New to Twilight Struggle?

Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle can be an intimidating game.  But it doesn’t have to be — with the help of this site (also available as a free eBook), the forum, and perhaps a patient playing partner, you can find out for yourself why it’s the top-ranked game on BoardGameGeek.

The first thing to know is that you do not need to memorize all the cards (yet).  Eventually, after playing a dozen or so times, you will know all the cards without having memorized them.  But you should not approach your first few games thinking that you need to memorize all the cards.  It’s impractical, unrealistic, and unnecessary.  Just have fun with the game and get a feel for how it works.

The second thing to know is that it is natural to feel rather lost during your first few games.  That’s OK.  But if you want a game where you feel like you know what you’re doing your very first time, Twilight Struggle is not the game for you.  It requires at least two or three games before you can feel comfortable.

The third thing to know is that if you’re playing with an experienced player, and really want to learn this game, you should play as the US and have your partner play as the USSR.  At the beginner level, this game tilts towards the USSR because the USSR starts the game with the initiative.  For this reason, you sometimes see people recommending that the beginner play the USSR.  This is a mistake.  If you play the USSR in your first game, you won’t get an accurate feel of how the game flows because you’re supposed to be the one driving it.  If you play as US, you might get steamrolled quickly in an hour or so, but you’ll understand the game a whole lot better, and it’ll make your second play of the game as USSR that much more enjoyable.

The fourth thing to know is that if you’re reading this, you probably want to enjoy this game.  The best way to make use of this site is via the General Strategy articles and the Annotated Games.  Once you have a decent grasp of the game, you can go through the individual card analyses.

Finally, there’s a reason why a lengthy, 2-player-only Cold War “wargame” has made it to #1 on the BoardGameGeek ranking.  It’s because despite all the x-factors working against the game, it’s still a supreme triumph of design and narrative.  It is my favorite game of all time, and most who have played it will agree.

A rules overview

Twilight Struggle’s rules themselves are not nearly as difficult as some other euro games.  That being said, they are easy to get wrong.  Here’s an overview of gameplay that hopefully helps clarify things.  If you still have questions, feel free to ask them in the forum.

Each turn has 6 or 7 Action Rounds.  During your Action Round, you must play a card, and one of the following things will happen:

  1. You play it for Operations, worth the number in the corner.  This is the most common use of the cards in your hand.
    1. If it’s your own event, then you use the Operations points only and get to do one of three things:
      1. Place influence: the most common way to use Ops.  It is subject to two restrictions:
        1. You can place them anywhere you are adjacent at the start of the turn (so on the starting board position, the USSR can spread from North Korea to South Korea, but not to Japan in a single Action Round).
        2. If you place in a country while it is controlled by your opponent, it costs 2 Ops instead of 1.  If Thailand is 0/2, it will cost 5 Ops to bring it to 4/2.
      2. Coup: the second most common way to use Ops.  It is subject to several restrictions:
        1. Coups are always region-restricted by DEFCON.  At DEFCON 5, coups anywhere are permissible; at DEFCON 4, Europe cannot be couped; at DEFCON 3, Europe/Asia cannot be couped; at DEFCON 2, Europe/Asia/Middle East cannot be couped.
        2. Coups in battleground countries will lower DEFCON one level.  Coups in non-battleground countries do not affect DEFCON (but are still restricted by DEFCON, as above).  Because you will lose the game if DEFCON drops to 1 on your Action Round, you may not permit a battleground to be couped on your Action Round at DEFCON 2.
        3. You may only coup countries that your opponent has influence in.
        4. Calculate the coup as follows: [card value] + [die roll] – [stability] * 2.  That value is how much influence your opponent loses (and any left over is how much influence you gain).  If the USSR coups Iran at 2/0 with a 4 Ops and roll a 3, 4+3-2*2 = 3.  US loses 2 influence and USSR gains 1.
      3. Realignment: the rarest way to use Ops.
        1. Realignments are region-restricted in the exact same way that coups are.
        2. However, realignments never affect DEFCON.
        3. Although you can lose influence from realignment, you can never gain it.
        4. You may realign different countries with each Op.
        5. For each Op, each side rolls one die and adds +1 for control of each adjacent country and +1 for having more influence in the target.
    2. If it’s your opponent’s event, then you get to conduct Operations, as above, but the opponent’s event also happens.  You can choose whether it happens before or after your Operations.  Sometimes the event is removed from the game.
  2. You play it for the event (this includes Scoring Cards).  Assuming it is your own event, you get the event effect.  Sometimes the event is then removed from the game.
    1. If you play a Scoring Card, you score the region immediately.
      1. Both of you score one of:
        1. Control: Do you control all battlegrounds in the region and more countries overall than your opponent?
        2. Domination: Do you control more battlegrounds and more countries than your opponent, and at least one non-battleground?
        3. Presence: Do you control at least one country?
        4. Nothing
      2. You only score one of these!  If you have Control, you do not also score Presence.
      3. You score 1 additional VP for each battleground.
      4. You score 1 additional VP for each country adjacent to your enemy.
      5. The difference between your scores is how much the VP marker moves.
      6. Example: in Europe, if the US controls France, West Germany, Italy, and Greece, and the USSR controls East Germany, Poland, and Yugoslavia, the US would score 3 + 7 for Domination and the USSR would score 2 + 3 for Presence.  The US thus gets 5 VP.  If the USSR also controlled Turkey, the US would only score 3 + 3 for Presence, and 1 VP overall.
  3. You send it to space.
    1. You may send one card to the space race each turn.
    2. The cards on the space race must be 2 Ops or higher (towards the end of the track, you will need 3 Ops or higher cards).

