Twilight Struggle and the DEFCON Conundrum

U.S. schoolchildren practice a duck and cover drill.

U.S. schoolchildren practice a "duck and cover" drill c.1950.

One of the constant questions that I have in GMT’s Twilight Struggle (10 wins, 3 losses) is how to use the DEFCON track to my advantage. Put simply, the DEFCON track is a method for tracking how tense the Cold War is at a given moment. If you attempt coups in key areas, called “battleground countries,” you drop the DEFCON status by one point. This has the effect of putting one region out of play–that is, you and your opponent may not make coup attempts or realignment rolls in that section of the map. The DEFCON track goes from 5 (Peace) down to 1 (Global Thermonuclear War). If at any point in the game a player takes an action that causes DEFCON to go to 1, he loses the game.

The thirteen times I’ve played this game in the past seven months, we have usually been pretty lenient on this last point. If someone tries to do something which will drop the DEFCON status to 1, the other player reminds him, he chooses to do something else, and play continues. But after a recent game with Russ, we have both realized that there are certain situations in which the phasing player can actually force their opponent to drop the DEFCON track to 1 and subsequently lose. There is an even greater chance that, at DEFCON 2, the phasing player makes a move that leads to an accidental DEFCON drop, causing them to lose!

Before this, we often saw the USSR player drive the DEFCON to 2 as early as possible. This did a few things: first, it allowed him to maintain any early gains he had made in certain regions. Second, it meant that after a new turn started and DEFCON bumped up to 3, the USSR player could use his first card play to coup a battleground country and drop DEFCON back to 2 without the US player being able to do anything about it. For instance, in Sunday night’s game, I took an early lead in the Middle East and Europe, while Russ locked up Asia. Later on, I was able to take several battleground countries in Africa, and by keeping DEFCON at 2 throughout most of the game, I was able to cement my lead in three regions while ceding one (though rich VP-wise) to him.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the few times the US military went to DEFCON 2.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the few times the US military went to DEFCON 2.

Now, after a quick analysis of the deck, I’m wondering if this is such a good idea. By my count, there are 13 out of 110 cards (almost 12% of the deck) that deal with DEFCON. Three are US (Duck and Cover, Nuclear Subs, and Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007). Two are USSR (“We Will Bury you!” and Glastnost). The remaining eight are usable by either player. These include the following: Olympic Games, Nuclear Test Ban, Cuban Missile Crisis, SALT Negotiations, Summit, ABM Treaty, Wargames, and “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

The question is this: how dangerous is DEFCON 2? Does it actually do more harm than good? For instance, think about this example: USSR player has dropped DEFCON to 2. He plays Missile Envy, which means the US player has to hand the USSR player the highest-value card in his hand. If he hands him a USSR event or an event that can be played by either player, it is triggered. If this card is “We Will Bury You!”, it drops DEFCON to 1. Because the USSR player is the phasing (or active) player, he loses the game. Even if it’s Olympic Games, all the US player has to do is choose to boycott, which also degrades DEFCON. Again, the USSR is the phasing player, and he loses. Whoops! Or take another example: DEFCON is at 2. US player plays Lone Gunman. The USSR player gets to look at the US hand, and then use the point to “conduct operations” at that moment. He decides to start a coup in a battleground country. This degrades DEFCON to 1, and because the US player is the phasing player, he loses.

In the examples above, you’ll note that there are a few cards which give immediate ops points to the other player, or read something like, “Pull card out of opponent’s hand. If it’s an event for your side and/or an event for both sides, the event occurs.” From my count, these include the following: Lone Gunman, CIA Created, Five Year Plan, and Missile Envy. (Note: I’d include Grain Sales to Soviets, but that does let you pick a card and return it to your opponent’s hand if you don’t like it.) If you’re keeping track here, this means there are a total of 18 cards that can mess with DEFCON and/or spell disaster in that situation. That’s 16% of the deck! I know that some will say, “But John, you can shoot a lot of those cards into the Space Race.” My response to that is…sometimes. A lot of the cards we’re talking about are 2-value, which means they can only be played into the Space Race on the first four boxes. And CIA Created and Lone Gunman? Those are 1-op cards.

