Twilight Struggle (TS) and Imperial Struggle (IS) are two great creations of Ananda Gupta & Jason Matthews duet. We had to wait a long 15 years between the publication of the first (2005) and latter one (2020). Both titles proves to be deep, immersing and very replayable designs thus no wonder that they have pretty broad pool of fans.
What is more, those games share a lot in common but on the other hand, have also vivid differences. In this article I am going to discuss them!
Twilight Struggle – inherits its fundamental system from the card-driven classics – like We the People and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. A two-player design, focusing on USA and USSR rivalry between 1945 and 1989. It is really a quick-playing, low-complexity game but with enormous replayability and depth. The game map is a world map of the period, whereon players move units and exert influence in attempts to gain allies and control for their superpower. As with most other card-driven games, decision-making is a challenge; how to best use one’s cards and units given consistently limited resources?
Imperial Struggle – a long awaited spiritual successor (cause I will not call it a sequel) to the Twilight Struggle. In short, it is a two-player game depicting the 18th-century rivalry between France and Britain. It begins in 1697, as the two realms wait warily for the King of Spain to name an heir, and ends in 1789, when a new order brought down the Bastille. The game is not merely about war: both France and Britain must build the foundations of colonial wealth, deal with the other nations of Europe, and compete for glory across the span of human endeavor.
More on how to play the game:
So the time has come to go deeply into the game components, mechanics, rules and other factors which made those games so similar and so different at the same time!
Theme & epoch
While both titles span for a pretty long periods – TS over 50 years, IS almost 100 years – have global reach and feature hegemons of the times, they are settled into completely different epochs. Twilight Struggle tells the story of pretty modern rivalry of two nuclear superpowers, where modern technology is key and global, thermonuclear catastrophe not so distant alternative. For some of us these are truly vivid memories.
Imperial Struggle on contrary pertains to times and events pretty distant from nowadays – 18th century Anglo-French global rivalry. There is no impending doom, the characters and events are not so fresh in our minds and there is some romanticised flavour to the theme. Still, both titles invariably tell the story of global conflicts, where two entities completely dominated and overshadowed the rest of the world.
Investment Tiles vs Events
Let me now move to the most important mechanics of those titles – in the end, these are card driven games! But the similarity stays on the high level, and the difference in details are key. So in most CDGs, players face a strict choice between playing an Event and spending action points (or operations points, command points, etc). This is exactly the situation with Twilight Struggle. What is more, if you play opponent event for Operations, the event takes place!
Imperial Struggle provides here and interesting twist. Most CDGs have a single action point type with a single list of ways they can be spent. In IS, first of all, Events were separated from Operational Points. The latter one are presented in Investment Tiles and provide three different types of Action Points – diplomatic, military and economic – and all have different uses and roles in the game. Last but not least, investment tiles that have the Event symbol allow the play of an Event in addition to the Action Points granted by the tile.
Playing the Events
Another difference between both games is regarding how the events are played. We already know that in TS you need to choose either event or Operational Points. In IS you can get both in the same turn, but the Investment Tiles providing ability to play events are of course much weaker then the other ones.
Then, in Imperial Struggle, Event cards that get played as Events are always removed from the game. This is in contrast to most CDGs, including Twilight Struggle, in which Events that get played as such are removed only if there’s an asterisk or other mark-up indicating that they are one-time occurrences.
Also, in IS when the Revolution Era begins, you have to remove all the early Succession Era cards from the game – it is too late to play them. In TS, there is no such mechanics although some pre-conditions are sometimes necessary.
Control of the Spaces
That is a very interesting element of the game. in Twilight Struggle, a country is considered Controlled by a player if the player’s Influence in the country exceeds his/her opponent’s Influence in that country by at least the country’s Stability Number. Both sides can have interests in the area.
In Imperial Struggle you need to spend the full value to take control and then opponent will need to spend full space value to remove flag. There is no possibility to both sides simultaneously have influences in one area and the fight for controls is getting very heated sometimes. What is more, there are ways – like isolation or conflict markers – to decrease the cost of space. So similar approach but very different in details.
Twilight Struggle has ten turns. Each turn represents between three and five years, and will involve six or even normal card plays by each player. At the beginning of the game, each player receives eight cards from the Early War deck, then Mid War in Turn 4 and Late War in Turn 8. In essence, these are the only differences and each turn plays in exactly similar way.
