General Strategy: The Space Race

The number one mistake beginning players make in Twilight Struggle is to send too many cards off to space.  Among strong players, you rarely see either player make it to Stage 4 (Man in Earth Orbit in the Deluxe Edition, Man in Space in the First/Second Editions) where they can see the opponent’s headline first, and it is especially rare to see any progress beyond that.

The reason for this is that Ops are paramount.  An Action Round spent on the Space Race is an Action Round that you aren’t putting pressure on your opponent or countering his threats.  However much your opponent’s event might sting, it is often more important to get the Ops you need in the regions that you want it, and on this very Action instead of waiting a round.

This is especially true if you are holding your opponent’s starred events: if the event can only happen once, you would usually rather control how it is triggered and mitigate its effect immediately, instead of potentially letting your opponent trigger it later at a much more inconvenient time.

As discussed earlier, the real job of the Space Race is to discard truly awful opponent events that you cannot mitigate in any meaningful way.  In this context, “truly awful” means:

  • cards that will immediately lose you the game (e.g., DEFCON suicide cards)
  • cards that provide your opponent access to a region (e.g., De-Stalinization)
  • cards that remove your access to a region (e.g., Voice of America)
  • cards whose Ops value is not enough to repair its damage (e.g., Ussuri River Skirmish)
  • cards that give your opponent multiple plays in a row (e.g., Quagmire/Bear Trap)
  • cards that give your opponent lots of VPs (e.g., OPEC)

If you have none of these “truly irreparable” cards to space, then you can also consider spacing:

  • cards that are empty action rounds for you: i.e., you spend your action round repairing whatever damage the event causes (e.g., Socialist Governments)

The Space Race’s VPs are usually not a big deal.  They tend to matter more to the USSR, who is usually disadvantaged in Final Scoring and would like to end the game in the Early/Mid War or a Turn 8 Wargames.  On the other hand, the USSR is much more vulnerable to Space Race success: a USSR player that makes it to Stage 4 too quickly can no longer space 2 Ops cards, and there are enough bad US 2 Ops events that getting to Stage 4 too early can be a serious liability.

The Space Race’s special text is slightly more interesting: the space-two-cards perk is nice if you are holding multiple bad cards, and seeing your opponent’s headline is of course a powerful advantage.  In addition, Star Wars helps keeps some interest in the Space Race towards the Late War, as the ability to play any card in the discard (as opposed to just draw, like with SALT Negotiations) is exceedingly powerful.

As USSR

These are the US events that I tend to Space Race. The top priority is obviously DEFCON suicide cards:

Title Reasoning
CIA Created* Only possible under Brezhnev Doctrine. Not much of a problem if DEFCON is at 3 or higher, or if you have no influence in a Mid War battleground.
Grain Sales to Soviets The handsize reduction means this is probably unplayably bad even at DEFCON 3 or higher.
Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007* Not at all a problem if DEFCON is high. If necessary, you can get around the South Korea problem by using the 4 Ops to break US control of South Korea.
Star Wars* If behind on the Space Race. Even if it doesn’t lead to DEFCON suicide, it’s usually too strong to allow to trigger.
Tear Down This Wall* Even if DEFCON isn’t at 2, this is still just absolutely brutal for the USSR.

As for non-DEFCON suicide cards:

Title Reasoning
East European Unrest Only in the Late War is it truly a problem; in the Early War it’s an empty Action Round at best, though if you overprotect East Germany and Poland it doesn’t even have to be.
Five Year Plan Heavily depends on what else is in my hand, but if it would trigger one of these other cards, especially a DEFCON suicide card, then it’s just as deadly.
NORAD* If I have a luxury of Ops on Turn 3, then I will space it. On Turns 1 or 2 I will probably play it for Ops.
Special Relationship Only if NATO is in effect and the US controls the UK.
Alliance for Progress* Once it scores high enough for the US.
Bear Trap* Because playing it on yourself is too painful.
Colonial Rear Guards Unless you were in a truly dominant position in Africa, 2 Ops is just not enough to counter its effects.
John Paul II Elected Pope* Its own event is bad enough, but it also enables Solidarity later on. If you’re desperate, though, you can trigger this if you know Warsaw Pact is still in the deck.
Our Man in Tehran* I would very much like to space this, but find that I usually can’t spare the Ops.  Occasionally you can use it to break control of the only US country in the Middle East.
Puppet Governments* Definitely a Space Race on Turn 4; by Turn 7, it’s usually worthless.
The Voice of America No real way to mitigate this.  Early in the Mid War, it will kill your access; late in the Mid War, the US player will have too many options.
Ussuri River Skirmish* Especially when the US has a face-up China Card, though I’m tempted to do so regardless of the China Card’s status.
AWACS Sales to Saudis* Can be nice to keep around if Muslim Revolution is still in the draw deck.  Very low on the priority list of things to go to space, though.
Solidarity* Only if John Paul II is in effect and if I can’t count on Warsaw Pact.

