramatic ways) and then sorted to figure out what has happened. Cards cannot be held between turns, so what you’re dealt is what you get. At this point, strategy has joined Elvis in leaving the building. Maybe you’ve been strategizing about which factions to purchase from the Trade Row, but at this point it’s all for naught: you drew no matching factions and instead drew too many terrible starting cards.

In addition to this lack of strategy, the Trade Row dominates the flow of the game. There are extremely few cards that allow cards from the Trade Row to be removed, so refreshing your options is largely a matter of bad cards being purchased and clearing room for new options. Since the starting selection of Trade Row cards is random, you can initiate games where the first few options you’re given are simply no good. Or, you can have an opening selection of relatively weak cards and nothing to build towards.

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What then happens is a series of semi-random events. In a manner similar to the events of my work day, players start to buy seemingly random cards. Getting lucky in terms of trade value is a huge boon early on, but your still limited to the options the Trade Row has presented you. Players slowly gain mid value cards and then wait for the next reshuffle to get them back.

At this point, we hit another odd snag. Star Realms has an extremely quick escalation in terms of abilities. The first deck deal is weak, but even then it’s still possible to draw five trade value, which is a sizable number throughout the game. With the first reshuffle and then into the second, the player decks take a drastic jump in output. A player causing their opponent to lose 20% of their total authority (health) on the second or third reshuffle is fairly common. The game plays quickly, but the pace seems to outrun the strategy. Card selection, the random event I keep harping on, is minor in impact when you consider how quickly each player is powering up.

But, you say, why don’t you just increase the amount of authority each player starts with? That would lengthen the game and allow for various strategies to feel more developed! You might even get a chance to buy one of those 7 or 8 value ships that have amazing effects! You don’t typically see them in normal length games because the lesser ships do enough damage to not make the higher priced ones a value proposition! That’d be great, you’d say.

But then, I’d reply, you’re going to push Star Realms out of the good/bad divide. Altering the game this way removes one of the games greatest strengths: its quick pace and overall length. The current length of the game is almost ideal for what it is, even if that length results in games that can sometimes feel inevitable and lacking in any sort of cohesive strategy. It’s a tough trade off to make.

I enjoy Star Realms. However, to do that I have to appreciate the fact that the lack of decision making is just a part of the overall experience. What appears to be a variety of options really isn’t anything of the sort, and removing a players impact when playing their hand just furthers the realization that the game is playing itself. When I win, I can look back at the card purchases I made and talk myself into how smart I was to make those decisions. Ultimately, however, those decisions were made for me: I bought that card because I could afford it, and not because of some greater motive. The game plays too quickly for anything else.

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Star Realms is a game for the determinist, but those who believe in free will might still think that they’re making smart game choices, even if they ultimately end up back at their office “desk”.

With all that said, it plays in ten minutes! And set up is lighting quick!

Just be sure to buy the iOS app that tracks each players’ authority. The authority cards included with the game are truly awful.