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Part 2 of a 2 part post. See Part 1 here.

Many, many (many) years ago, I started a personal project coding a computer opponent for the game Twilight Struggle.

Twilight Struggle is a top selling and top-ranked board game covering the span of the Cold War. It is in its 8th printing, an evolution that has involved several significant facelifts. It has also been part of the inspiration for the game Labyrinth by designer Volko Ruhnke, also from publisher GMT, which uses many of same mechanisms as Twilight Struggle. That in turn has lead to a Counterinsurgency (COIN) series of games from GMT.

While I began programing my game years ago, I had only got so far into it before my interest moved on to other things. It wasn’t until some months ago, when I was again thinking about Cold War era gaming, that I decided to dig out my old project.

With my second push, I’ve managed to get a game engine that can play through from start to finish, handling the majority of the rules. I have developed a programmed opponent for both sides – in fact, a necessity because testing manually would just be too tedious. I need to be able to run through the game Computer versus Computer for testing purposes. The “AI,” if you can call it that, is pretty rudimentary. I actually have programed two. One makes decisions mostly randomly. The computer knows what it must do and, occasionally, what it should do; but randomly selects from the options available to it. The second opponent uses a combination of history and the scoring system to focus play on particular countries or regions. The two are roughly on the same level as each other, which should tell me something. Perhaps sometimes being “random,” doing the unexpected for no particular reason, can pay off. Sometimes you get lucky and “anticipate” something that no amount of logic could have foreseen.

Programming logic for the game has made me think a lot of about it. Certainly more than I would occasionally getting out the board and playing. For one, I think I understand its popularity.

There is trite phrase used so often in gaming and it’s one I just cannot stand. “Easy to learn but hard to master.” It might be easier to count the number of game reviews or marketing pitches without the phrase, rather than those with it. Nonetheless, I think a large part of what makes this game so popular is the different levels at which in can be enjoyed.

If two game players, guys who had never seen the game before, bought this game and took it home, they could probably read through the rules in the afternoon and play through the game that night. I suspect that game would be a fully satisfying one. The rules are not that long, and there is a fairly limited number of choices you have during your turn. Most of the complexity is involved in playing the events on cards (see inset), where the gameplay is detailed on the card being played (generally not requiring remembering or referring to complex rules). Furthermore, that first game would give the players the feel of reliving the Cold War.

Of course, that probably would only work with two first-time players. A first time player against an experienced player would be almost certain to lose. As you grow in your knowledge of the game, you realize that some cards can be played in combination for far more effect than their individual worth. A truly advanced player has in his head an idea of all the available cards and how they interact. The playing of one card may depend not only on the other visible cards, but knowing what cards are still in the deck versus what cards have already been played, all (of course) with an eye on the current positions on the game board. Thus, players with hundreds of games behind them can compete in tournaments with an entirely different style of gameplay than that original game.

I’ll come back to this point, but I suspect that tournament game has far, far less feeling of reliving the Cold War than the first game between two novices.

As I said, in programming opponents, I created a game where two computer opponents played each other. The first game, where the code was stable enough to actually play through for a bit without crashing, ended in a nuclear war in the mid-50s. The problem was my computer players were not programmed to avoid the bomb, so they just went ahead and pushed each other’s buttons until – BOOM. I wonder how many first-time players have ended their own games with a sudden, unexpected nuclear war because they didn’t realize the kinds of traps to avoid? No doubt a few.

Twilight Struggle in 30 seconds.

Twilight Struggle is a board game with a card mechanic that drives most of the game play. Players compete for control of the world as either the U.S. or the Soviet Union during the period of the cold war. Play takes place over a series of 10 turns, each of which involves playing a hand of cards randomly drawn from the deck. Cards can be played for their points or for the historical events that they describe. Some cards trigger a tallying of score. Players win by dominating the score (scoring 20 points more than their opponent) or dominating all of Europe. However, a player will lose if he starts a nuclear war.

The designers notes were an interesting read. I re-read them as I picked back up my project. A few things from them stuck with me.

First, the designer points out that Twilight Struggle is not meant to be a simulation of the Cold War, it is a game. While there is plenty of historic content in the design, where a decision had to be made between playability and “accuracy,” playability always won.

