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Twilight Struggle iOS: It Was a Bug, Not a Feature

posted Jun 30, 2016, 1:19 PM by Douglas Sun

One of the salient characteristics of the mobile age is that you really can’t form a definitive judgment about an app until the first serious update. The iOS port of GMT Games’ hit Cold War-themed board game Twilight Struggle came out last week (the desktop port has been available since April through Steam). so I downloaded it and played it quite a bit over the weekend. I noticed that the AI had an odd habit, when it was way behind, of conceding the game by holding scoring cards instead of playing them and losing automatically on points, I thought it odd that, instead of behaving as one would in a normal game, the AI would go down like a desperate tournament player trying to cheat. I was prepared to write a post this week about this odd tic. But then on Monday Playdek pushed out an update fixing this; it was a bug and not a feature after all.

So there it is.

On the whole, I’m liking Twilight Struggle on iOS . As one would expect, Playdek has done a thoroughly professional lob of it. The map fits nicely on an iPad screen, and the inevitable nesting of displays is clean and reasonably intuitive. The look and feel hits just the right note and I haven’t noticed anything yet that is jarring or unpleasant to the eye; my only regret is that there are no visual references to Rodger MacGowan’s wonderfully evocative box cover art for the board game. There are some nice chrome bits, like the audio clips of various Soviet and American leaders that usher in each turn (oddly enough, I can’t recall ever hearing Leonid Brezhnev’s voice before).The AI seems competent enough, though not without its quirks. For instance, I have yet to see it play “Red Scare/Red Purge” in the Headline Phase; instead, it always plays it for the 4 Ops.

I hope that Twilight Struggle iOS does well, but experience mutes my expectations. On the one hand. Twilight Struggle is GMT’s all-time best-seller, and for good reason, But on the other hand, casual and super-casual games dominate the mobile market, and Candy Crush this is not. Twilight Struggle is not an exceptionally complicated game, but if you open it up and just start playing without some prior experience, prepare yourself for a ride on the learning curve. The tutorial will ease you into the mechanics and there is a way to handicap the AI player. But as I have found out the hard way by playing the board game, Twilight Struggle can be unforgiving if you don’t know what you’re doing.compared to your opponent. But then again, one could say the same about Monopoly, a game that has not wanted for fans for 80 years.

If you to decide to take the plunge and you’re coming to Twilight Struggle cold, I do have a couple of suggestions for you. Ive never been particularly expert at the game, but I do know this much: You should be aware that unlike most board games, Twilight Struggle is asymmetrical. It is axiomatic among experienced players that the USSR has  the advantage early — the Soviet event cards are more powerful — while the reverse is true in the second half of the game, as strong US event cards get mixed into the deck. Therefore, if you’re the US player, don’t panic if it seems like the first few turns are an uphill struggle. Just hold on and make sure the Commies don’t steamroll you. If and when you have to play regional scoring cards, don’t worry about building up big victory point advantages. Whatever you do to try to get ahead, it’s a reasonable bet that the Societ player will be able to match you. If you can play a scoring card without any net loss of victory points. you’re doing okay.

Conversely, if you’re the USSR player, it’s never going to get any easier than it is during the first few turns, so you have to make the most of them. Be aggressive, bank as many victory points as you can and hang on for dear life at the end. as Reagan tells you to tear down this wall and Thatcher bitch-slaps anyone who goes soft on socialism. If you can get an early automatic victory, so much the better. Don’t let up just because you’re way ahead early in the game.

Also, be aware of the regional scoring cards. Let them guide your actions. If you have a scoring card in your hand, you know that you will have to play it before the end of the turn. So focus on improving your position in that region. Take control of the battleground countries and keep them. If your opponent seems to be focusing on a region, maybe he has the scoring card for it; maybe you will also need to deny him a strong position there. Once a scoring card is played, it will almost certainly not come up again for a couple of turns or more, so you can concentrate on regions that have not been scored recently. During the first few turns, you will only have to worry about Europe, the Middle East and Asia. 

I think that Twilight Struggle iOS will be an interesting test case for whether or not a core hobby market game will expand its audience through a mobile device port (as opposed to feeding off of its existing player base). Frankly, I suspect that it will not broaden Twilight Struggle’s audience very much. The iOS game market is so thoroughly saturated right now that it’s almost impossible to get the attention of people who aren;t already inclined to search for you. Playdek is a serious player in the market, but they don’t have enough marketing muscle to force you to notice them, as does, say, Electronic Arts or Cartoon Network.

This is a shame, as Twilight Struggle has already shown that it has crossover potential. In fact, I think that CCG and other card game players are probably better equipped to master it than most wargamers. The “war” aspect of the game is so abstracted that the most important skill in mastering it is understanding how the card effects interrelate and ripple throughout the rest of the game. This is a skill that every expert CCG player has to learn in order to become expert.

So I hope that I’m wrong, and that Twilight Struggle continues to be a wedge that GMT Games can use to reach a wider audience.