Mark Herman’s We the People (1994) is generally regarded as the first wargame to use a truly Card-Driven System (CDS). Many previous wargames had incorporated card decks into their design, but We the People was the first system to put the cards at the center of gameplay. Cards in WtP are used for player movement, combat, and combat results, as well as other events; in most earlier wargame designs, these mechanics would have been handled through die rolls and a series of charts. Certain other design choices, such as the incorporation of a point-to-point map instead of the traditional hex-based maps, helped to smooth gameplay and reduce play time, resulting in a highly successful product for publisher Avalon Hill. Designers quickly adapted the CDS to other subjects; Avalon Hill shortly published two more card-driven games by other designers, Mark Simonitch’s Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (1996) and Simonitch and Richard Berg’s Successors (1997). Since then many wargames have been designed around some variation of the CDS, including Herman’s For the People (1998) and Washington’s War (2010; a comprehensive redesign of his earlier We the People), Ted Raicer’s Paths of Glory (1999), Herman and Stephen Newberg’s Empire of the Sun (2005; the first CDS game to use the more traditional hex map), Chad Jensen’s Combat Commander series (2006-on), and Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews’s Twilight Struggle (2005), among many others.

Gupta and Matthews’s design differs from many earlier CDS games in that it is not, strictly speaking, a military simulation. Depending on one’s definition, it is not even a wargame.77 While Paths of Glory, for instance, models large-scale military operations in World War I Europe and the Near East, and the Combat Commander games model small-scale tactical engagements in various theaters of World War II, Twilight Struggle takes as its subject the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, covering the period 1945-1989.

Twilight Struggle, by simulating a global non-military conflict, demonstrates the flexibility of CDS game design. Although eminently playable and highly competitive, it adopts a more linear style of gameplay than many other CDS games, striking an intriguing balance between historical predictability and robust gameplay.78

For all its effectiveness as a historical simulation, Gupta and Matthews are clear that the game reflects a certain perception of history, not history itself. In the first place, “winning” is truly an option, unlike the murky outcomes of the real Cold War. Nor does the game reflect any ideological differences within nations or their leadership, except as the limited effects of certain card events, which do not meaningfully realign the geopolitical goals of either side. Ideology, communist or capitalist, is unimportant, as are the local politics of nations except insofar as they affect the wider game struggle. At the same time, one of the most compelling features of Twilight Struggle is how it places players in a collage Cold War mindset, in which competing historical ideologies are literally true and have definable in-game effects.

The game is played over a map of the globe, with individual nations represented as small boxes connected to each other by lines. Nations are further grouped into political Regions: Europe, Asia, Central America, South America, Africa, and the Middle East.79 This style of “point-to-point” representation of map areas is common to many modern wargames, and can be seen in We the People, For the People, Paths of Glory and many others. In CDS games, it has largely though not completely supplanted the previously-standard “hex-based” style of wargame maps.80 (Province/area movement is also common in CDS games, but this is topologically equivalent to point-to-point movement.)

Twilight Struggle, however, uses the point-to-point representation differently from these other games. In military simulations such as Paths of Glory, a path between points (e.g., Liege and Sedan) represents a possible line for armies to move and attack, as well as the path along which an army can trace a supply route. By contrast, in Twilight Struggle those lines represent instead a sort of geopolitical affinity that channels certain player actions. For example, a player’s Influence markers can usually only be placed in nations adjacent (connected by a path) to ones in which he already has Influence. Further, when a player attempts a “Realignment roll” for a particular nation, the rolling player receives a bonus to his roll for any adjacent country he controls. In other words, if a player controls a nation near the target nation, it is easier to realign the target or increase one’s influence there. This gameplay mechanic specifically simulates the famous “domino theory” of Cold War geopolitics. Although essentially discredited as a theory among real-world scholars, the domino theory is absolutely true within the internal logic of Twilight Struggle. For Gupta and Matthews, the domino theory is one part of a wider series of design decisions:

Also important for players to understand is that the game has a very definite point of view. Twilight Struggle basically accepts all of the internal logic of the Cold War as true—even those parts of it that are demonstrably false. Therefore, the only relationships that matter in this game are those between a nation and the superpowers. The world provides a convenient chess board for US and Soviet ambitions, but all other nations are merely pawns (with perhaps the occasional bishop) in that game. Even China is abstracted down to a card that is passed between the two countries. Furthermore, not only does the domino theory work, it is a prerequisite for extending influence into a region. Historians would rightly dispute all of these assumptions, but in keeping with the design philosophy, we think they make a better game (Gupta and Matthews 2005).81

This literalization of the domino theory could be seen as politically hawkish, but dovish attitudes are detectable in the treatment of the game’s DEFCON track. The game rules require each player to perform a certain number of military actions each turn or suffer a penalty. But doing so raises tensions between the superpowers and risks degrading the DEF-CON track further toward possible nuclear war. Any player who degrades the DEFCON track to “1” triggers a nuclear war; that player immediately loses the game.

What would this gameplay look like in the real world? It presumes that the actors in the game are constrained by the logic of the Cold War to constantly flex their military muscles, even when doing so necessarily brings the globe closer to a nuclear holocaust. It implies that the logic of mutually assured destruction is inescapable: the superpowers have limited control over their own nuclear arsenals, and must respond in kind to any escalation of the nuclear threat by the other side. Finally, it is inarguable that no rational actor would deliberately start such a war, in which the only guaranteed loser is himself, and which would immediately end the Cold War game and begin some much grimmer game of simple survival.

These attitudes are inherited from the anti-nuclear movements of the 1960s-1980s and reflect their pessimistic logic. Twilight Struggle is, in fact, structurally more pessimistic than any real-world anti-nuclear activist in that the logic of deterrence is hard-wired into the very rules of the game. There is no way to escape the military-nuclear treadmill and still correctly play the game.82

Twilight Struggle’s view of the Cold War is thus one formed from a modern sensibility, by designers who grew up during the period described, but can now reflect on it with something like nostalgia.

Nostalgia, or something like it, permeates the game. Twilight Struggle simulates and recreates the major events of the Cold War; it does not attempt to speculate on or generate an alternate Cold War history. In no possible Twilight Struggle scenario, for instance, can China take the place of the US or the USSR as a primary superpower; nor is it possible for a popular revolution to bring down the US or Soviet governments. (In earlier versions of the design, Matthews and Gupta permitted a much more extreme range of outcomes for China. As with many elements, this led to ahistorical gameplay, as players vastly overcommitted to influencing China.)

Insofar as Twilight Struggle deviates from history, it does so by abstracting or avoiding real events, not generating an alternate global history. It is true that the ultimate historical outcome can diverge, as when a game ends with the USSR winning, or the world being destroyed by nuclear war, but these are logical progressions from real-world historical events, not science fictional ones. In recreating this real-world history so closely, Gupta and Matthews have necessarily limited certain strategic decisions available to the players. They have done so by utilizing the CDS in specific ways.

To see exactly how they have done this, we can compare Twilight Struggle to the tactical combat game Combat Commander: Europe (CC:E) for maximum contrast.

In CC:E, Allied and Axis players battle each other in one of a number of pregenerated scenarios, modeled on actual historical WWII combat engagements in the European theater.83 Unlike Twilight Struggle, games of CC:E are well-known for their unpredictability. In a game of CC:E, several elements combine to limit a player’s possible opening moves. From most to least constraining, they are:

Game rules. Hard-wired rules constraints specify how many units can be placed in a hex at a given time, how fast units can move, how far weapons can shoot, etc. To break this constraint would be to play the game incorrectly.

Optimal strategic choices. Often at the beginning of a scenario, there are clearly evident good and bad choices that channel events into a small number of possible paths. It is possible in Scenario 1 (“Fat Lipki”), for instance, for the German forces to reach a particular building on turn 1, and take advantage of its cover, only if they follow a strictly optimized sequence of moves. To delay in this instance means that Russian forces can advance far enough to make it very difficult for the Germans to take control of the building, with severe consequences for the remainder of the game. This constraint relaxes as a game moves from the initial stages, and unpredicted actions and events, as well as strategic choices, proliferate.

Historical accuracy. Each scenario is faithful to the geography of the terrain over which the battle occurred, and forests, roads, buildings, etc., exist where they did historically. In addition, the setup conditions of each scenario specify what troops and materiel are available to the Allied and Axis players, and where they can be initially deployed. This is a design constraint, not a gameplay one; gameplay will likely deviate from history within the first move or so.

