Learning a New Game

All of the games I’ve ever played (probably in my entire life) have been taught to me. Someone else older, more experienced, or just more apt for reading had done the dirty work of learning the game and taught me the game in the few minutes the board was being set-up to play. This can often lead to problems. Perhaps the one teaching the game doesn’t know all the rules correctly. Or maybe what they think are actual rules are a variant or house rules for the game. For example: Free Parking does not entitle you to loads of money in Monopoly. (Look it up.) You also tend to get advice from whoever is teaching you the game – picking up their strategy instead of learning to develop your own. A friend and I decided to change all this and learn a new game on our own. No coaching from anyone. No reading of strategies. Just read the rules and play. We selected another Margin of Victory favorite: Twilight Struggle.

Step 1: Read the Rules
I think this is the obvious first step in learning any game (if you don’t count “Open the Box”). Give the rules a read through once or twice. Also read any additional materials provided with text: cards, player aids, etc. Note anything that doesn’t make sense – sometimes you need to consult an FAQ.

I looked at the rulebook for Twilight Struggle. 28 pages thick, but, only 8 pages of actual rules. Nice! We read through them and it seems pretty simple. I read through them again and still haven’t seen anything that doesn’t make sense. I also take a quick look at the cards. As I read through the cards I realize that there may be some confusion on how they are played. I download an FAQ to have nearby. Step 1: Check.

Step 2: Set up the game
Make sure you have all the pieces and set up the board according to the rules. Check to see if there are any differences in 2 player vs 3 player vs more. Also be sure to set up the board/card decks according to which scenario you are using. And make sure you’ll have enough space.

Twilight Struggle board set-up is also mostly straight forward. We pick our sides: I’ll represent the US. We place some initial influence in the right countries, but here’s the first decision. Where to put the extra influence in Europe? Having never played we have no idea what the best countries are. OK, we each decide to control a couple more countries. The Military Operations, Space Race, VP and Turn markers are placed. The Early War cards are shuffled. We’re ready to go.

Step 3: Play
For a first play through allow plenty of time, but don’t worry if you make a mistake. If you realize you’ve been playing incorrectly you can rewind (if it is easy to do so) or just start playing correctly at that point. Agree on a ruling and move forward. Remember: the goal is to have fun!

We deal the cards and read through each one. I find Defectors in my hand, an obvious Headline event, and select it right away. USSR takes a bit longer, but eventually picks one. Headline phase over – that was easy. We go back and forth in the actions rounds and play is going smoothly – until the first scoring card comes out. He thinks he’s scored 8 VP – I count 3 VP. He checks the rules and realizes his mistake on what a battleground country is. He shouldn’t have been putting that much influence in Finland – lesson learned.

The action rounds start to go by quickly and I have been racking up VP. In the middle of turn 3, I go up to 19 VP. One point away from a US victory. I realize I may have been accruing Victory Points by playing the events, but at the cost of him being a few influence away from controlling Europe (another way to win). And I’m holding Europe Scoring. Uh oh… I end turn three at only 5 VP.

The mid-war begins and we’ve started to settle in. The cards are played a bit faster and we seem to know what we’re doing. Or so we thought, we realize we’ve been playing a couple things wrong. The DEFCON was 3 and we made realignment and coup attempts in Europe and Asia. We also split up Operation Points for placing influence and realignment rolls*. It’s too late to rewind. We were both guilty so we just move on with the correction. Before the end of the mid-war another minor mistake is quickly rewinded: it is obvious he didn’t want to end the game but couping a battleground country while DEFCON is 2.

We make it to end-war, only 3 more turns. At this point we are playing fast and no longer making any mistakes. Turn 8 goes by. Then 9. At this point it is all going to come down to Final Scoring. The final deal comes and is good for me. I’ll get to play 8 cards this round (due to North Sea Oil) and I’m up by 6 VP. The play slows down as each card play is calculated. I do some careful number crunching with my final two card plays. I hold the China Card, but realize I need to play it to dominate Asia and get the required military operations for the turn. My last play gets me presence in the Middle East.

Before final scoring I have a 3 VP lead. He adds up the score. I add up the score. There’s a slight discrepancy. I’ve counted wrong and we go over it again. We agree: USSR scores 3 points. We check the rules for a tie-breaker. None exists. A tie.

Step 4: Repeat Step 3

Learning a new game on our own was great. And we both agreed that Twilight Struggle is a great game that creates an intense atmosphere – even with our errors and rewinds. We didn’t worry about coaching or letting the new guy win so he’ll play it again. We were free to try anything. We made a lot of mistakes but we learned from them. We discussed the strategies we were trying and learned from each other. With the Holidays approaching I’m looking forward to learning some other newly acquired games with friends.

* Yes, there is a designer variant that allows this. However, at the start of the game we agreed to use the standard rules as written.

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