General Strategy: Turn 1

The first turn of Twilight Struggle is arguably the most important one.  An empty board means that the board is rife with both opportunity and pitfalls.  Even the smallest mistake early on can have dramatic ramifications: misplaying into Asia on Turn 1 can easily cost you Asia domination for the rest of the game.


There are five great USSR headlines on Turn 1: Red Scare/Purge, Suez Crisis, Arab-Israeli War, Socialist Governments, and Vietnam Revolts.  The benefits of Red Scare/Purge are obvious.  Suez Crisis (and Arab-Israeli War, with a 50% probability) plus a successful Iran coup will wipe the US out from the Middle East entirely.  Socialist Governments allows you to make a strong play for Europe.  Vietnam Revolts provides you with immediate access to Thailand and all but guarantees you’ll be able to take it before the US does.

On AR1, you realistically only have two options: coup Iran, or coup / play for Italy.  Traditionally, USSR players made a play for Italy, but modern Twilight Struggle thinking is that access to Pakistan and India is simply too important.  The Iran coup is critical not just for the Middle East, but also to secure western Asia against the US.  Letting the US into Iran means letting them into two Asian battlegrounds, and makes it very difficult for you to prevent Asian Domination.

As far as the rest of the turn goes, you have several priorities.  In Europe, it’s usually difficult to break through to France, so you can only content yourself with nabbing Greece/Turkey.  In the Middle East, an early Nasser can net you both Egypt and Libya, and if the US is still in Israel, taking Jordan and/or Lebanon puts some real pressure on the US position.  Their only option for presence would then be an Israel incredibly vulnerable to Arab-Israeli War.  In Asia, assuming you successfully took Iran, you want to expand eastward from western Asia (while watching out for the Indo-Pakistani War), while for keeping alert for an opportunity to grab South Korea and Thailand.  Obviously Decolonization and Vietnam Revolts will help greatly with the latter.


Assuming the USSR takes Iran, you have quite a few priorities:

  1. Protect Israel via Lebanon and/or Jordan.
  2. Make your way through Egypt into Libya before Nasser wipes you out.
  3. Gun for Thailand via Malaysia.
  4. Shore up South Korea while guarding against the Korean War.
  5. When you have a chance, take Greece and Turkey before the USSR does.

If the USSR opening coup of Iran is too good, then I wouldn’t bother dropping DEFCON to 3 by couping Iran back.  You not only risk being couped back if you succeed, but the USSR may be able to take Thailand first with Decolonization if you don’t succeed.  On the other hand, if the coup was weak, then I’m willing to gamble on the Iran coup in hopes of getting something into western Asia.  Overall, I’d much rather have the last coup of the turn than the second-to-last.

On the whole, your goal should be to survive rather than triumph.  All of the initiative is with the USSR; your main objective is simply not to fall behind too much in board position and VPs.  You should accept the fact that you will almost certainly be behind in VPs at the end of the Early War.  That’s OK, so long as you aren’t losing in every region.  Recognize when one region is beyond repair with just Ops, so you can cut your losses and be content to tread water there until you are able to take advantage of a major event to shake things up.

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31 Responses to General Strategy: Turn 1

  1. Anonymous says:

    How does one “guard against the Korean war”? I suppose one would want control of Japan to help, but this is still just a die roll toss-up, making capturing South Korea a really tricky proposition. Apart from Japanese control (which is prohibitively costly in the first turn), what else can a hopeful Truman do to ward off the threat of N. Korea invading?

    • theory says:

      Japan is one way to do it, since the USSR often will happily play US/Japan Defense Pact for 4 Ops. The other is to trigger the Korean War as quickly as you can. If you lose, you put in 2 Ops and you’re still at 2/1 (same situation as before); if you win, you put in 2 Ops and take the country.

      If you don’t have the Korean War, try putting just 1 into South Korea, making it 2/0. If you don’t, then the USSR takes South Korea at its leisure with a 4Ops. At 2/0, the USSR still isn’t totally interested in playing Korean War for the event, and might be tempted to play it for Ops instead. In which case you then have plenty of time to take South Korea, Japan, maybe Taiwan, and then by the time Korean War comes back out you’ll only be at 1/6 risk, which is good enough.

