Designer’s Notes for Twilight Struggle

The Long Twilight Struggle
By Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta

Like most freshman game designers, we spent many years putting this game together. Twilight Struggle, more than anything else, is a game designed to meet our needs. We are both huge fans of the card driven wargame, and how it has breathed new life into wargaming in general. Like a modern day Lazarus, card driven wargames have brought our hobby back from the grave. Yet even five years ago, when Ananda and I first decided we wanted to try our hand at design, the writing was on the wall. Card driven games were going to become less and less like We The People, and Hannibal, and more and more like Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin. That is not a critique of Mr. Raicer’s work. In fact, we think that it took Paths of Glory to demonstrate just how rich a card driven game might be. But it conflicted with another reality. We were getting older. Our lives were less like the gaming rich days of college, and more like the work-a-day world of the “nuclear” family. Eight hours for a single game was becoming less and less likely. So selfishly, we designed a game to fit our schedules. You can play Twilight Struggle from beginning to end in the same time it takes to play the “short” scenario of many other games. Heck, you can switch sides and play the Cold War from both angles if you are really ambitious. That is a long way of saying the number one constraint on the design was time.

The second question that we had to answer was the subject area. I believe that civil wars are the perfect subject for the influence system. So initially, I convinced Ananda to try a Spanish Civil War design. A couple of books on the subject quickly convinced us that it would takes years to master the politics of that war, and frankly, we weren’t going to wait years to start. So Ananda, in a stroke of genius, suggested the Cold War as a replacement. It was a great topic. There are very few games that deal with the political aspects of the Cold War in a serious way—there were not that many of them even when we were fighting the Cold War. The basic influence system translated well. The history was a non issue, for as an International Relations major in the 1980’s, I basically spent four years studying the Cold War. Finally, one of the best gaming experiences that I ever had was Chris Crawford’s Balance of Power. It was a game about Cold War politics, and even more so, about the brinksmanship of a crisis between the superpowers. To this day, computer gamers look back on its innovation. I’ll never forget the game’s immortal line when you brought the world to nuclear destruction over something ridiculous like funding guerillas in Kenya.

You have ignited a nuclear war. And no, there is no animated display or a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure.

Had I failed my senior year of high school, it really would have been Chris Crawford’s fault. So, Ananda’s golden idea provided us the chance to try and recreate some of the magic of that game.

We use the term “game” advisedly. Twilight Struggle does not reach beyond its means. Wherever there were compromises to make between realism and playability, we sided with playability. We want to evoke the feel of the Cold War, we hope people get a few insights they didn’t possess, but we have no pretensions that a game of this scope or length could pretend to be a simulation.

Also important for players to understand is that the game has a very definite point of view. Twilight Struggle basically accepts all of the internal logic of the Cold War as true—even those parts of it that are demonstrably false. Therefore, the only relationships that matter in this game are those between a nation and the superpowers. The world provides a convenient chess board for US and Soviet ambitions, but all other nations are mere pawns (with perhaps the occasional bishop) in that game. Even China is abstracted down to a card that is passed between the two countries. Furthermore, not only does the domino theory work, it is a prerequisite for extending influence into a region. Historians would rightly dispute all of these assumptions, but in keeping with the design philosophy, we think they make a better game.

One very notable difference between Twilight Struggle and other Cold War games is that we assume nuclear war would be a bad thing. Many other designs make the whole idea of letting the nuclear genie out the bottle irresistible. From our vantage point of hindsight, nuclear war was unthinkable, and that is why it did not happen. Yes, we came close, but we believe that rational actors would veer away from the button. Once the button was pushed, nuclear war would have taken on a grim logic of its own, and human extinction might have been the result.

There were many decisions made for playability, but we will touch upon two. First, not all countries that are geographically adjacent are connected to one another. There are three reasons for this. For instance, many countries are amalgamations, so that messes with geography from the get go. Secondly, and most importantly, we wanted there to be a real impact to the domino theory, with players spreading their influence slowly across the map. Think of the old documentaries with red animated arrows streaming from the Soviet Union in all directions. Finally, and most rarely, the lack of a connection between countries reflects the local antagonisms between two presumed allies.

The second decision that warrants a bit more elaboration is what nations were labeled “battleground state.” Basically, there were three ways to attain this status. First, recognized regional powers got it. The South American battlegrounds reflect this well. Secondly, if a nation possessed important strategic resources, that also meant battleground status. Obviously, most battlegrounds in the Middle East, as well as Angola and Venezuela, would qualify here. Finally, if a nation was an actual battleground between the superpowers, like South Korea, it received battleground status. So, for our English and Australian cousins, please know that we are not ranking you behind our French allies. Instead, you are anchors of US influence in Europe and Asia at the start of the game.

There are many aspects of the game about which we are proud, but the most amusing is how the game can capture the psychology of the Cold War. Areas become important just because your opponent thinks they are important—he must be going there for some reason! Also, we are proud of the interaction of the DEFCON chart with military operations. It really compels each turn to have a diversity of actions that makes for a more tense and exciting game.

At the end of the day, Twilight Struggle represents a bit of Cold War nostalgia. In a world of stateless enemies, for whom our destruction is an end in itself, the Cold War seems a quaint disagreement about economics. As religious chauvinism shoves aside ideology, we yearn for a simpler time absent of invisible menaces, fighting for cherished principle against an enemy that we understood. So let us once more pound our shoes, grab the hotline, and stand watch in Berlin. The Cold War is over, but the game has just begun.

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