At the start of the turn, before the Action Rounds, you each headline a card.  This card’s event triggers.  The event with the higher Ops goes first (if tied, the US goes first).

You are dealt up to [number of Action Rounds] + 2 cards.  This means you will usually have one left over after headline and ARs.  This is your hold card.

You win the game immediately when:

  • You control Europe when Europe is scored
  • At any point, the VP marker moves to +20 or -20
  • Wargames (a Late War event) is triggered
  • DEFCON drops to 1 during your opponent’s Action Round

Otherwise, at the end of Turn 10, you score every region one more time (Final Scoring), give the holder of the China Card 1 VP, and whoever leads in VPs wins.

87 Responses to New to Twilight Struggle?

  1. Zachary Zhang says:

    In the winning situations at the end of this article, you may want to add one more: “During your opponent’s action round (including headline phase), DEFCON drops to 1. “

  2. Kohlrabi says:

    You might want to change 2.A.iv. to “You score 1 additional VP for each country adjacent to your enemy’s home nation.” for clarity. The game rules themselves say “enemy superpower”, which is too ambiguous, too, in my opinion.

  3. Alb says:

    very stupid question.
    If I played a card as operation points, and the event is associated to the opponent, it does happen. If it underlined, does it remains on the board (active!)!?

    • theory says:

      Yes, but the event doesn’t re-trigger every turn. Most of the underlined events stay out because they affect the rest of the game in some way (e.g., Warsaw Pact Formed is left out, only because it subsequently enables the play of NATO).

      • ClP says:

        Sorry, I am just a stupid as Alb, so just to clarify:
        As I understand it, If I am US and I play e.g. the Fidel card for Operations, it triggers the Event for USSR, but the card is NOT removed from play (because it was played as an operation). If/when the card is then shuffled back in to play later, does it not trigger the event once more? How can i keep track that the card was not played earlier? Or am I missing something – should the card be removed from play even if is is played by US?

        • theory says:

          The card is removed when the event is triggered. That includes both when the USSR plays it for the event, and the US plays it for Ops. It is only not removed if the event is not triggered, e.g., it is played with UN Intervention or played on the Space Race.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I have two questions as a newbie:
    1. As US I play “We will bury you” for the points. Next AR I play UN Intervention along with a red/USSR card as my simultaneous discard. Is this correct?
    2. As US I play Ussuri river and get China card from USSR. Can I now play China card in this turn or do I have to play it next turn?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for that. Following on from question 2; if as the US I played the China card, then played Ussuri River in the same turn and received the China Card face up can I play it again this turn or do I have to wait until net turn?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Does the Asia scoring card cover all countries in the region irrespective of their colouring e.g. as per Europe?

  7. Peter says:

    As USSR I play Red Scare early (-1 to all US ops) then play Blockade where the US has to discard a 3 value card. Does the US have to discard a 4 value card to meet the ‘-1 to all US ops’. In other words, is the discard a US operation?

    • theory says:

      He has to discard a 4Ops.