    • says:

      I’m a firm believer in that Korean war should be balanced by making it -1 to die roll if US controls south korea (same is Israeli war). Would probably eliminate the need for a +1 or +2 US handicap.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A friend recently introduced me to Twilight Struggle and we have been playing with a starting setup where the USA gets +2 IP they may place anywhere on the board they already have IPs to balance because neither of us has had any success playing USA.

    My friend playing USA has been putting those +2 IP into Iran to start there with 3 influence and control of Iran to start the game (with 7 IP in Europe played as 4WG and 3 ITA). As USSR, what do you suggest to headline / play in AR1 to counter this opening setup?

    • theory says:

      Personally, I think USA +2 IP is a little excessive: with the Optional Cards, +1 at most I think is enough for the US.

      I think here Riku’s comments on Vietnam Revolts is what you’re looking for. Without the option of an opening Iran coup, Vietnam Revolts becomes an extremely attractive headline.

  3. sael says:

    If USSR does not coup anywhere with his or her first move, does the US player need to drop the DEFCON to 4 by couping Iraq? DEFCON 5 seem to be very favorable to USSR, as they can thrust into Asia with a guaranteed ‘counter coup’ and crack down Italy with one coup. Meanwhile, DEFCON 4 is a very strong protection to the US, as they can safeguard Italy and coup back anywhere but Asia, and also threaten the opponent from going into Thailand/Pakistan. Do you think it’s good to coup Iraq just to make it down to 4?

    • theory says:

      The US can move into Afghanistan. Then the USSR either starts couping back and forth in Afghanistan, or the US will never lose access to western Asia.

  4. Alex says:

    My friend and I developed an apparently unheard of starting as Soviets. Put 4 of your starting 6 in Austria, and AR1 realign W.Germany. Your rolls are +1. If you have extra rolls, you can realign Italy, too. Since most US players avoid starting in France, you’re almost assured to have cut off access to W. Germany (Rarely do you fail all your rolls – you just need 1 big one), which causes them to scramble for it or give it up, guarunteeing you get domination in Europe for at least the early way, and much of the midwar.

    • theory says:

      This is commonly called the COMECON trap because it works best when you can also grab Yugoslavia as well via a COMECON headline. That means you can realign both WGer and Italy at +1.

      It is vulnerable to a number of US Turn 1 headlines, however, so it’s definitely a high-risk play.

  5. sael says:

    In Turn 1, I usually found that Defcon stays at 4 for a very long time after the first coup, as player will want to wait for its opponent to enter Pakistan / Thailand at Turn 4, while the opponent is usually reluctant to do so. Besides, both players don’t have any substantial coup target (USSR has Panama, which won’t be scored until Turn 3; US has none). So, what is the most common action that drops DEFCON to 3? Is it usually done by USSR or by US? What would the coup target? Panama? Iraq? Egypt?

    • testing_testing says:

      I’ve seen the same thing, but the US needs to coup to bring DEFCON to 3 at some point, otherwise at the start of the next round the USSR can coup/realign in Europe.

  6. MagiusPaulus says:

    Although i realize it’s very conditional on headlines and such, the following sequence of play happens more often than not :

    USSR-R1: Coup Iran (if you have a 4, play it. If you have only a 3, pray that you don’t a roll a 1 or you start with a BIG disadvantage, although you can argue that you have a second chance in Pakistan)
    US-R1: Take South-Korea, Take Lebananon OR Coup Iran back if the result of the USSR wasn’t too good
    USSR-R2: Play Korean war if you have it (before US get’s more countries that border SK), else play at least 1 OP in Pakistan and 1 OP in Afghanistan if you have Iran. An alternative is to coup Lebananon. IMHO this country is underrated. The 1st player who coups it get’s in with about 3 OP, so it won’t be couped back. The US is does not move in Syria (2 for a non-BG is a lot in turn 1), and Egypt (Nasser). This way the US does not even score presence.
    US-R2: Coup Pakistan (in which case the USSR seals of India if he has a 3 to spare), or take Taiwan. I realize it is a huge investment in T1, but it protects against Korean war and get’s a probable battleground.

    Europe scarsely get’s action in my games, except when headlines forces this. 1st turn is all about positioning for Asia, as it should be because it’s the most important area in the early war and maybe even for the entire game.

