Greetings Grognards! Hopefully, with my pending application for status as a certified newbie wargamer, I can use that term in such a familiar fashion. For years I’ve danced around wanting to be a wargamer. I’ve played a lot of War of the Ring, which has been my absolute favorite game for half a decade (which is about as long as I’ve been consistently playing modern board games). I’ve dabbled in a few games here and there, even going as far as to review a very small selection on my blog (Stamford Bridge: End of the Viking Age and Agricola, Master of Britain and 878: Vikings – Invasions of England) and post a few articles for the early wave of GMT Insider a few years ago based around 1960: The Making of the President. But so far my experience with wargaming has been more of a “I’d like to play more of those” without any real progress on actually playing any of them. And in the past two months, that has started to change because I have a good friend who loves playing wargames and is a willing opponent. We’ve played matches of lighter fare, such as 13 Days: The Cuban MIssile Crisis and Watergate, and some of longer affairs, such as Twilight Struggle and Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. I’ve even borrowed his copy of Peloponnesian War and run through the introductory part of the scenario in preparation of playing out the rest of that solitaire experience. And so, with this brief introduction out of the way, let me dive into the first of what I hope will be a semi-regular occurrence going forward at Cardboard Clash: a focus on wargames!
This time I’m going to reflect back on a fateful night nearly a month ago, when I sat down across from my friend at about 10pm at night to learn Twilight Struggle together. In keeping with 13 Days, I was the U.S. and he played as the Soviets. It was probably closer to 11 by the time we got it all set up, walked through the rules, and finished that very first round. Two hours after that, the Soviets won a hallmark victory in the final round by bringing the game to a premature close…and the contest wasn’t ever really in question from the start. He anchored in an early advantage in key areas, holding a strong VP lead throughout almost the entire game as I flailed about and attempted to decipher how to best utilize my cards and where to value using Ops points.
There are innumerable resources out there for those looking to sharpen their Twilight Struggle game, and this isn’t intended to replace any of them, or even to try and supplement them. This is simply a player reflecting back upon some of the things I learned after that first game, in which I entered the game knowing very little apart from how a CDG system operated (from playing 1960: The Making of the President and 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis prior to that Twilight Struggle game). Part of me hesitates to even put this out so soon, as my opponent will undoubtedly read this and be able to prepare counters to any semblance of strategy I might muster. And yet for the sake of others who, like me, might be on the verge of their first plays and are not quite ready to grok some high-level depth in strategy, this can hopefully provide some insight so you can learn from my mistakes.
Insight #1: The European Power Struggle, or Lack Thereof
My opponent opened up the game in a very big way, leading to a theme that encapsulated much of our entire play: a struggle for power in Europe. Or rather, a struggle to weaken the Soviet stranglehold in Europe, something that I was wholly unable to flip over the course of the game because every time I took a step forward, it seemed he had a way to move my progress back and cement a stronger hold on Europe. Early in the game I spent far too many resources trying to keep a foothold in there, and for a good portion of the game it was able to remain in-tact. A late-game push for the auto-win condition of controlling Europe during scoring by my opponent made me dedicate even more resources into Europe that I wasn’t really able to spend in order to hold one final Battleground.
What this taught me, ultimately, was a lesson that also ties into a later point: the map is big. Really big. There is a whole world to fight over in order to gain control of territories! Yes, Europe is an easy one to fight over because you both start in that same sandbox. But just because there is only one shovel in that sandbox doesn’t mean you should fight over it – go pick up a rake or a bucket instead and use those to your own advantage instead of dedicating too much effort to one thing. I’m not advocating a complete ignoring of Europe on the map, as it does provide some good points and that auto-win potential. But investing too much into one place, especially on the defensive, puts you in the role of the tortoise rather than the hare as the game gains momentum.
Insight #2: The Overpowered Might of the Space Race
Oh the Space Race. It felt like a great thing: toss a card with an opponent’s event in here and you are safe from said event firing off, AND you get the bonus of possibly moving along a track. And early on in the game, I really enjoyed the Space Race. One might say I emphasized on it too much, actually, taking an early lead along the track thanks to a well-timed event and some die rolls that went my way on both sides of the Space Race. Especially once I got to where I could toss 2 cards into that Space Race! Everything felt wonderful surrounding the Space Race. Except…
Well, that early lead disappeared eventually as he got some clever plays in as well, swinging it back in his favor at the end. Not to mention that those bonuses only last until he reaches that point on the Space Race track which, unfortunately, was never as long as I wanted. And this board created a different problem, something I’ll be expanding on with a different insight: tempo. I got so caught up on maintaining the Space Race advantage that I was using my first play(s) of the round to toss cards into the Space Race, meaning he got to use 2-3 events or OP Cards sometimes before I was making any difference on the map. And in Twilight Struggle, I’ve found it is far easier to be the first to impact an area of the map than to try and flip an area your opponent already controls. So I spent the middle of the game focusing first on a track that provided diminishing returns while allowing him to make far-reaching impact that I had to fight hard to undo later.
Insight #3: Dogs Chase Their Tails. Don’t Be a Dog.
