The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They created maybe the best board game ever. Now, Putin is making it relevant again.

A prototype of Twilight Struggle, top, and the final board and game pieces. The game, released in 2005, pits two players against each other as the United States and the U.S.S.R. in a fight to control individual nations. (D.A. Peterson/For The Washington Post)

On a recent Monday afternoon, Jason Matthews, age 47, walks into Labyrinth, a board-and-card-game store on Capitol Hill. He sports a trendy blazer with no tie, a trim goatee and a well-groomed head of hair. Normally, the store is closed on Mondays this time of year, but he's made special arrangements with owner Kathleen Donahue to meet me here. Matthews is a lobbyist for an anti-child-trafficking organization who lives in Alexandria. He's also co-creator of Twilight Struggle — perhaps the greatest board game ever made. Today, he's agreed to play the game against me.

As you may or may not have heard, we’re living in what many critics have deemed “the golden age of board games.” According to ICv2, a trade-news site for the hobby-games industry, board game sales increased from $100 million in 2013 to $305 million in 2016. Perhaps it’s the result of a backlash against our screen-swallowed, devoid-of-human-interaction modern existence. Or maybe it’s simply because the products themselves have gotten so much better, with engaging and sharp gameplay that’s a far cry from the typical slog of Monopoly., the hobby’s most prominent news hub and discussion forum, keeps a database of 100,000 games and crowdsources a master list of the best of the best. Twilight Struggle, released in 2005, spent five years at the No. 1 spot, longer than any game before or after it, save one. It’s since been dethroned by newer, flashier, flavor-of-the-month games, but still hovers comfortably around fifth place. “I play thousands of games and most are forgettable,” says Tom Vasel, host of a long-running board-game podcast and video series called “The Dice Tower.” “They’re fun for a while, but then they go away. Only a few games transcend that, and Twilight Struggle is one of them.”

The game — whose name is taken from a phrase in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address — is a two-player fight that simulates the Cold War, with one player acting as the United States and the other acting as the U.S.S.R. Across a map of the world, the two superpowers attempt to take and maintain control of the many individual nations that were caught in the middle of the conflict. Players do this by using their hand of randomly dealt cards representing actual Cold War events: Play a card called “Fidel,” and the Soviets will control Cuba; play a card based on Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, and U.S. influence in East Germany increases. Along the way, there is paranoia, brinkmanship and an overall sense of living through an alternate-reality version of history — one where Israel may turn communist after a poor showing in the Yom Kippur War, or Iran remains under the U.S. sphere of influence and the hostage crisis is averted.

In 2018, of course, Twilight Struggle — with its re-creation of a world in which the United States and Russia locked horns — is closer to describing current reality than at any point since it was released. “It definitely feels relevant now,” says Ananda Gupta, 41, who invented the game with Matthews. “All you’d need to do is add a few more cards and you could just extend it to today. ... If I had a mind to, I’m confident we could do a Cold War game along the lines of the current one that’s happening.”

Indeed, in various online forums, fans of the game have taken to inventing their own contemporary cards, like one addressing President Trump’s abandonment of our European allies to court Vladimir Putin; that card removes the game’s blue-colored U.S. influence markers in Europe to provide an opening for Russian red ones. The anonymous fan who created the card named it “The Art of the Deal.”

Matthews used to work in politics — he was chief of staff for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — before becoming a lobbyist. He and Gupta — who once lived in the D.C. area but now lives in Los Angeles — met at a board-game group based out of George Washington University in 1998, though neither was a student there. They bonded over their zeal for war-gaming, a subgenre of board games that reenact battles such as Waterloo or Gettysburg. The most hardcore war games are astoundingly complex, and at that time, the genre was getting only more arcane. Matthews recalls a war game about Central American guerrilla revolts that required players to read three inch-thick rule books. Another notorious war game, the Campaign for North Africa, came with a 10-foot-long map and was said to take 1,500 hours to complete. Its level of detail was practically parodical, with a "macaroni rule" that forced the player representing Italy to reserve extra portions of water so troops could boil their pasta rations.