      • Andreas says:


        I bought this game lately and have already found this site very helpful for clarification of rules, thanks for all the effort ! I have got two questions too with regard to Peters topic:
        If a discarded card is to be considered a played operations card (as e.g. in context with Red scare/purge) than 5.2 of the rule book is applicable and the event of the card will occur if associated with the opponent only ?
        Beartrap: in case USSR is really unlucky with the dice, when does the bear trap end? At the end of the turn? -> no, 2.2.5 is to be applied, that is in the worst case only at the end of game. Or is the text of the card to be taken literally, that the bear trap ends automatically in the moment I do not have any appropriate cards left in my hands, even if I would get appropriate cards again at the beginning of the next turn ?
        Thanks a lot in advance for the help!

        • theory says:

          1) No, unless otherwise specified (i.e., US events discarded by Five Year Plan do trigger, but USSR events do not).
          2) Bear Trap does not end until the criteria is actually satisfied, i.e., until you are able to discard a card that meets its criteria and succeed on the roll. This may not occur until the following turn when you draw more cards.

  8. Peter says:

    There are a number of cards that allow for free placement of single IMs in a country. Is this placement prevented if that country is controlled by the other side?

  9. Peter says:

    In ‘A iii b’ above you state that Realignments never affect DEFCON but in the DEFCON box on the map it says “No coup or realignment attempts”. Which one is correct?

  10. Peter says:

    Love this game. I am very impressed with this site, all the effort that has gone into it and thanks for the prompt responses to my pesky questions.

  11. I’m 61 years-old and just bought this game. My son and I have played it twice. First time was a joke! We were way off on the correct way but we wanted to know something to know what we didn’t know. Last night was our second game and it was 6 hours! Time went fast. Really enjoyed it. We found out later we played some cards the wrong way. I wish GMT described their cards like Dominion…going into detail scenarios with each card. When we had questions we had to search on the Internet (which we have to do occasionally with Dominion). Your site is great. Just saw it today. I’m sure our time will decrease with experience.

  12. Joe says:

    Can you play the space race during the headline phase?

  13. Colin says:

    I’ve looked through most of your guides and was wondering if you are planning to make more? specifically something like “general strategy: basic strategies for early war” or something like that to help ease the transition from completely lost to only mildly wondering aimlessly

  14. Alex says:

    iii Realignments
    For each Op, each side rolls one die and adds +1 for control of each adjacent country and +1 for having more influence in the target.

    You are missing : +1 for adjacent to superpower

  15. Pejk says:

    If you are using a card for its Op points,and want to place influence, can you place influence, next to your superpower?

  16. Lichtgestalt says:

    Just one beginner question: Can I coup in a country which is dominated by me but in which my opponent also has influence?

    For example I am the USSR player. The influence points in Italy are (2/4). Can I coup now to get rid of the US’s influence to strenghten my domination of Italy? Or can I only coup in a country which is not dominated by me?

  17. Keith says:

    Underlined events stay in the game because they continue to impact play. Events with asterisks are removed from the game after the event has been triggered. So what if an event is both underlined AND has an asterisk? Does it stay in the game or is it removed permanently?

  18. Graham says:

    Overall, great guide – well organized and succinct. I’m a little confused about your description of placing influence, specifically 1. A. b. “If you place in a country while it is controlled by your opponent, it costs 2 Ops instead of 1. If Thailand is 0/2, it will cost 5 Ops to bring it to 4/2.” If it costs 2 Ops to place influence in a country controlled by an opponent, wouldn’t it cost 6 Ops to bring Thailand to 4/2 from 0/2?

  19. Alice says:

    Hi, I have a question about the China Card. We managed to miss this so far in playing, but I’ve just seen in the rules it says the China Card “may not be played if it prevents the play of a Scoring card”.

    What does this mean, that you cannot use the China card until you have played all scoring cards in your hand, or is it only relevant for the last round of the turn, or what?
    Thanks for such a wonderful site, which I’ve spent far too long reading!

    • theory says:

      Thanks. The latter! It’s just a clarification of the usual rule that you can’t avoid playing Scoring Cards in your hand. You can play the China Card at any point of your turn.

      • akalinich says:

        Wait, do the rules actually say that you can’t play the China Card instead of a scoring card? I thought it was established that holding scoring cards was allowed, but lost you the game at the end of the turn.

  20. newbie says:

    When playing a card in the Headline phase, are the cards taken out of play if they have an asterisk by it?

