Imperial Struggle vs. Twilight Struggle – A summary of key points of comparison

Imperial Struggle, one of the latest two-player wargames published by GMT, while an excellent game in its own right, is technically a sequel to the classic game of Cold War politicking Twilight Struggle. At first glance there’s a lot of overlap: Two players take control of feuding empires, embroiling the world in their conniving maneuvering while trying to emerge as the dominant global force.

In Twilight Struggle this takes the form of a Cold War battle between the United States and the Soviet Union. In Imperial Struggle the conflict is one of colonial collision between France and Britain in the 18th century. Imperial Struggle is more than a mere reskin through, with each game approaching its competition through unique systems and player interactions. But which game is right for you depends on quite a few factors.

Both games follow a similar overarching structure. In a give game turn, players alternate taking actions based either on their hand of cards (Twilight Struggle) or their choice of Investment Tiles (Imperial Struggle). Within these actions players try to manipulate regions on a world map, taking control of political spaces in Twilight Struggle or political, economic, and military spaces in Imperial Struggle.

At certain times, victory points are scored and a single track swings back and forth, with victory either coming when a power reaches a certain threshold or after the final turn is up. Within this framework there is a great deal of difference between the two games.

Twilight Struggle’s World Map is much simpler than Imperial Struggle’s. That and the deep card system invite incredibly competitive games.

Twilight Struggle is overall a simpler game. There are less moving parts in each of the games regions and less variables that need to be accounted for. Imperial Struggle on the other hand broadens the political to include global markets and dedicated war turns that can greatly affect regional control and victory point scoring. Yet Imperial Struggle relies less on player knowledge of specific cards and actions to function. Each game expects a lot from its players, but in different ways.

By taking a tight political focus, Twilight Struggle simplifies the ways in which a player can interact with the game board. Cards drawn each round give the player the entirety of their possible actions. Each card contains an Ops number and an event that is colour coded for the US, USSR, or neutral. Play a card with your colour and you can choose to use the event or Ops to place influence, remove enemy influence, or stage a coup. By playing a card with an opponent’s event listed, you suffered your opponent’s event in addition to using the Ops. Imperial Struggle‘s Investment tiles shift the focus to a shared pool of resources, but it doesn’t take away the planning. Instead you are forced to look at the available Investment tiles and attempt to plot out how your turn could proceed, knowing that your opponent will be choosing tiles alongside you.

Imperial Struggle lays out the whole world before you. It’s up to you to try and manage it.

The nature of these tiles will dictate whether or not you can perform certain actions or use event cards. So, while the information is available for you to plan with you are forced to do this alongside tracking the global markets, your preparation for the next war turn, and your own event and ministry cards. Each game asks something different of you. Twilight Struggle asks you to manage your hand, guess at your opponent’s hand, and keep track of regional controls. Imperial Struggle presents you with the turn’s possible actions up front, but makes you deal with this information alongside a much wider pool of potential actions.

The Art of Limited Resources

Both games carry a feeling of spreading yourself and your limited resources out over a globe that is far too wide to cover, yet Imperial Struggle takes this feeling to the extreme. Twilight Struggle‘s action phase choices are limited by the cards in your hand. While this simplicity belies an intense depth of possible outcomes and strategies, the initial potential for analysis paralysis, the inability to decide on how to proceed during a turn, is mitigated by the smaller pool of options.

Imperial Struggle on the other hand throws you into the deep end of analysis. With all the information about upcoming action phases out in the open for both players to see, the choices, and resultant domino effect of any single choice, can be quite heavy for some. Both games carry the feeling of having too few resources to fight a wide-ranging war, but Imperial Struggle drives that home, offering a much wider possible space for strategic thinking, but at a cost.

The war turns are unique to Imperial Struggle, forcing you to plan ahead or else face major global repercussions.

Theme & Struggles

Both games are incredibly well themed. Twilight Struggle‘s rigid translation of cold war Great Power plotting over a world they treat as a gameboard is perfectly encapsulated by the way the game’s events and basic actions play out. Whether or not it is inciting a coup, gambling on the space race, or establishing the Warsaw Pact, the cards, events and the feel of performing these actions and playing these events illustrate the theme perfectly.

Imperial Struggle manages the same thing. The inclusion of several avenues of victory point collection, regional control, resource control, and warfare, reflect the inherently more resource-centric nature of the Anglo-French rivalry of the 18th century. The establishment of forts, and navies allow you to anchor yourself until the war turns, in a thematically enjoyable way, force territories to switch hands, driving conflict elsewhere. When it comes to theming for your choice of game, it is probably better to go for the period you enjoy more, but in this particular case, since both games do such a good job of following their themes, gameplay considerations should play a bigger role.

These two masterpieces are, frankly, fantastic. But, they are not without their flaws. Twilight Struggle has had some time to mature as a game, with competitions and therefore competitive strategies, developed and part of the ‘meta’ of the game. Learning the strategies alongside a partner entering the game at the same time as you is arguably the most enjoyable way forward, unless you’re willing to put up with a mismatched power level.

The events in both games provide important themes and act as an interesting gateway for further learning.

Imperial Struggle, on the other hand, doesn’t rely so heavily on knowing the potential card combinations available at each turn. It does, however, rely on juggling a massive amount of systems that must be considered together. The variety of systems have led to some key difficulties and rules queries on BoardGameGeek. Most of these are being ironed out by the living rules but the barrier to initial entry is high. Both games require a good amount of player investment, but Twilight Struggle is by far the more refined and elegant gaming system. Imperial Struggle, in my opinion, remains the more interesting experience.

In the End, It Doesn’t Really Matter

Both of these games offer an excellent tabletop experience. The themes are strong, the gameplay loop in both is engaging and the mind games that emerge as players try to outwit their opponents and their hands/tiles leads to endless replayability. It really comes down to whether or not a more competitive experience is desired, in which case Twilight Struggle remains king. Imperial Struggle offers a more diverse experience and also a deep game that doesn’t quite require the same amount of strategic and component foreknowledge as the Twilight Struggle. You could always grab both.

Images are from Joe’s review copy of Imperial Struggle, and the digital version of Twilight Struggle by Playdek.