One you get past that initial familiarization period, I think the “game” part would start to heavily overshadow the “history” part. Veteran players have conversations about the necessity of “spacing” a “DEFCON suicide card.” I doubt Kennedy had those kinds of conversations with his advisors.

As part of the explanation of how the game deviates from “reality,” the designer hits on something that may be far more important to “historical” gaming than he realizes. He explains that the game implements and rewards, not the world as it was, but the world as we thought it was at the time. Or in his words,  the game “accepts all of the internal logic of the Cold War as true—even those parts of it that are demonstrably false.”

I’m thinking this concept may be critical to the both the playability and enjoyability of many historical games.

Sometimes, as I read historical accounts of battles it seems that victory goes to the side who has screwed up the least. While both sides make major mis-estimations, mistakes and blunders, when one can commit a few fewer errors, it gains them the day. Hindsight can avoid those critical errors. And while part of replaying a famous battle is exploring the “what if” that might have changed the course of the battle or the war. On the other hand, if all players knew then what we know now, historical battles would rarely resemble history.

World War II, the favorite for wargames, should probably never have happened at all. Czechoslovakia had an army to rival Germany’s both in manpower and technology, especially once you consider what Germany had committed to the defense of other fronts. Had the French and British simply allowed the Czech’s to defend their own country, perhaps with a threat of French invasion on Germany’s western border, the war would have been over before it ever started. Nobody can play a grand-strategic treatment of the second world war and not see how vulnerable Germany is to early allied intervention.

So a game that can enforce the outcomes, not that we know should have happened, but that everyone knew at the time must happen, should provide a more historical and probably more challenging and engaging gameplay. This wouldn’t apply to all games or all genre’s, but I’m sure it has plenty of uses. The example given in Twilight Struggle is the way that the “domino theory” is enforced through gameplay, in a way that is not supported by scholarly analysis of the military and political situation of the Cold War.

Also in his introduction, the designer pays homage to the Chris Crawford computer game Balance of Power. Those old enough to remember playing the game probably remember it as the first and, thus, the definitive treatment of Cold War gaming. Among the features that stick in one’s mind is something referenced in the Twilight Struggle manual as well as in other articles throughout the years. In Crawford’s game, starting a nuclear war is an instant loss. The end-game message sternly admonishes the player for expecting a rewarding display of fireworks composed of mushroom clouds (I’ve got Missile Command in my mind’s eye) for essentially destroying humanity. We are now better than our cold-warrior ancestors, who risked the future for the sake of the egos and some politics.

What got me in this: While Crawford’s game was used as the inspiration for the Twilight Struggle’s mechanic that turning the cold war hot ends the game, it is not as simple as the instant defeat. The loss goes to the player that causes the nuclear war. Meaning that forcing your opponent to start a nuclear war is actually a win!

It makes me wonder, given Crawford’s original tone, what are the implications of such a victory. Does it say it is OK to annihilate the human race as long as you make it look like someone else did it? Or should one read more complexity into the “simulation.” Perhaps a “DEFCON” victory (in the terminology of the game) actually should imply entering into one of the World War III scenarios from a position of strength. Perhaps the winner is the one that can keep a NATO/Warsaw Pact showdown non-nuclear. Or perhaps winning means having overwhelmingly superior technology or numbers so as to win a nuclear face off. Or maybe it does mean achieving that first strike victory and a decisive advantage in offsetting megadeaths.

Or is this an excellent example of where the gameplay takes precedence over historicity or simulation. It is a nifty gameplay mechanic. No matter if you are behind in every single measure of the game, even if you are one card-play away from losing on points, if you can attempt (attempt, mind you, you need not succeed) a coup in a “battleground” country during the opponent’s turn while DEFCON is a 2, you win. Instantly.

Speaking of Crawford’s game, while this is largely a review of the Twilight Struggle board game design, the post is ostensibly about a computer version of the game that I may or may not ever finish. Others have been working on computer versions of this game longer than I have, perhaps even officially. Within the last year or so, a computer version of the game has been released. While it is available for a fairly modest price ($14.99 on Steam as I write this), I have not yet purchased it. I decided what I really wanted to do was think about the game, not necessarily play it. In fact, given how expert play can be decidedly anti-historic, I don’t think I want the distraction of trying to win the game to take away from my enjoyment of the game.

So, for now, I’ll watch my two clueless AI’s face off against each other again, and again, and again, until they can enjoy a bug-free world.