As a game of CC:E progresses, the series of player choices, along with a large number of random and unforeseeable events (a notable feature of the Combat Commander rules system), make it so that a vast number of outcomes become possible. Twilight Struggle does not operate in this way. While it is true that no one can predict, before the game begins, who will win, there are a number of things that can be said in advance of any game of Twilight Struggle, as a direct result of how Gupta and Matthews opted to utilize the CDS.

Twilight Struggle’s single card deck contrasts with certain other CDS games, such as Paths of Glory or the Combat Commander series, which give each player a dedicated deck of cards. Neither is there a separate “battle deck,” as in Hannibal, which players draw from to perform tactical military operations.84 Instead, the single set of event cards used in Twilight Struggle is drawn from by both the US and USSR player. The cards are divided into three sub-decks: Early, Mid, and Late War. Players begin by using only the Early War deck; the later decks are added at pre-established points in the game. This ensures that the game generally follows a rough chronology—that the Korean War happens before the Vietnam War, for example. Furthermore, the playing of certain cards is a prerequisite for the playing of certain later ones: the card “NATO” can only be played after either “Marshall Plan” or “Warsaw Pact.” Finally, certain cards prevent the playing of later ones, as with “Camp David Accords,” which prevents the play of the card “Arab-Israeli War.”

But these are exceptions. For the most part, history in Twilight Struggle is modular, with few cause-and-effect chains. In the logic of Twilight Struggle, the revolution in Cuba does not lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but are both discrete cards (“Fidel” and “Cuban Missile Crisis”), which can happen, or not happen, independently from one another. This is illustrative of Twilight Struggle’s approach to historicity: for playability, historical events are detached from wider national and global concerns and their Cold War essence extracted, as it were, in order to form a single playable Event.

Each card Event is beneficial for either the US or the USSR (or in some cases, both or either). In addition to their Event, any card can be played for its Operations Point value. Therefore, if the US player holds a card that shows a beneficial Event for himself, he has the difficult choice of using it to trigger that Event, or to play it for the card’s more-flexible Operations points.85 However, a US player holding a card beneficial to the USSR has an even more difficult choice, since playing the card for Operations points will still trigger the Event for the other player. The choice then becomes when to play that particular Event card.

For example, the “Marshall Plan” card is worth four Operations Points, and can be used as such by either the US or USSR player. But the card effect is helpful only to the US player, allowing that player to add one Influence marker to each of seven non-USSR controlled nations in Western Europe, as well as allowing future play of the extremely useful “NATO” card. If the USSR player held this card, he would never choose to play it for its effect, and would likely choose to play it instead for its Operations Point value. But doing so will still trigger the event: the US player will place his Influence, and the future play of the “NATO” card is now allowable.

Because players must play nearly all of the cards in hand every turn, they are regularly triggering these sorts of deleterious events. It is true that to a limited degree a player can delay the play of a suboptimal card (by holding onto it until the next turn), or potentially defuse its effects (by using it as a resource for the Space Race), but in most cases, a player will find that he has a hand of cards composed of very few good choices.

The game contains 36 Early War cards, and as eight cards are dealt to each player each turn, all of the Early War cards will have passed through the players’ hands at least once by the third turn. Specific rules enforce the playing of the Europe Scoring, Asia Scoring, and Middle East Scoring cards, so any experienced player will know that these cards will all be played at least once during the first three turns.86 There are 46 Mid War cards, and—due to a rule increasing to nine the number of cards dealt out to each player on a turn—they will all be dealt out by turn six. The 21 Late War cards will also all see play in the following three turns, and so every card in the game will have been dealt out at least once should the game reach the final, tenth, turn.87 Twilight Struggle therefore is designed such that players will have the opportunity to play most of the historical Events if they choose to do so.88

Since players have very limited ability to discard cards from their hand—CC:E, by contrast, allows for rapid card-cycling—and since the play of a card for Operations points will often trigger an event beneficial to one’s opponents, any play of Twilight Struggle will see many, if not most, of the card events triggered.

The rules that govern Event triggers are therefore modeled along a particular idea of Cold War logic: that each action taken by one side will provoke a potentially more damaging counter-action by the other side. Yet, agonizingly, the cards must be played.

