The overarching paradigm of Twilight Struggle is that events create opportunities, and Operations are how you take advantage of those opportunities. Accordingly, you should treat events not as your primary source of influence, but rather as gamechangers that break open the game for your Operations.
The basis for this principle is the observation that Operations are generally more efficient than events, even if the event technically gives more influence. The Comecon event gives the USSR 4 influence, but they’re spread out and in a rather useless place. By contrast, the 3 Ops of the Comecon card can be played as a strong coup, can take over a crucial battleground, or can extend and create threats all over the board.
On the other hand, by the Mid War, many regions begin to degenerate into stalemates. Once your opponent controls a country, it’s hugely inefficient to try to break their control with Operations alone. Sometimes it’s still worth it, but you need to be at a significant Ops advantage (or take multiple Actions in a row) to take over an opponent-controlled country with pure Ops. Alternatively, maybe you just don’t have access to the region: without coup targets, all the Operations in the world aren’t going to get the USSR into the Americas.
This is where events come in. Their effects can have dramatic ramifications and shake up otherwise deadlocked regions. USSR secure in Africa? Boom, Nuclear Subs and all of a sudden all the battlegrounds are yours. US is dominating Europe? Bam, Socialist Governments headline, and now an AR1 Europe Scoring is -5 instead of +5.
A large part of Twilight Struggle skill is therefore recognizing which events to trigger, and when to trigger them. Some events are so powerful that you will almost never see them played for Operations (ABM Treaty, Decolonization, Grain Sales to Soviets), and some are so awful you’ll never even remember their event text (Summit, Nuclear Test Ban). But most events are somewhere in between. Knowing when you should press on with your Operations and when you need to call upon an event is a hallmark of a strong player.
A good example is Red Scare/Purge. The event text is unbelievably strong: it can cause your opponent to flat-out lose the game. But while a weaker player will tend to automatically headline the card, seeing only the advantages and opportunities of -1 to your opponents’ Ops, a strong player will also spot the potential benefits of being able to play 4 Ops at once (one of only five Early War 4 Ops cards), and recognize when Red Scare/Purge ends up being more beneficial when played for Operations.
To get better at this differentiation, it is helpful to classify the cards in the game into four categories: your opponents’ starred events, your own starred events, neutral starred events, and recurring events. With your own events, you are choosing between the Ops and the event; with your opponent’s events, you are choosing between the Ops minus the event effect or the Space Race.
Your opponents’ starred events
Your opponents’ starred events can only happen once in the game. Prior to Turn 7, therefore, you should seek to trigger them whenever possible — better that you control its one-time effect than your opponent — rather than discarding them (by playing them on the Space Race, or by playing it with UN Intervention). Some examples:
- The US should always try to get Warsaw Pact Formed out of the way as soon as possible, since 5 influence for the USSR is infinitely preferable to the looming threat of being able to instantly remove all US influence in eastern Europe.
- A US player that draws De Gaulle Leads France can play it with an empty France and then place the 3Ops into France to make it 3/1. On the other hand, a USSR player that draws De Gaulle can headline it and then take France easily on AR1.
- The USSR should play Containment and Nuclear Subs on the final Action Round of a turn, where they have the least effect, rather than send them to space only for the US to draw them back and play them more effectively.
- Truman Doctrine is useless in the USSR hand, because the USSR can just play it as soon as they have no uncontrolled countries. On the other hand, a US player can time its play for maximum effect, by, for instance, breaking USSR control of France on the final Action Round, and then headlining Truman Doctrine the next turn to wipe out 3+ USSR influence from a critical country.
- Many beginner US players will find ways to discard or cancel Blockade from being played. This is a mistake. If you draw Blockade and can safely play, you should usually do so, rather than allow the USSR to spring a nasty surprise on you in the Mid War.
Only the truly critical opponents’ starred events, the ones you have no ability to manage, should be sent to space. These include De-Stalinization, Tear Down This Wall, The Reformer, and Quagmire/Bear Trap. These are usually either so strong, or so suicidal for you to play, that you would prefer to assume the risk of your opponent controlling how it’s played rather than play it yourself.
However, if you’re on Turn 7 or later, you no longer need to worry about the “removing” vs “discarding” distinction. For all practical purposes, you can safely discard cards knowing they will almost certainly not return to the game. The draw deck reshuffles on Turn 3 and Turn 7; it’s occasionally reshuffled on Turn 10, but that’s quite rare. Of course, you still won’t be able to space every card you see, and will still have to deal with some of the events, but you no longer have to worry that cards sent to space will return to your opponent’s hand.
Your starred events
Most of these you want to keep around in the deck, since you would rather your opponent have a hand full of your events than full of his. Sometimes the effect of a card is the same no matter who plays it: neither side particularly cares who triggers Willy Brandt or NATO. (In other words, these are generally bad events.) Sometimes a card is only dangerous because your opponent is playing it: CIA Created, for instance. Sometimes the looming threat of the card is more effective than the card itself: Truman Doctrine‘s continued presence in the deck is often enough to deter the USSR from engaging in an influence war in Europe.
But there are also times when you must trigger your own starred events:
- Because they will be meaningless or crippled in your opponent’s hands: see, e.g., Containment/Brezhnev Doctrine, “Ask Not What Your Country…”, Cultural Revolution.
- Because they are so critical that your opponent will never play them for you, and certainly send to space: see, e.g., De-Stalinization and John Paul II Elected Pope.
- Because if you don’t play it now, its effect will be meaningless later: see, e.g., Vietnam Revolts and Puppet Governments.
- Because if you don’t play it now, it may never get played. You really hope the USSR will draw CIA Created, but if you draw it on Turn 7 as the US, don’t hold out hope that the USSR will somehow draw it again by the end of the game. Just play it if you need it.
Neutral starred events
There aren’t many of these. Consider playing them so your opponent can’t. This is especially true of SALT Negotiations: even if you can’t make good use of it, you don’t really want your US opponent using it to play The Voice of America again.
Since these events will trigger over and over again, you don’t have to worry about removing them from the deck. So when playing neutral or your own recurring events, the general principle applies: do you really need the event? Or are the Ops going to be better? Latin American Death Squads maybe gives you one coup bonus, but the 2 Ops is almost certainly superior. On the other hand, Liberation Theology is also 2 Ops, but it gives you 3 influence, can be played into US-controlled countries with no penalty, and is in a fairly critical region. As US, Duck and Cover is usually played for the 3 Ops, but towards the end of the game, the 3VP / denial of a USSR coup may be worth considerably more. (As a general rule, most of the neutral recurring events are pretty strong. ABM Treaty, Brush War, Junta, and Red Scare/Purge are all among the best events in the game.)
There’s no real advantage to playing your opponents’ recurring events instead of spacing them. The only relevant question, therefore, is whether it’s worth sending to space or using the Ops. Since you ordinarily only have one Space Race slot per turn, you have no choice but to work around most of your opponents’ recurring events.
Generally, this is accomplished by triggering the event before playing the Ops (with exceptions: the US can preemptively defend against Arab-Israeli War with the Ops, for instance). Socialist Governments and East European Unrest are not really problems when you can just replace the Influence lost. But some don’t give you enough Ops to fix the problem: you’ll rarely be able to repair the damage done by Decolonization and The Voice of America, and so those are just going to have to go to space. And certain cards are flatout irreparable: Grain Sales is a canonical example of a card the USSR must keep sending back to space instead of losing by thermonuclear war.