One of the most important rules in Twilight Struggle is that you lose the game if DEFCON drops to 1 on your turn. It doesn’t matter who “caused” it: if it happened on your watch, you’re responsible for humanity’s destruction.
It’s a very important rule because it ties directly into the paranoia and brinksmanship of Cold War doctrine. In most games of Twilight Struggle, DEFCON is deliberately kept at 2 nearly all the time. Coups in battleground countries are so vital that both sides naturally gravitate towards DEFCON 2. Generally this means that the USSR is more than happy to get the one battleground coup per turn, and keep DEFCON at 2 otherwise.
The cost of this brinksmanship is illustrated through several cards that are deliberately designed to degrade DEFCON by one level. With DEFCON at 2, these cards become “DEFCON suicide cards” and unplayable.
Loosely speaking, there are four categories of cards that can cost you the game.
Cards that unconditionally degrade DEFCON
- Duck & Cover (Early War, US 3Ops)
- We Will Bury You (Mid War, USSR 4Ops)
- Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007 (Late War, US 4Ops)
You can never trigger these events on your turn when DEFCON is at 2.
Cards that allow your opponent to conduct Operations
- CIA Created (Early War, US 1Op)
- Lone Gunman (Mid War, USSR 1Op)
- Grain Sales to Soviets (Mid War, US 2Ops)
- Tear Down This Wall (Late War, US 3Ops)
You can never play your opponent’s events from this list on your turn when DEFCON is 2 and your opponent can drop DEFCON by couping a battleground of yours (keeping in mind DEFCON restrictions). So if the US has any influence in a battleground in South America, Central America, or Africa, Lone Gunman is unplayable. Similarly, the USSR can play CIA Created at DEFCON 2 safely in the Early War only if they have no influence in Third World battlegrounds. This is one reason why playing Fidel is not such a big deal for the US in the Early War, since it makes CIA Created unplayable.
Practically speaking, these cards are indistinguishable from unconditional DEFCON degraders. Only CIA Created comes out early enough such that the USSR might not have any Third World influence; by the time Lone Gunman and Grain Sales arrive, you would already be far behind if you have no influence in battlegrounds in South America, Central America, or Africa. In truly extreme situations, you might be able to eliminate yourself from those regions preemptively in order to play one of these cards.
Note that Tear Down This Wall is also included in this category, because it allows a coup Europe despite DEFCON restrictions. Although it is theoretically possible that the USSR has no influence in any European battleground, they may as well resign anyway if that’s the case.
Cards that have a chance of degrading DEFCON
- Five Year Plan (Early War, US 3Ops)
- If played by the US, can pull Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007 or Duck & Cover. If played by the USSR, can trigger any of the other cards on this list in the USSR’s hand.
- Missile Envy (Mid War, Neutral 2Ops)
- Although this event won’t trigger any of your opponent’s events, it can still pull any your own unconditional DEFCON degraders. Many a US player has played this at DEFCON 2 only to be handed Duck & Cover. It can also cost you the game if it pulls one of the neutral DEFCON degraders, though the chance of Summit being the highest Ops card in your opponent’s hand is quite small.
- Ortega Elected in Nicaragua (Late War, USSR 2Ops)
- Only unplayable for the US if it has influence in Cuba.
- Star Wars (Late War, US 2Ops)
- The USSR will lose if it plays this while the US is ahead in the Space Race, and any of the other cards on this list is in the discard. (Including USSR events like We Will Bury You.)
Neutral events that degrade DEFCON
These are not really a problem, since you would have to be daft to play either of these for the event at DEFCON 2. Simply play them for Operations and you won’t lose the game. The only way these can really cost you the game is if you pull them with Missile Envy.
Managing these cards
At its heart, Twilight Struggle is a game about managing crises. So how do you manage these crises? Obviously, it’s easy to deal with neutral events and your own events (just don’t play Olympic Games for the event at DEFCON 2!), but how do you dispose of your opponent’s events without losing the game?
The easiest way is the Space Race. Virtually every card on this list can be sent to space. On the other hand, you can usually only space one card per turn, and in the case of CIA Created / Lone Gunman, you can’t space those unless under the effects of Brezhnev Doctrine / Containment. And if you’re under the effects of Red Scare/Purge, your hand suddenly looks a lot more dire.
So sometimes you won’t be able to Space Race a card. At that point, you might want to consider holding the card until next turn. If you have the China card, this is considerably easier; if you play the China card, you can even hold two cards. (SALT Negotiations also helps you hold one more card.) If you don’t have the China card, this becomes a very risky proposition: you’re quite vulnerable to any handsize reduction. A USSR play of Blockade, Terrorism, or Aldrich Ames Remix, or a US play of Five Year Plan, Grain Sales to Soviets, or Terrorism can cost you the game. Even your own play of UN Intervention can lose you the game, and boy will that be an embarrassing way to lose.
Speaking of which, UN Intervention is also a natural solution to this problem. It’s probably better to use UN on one of these cards than on, say, The Voice of America, since even though Voice of America is going to hurt, losing the game hurts more. On the other hand, you won’t always draw UN Intervention, and playing it will cut your handsize, a problem if you have multiple such cards. And the cards that you most want to use UN Intervention on — CIA Created and Lone Gunman — will just get reshuffled back into the deck if you don’t trigger the event.
With some foresight, you can also headline the card. Usually the USSR is unwilling to lower DEFCON during their headline, so it’s generally safe for the US to play a DEFCON-lowering headline. USSR can likewise wait until AR1 to play cards like CIA Created, since US headlines generally trigger first, and this way you can play something else if the US lowers DEFCON to 2 during headline phase. Of course, this solution isn’t guaranteed safe as your opponent’s headline may drop DEFCON first, and CIA Created / Lone Gunman are deliberately designed for maximum hurt when played in the headline phase.
More rarely, you can use events to help you get out of the jam. Nuclear Test Ban and SALT Negotiations both raise DEFCON by two levels, so even if your opponent drops DEFCON in response, you’ll still be able to play your cards at DEFCON 3. Cuban Missile Crisis will stop your opponent from couping anywhere in the world (and it takes precedence over victories by DEFCON), but it’s easily cancelled, so it usually doesn’t work. Brezhnev Doctrine and Containment allow you to send CIA Created and Lone Gunman to space. As USSR, you can take advantage of Nuclear Subs to stop US coups from dropping DEFCON. As US, Ask Not What Your Country… can discard any of these cards, and Aldrich Ames Remix (if played as your last Action) discards your last card. And of course, if you are sufficiently advanced on the Space Race track, you can discard your held card.