    • SnowFire says:

      “If you have only a 3, pray that you don’t a roll a 1”

      Ah, but the USSR does have a 4: the China Card. It’s entirely worth using for an Iran coup if you don’t draw a 4ops card; you wipe out the US guaranteed, and you get an extra influence of overprotection for counter-coups. At worst, you De-stal extra Iran influence if you roll a 6.

      Not that I think the USSR should always coup Iran turn 1- Europe / Vietnam / Decol plays can certainly be viable – but if you do coup, go big.

      • schlomoe99 says:

        Using the China Card before Turn 3 is a dubious course of action if you don’t have Decolonization/Destalinization in hand. If the US player is trying to hold BOTH of these cards in order to space them after the turn 3 reshuffle, he can only do so if (1) He doesn’t have to discard a card due to ‘Blockade’ and (2) he has the China Card. If, as USSR, you can manage to force the US player to space them early – or better yet, play one of them – you will avoid these two critical events from being buried until turn 7.

    • ddddddd says:

      As US I wouldn’t get into South Korea until Korean War has been played or I own Japan. Preferably, the US gets dealt Korean War, so can play the event first, then even if the USSR wins, they’re only 1 strong, and you can use 2-3 of the card’s ops to get back on top there.

    • trevaur says:

      As US, don’t take South Korea on AR1
      As USSR, DEFINITELY don’t play 1 Op into Pakistan unless Defcon is below 4. This almost completely defeats the purpose of couping Iran in the first place, plus you can’t coup back and you end up just handing over Pakistan and India to the US for no reason. Also, as SnowFire previously stated, as USSR if you don’t have a 4 and want to coup Iran you should use the China Card, because if you risk playing a 3 and roll a 1 then you’ll be at a massive disadvantage.

      • ddddddd says:

        Agreed on the AR1 strategy.

        Personally I think that the best AR1 USSR coup of Iran is a 5-pointer – i.e. just takes the 1 influence out. Certainly it’s better than a weak coup, which the US can take back and keep. Once I did this (played a 4-op card and rolled a 1) and I whined about it a bit at the time, but it really sewed up the ME and Western Asia for me.

  7. trevaur says:

    If the USSR headlines Suez Crisis and then gets a big coup in Iran, what are people’s thoughts on the US couping Syria? It would get the US back into the Middle east as well as access to Turkey.

    • Idris says:

      If you have the ops, that actually feels like a decent idea. While it doesn’t drop defcon, that just means you can get into a coup war over it and delay Soviet expansion. Or just force them to spend an extra op to get Domination in the ME in Jordan.

  8. klaklukla says:

    What about US headlining CIA in turn one and play one point in Afghanistan. It would guarantee you acess to Pakistan. (If DEFCON is at 4 after an USSR AR1 Iran coup , you can play into Pakistan if USSR coups somewhere or coup him out of Pakistan if he plays any points in there). USSR could coup Afghanistan, but if you play one more point there in your AR1 you have pretty good chances to win a forth-and-back couping there (if you are not Red Scared).

  9. Ioan76_TM says:

    Good article – I’d have just a small observation/addition :

    >There are five great USSR headlines on Turn 1: Red Scare/Purge, Suez Crisis, Arab-Israeli War, Socialist Governments, and Vietnam Revolts.

    “Cambridge Five” is also a good USSR headline in T1 – especially if US player could have Asia Scoring in hand ( as long as it unusual to attempt to play it in headline – from my experience I noticed that US player may be tempted to score Middle East for a quick, VP-neutral, drop of it ) : placing 1 INF in India right at the beginning of the game is a huge advantage, which will allow greater flexibility for Soviet player.

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  13. del_greg says:

    Seeking for clarification – why the USSR should even bother to invest any Ops in Greece/ Turkey – what is the point?

    • theory says:

      Usually it is not feasible to score Europe domination without Spain/Portugal, Greece, and Turkey. So taking those either helps you get Euro dom, or block Euro dom for the other player.

  14. Adam says:

    “Assuming the USSR takes Iran, you have quite a few priorities:
    1. Protect Israel via Lebanon and/or Jordan.
    2. Make your way through Egypt into Libya before Nasser wipes you out.
    3. Gun for Thailand via Malaysia.
    4. Shore up South Korea while guarding against the Korean War.
    5. When you have a chance, take Greece and Turkey before the USSR does.”