A common theme you may have noticed has been regarding being behind. And this isn’t really bringing about anything new with this insight, but rather expands it in a new way of looking at things. We’ve all watched dogs chasing their tails, spinning in endless circles as they attempt to catch that just-out-of-reach tail. Most of us find some humor in the scene, and know better than to do that ourselves. It becomes easier said than done sometimes in the context of a competitive game, though. Which brings about the biggest issue I probably had in my lack of strategy for Twilight Struggle: I spent too much time chasing things that were providing little, or diminishing, return for my efforts. On occasion I was able to make a proper read and determine what scoring card he just drew and make a strong drop that forced him to abandon the dominance he dreamed of in the area. But far too often, I was chasing after phantom points.
It is almost a knee-jerk reaction to try and “fix” an area of the board right after it scores in their favor. After all, if there is any amount of time still remaining in the game it is pretty likely that scoring card will come back up at least one more time, and you will want to make sure it scores more favorably the next time around, either by reducing their points scored or by flipping it to where the net gain goes your direction. The problem is that most of the time, the card won’t come back out for at least a few rounds and, by then, so much can change to where your efforts are not really needed right now. They would be better spent focusing on the areas of the map which haven’t scored yet this shuffle, so that you can be a step ahead when that card does come into play.
Insight #4 – Don’t Chase Squirrels, Either
A correlating concept to the above involves the Squirrel concept: i.e., getting blinded by that scoring card, or that shiny event, in your hand that you focus on working around that for an entire turn. Which may not seem like a bad thing in itself, especially if it does help you take steps forward. The problem comes when you ignore everything else your opponent is doing, allowing them to also move forward unchecked. This may not be a bad thing if your combination of plays reaps stronger rewards, but most of the time it feels like the best play of a hand of cards is to do a little bit of combo-chaining combined with a little map control and a little countering the directions of your opponent.
Twilight Struggle, reflecting back on the experience, felt more like a game of a thousand papercuts than a game of powerful shifts in power. Dumping half your round into flipping Italy might feel a worthwhile use of those cards, but it seems like dispersing your influence across several smaller locations, spreading control across the entire map, rather than focusing hard into one area is the better way to go for the long run. The same goes for those juicy card combinations: sometimes it might be better to use the Ops points than the action off the event. Don’t let the game’s cards or your opponent dictate your strategy in a reactive way.
Insight #5: Lead with a Haymaker, not a Whisper
And that kind of leads into the final insight I’m sharing here. Honestly, so much is closely related to where it probably all can be summed up with this thought: be proactive, not reactive. Too often the “turtle” strategist in me wanted to rise to the surface, slow-playing the things in my hand with the intent of using the stronger stuff a little later in the round, when I could see the direction things were heading. Twice my opponent completely burned me with reducing all of my Ops points by 1, leading me to strongly regret not playing key things earlier in the turn. As mentioned before, it is far easier to stake the first claim than to flip it. You already know you will be forced to play almost your entire hand. You have a good idea about what you will need to try and accomplish with that hand, and can prioritize from there what should happen first, before they can interfere with your plans. Lead with strong plays, whether in the form of events or in Ops, in order to make them sweat and potentially spend their time trying to counteract your moves instead of fulfilling their own agenda for the turn. And if that isn’t motivation enough, that Defcon track ought to inspire you about where to focus your early efforts in an attempt to lock down key areas of the map before they get restricted.
One of the tendencies was also to lead with non-Soviet cards and save those for the very last cards. I think this is likely a very common tendency, too, as they are the ones that can hurt back. One you can discard into the Space Race location, and that should be the one with either an event you cannot really weather or with diminishing returns on the card value. Far too often I was tossing the highest Op Point card for my opponent, but what if that card’s Op Points were enough to make it a better play overall than that 1-Op card which gave them a far better event than I could earn with that single Op? Better yet, what event, if played early, might make their focus shift to somewhere less important for the round and thereby open the door for a stronger play when getting to my other cards? Either way they were getting to play one of those events since I had those cards in hand, and if I can get them to play into my hand (or lose sight of how to optimize their own hand) by throwing them off-guard a little early in the round, isn’t that a sign of a small victory in Twilight Struggle?
So there you have it. Straight from the fingertips of an amateur, both in Wargames and to Twilight Struggle. I’d like to think that I’ve given a fair amount of consideration with my reflections. These aren’t high-level tips or strategies. I’ve tried reading and watching some strategy tips out there and most, honestly, go over my head so far because I am not nuanced enough in the game to catch the subtle references and the X counters Y layers. It’ll take many more losses before I get to that point. My hope for the rematch isn’t even to win, but to do better than the last game where I moved the VP into my side only twice, both fleeting “advantages” during the middle of the game where I actually was playing decent in terms of strategy.
My hope is that you found some enjoyment here, even if you are a seasoned veteran of Twilight Struggle. Even if it is at the expense of an amateur who may be in for a rude awakening if he realizes these insights are still off the mark during that rematch.
And I hope this is the first (recent) of many contributions to GMT Insider in the future as I explore more games within their lengthy catalog.