In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
The Cold War has been inspiring board games since the ’60s, with its clear sides and varied fronts providing ample material for different types of play. The earliest ones—including Flying Buffalo’s Nuclear War, Milton Bradley’s Summit, and Victory Games’ Cold War—put players in control of a world power vying for global domination. Later those like Stronghold Games’ Confusion zoomed in on the betrayal and subterfuge involved in the era’s spycraft. While those games are now all out of print, they have modern successors that continue to let you take a side and play out global conflicts at your living room table.
The most complex and educational of the modern games is GMT Games’ Twilight Struggle. Players take on the role of either the United States or USSR, with each side trying to shift the balance 20 points in their favor without causing nuclear war. Points are accrued through a mix of specific event cards, being ahead in military operations, and dominating countries across the globe. The game is divided into the early, middle, and late stages of the Cold War, with different cards being shuffled into the deck depending on the time period. For instance, a card representing the U.S./Japan mutual defense pact can give the U.S. control of Japan in the early game and sticks around to prevent the USSR from causing a coup there for the rest of the game. Another card representing Che Guevara allows the Soviets to cause a coup in South America, Central America, or Africa, but only sees play when enough turns have passed to enter the “mid war” period.
While some cards like “East European Unrest” shuffle back in to indicate they can happen many times throughout the war, others are one-shots that indicate a historical event has happened and will never take place again. Players have a choice to use each card for its operations-point value, allowing them to place influence in countries on the map or disrupt their opponent’s control of a given territory, or to play the card for its event effect. To make things even more complex, most cards are affiliated with either the U.S. or USSR. Playing a card with your opponent’s affiliation means you get the operation points, but they get the event effect, which can be devastating. You can also spend one card each turn on a Space Race track, which eventually can produce some significant benefits but mostly serves as a pressure valve for your worst cards, and you can keep one card to try to get rid of it in the next round. But sometimes you’re forced to bow to history and play cards that will wreck you—like Fidel, which lets the Soviets take over Cuba.
This is a game where experienced players have a major advantage in knowing what events are out there and planning around them. For instance, my Soviet opponent’s decision to take over Romania was reasonable, but allowed me to harmlessly play “Romanian Abdication,” which would have given him control of the territory anyway. With so many fronts to fight on, you have to pay close attention to the board while attempting to guess at your opponent’s plans. Scoring cards pop up every few rounds for specific regions, so it’s impossible to know which region is going to matter most at any particular moment. Neglect one, and it’s easy to fall behind and never recover. That happened to me in Asia when a devastating roll of the dice let the Soviets win the Korean War and led to the U.S. not even lasting until the end game.
Fantasy Flight’s Cold War: CIA Vs. KGB and Ape Games’ 1955: The War Of Espionage both focus on exerting control over countries through spycraft. Cold War uses the same basic mechanics as Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Empire Vs. Rebellion game, having two players attempt to complete objectives by flipping over cards with point values until they reach a number that’s closest to the value of the objective card without going over. The notable twist here is that each player selects an agent with a special power, such as awarding you with a bonus objective if you win or letting you take a peek at what the next objective will be before you choose your agent for the following round. If you exceed the point value of the objective, the agent you selected is disavowed and cannot be played again (unless it’s the deputy director, who can never be lost). The special abilities of opposing agents can also kill your agent or send them on leave, gradually narrowing your options if you don’t play carefully. All agents need a break after being active in the field, meaning you need to constantly shift your strategy.
The game is easy to learn, but the 100-point victory condition it suggests can make it drag, especially since some objective cards can be sacrificed to produce a special effect rather than granting their point value. But if you just halve the number of points required, it’s a good game to play if you want the Cold War vibe without the Cold War timeline.
1955 lets players choose to control one of six major world powers, with the goal of taking over their opponent’s home country or any three other nations. Each turn, you play two cards that help move cubes along each country’s track. Once they’ve gotten all the way to your side of the board, you’ve secured that country and your opponent can’t mess with it without using a special Revolution card to put it back in play. The U.S. and USSR have the longest tracks, while Poland and France have the shortest.
