Review: Can Twilight Struggle for iPad Capture the Original Board Game's Magic?

twilight struggle ios

Ready to face the Cold War years in the digital conversion of Twilight Struggle, one of the highest-rated board games of all times? Playdeck, best known for its Ascension deck-building game, has released for the iPad its interpretation of this phenomenally popular board game title. Does it provide the same depth and tension that the original board game does? Read on to find out.

Back in the mid 1980s, when the Cold War was seemingly at a stalemate, a popular computer game by designer Chris Crawford called Balance of Power was released for the home computer platforms at the time. It was a game that I played for countless hours and it helped me better understand the geopolitical climate at the time. Twenty years later, a board game with a similar theme and inspiration called Twilight Struggle benefited from the historical conclusion unavailable to Chris Crawford at the time, which allowed the entire Cold War to play out from start to finish. Through a series of event cards impacting the global map, Twilight Struggle's solo or two-player games were even more engaging and nail biting than Balance of Power. No wonder Twilight Struggle remains on the top board game lists more than a decade after it was released. So it was with great anticipation that I and the legions of Twillight Struggle fans awaited Playdeck's iOS conversion ($9.99). And I'm happy to report that Playdeck's efforts to capture the essence of the game in the iOS release are successful.

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Twilight Struggle Online Game

I won't go into great detail about the game's rules and objectives, as there are vast areas of the Internet devoted to detailed strategies, articles, reviews, videos, and discussions about the board game. Rather, I'll focus my thoughts on the conversion quality and fun factor.

Twilight Struggle Influence

The gameplay is essentially a card selection area control contest with dice rolls to introduce chance elements into the game. What makes Twilight Struggle so compelling is the way history-based scenarios play out on the world map.  World events, posturing, and even space race advances make a difference in the outcome, all while you struggle to avoid nuclear conflagration. The drawing and movement animation of cards in the play area look similar to Playdeck's other card-based iOS games (namely Ascension, Solforge, and Summoner Wars). It's a tad boring, but at least it clearly conveys the respective actions in the game. What is really a nice touch in the sound department are historic audio clips that are triggered by certain actions. These help to further immerse players in the period and give a sense of political posturing by both sides during the Cold War. I also found the AI player to be a formidable opponent, only winning a third of the matches at normal difficulty. I haven't won a game yet on the highest difficulty, though I'm sure hardcore Twilight Struggle players will achieve victory much more quickly than I could hope to. Most notably, the game kept me engaged, thinking how to best my AI opponent at every turn. Even when I was defeated, I learned more than just the strategic (and sometimes lucky) elements of the game. It also reinvigorated my interest in that historic period to not only better understand the geopolitical landscape from that time but to also attempt to alter history by pushing my opponent and the virtual world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Twilight Struggle Headline Phase

Final Verdict

In summary, while I would like to see Playdeck push its graphic artists to the limit when it comes to rendering the board game look and feel into this digital edition (better animated dice rolls and playing card manipulation graphics, please), the fact of the matter is Playdeck has achieved the near impossible task of distilling a sprawling, complex board game experience into an accessible  iOS app with almost no loss in fidelity. The same degree of tension, and dynamic and thoughtful gameplay have made it into this masterpiece. It might not have all the bells and whistles of a triple-A art and animation treatment, but the effective layout and appropriate sound effects heighten the gameplay experience dramatically. If you are an iPad owner and are already a fan of the board game, purchasing this digital edition is a no brainer. For those who have yet to experience the remarkable historic events and understand the complex interplay of power balance during the Cold War in a stimulating strategic contest, Twilight Struggle is well worth the asking price for this iPad-specific gaming experience.

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Mike Riley is a frequent contributor to several technical publications and specializes in emerging technologies and new development trends. Mike was previously employed by RR Donnelley as the company’s Chief Scientist, responsible for determining innovative technical approaches to improve the company’s internal and external content services. Mike also co-hosted Computer Connection, a technology enthusiast show broadcast on Tribune Media's CLTV.