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Matthews' Masterpieces Compared

April 22, 2008


ďNow the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are Ė but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggleĒ Ė John F. Kennedy

Jason Matthewsí first published game was Twilight Struggle in 2005, and based on its success, he went on to publish the strikingly similar 1960: The Making of the President in 2007. Having played the former 9 times and the latter 5 times, Iím now going to endeavor to distinguish and critique these two games. My thesis is essentially that 1960 may be the superior game in terms of its mechanics, but that Twilight Struggle is far more engaging, tense, and enjoyable to play. Basically, 1960 introduces two key mechanics into the card-driven gameplay of this system that are definite improvements, but at the same time 1960 removes the mid-game scoring that makes Twilight Struggle an edge-of-your-seat affair.

Before I explain in more detail the key differences between these two games, Iíll start by outlining their similarities. Both Twilight Struggle and 1960 are card-driven games that base their fundamental system on classics such as We the People and Hannibal. They each revolve around a large map that is divided into regions and further subdivided into territories within those regions. These games are both a unique hybrid of eurogame and wargame elements, but in the end feel very much like area control games such as El Grande, San Marco, and Louis XIV. Both games involve a number of turns that begin with the players being dealt a hand of cards, and which are broken down further into rounds where the players go back and forth playing a card from their hand. The cards in both games have both a numerical value associated with them (typically ranging from one to four) and an event associated with them. These events are all relatively self-explanatory, and reminiscent of the action cards in El Grande, in that they allow you to add influence to certain areas, move influence around the board, or remove your opponentís influence. Unlike a typical eurogame such as El Grande, the cards in Twilight Struggle and 1960 are tied more closely to their theme because each card has a name (e.g., Marshall Plan, Warsaw Pact) and the event associated with the card is tied to the cardís title. This certainly makes these games feel less abstract than El Grande, even though they are mechanically very similar. As you can see, Twilight Struggle and 1960 share an immense amount in common (even more than Mac Gerdtsí rondel trilogy of Antike, Imperial, and Hamburgum). However, it merely takes a few plays of each to begin to appreciate the stark differences between them, and ultimately the weaknesses of 1960 compared to its predecessor.

The first way in which 1960 improves upon Twilight Struggle is by introducing the Political Capital bag. You might be wondering why Iíve just begun discussing the ways in which 1960 improves upon Twilight Struggle when I ended the last paragraph by saying that 1960 is ultimately the weaker game of the pair. Itís because I have to give credit where credit is due, and there are definitely some distinct advantages of 1960. Moreover, Iím actually not 100 percent enamored with either game, and my real hope is that Matthews publishes a third game that combines what I love about Twilight Struggle with the tweaks that I appreciate in 1960, resulting in the perfect card-driven area control euro-wargame hybrid. Until that day comes, Iíll have to be content reenacting the Cold War and pining after the Political Capital bag. The idea behind the Political Capital bag is that itís a cloth bag which is seeded with 10 cubes from each player at the beginning of the game, and additional cubes are added based on the cards that the players use. The weaker cards allow a player to add more cubes to the bag, whereas the stronger cards add fewer cubes to the bag. The bag is used at various points in the game when one player challenges another (e.g., media control, breaking control of a state). When this happens, the player doing the challenging draws cubes from the bag, hoping to get their own color so that they can win the challenge. However, the key rule is that cubes of the opposing color that are drawn are returned to that playerís supply. As a result, even if youíre unlucky and draw only your opponentís cubes from the bag during a challenge, youíre luck with inevitably balance out in the long run because youíre increasing your chances for success during future challenges. This reminds me of those math problems you did in middle school where a jar contained red and blue marbles, and you had to calculate the fluctuating probabilities as marbles were removed. This is also reminiscent of the Wallenstein cube tower, which similarly directly implements the Law of Averages to balance a playerís bad luck in one instance with improved probabilities down the road. I greatly prefer this mechanism to the use of dice in Twilight Struggle. While the luck of dice will inevitably balance out in the long run due to the Law of Large Numbers, there is no guarantee that it will balance out in the short-term, and there usually arenít enough dice rolls in a single game to make the Law of Large Numbers apply. Hence, one bad roll, or even five consecutive bad rolls, are not going to improve your odds in the next roll. As much as you might like to think youíre due for a good roll, youíre not. Simply put, I love the way the Wallenstein cube tower and the 1960 political capital bag are able to keep some element of luck in those games, but simultaneously keep in check the potential for wild swings of luck.