You can block your opponent’s attempts to alter the balance of power if they’re trying to capture your home country or the nation your spy is in. When there are a lot of fronts to fight in, spies are constantly moving and the smaller countries are quickly locked down, but the action crawls to a halt during the late game, when there are only one or two venues of attack and both players are almost always able to block. Even though one player during my testing of the game had chosen France as his home rather than one of the traditional superpowers, the game still boiled down to an impossible-to-resolve conflict with both sides largely fighting over the USSR and U.S., with a revolution occasionally throwing another front into play. It’s impossible to easily resolve the game, which is oddly true to form.
Osprey Publishing’s They Come Unseen was designed by a Royal Navy submarine commander who served during the Cold War and pits NATO submarines against a Soviet fleet. It can be played with two players with one controlling each side, in teams of two with each player controlling a sub or Russian destroyer, or with a fifth player handling the Soviet supply ships. Each group has a different objective: NATO needs to take out four USSR ice bases randomly chosen from a deck of six options, while the Soviet team needs to destroy both NATO subs. The game is set in the early days of the war when submarines had to periodically surface to power their diesel engines, giving the Soviet players a marker of where they are. The rest of the time, the NATO players track their movements on a screen off board along with how deep the subs are and how much fuel they have. Meanwhile, the Soviets need to keep track of their own fuel and munitions supplies, resupplying through the aid of allied ships or their bases.
This was the tensest game I played for this article, an incredibly sophisticated and tactical version of Battleship that saw the NATO team communicating silently while the Soviets tried to doublethink us. The NATO subs are only armed with hard-to-set mines, meaning they’re unlikely to take out USSR ships unless they happen to be parked at an ice base when the sub pulls in. We tried a blitz strategy and blew up two bases early on, which denied the Soviets much of their resources for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, it also let them pinpoint our location, which is much easier to do when the subs are forced into shallow water where their movement is significantly slowed. Soon my ally’s sub was destroyed and even some doubling back to confound their sonar wasn’t enough to keep the Soviets from zeroing in on me.
The game includes a strategy guide written by Commander Andy Benford, and it’s easy to imagine the many permutations of tactics that could go into it—setting mines along key supply lines, kiting Soviet ships away from their bases while the other sub sneaks in, coordinating trips to the surface so that subs can’t be attacked by multiple ships. There are even optional rules to account for the effects of weather, which can both slow vessels and make sonar unreliable. It seems like a game that would be extremely rewarding to master.
If you need something lighter after trying to navigate They Come Unseen’s waters, 8th Summit’s Agents Of SMERSH is the perfect antidote. Channeling James Bond and other Cold War-era spy stories, the game pits one to four agents of the United Nations against SMERSH, an evil organization led by the nefarious Dr. Lobo. The game plays similarly to Fantasy Flight’s Eldritch Horror, with agents crisscrossing the globe to gather intel on Lobo and take out his agents. Every time they fail a mission, they’re likely to allow Lobo to advance his plans, increasing the amount of intel required to defeat him and eventually guaranteeing a loss.
What’s so appealing about SMERSH is the insane variety of encounters. Unlike in Eldritch Horror, where players draw from specific decks depending on where they are and what they’re trying to do and read the scenario and required dice rolls directly from the cards, the encounter decks here just give part of the equation. Players also get to choose how they’re approaching the challenge from a list of options and add a random number by picking the top card of a Fate Deck. Together, the three data points correspond to the call number of a challenge in a huge book of encounters.
For instance, I chose to approach a conflict at sea honestly and wound up telling some goons the truth—that I was carrying important information in a briefcase. What I didn’t tell them was that the briefcase was booby trapped, so they got knocked out upon opening it. Some challenges can simply be skipped with advanced skills like seduction or lock picking, but for most of them, you’re rolling dice looking for icons that indicate success, with your rank in relevant skills such as athletics or spycraft determining how many dice you get to roll. Other challenges require you to play poker, because it wouldn’t be a spy story without a little gambling, and some cards let you win challenges in specific circumstances, like a car chase, bending ambiguity in your favor.
While things can get harder as the game progresses, with Lobo’s machinations closing airports and making it difficult to get to the key locations you need to visit, it’s largely good, goofy fun complete with love serums, double agents, and ludicrous feats of skill. There’s high replay value for the base game, but the designers have also released a series of linked scenarios that tell the story of the fight to catch Lobo. James Bond survived the Cold War, and Agents Of SMERSH is a game that can easily go beyond its thematic roots for fun in other eras as well.