As US

These are the USSR events that I tend to Space Race.  Again, the top priority is obviously DEFCON suicide cards:

Title Reasoning
Lone Gunman Only possible under Containment. Not much of a problem if DEFCON is at 3 or higher.
We Will Bury You Playable at DEFCON 3 or higher, but the VP penalty is harsh.
Ortega Elected in Nicaragua Only if I have influence in Cuba.

And the non-DEFCON cards:

Title Reasoning
Decolonization Doubly harsh in the Early War because of the access it provides to the USSR. This is always a space race for the US, but in the Early War I try to hold it to Turn 3 before spacing it to keep it out of the Turn 3 reshuffle.
De-Stalinization* Game-changingly powerful because of the access it provides to the USSR. In the Early War I try to hold it to Turn 3 before spacing it to keep it out of the Turn 3 reshuffle. By Turn 7 or so this event is probably useless and can be used for Ops instead.
Fidel* Only if I see him on Turn 3 or later, and have a luxury of Ops.
Socialist Governments Only because it is otherwise an empty Action Round anyway.
Liberation Theology 2 Ops is not enough to counter 3 influence and the critical access provided.
Muslim Revolution Only if the damage is too severe and irreparable. Not a big deal if you can recontrol Libya / Egypt; a much bigger problem if you lose Iraq / Saudi Arabia.
OPEC Depending how many VPs it scores. It usually scores a lot.
Quagmire* Because playing it on yourself is too painful.
South African Unrest The damage is not hard to repair, but it’s harmful enough that there’s no need to trigger it if you have nothing else you want to send to space.
Glasnost* Only if The Reformer has been played. Otherwise, it is a nice card for the US: an ABM Treaty you pay 2VP to use.
Iranian Hostage Crisis* Only if I control Iran and/or fear that Terrorism may be played against me.
The Reformer* An empty Action Round at best, but the fact that it activates Glasnost is good enough reason to conscript Mr. Gorbachev into NASA.
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18 Responses to General Strategy: The Space Race

  1. shadow says:

    Regarding the comment “a USSR player that makes it to Stage 4 too quickly can no longer space 2 Ops cards”: this is incorrect. According to rule 6.4.4 the abilities are immediate and cumulative. The example describes this is detail. The USSR player only loses the ability to space 2 Ops cards when the US player reaches Stage 2.

  2. Zosete says:

    Whoa, I was just going to make the same smartypants “correction”. Phew!
    So I’ll use up the space to say this site is GREAT. But the more I read the more I feel i’m diluting the fun of learning about my own mistakes and I’m afraid I’ll learn to play the “right moves” over and over again and miss on the trial and error and the unexpected consequences.

    I’m chaotic writing this because I just pulled an allnighter playing TS solo. Bought it a week ago and can’t find anybody to sit through a whole game 😦 Totally worth it, anyway. May repeat tonight after I get some sleep.

  3. ThePianist26 says:

    Does the first specialtext still count, when the box with the 2nd hast been reached?

    • theory says:

      Yes — if you make it to the second special text box before your opponent gets to the first, you get both benefits.

      • ThePianist26 says:

        So if I make it to the first box before my opponent does, I benefit from it until he reaches the first box? And the same for the second box? Or in general: You only benefit from the special text until your opponent reaches the same “level”?

  4. Campbell Hutcheson says:

    How would a game look if a person played to win the space race? I know its not an optimal strategy but how un-optimal is it?

    • theory says:

      In general “winning” the space race (i.e., being ahead of your opponent) is a great goal; “winning” the space race (i.e., making it to Alpha Centauri) is probably a goal that won’t be rewarded on the scoreline. If you drew all the right events, and there aren’t any threats or opportunities on the board, you may as well slip the surly bonds of Earth, but I find that to be so rarely the case.

  5. Sean says:

    Just an oversight: Duck and Cover should also be listed under USSR DEFCON suicide cards.

  6. Lenny Talbot says:

    I would love to know your thoughts on how/whether the conventional understanding of spacing cards has changed with the advent of the new (read: viable?) Space Race Track debuted in The Collector’s Edition.

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