    As largely covered in the comments above, the problem with these priorities as described is that they generate lots of coup targets unless you wait for Defcon to drop (Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Malaysia, Thailand). I don’t think Egypt and Lybia are all that important for the US anyway, least of all in the early war when coup targets are low. Also, shoring up Korea doesn’t really make sense.

    I would clarify US priorities as follows, in order:
    1. Deal with any damage from a USSR Suez/Arab War/Socialist Govs Headline
    ie. Coup into Syria if you lost access to ME, shore up Italy/Germany
    2. Take Jordan (and Lebanon at Def 2, or with a coup earlier) for presence and access
    3. Take Malaysia, then Thailand once Def 4
    4. Play at least one op into Greece for access to Turkey / back to Italy, and to deter Soviets there

    Simultaneously, trigger as many Soviet *s as possible, especially:
    1. Korean War – once you do, you are racing to take SK
    2. Nasser, if you need coup targets
    3. Romania/Warsaw/Comecon early, in case USSR has Independent Reds
    4. Blockade, great with Socialist Govs

    Finally, don’t be too too afraid of taking France or SK if strategically relevant. France is really only vulnerable to Headline+AR1 combos,so Defectors is a good defense & you’re better off the more of CDG, Soc Govs and Suez are played, and that costs USSR the AR1 coup plus ops. SK is vulnerable to Korean War, so better to take it after Mutual Defense Pact. Taiwan (or AR6&AR1 NK grab) is an expensive defense, but possible. Worst case: 50/50.

  15. Spiff says:

    I was wondering what about a US ultra-aggressive run in 1st turn?
    That’s my scenario:

    Assume the URSS and US headline are tantamount, no shift/advantage on the board. First round the URSS get a good Iran coup; the US play a 3 OPs card and place 1 in IP in Lebanon, 1 in Angola and 1 in Colombia.

    Good aspects of that 3 OPs card play:

    + the US player protects Israel from Arab-Israeli War and Suez Crisis and also get presence in Middle-East.

    + the US player move the focus from Asia (where the URSS is going to get enough VPs since they strongly couped Iran) to other regions (Africa and South America) with a scoring card coming out non before two turns, and leave the URSS player in front of the dilemma of where couping.

    + the US player can start a two attempts coup-fight for battle-ground Angola [provided the URSS doesn’t have Duck And Cover in his hand]; that assures to the US player not to losing VPs due to lack of Military Operations at the end of the turn and leave to the luck the battle-ground Angola that would be sure a URSS possession if he draws Decolonization.

    + the US player can start a back-and-forth coup-fight for the crucial non-battle-ground Colombia; that assures to the US player not to losing VPs due to lack of Military Operations at the end of the turn.

    + considering the 4 OPs the URSS has spent couping the Iran, you have a very slight advantage (1Op) in a back-and-forth coup-fight in Colombia and/or Angola.

    What do you think about this AR1 play? Consider that the most important advantage in my opinion is that the US can rely on a (statisticallly correct) luck tie to nullify the first turn of lay that is generally much more favorable to URSS player; obviously this strategy acquires much more efficiency is the US player mean OPs value is enoguh high.

    • Al Sadius says:

      It’s premature to play into Angola on turn 1 – it’s too vulnerable, and it might well not get scored until turn 7. Likewise, Colombia is even more vulnerable, since he can just throw a 1-ops at it any time he likes for the near-guaranteed coup and probably good solid access to South America.

      If I want to play aggressive as the US, I’ll usually go for Malaysia and Jordan(to get access to more BGs), or the counter-coup in Iran. Maybe Egypt, if I have reason to think I can get to Libya before Nasser happens.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I have some kind of doubts what should I do if USSR succesfully coups Italy. Apparently we should take advatage of possesing Iran in ME and move forward Asia, but putting IPs in Pakistan is tantamount to asking for coup, which effectivelly cuts USA from West Asia anyway(and Iran can be couped at the beggining of next time which finally wipe out USA totally of that region). And doing there nothing or conducting meaningless coup in other country f. e. in Iraq for the purpose of decreasing DEFCON means next Soviet coup in Iran which means for USA lost of two BG countries Italy and Iran +access to West Asian BGs.

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