Second, 1960 also improves upon Twilight Struggle by introducing the concept of Momentum Markers to the game. One of the biggest complaints that people lodge against Twilight Struggle is that itís a painful experience to be dealt a hand of cards that are all associated with your opponentís events, and to have to play them all, helping your opponent significantly in doing so. While I think that this complaint is significantly overstated (because Iíd much rather I get the cards with my opponentís best events than he or she get those cards since theyíre going to come out either way and at least I can time them as best as possible if I control when they get played), it nonetheless has some merit. The introduction of Momentum Markers in 1960 is a brilliant way to solve this problem. Basically, players can earn some Momentum Markers over the course of the game, but not very many so theyíre rather valuable. When someone plays a card with an event associated with their opponent, instead of the event triggering automatically as it does in Twilight Struggle, the opponent must pay one Momentum Marker for the event to trigger. This alone is genius, but the kicker is that the person playing the card can pay two Momentum Markers to preempt their opponent from even having the ability to trigger the event. Those two rules combined are an extremely clever solution to the frustrating experience in Twilight Struggle of getting dealt a hand full of your opponentís cards. Iíll reiterate that I revel in the challenge of trying best to handle such a hand of cards in Twilight Struggle, and itís a uniquely enjoyable experience, but I still appreciate the advances in this field made by 1960.

Third, I would be remiss if I didnít lambaste GMT, the publisher of Twilight Struggle, for the ratio of price to component quality in its games. I know that GMT is a smaller publisher, so the price of its games supposedly has to be higher even to make games with worse components. I also know that Twilight Struggle provides countless hours of enjoyment and would be worth it at double the cost. However, it has to be said that Twilight Struggle is overpriced and the components are inferior to most other board games on the market. Furthermore, based on the price to component ratio of Bonaparte at Marengo released by the even smaller publisher Simmons Games, I know that cheaper prices and better components are eminently possible for GMT. In stark contrast, 1960 is both cheaper than Twilight Struggle and has significantly better components than Twilight Struggle, most notably a mounted board. Itís hard to fathom how one game could be both more expensive and have worse components.

All that being said, 1960 still pales in comparison to Twilight Struggle because it is not nearly as tense or engaging. If I could only have one of the two games in my collection, I would not hesitate for even a moment in choosing Twilight Struggle as the keeper. There is one crucial ingredient that 1960 is lacking (and must lack because of its theme), which is mid-game scoring. Obviously you donít score the election in 1960 until the very end of the game. In contrast, there are numerous opportunities to score points throughout Twilight Struggle, and importantly these opportunities do not arise at regular intervals, but rather are often unexpected surprises. This key difference may seem innocuous at first, but makes all the difference in the world in practice. This is what makes 1960 a relatively boring tug-of-war in which the players simply take turns placing influence on the board, and also what makes Twilight Struggle an edge-of-your-seat duel. For someone who doesnít like a lot of luck in his games, itís a bit odd for me to favor the game where luck of the draw determines which players control when each scoring phase occurs. Itís hard for me to explain or justify how this mechanic of mid-game scoring in Twilight Struggle works so well, but in my 14 games of experience, it is the difference between the two games that makes all their apparent similarities deceptive and makes one fail where the other succeeds. The problem can best be explained using an example. If your opponent takes control of New York in a game of 1960, you are under no time pressure to contest it. You can feel free to wait half an hour or even an hour before you need to try to regain New York. In contrast, if your opponent takes control of Cuba or West Germany in a game of Twilight Struggle, youíre forced to adjust your plans and react quickly, or you better have a really good unrelated move to justify not responding quickly. Twilight Struggle is all about trying to set fires that force your opponent to put them out right away, so that you can dictate the flow of play, and not have it dictated to you by your opponent. Thereís no ability to do the same in 1960 because your opponent can leisurely take their time in responding to your moves whenever they please. This is precisely why Twilight Struggle is so tense and exciting, whereas 1960 just canít measure up.