The number and distribution of Victory points also provide incentives for players to be active in all regions and indicate the emphasis each player should put on each region. Further, the value of a particular region often changes as the players move through the Early, Mid and Late War decks. In this way the game inclines the players once again toward a realistic Cold War chronology: the game begins with Europe as the hot spot, but gradually the importance shifts to Central America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, before spreading into Africa in the late war.

We can see that the three initial gameplay constraints we identified for CC:E are here present for the entirety of a Twilight Struggle play: Rules and limited strategic choices governing Event triggers combine to ensure a roughly-accurate historical experience; within this framework of bad and suboptimal choices, one player will eventually squeak out a victory. In a game of CC:E, we cannot know in advance who will win or much of what will happen along the way. In Twilight Struggle, we can predict much of the action, but not the eventual winner.

Finally, however, it is the very fact that one side or another will win—and do so based on gameplay actions such as military operations, coups, realignments, controlling regions of the world, and moving forward in the space race—that is both Twilight Struggle’s largest deviation from history and its most necessary design element for placing players in a Cold War mindset. Though it is certainly true that the US was the only superpower left standing at the end of the Cold War, to play out how this actually occurred would require a radical restructuring of the rules of the game, one that would compromise Twilight Struggle’s most powerful accomplishment: drawing players through a recapitulation of most of the Cold War’s dramatic events, in which they behave according to its internal historical logics.


1960: The Making of a President. Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews; Z-Man Games. 2007.

1989: Dawn of Freedom. Jason Matthews and Ted Torgerson; GMT Games. 2010.

Balance of Power. Chris Crawford; Mindscape. 1985.

Campaign Manager 2008. Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews; Z-Man Games. 2009.

Combat Commander: Europe. Chad Jensen; GMT Games. 2006.

Empire of the Sun. Mark Herman and Stephen Newberg; GMT Games. 2005.

For the People. Mark Herman; Avalon Hill. 1998.

Founding Fathers. Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews; Jolly Roger Games. 2010.

Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. Mark Simonitch; Avalon Hill. 1996.

History of the World. Gary Dicken and Steve Kendall; Avalon Hill. 1991.

Paths of Glory. Ted Raicer; GMT Games. 1999.

Settlers of Catan. Klaus Teuber; Kosmos. 1995.

Successors. Mark Simonitch and Richard Berg; Avalon Hill. 1997.

Supremacy. Robert J. Simpson; Supremacy Games. 1984.

Tigers in the Mist. Ray Freeman; GMT Games. 1999.

Tigris and Euphrates. Reiner Knizia; Hans im Glück. 1997

Twilight Struggle. Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews; GMT Games. 2005.

Washington’s War. Mark Herman; GMT Games. 2010.

We the People. Mark Herman; Avalon Hill. 1994.

Pat and Noah would like to thank Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews for their comments on this chapter.

77 In some respects, Twilight Struggle resembles a modern-style Eurogame more than a wargame. Like Settlers of Catan, Tigris and Euphrates and countless other Eurogames, Twilight Struggle offers multiple scoring paths: Victory points can be acquired through area control (Europe, South America, etc.), scored at irregular times during gameplay; via the Space Race and military operations tracks; and as the direct result of card events.

Matthews has said that the primary design influences on Twilight Struggle were Chris Crawford’s seminal computer game Balance of Power (for the futility of nuclear war); Gary Dicken and Steve Kendall’s board game History of the World (for “presence,” “domination” and “control”); and many Euro-style games, in particular the games of Alan Moon, for whom “scoring cards” are something of a trademark.

According to Gupta, Twilight Struggle’s military-nuclear treadmill derives in part from Robert J. Simpson’s 1984 abstract modern-era geopolitical game Supremacy. In this lengthy game, player activity involves conquest with conventional forces and includes a fairly strong strategic warfare component (e.g., nuclear weapons, anti-nuclear technology, boomer subs, and chemical and biological weapons). But the game allowed for defeated players to launch final strikes with their entire arsenals—causing everyone to lose. This game option was modified for Twilight Struggle, in which only the player who triggers a nuclear war is the loser.