On the contrary, Imperial Struggle consists of six Peace Turns, interrupted by four Wars (the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence). In Peace Turns, players build economic interests and alliances, and take advantage of historical events represented by Event cards. In War Turns, each theatre can bring great rewards of conquest and prestige but territorial gains can disappear at the treaty table.
I can tell you, Wars are such interesting, culminating moments of the IS and gives a great change of tempo to the game!
Awards for regional controls
Both games feature rewards for particular regions control – not surprisingly, this is a game about global dominance! But they do it in completely different way. In Twilight Struggle you know exactly how many VPs each region will yield – what you do not know, is when this will happen exactly, as it depends who and when draw particular card!
In Imperial Struggle you know that the scoring will be at the end of Action Round eight, but the value of each region is changing from Turn to Turn. To add an even more variable element, the game utilizes Global Demand.
TRPs and Debt system
This is mechanics specific only to Imperial Struggle. Treaty Points (TRP) represent the countless bargains, arrangements, and concessions that emerge from statecraft, warfare, and diplomacy. In Imperial Struggle they are used as “wild” Action Points. Debt, like Treaty Points, is used as “wild” AP. Many Event cards inflict negative effects on the player with the worse Debt situation.
Both allow players to heavily invest into areas of importance. TRPs are also a way to recover from lost wars – the more you lose, the more TRPs you get (while opponent received VPs).
Initiative and game sequence
In Twilight Struggle you always knew that USSR will be starting Turn with some big-bang, preferably decreasing DEFCON. It was also obvious that US will have the last say, being able to prepare for next turn.
Play order is not fixed in Imperial Struggle. Instead, the initiative is determined by the VP total – who has less, will get the Initiative. And the player with initiative does not necessarily go first – they choose who does!
That will be of course pretty subjective opinion. Still, I think we need to touch this point. Twilight Struggle is pretty straightforward game. For me, this is exemplification of a position with simple rules out of which you get countless numbers of strategies and tactics. It is pleasure to play it times and time again – it never get boring.
Imperial Struggle is much more complex game. More types of Action Points, more types of Turns, special rules for Initiative, TRPs, Debt, conflicts. And Advantages provides a completely different dimension to the game. Once you play couple of times, you really get the flow of the game. Still, the rules can be confusing sometimes and number of exceptions to remember – daunting at the beginning.
I can’t help but also address this area. 15 years is a huge time in wargaming industry – and you can tell this even by looking at above maps. TS have much more functional design, IS is simply beautiful and astonishing. What I like also, is minimalistic approach to various tracks in IS by which the map looks much bigger. There is no way to say which is better, both serve its purpose. I find IS graphics slightly more thematic as fonts, colours, photos, drawing really reflect epoch. TS is probably more functional.
Of course, the games also share a lot in common. First and foremost, these are Card Driven / Assisted Titles – with different approach in detail, but still same mechanics. Both are fantastic 2-player titles and can be classified as politically themed wargames. They play quickly, within 2-3 hour, having both 10 turns, awards for regions (again, difference in details) as well as great and appealing theme.
Last but not least, they were designed by fantastic authors, Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews. I truly hope these are not their last words in wargaming hobby and some new title will come from their cooperation!
In essence we have two fantastic games. Having IS recently published, did we get better game than TS? Well, that is hard question to tackle and probably there will never by one answer to this. Did we get new, innovative, engrossing and multi-layer simulation of 18th century global conflict between France and England – well, for this I can definitely answer yes!
Which you should play? Well, why to wonder – try both!
Thank you for this thorough comparison of these two wonderful games. Great job! I really like Twilight Struggle and respect what it has done for the hobby. However, the die rolls and timing of scoring cards can make it rather swingy, which keeps me from embracing it fully (but it is still an 8/10 for me). Imperial Struggle is a symphony of game design and is a perfect 10 for me–a real masterpiece! (partly b/c NO DICE! ^_^) Thanks again for all you do on your blog. I appreciate all you do to promote the hobby!
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Good point with dice! I actually put IS as one of my 3 favourite No-Dice Wargames (https://theboardgameschronicle.com/2020/10/04/no-dice-wargames-my-3-favourite/). Need to enrich the article with your valuable comment!