  21. Stephen says:

    Great job with this site. I have a couple of quick questions: how can you remove influence? Does it have to be using a card event only or is there another way? AND if you must allow your opponent to play ops on your turn and possibly do a coup to lower Defcon to 1 (and make you lose the game), can he coup anywhere on the board or just in the zones allowed for coups? Just wondering if I took out all my influence in battleground countries in Central America, South America and Africa, could he still coup in Europe, Asia or Middle East, though that’d be against Defcon coup rules? Thanks in advance!!!

    • theory says:

      1) Card events can remove influence, as can realignments and coups.

      2) He can only coup in areas that DEFCON allows him to coup – that is, CA/SA/Africa.

      • Stephen says:

        What if I (USA) played Cuban Missile Crisis previously in the turn and then have to play Lone Gunman and we’re at DEFCON 2 already? Is USSR allowed to Coup? As per Cuban Missile Crisis, he loses. As per Lone Gunman, I lose. I’m guessing I (USA) lose because it’s still my turn. Actually I just read somewhere else here that Cuban Missile Crisis takes precedence over victories by DEFCON. So I guess he can’t coup then. Wow that’s confusing. I think they should publish a new rulebook with answers to all these possibilities. Thank you for being here. If not, most of us newbies would be lost for a long time.

        • Cuban Missile Crisis says “Your opponent will lose the game”, and rules says “5.5 Except as noted in rule 10.1.5, card text that contradicts the
          written rules supersedes the written rules”, so CMC is more important then defcon restriction, so USSR loses.

  22. morhaljen says:

    Can a scorecard be discarded by the space race track “Eagle/bear has landed”?

  23. Anonymous says:

    OK I haven’t tried but when I do I will say how. It is

  24. Stephen Hall says:

    So perhaps this is obvious strategy, but if I am the USSR and I am holding a USSR card that has an asterisked event, should I almost always play the OPS so that the deck does not become diluted with more US cards? Is this considered an obvious strategy that is almost always the right choice?

  25. Anonymous says:

    I have a question related to placing influence. Say a country has a stability score of 2 and my opponent has 3 influence on it. If I want to place influence it will cost me 4 to place 2 in order to break the control?

  26. Gage says:

    I’m an extreme newbie. My wife and I made it to turn 3 of our first game before leaving it and having to go to bed last night. I’m still a little confused about playing cards for OPs vs events. Basically what we were doing is that we played a card and the event happened, and then the OPs were used for a coup or influence, etc. Is this how it happens every time, or is there a way that you can play a card only for OPs and not having to trigger the event (outside of cards like NATO that have pre-requisites)?

    Thanks in advance for the insight. We really enjoyed our short intro last night and can’t wait to finish it after work this evening.

    • theory says:

      Here’s the easier way to understand it:

      You always choose between Ops or Event. You don’t get to do both.

      HOWEVER, this would mean that if you had an enemy event, you’d just always pick Ops and there’d be no fun in that. So if you have an enemy event, then if you pick Ops, then you must let the other person do the event. Though you get to pick if she does the event before you do your Ops, or if you do your Ops before she does the event.

      So as an example, as the US, if you play Nuclear Test Ban, you get to pick between the Ops or the Event, but not both. (You’ll probably pick the Ops.) Similarly, if you play The Voice of America, you get to pick between the Ops or the Event, but not both. (Probably the event.) But if you play Warsaw Pact Formed (obviously for the Ops), you have to let the USSR activate the event, either before or after you use the 3 Ops. Does that make sense?

      • Gage says:

        Yes, thank you for clarifying that for me. We were obviously doing things wrong last night. Live and learn.

        • Gage says:

          One more question now that I’ve played a few games. After Bear Trap/Quagmire has been played, the affected player fails the roll to cancel the event. Do they take a turn as normal now, or does the discard+roll attempt count as their turn?

  27. Fran says:

    Do scoring cards get discarded or removed from the game once they are used?

    • theory says:

      They are discarded after play, like all other cards, to be reshuffled later, but not removed from the game (unless otherwise indicated – viz., Southeast Asia Scoring).

  28. Paul_A says:

    Please clarify for me. (We have played through our first full game) if a card states you can place influence i.e. Decolonization if the US controls a country does it mean that 2 would still have to be used for 1 influence therefore making some countries untouchable if 1 was the max.

