While my fellow North Americans were enthralled by the World Series of baseball, a handful of enthusiasts watched over another contest. In this one, the clock was turned the clock back 65 years, nearly to the day, and the fate of the world again hung in the balance.
This other tournament consists of a bracket challenge for players of the 2016 board game, 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. This is a fairly simple and fast-playing (and, I might add, relatively inexpensive) game for two players, allowing them to relive the thirteen days in October of 1962 when the Cold War’s superpowers faced down each other across the Caribbean.
The Group portion of the tournament is nearing its end. Support for bracket play at challonge.com.
When talking about this game, rather than viewing it in isolation, players will often discuss its merits relative to Twilight Struggle. 13 Days was clearly created as a riff on the latter; an effort to create a faster and more focused game while still retaining key parts of the original.
13 Days doesn’t hide from its roots. As with that of its predecessor, the board centers its map of the world on the Atlantic and Western Europe. Scattered across the map are boxes representing regions over which the players will vie for control. Thirteen of them, to be exact. Each player takes turn playing a strategy card from a randomly-drawn hand. There are 39 cards possible, 13 with USSR events, 13 with US events, and 13 UN (or neutral) events. Using the same mechanic as Twilight Struggle, cards can be played either for “command,” which is the ability to add or remove blocks from those thirteen boxes, or as an “event.” Familiarly, cards played for command ignore friendly or neutral events. However, if you must play an event of your opponent, your opposite has the option to exercise that event before you take your turn. In addition, there 13 Agenda cards, which serve a similar function to Twilight Struggle’s scoring cards. Each player secretly selects, at the outset of each of the three rounds, one out of three cards which will be scored. Points go to whoever dominates the selected agenda, independent of who played the card.
13 Days also brings to the table something similar to Twilight Struggle‘s DEFCON track. The difference is that in this game there are three. Like its role model, the 13 Days DEFCON is not really the U.S.’s Defense Readiness Condition but instead a measure of how close each superpower is from launching the world into World War III. Also like Twilight Struggle, a sudden death victory is obtained not by winning the ensuing world war, or even successfully avoiding nuclear Armageddon, but by making it look like it was all the other guy’s fault.
The U.S. headlines the Cuban Missile Crisis, pushing the world to the brink of war. Shall we play a game?
While there are plenty more parallels between play style of the two games, clearly 13 Days is the simpler of the two. Of course, Twilight Struggle would never be called a Cold War simulator, but with 13 Days the cold-war theme is more the chrome upon a game design that, really, could have been “about” anything. In other words, that simplicity does at a price for those of us who value historical games.
Beyond its many other merits, Twilight Struggle has advantage for we computer jockeys. For more than two years now Twilight Struggle has been available in a computer version, playable both as single-player against the computer opponent or online. It is a faithful recreation of the board game experience that is also well regarded purely as a digital offering.
13 Days does not have a PC version and, having a considerably smaller fan base, is unlikely to see one coming down the pike. It is one of those games whose appeal is more derived from the opponents you play than the strategy elements themselves. To the point, winning mostly comes down to two factors; luck (of the draw, there are no dice or other random effects beside the card deck) and bluffing. Each player holds two informational advantages over his opponent. He knows what cards are in his hand and he knows which card he picked for scoring. Through play, if he can discover what his opponent knows without giving away his own advantage, this should tilt the board toward a win. While many consider an AI opponent as second best to playing against real people, using deceptions as a game factor further devalues playing against a computer.
The Soviets engage in some early-game deception, trying to make up for a weak hand.
Of course we all know that online play is a readily-available option in this internet-driven world. Twilight Struggle and 13 Days both have Vassal implementations and the former has a publisher-endorsed Cyberboard gamebox. For all the advantages of these type of play aids, generally missing from them is a full enforcement of game rules.
Enter the website Chantry Games. Here lives an implementation of the game which runs entirely within your web browser. In that way, both PC and tablet play are enabled. The program fully-enforces all rules, which restricts players to legal moves only. As far as I can tell, cheating (whether intentional or inadvertent) is not possible, nor is fiddling with the pieces in between valid game moves. The website also manages the overarching task of matchmaking between players and archiving the results of completed contests.
Effectively, this free-to-play version has all the features of a dedicated PC game, albeit one that is multiplayer only. Although somewhat constrained by its browser foundations, the UI is simple, effective and aesthetic. The program is full enough that there is no need to set-up an offline version of your game; everything is within your browser. Development of this site received encouragement from the board game’s creators; that is, it is all on the up-and-up. There also is no explicit licensing restriction requiring, for example, that one of the two players own a copy of the physical game. At least one of the tournament players bought the game only after having warmed to it through on-line play.
Similar to the Space Race, play of cards can be deferred. While the Soviets had the “Aftermath” advantage, they still lost to the U.S. by a single point.
The site has a small but enthusiastic group of subscribers. In addition to fairly regular one-off play, tournaments are periodically organized. The current tournament is just finishing up the group stage will which create an elimination tournament of eight. The group stage winnowed players down from an initial 16 (14 after real-life intervened for some).
Joining in the fun requires just setting up an account. After that, any player, whether veteran or freshly signed-up, can create a new game. The creator specifies whether the game is intended to play live on-line or at a more casual “asynchronous” pace. The game is easily to learn, quick to play, and has a nice group of on-line players. Why not give it a try?