Finally, Gupta adds that a major influence on Twilight Struggle’s domino theory mechanic was Mark Herman’s For the People. In that game, the Union capital of Washington is much easier for the Confederate army to capture than it would have been in real life. This is because For the People playtesters discovered that a historically accurate defensive capability for Washington led to distorted force allocations, as the Union player lacked the sense of urgency to defend the city that the real Union high command could not ignore. For Herman and later for Gupta and Matthews, an unrealistic rule led to a better, more authentic mindset for the players, and thus to a more immersive game.

78 Much of what is written here can also be applied to Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews’ board game 1960: The Making of a President (2007, Z-Man Games), which simulates the electoral battle between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In this later design, Twilight Struggle’s nations are replaced with the states of the Union, and electoral votes take the place of victory points. These and other rules refinements ensure that 1960’s design reflects its subject matter. Matthews and other collaborators have further repurposed the basic Twilight Struggle design in the games Campaign Manager 2008; 1989: Dawn of Freedom; and Founding Fathers.

79 China, as a powerful geopolitical entity that does not fit into the simplified gameplay duality of USA/USSR, is broadly abstracted as a single physical card, the “China Card,” which provides certain advantages to the player who holds it.

80 Notable exceptions are Mark Herman and Stephen Newberg’s Empire of the Sun, and Chad Jensen’s Combat Commander series, the particularities of which are more suited to the use of old-style hex maps.

81 Compare with Combat Commander: Europe: “CC was born of a desire to make a game about WWII tactical infantry warfare that had more feeling and flavor to it than pedantic historical detail. That is not to say the game is unrealistic; just realistic in a broader, more visceral manner while abstracting things like caliber, rate of fire and muzzle velocity into a more streamlined presentation (Jensen 2006).” Jensen explicitly compares CC:E to Ray Freeman’s Tigers in the Mist, about which Freeman has said that the design considerations were, first, a fun, playable, challenging game; second, historical accuracy; and third, realism.

82 Though it is worth noting that nuclear war does not result in both players losing, which would be the antinuclear position. However, as in Supremacy, this would provide an inappropriate outlet for players in a bad strategic position, allowing them to turn a likely individual loss into an assured shared loss, simply by pursuing the maximal nuclear escalation that the current rules deter.

83 To increase gameplay possibilities, CC:E also includes rules for randomly-generated scenarios. Except for historical fidelity, the same gameplay constraints apply to these.

84 Combat Commander’s card deck consists of generic tactical actions (Move, Fire, Advance, etc.), and can be seen as an expanded version of Hannibal’s battle deck. Even CC’s less-generic card Actions and Events are all tactical in nature.

85 Operations Points can be used in four ways: “To place Influence markers, to make Realignment rolls, to attempt Coups, or to attempt advancement in the Space Race” (Gupta and Matthews 2005). The first three of these are functionally different in the game rules, but can be thought of in real-world terms as a range of international intervention activities ranging from propaganda and political pressure to overt or covert military actions. The Space Race functions as a sort of sub-game in Twilight Struggle, allowing players to use Operations points for a chance at gaining Victory Points and other special benefits.

86 This semi-predictable scoring also serves to model Cold War paranoia. Players begin to wonder why their opponent is focusing his attention on a particular region—is it because he has the scoring card for that region? The player then responds by focusing his own resources on that region, which begins a mutually reinforcing feedback loop, with both players escalating their attention on a region that might well have very little value to either side.

87 Unpredictability is still present via the “Wargames” card, which lets a player win the game abruptly if he has a sufficient margin of victory. This makes it impossible to play entirely for the endgame position with its arbitrary time limit (unless, of course, “Wargames” is in the discard pile—expert players will often hold the card to keep opponents in the dark about when the game might end).

88 Paths of Glory also approximates historical chronology in this way, by further dividing its two decks of Allied and Central Powers Strategy cards into Mobilization, Limited War and Total War decks, most of which will see play in any reasonably lengthy game. However, Events are less likely to be played than in Twilight Struggle, since in addition to an Event, each card has values for Operations Points, Replacement Points and Strategic Redeployment points, and a player must decide which of these he will use with each card play. All of this, as well as the wealth of strategic options presented by possible movements of units on the board, make each player’s every turn an agony of difficult decisions. There is always too much to do, and too few resources. This models the difficulty of WWI military command in a way similar to how Twilight Struggle models its Cold War logic.