I thought Twilight Struggle was intense before this, but now…well, let’s just say after doing a bit of research into the potential, I’m a bit stunned! How can a player protect himself against such disasters? A couple of things come to mind:

  • As a turn begins, think about where you want DEFCON to protect your holdings and/or encroach on other regions. In addition, think about how your opponent might use the DEFCON track to his advantage.
  • Especially in the Mid-War, when Bear Trap and Quagmire are in the deck, ask yourself whether or not it is too risky to have DEFCON at 2. Without The China Card and a few bad Quagmire/Bear Trap rolls, you might be required to play an event which degrades DEFCON or allows your opponent to opportunity to do it.
  • If you have The China Card in your possession and DEFCON is at 2, think about playing it (even if it’s not an optimal play) in order to hold a card like CIA Created or Lone Gunman over until next turn, when DEFCON will go to 3 for at least one card play.
  • Keep in mind that a lot of cards actually improve DEFCON. While doing this can expose you to unwanted coup attempts, it can also get you out of a tight jam.

Do you have a good story about losing/winning the game over DEFCON? Or do you have other thoughts on the “DEFCON Conundrum”? Leave a comment!

[NOTE: Cross-posted at Board Game Geek]


7 Responses to Twilight Struggle and the DEFCON Conundrum

  1. Joe says:

    If you don’t have or plan to use one of those said cards, it would be to your advantage to reduce defcon to 2 if only to make your opponent uncomfortable if they hold these cards. They will be hard pressed to take the risk of losing as the phasing player.

  2. Joe says:

    Very interesting read. I had not considered using this method of victory on an unsuspecting foe.

    May I add that earning Victory by getting your opponent to end life on earth through thermo-nuclear war is fairly unappealing, no matter how sneaky!

  3. […] for a FAQ or clarifications document. Some of the strange scenarios John talks about in his DEFCON conundrum post are explicitly identified in the excellent Twilight Struggle FAQ. A US player that has read the FAQ […]

  4. Joe says:

    John and I just played another game, and for the first time, I thought about this concept when using the likes of missile envy. This blog has been very useful thus far.

  5. […] strategy isn’t without its pitfalls. Playing at DEFCON 2 is a dangerous game and open to the DEFCON Conundrum. But, assured VP at the end of each turn or influence off that map is nothing to scoff […]

  6. Nick says:

    I am learning TS, so this post may seem like running before I can walk. What attracted me to the game, as an historian and one interested in international affairs, was the modernity of its theme and ‘nearness’ of the events.
    One thing that does nor ring true: Why do Wars not alter the DEFCON? Surely the one thing that DID alter DEFCON in the Cold War was War- Korea, Vietnam and particularly the Yom Kippur War of 1973 where the Soviets explicitly threatened the USA/Israel once the Israelis had established a beach-head on the East bank of Suez and threatened to punch into Egypt’s heart.

    One idea might be to say that for every war played as an event, roll the die. Rolls 5-6 lower Defcon by 1.

    Any thoughts?

    • John says:


      Thanks for your comments. While I like your idea, I think it would then need to be balanced out with another rule to ensure you’re not altering the game too much. Something like every time you play a card that lowers DEFCON, roll a die. On a 6, DEFCON remains where it is though the other effects on the card take place.

      I say this only because after lots of playtesting and years of casual and tournament play, TwiStrug is a very balanced game. Introducing the rule you are suggesting makes sense if you want to make it feel more historical. However, that may cause more DEFCON victories/losses than is ideal. And heck, it’s already a pretty tense game. So I’d suggest adding my house rule as well to make the game a bit more historical, but without changing the game too much.

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