While the mid-game scoring of Twilight Struggle is itís principal advantage over 1960, there is one other difference that bears mentioning. Twilight Struggle does a better job than 1960 of making the entire map relevant and worthwhile. Both games have particularly crucial territories, such as New York, California, Texas, and Ohio in 1960, and Germany, Cuba, Egypt, and Korea in Twilight Struggle. However, the crucial territories are much more of the focus in 1960 than in Twilight Struggle, essentially making many of the states in 1960 pointless. Iíve seen many seemingly unimportant countries play a decisive outcome in Twilight Struggle, such as Honduras, Zimbabwe, and Lebanon. The reason for this is obviously because each state in 1960 has an absolute value dictated by its number of electoral votes. In contrast, the value of a country in Twilight Struggle is highly dependant on context because any country can be important in determining which player has Domination or Control of a region. Moreover, the rules for placement in the two games give Twilight Struggle the edge here as well. While you can place influence into any state within a region where your candidate is during 1960, you can only place influence in Twilight Struggle in countries adjacent to wherever you already have influence. This is another reason why any country has the potential to play a critical role, as you may not be able to reach the country that youíd ideally like to control, and will be forced to come up with an alternative based on the context. For example, you may want to place one influence into Colombia to gain control and secure Domination, but can only reach Paraguay or Uruguay where one influence just isnít enough. This could factor into which card you play based on the value of the cards and how good the events on them are for your opponent. In the end, you can easily spot the most crucial territories in both 1960 and Twilight Struggle, but the role and importance of secondary territories is much less predictable in the latter.

As the title of this review suggests, I would not hesitate to call both Twilight Struggle and 1960 masterpieces. Each game is an incredible accomplishment demonstrating an impressive amount of research and play-testing that must have gone into them. As I said before, in an ideal world Iíd get to play a game that combines the Political Capital bag and Momentum Markers from 1960 with the mid-game scoring and relevancy of the entire map from Twilight Struggle. While I eagerly wait for Matthews to design just such a game, I wonít turn down a game of either Twilight Struggle or 1960, but Iíll always suggest Twilight Struggle if given a choice between the two.

Below please find Jason Matthews' response:

Thanks Tom, your comments are very flattering. I certainly appreciate them. Of course, I would be more than remiss if I did not point out the co-equal contribution that Ananda and Christian made to both efforts. Neither game would exist without them.

In terms of the comparison, obviously you are correct, the scoring cards make every turn of TS a potential make or break situation. But then, you couldn't really afford to screw up a "turn" of the Cold War. Furthermore, as you note, elections don't really have interim scoring (in part, I think that's why there have been more games about primaries than elections). However, also consider the time scale we are dealing with. 1960 is a game focusing on the 9 weeks between labor day (post-convention) and election day. Turns in Twilight Struggle are about 5 years long. I do believe that the Cold War could have been won over a five year period. I don't think a week of the election cycle would do it.

That said, the two games have deliberately different pacing and target different audiences. Mark McLaughlin, the very fine designer of Napoleonic Wars and Wellington among others, HATED Twilight Struggle. The tension was too much. He felt like he couldn't plan, he was always reacting. By contrast, he tried to buy my 1960 prototype from me. The pacing just fit his enjoyment level better.

It may just be experience, but I actually find 1960 to be more tense. Most all of my games come down to the wire and are decided on turn 9 or 10. So by the time I am tallying votes, I am a nervous wreck. So, its a different kind of tension, one that builds to a crescendo -- rather than the Russian roulette variety that you find in turns 5,6,7 and 8 of Twilight Struggle.

Which is all to say, I am very happy that the games don't feel the same. I was REALLY conscious about avoiding it. If 1960 was just TS rethemed for elections, I would have totally failed. Presidential elections don't feel like the Cold War. They are very distinct experiences with a different set of dynamics.

I don't really approach game design with a desire to capitalize on an early success. In a way, that's what makes me an American designer rather than a Euro designer. I am trying -- very crudely -- to mimic an experience. I search for game elements that fit that experience. It seems that most of my colleagues designing Euros start the other way around. They have a good gimmick, and they try to find a theme. Frequently, the publisher ditches the theme altogether, and slaps an entirely different one on. If I have done my job correctly, a publisher couldn't just take 1960 and say its about "pirates." So, while I am certainly taking lessons learned from design to design, I don't think you will ever find two games that feel the same -- unless we are consciously doing a sequel.

Anyway, thank you again for the very thoughtful article Tom. It was kind of you to take the time to write it and it was a very engaging read. I hope you enjoy what's coming next.


(See this Review for this article plus additional comments on it)