    • theory says:

      Decolonization places influence directly and is not subject to the 2-for-1 rule in a controlled country. The 2-for-1 rule applies only when using Operations Points to place influence (i.e., playing a card for Ops directly, or through play of say, Glasnost).

  29. Pingback: Twilight Struggle – Shane's blog

  30. Ayo says:

    Hi, stupid question.

    2.1.5 says that the US and the Soviet Union “provide the same benefits as ‘adjacent controlled countries’ for the purposes of events and realignments”.

    Does that mean that when doing a realignment on a country adjacent to a superpower, we add +1 for counting the superpower as an “adjacent controlled country” AND +1 for being adjacent to the superpower, for a total of +2?

    Sorry, I’m really new to this game.

  31. Anonymous says:


    Had a couple of questions:

    1. After Bear Trap/Quagmire has been played, the affected player fails the roll to cancel the event. Do they take a turn as normal now, or does the discard+roll attempt count as their turn?

    2. If US reaches space race track with special effect “discard 2 cards on space”, is it active only till USSR also reaches it?

    • theory says:

      1) It counts as their turn (action round, technically). Note that this is true even if they succeed in the roll. In other words you only ever “lose” one card maximum per action round during Quagmire – you discard/roll, and regardless of the outcome of the roll, your action round is over.

      2) Correct.

  32. Paolo Baglioni says:

    Is it possible to split operation points on a card to make realignment rolls AND place influence? In my only two games I assumed that it’s not, but the rules don’t explicitly say so. In fact, they only say that these actions cost n operation point, thus making the other interpretation plausible.

  33. Andreas says:

    In the rules section it would be helpful to add what happens with the event of a discarded card. Does it happen or not?

  34. Andreas says:

    Is it allowed to relocate US influence markers with De-Stalinization?

  35. Vitaly says:

    Although I am not newbie, I have a question. Am I the only man who sees this game to be imbalanced? It is extremely hard here to win for USA. It doesn`t have initative, so USSR can coup battleground countries and block USA having set DEFCON 2, besides, USA may lose 2 VPs because of absence of military operations. There are no “only American wars”, USSR easily expands Asia in the begging of the game. It`s dangerous for USA to expand Middle East because of Muslim Revolutions.

  36. cycliclogic says:

    Hi, thanks for the great advice. I bought this game last week and played my first game with my girlfriend over the weekend. It is amazing how complex the gameplay can be!

    Just a point on your note above regarding placing influence: (point A.i.a.) “You can place them anywhere you are adjacent at the start of the turn”

    The rules (point 6.1.1) state” …markers must be placed with, or adjacent to, friendly markers that were in place at the start of the phasing player’s Action Round.”

    From my (very limited) understanding of the rules, ARs happen within turns. So: can I slowly expand my influence from one AR to another within a certain turn?

    Scenario: I start the tun with influence in Iraq. In my first AR I expand influence to Iran. Can I expand my influence to Pakistan in a subsequent AR within the turn? My understanding of the rules is that i can, but your point A.i.a. suggests otherwise.

    Thanks again!

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes you can. What you can’t do is start in Iran, place 1 influence in Pakistan, then another in India during the same action round. You can place influence in Pakistan, then place in India during the next AR.

  37. elijahmurray says:

    Love the game! I’ve lost twice in the same way, and I feel like this is not a scenario covered above nor is it clear in the instructions.

    Defcon is at 2.
    I play the card that allows my opponent to treat it as if they have a 1 point operation card. They immediately go for a coup in a Battleground Country, fail the coup, and then the game says that I lost the game.

    Given that they’re the one triggering the failed coup, why do I lose? And if this is by design, I think the tutorial and instructions should put additional emphasis on triggering thermonuclear war during your opponent’s active turn makes YOU win. The way in which I read it, it was if I trigger it, I lose, regardless of WHEN I trigger it.

  38. Pingback: Best War Board Games of 2019 Top 10 Review - Board Games Land

  39. Hocwan says:

    “you can find out for yourself why it’s the top-ranked game on BoardGameGeek.”
    That needs updating. It’s currently 8th.

  40. John says:

    I was playing against computer and I laid a grain sales to soviets card.
    the computer took a card from my hand di a coup and it tool the defcon level to 1 and said I lost.
    Is that a legal play?

    • theory says:

      If DEFCON drops to 1 during your phase, you lose the game, even if your opponent “caused” the DEFCON drop. Therefore playing cards that allow your opponent to take actions on your phase is extremely dangerous.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s