“War-gaming destroyed itself,” says Matthews, who watched his beloved hobby confuse complexity for historical accuracy, scaring away potential new players. Eventually, he and Gupta, working full-time jobs and beginning to start families, no longer had time for a typical 12-hour war game, much less a 1,500-hour epic, or the energy to memorize lengthy rule books. By then, Gupta had a side gig testing board games for a California publisher called GMT Games. Matthews would often help Gupta playtest, and soon, something dawned on him: “Playing some of the games, we were like, we can do better than this.”

So, the pair set out to create a new type of war game that could fit into their schedules. “We wanted to make a game that two people who know the rules can play in an evening,” says Gupta. “Something that people who are no longer in college could have the spare time to play with some reasonable frequency.”

They were interested in a scenario that could simulate the political aspects of warfare, not just the military side. Eventually, they settled on the Cold War — Gupta’s idea — and after many iterations, they built a prototype map and printed the event cards at Kinko’s. Matthews carved up a dowel to manufacture the red and blue markers that represent a superpower’s influence in any given country. And in the summer of 2000, they headed to the World Boardgaming Championships — held conveniently close that year in Timonium, Md. — to try to get the attention of players and publishers.

Their first choice of publisher was GMT. “It wasn’t a massively impressive prototype, physically,” says Gene Billingsley, co-founder of GMT, who watched Matthews and Gupta demo their game that day. Still, it took him less than 10 minutes to decide to publish it. He remembers a colleague asking him why he was so sure. “For once, I didn’t say anything about gameplay,” says Billingsley. “I said that it transports me to my childhood. To when the Cold War was hot. When kids would have to get under desks for drills. The game just has the ability to immerse you in its theme.”

But GMT was not sure it would be a hit. “They thought it was good,” Gupta recalls, “but they didn’t see the appeal. They thought a Cold War game was kind of a loser in terms of audience appeal.” GMT put the game on its “Project 500” list — a Kickstarter before Kickstarter that allowed fans to vote with their wallets on which GMT games should come to market. Once a game had 500 preorders, manufacturing would begin. “Twilight Struggle had a really slow climb up the priority list,” says Gupta. “It hung out at a couple hundred, but eventually it did crawl its way up there.”

The game finally debuted in December 2005. Matthews remembers it getting nice reviews, and it was making a dent in BoardGameGeek’s top charts. But sales figures left something to be desired. War-gamers “didn’t know what to do with it,” says Billingsley. The game was markedly different from what they were used to — streamlined instead of complex.

The turning point came that spring, at the Gathering of Friends in Ohio, a small, invitation-only event comprising board-game players, designers and publishers, all hosted by Alan Moon, a board-game icon and prolific designer. The Gathering of Friends catered less to war games and more to Eurogames — a different subgenre spawned from the German tradition of fast and uncomplicated board games emphasizing smart mechanics, while sacrificing most of the thematic and historical fidelity that war-gamers prized. Fortuitously, Twilight Struggle seemed to meet in the middle of these opposing styles. “I get to the Gathering, and everybody’s stopping me, and they’re like, ‘Alan Moon has done nothing but play your game the whole weekend,’ ” recalls Matthews.

Billingsley remembers getting a call from a colleague at the Gathering who told him that Moon had said it was the best game he ever played. “I said, ‘Can you please ask Alan if we can use that quote?’ ” says Billingsley. “By the time I’d sent that email, I went to BoardGameGeek, and Alan had already posted something very similar. All of a sudden, our phones were ringing off the hook.” Within three months of Moon’s Gathering of Friends, Twilight Struggle had sold out its initial print run.

"It's fun to be sort of geek famous," Matthews says. "It's just the right level of famous, right? No one really knows who I am. I can walk into any place and be totally anonymous. But when I go to conventions and such, people ask for my signature, they take pictures with me, and it's all that kind of thing. My kids are weirdly proud of it."

Twilight Struggle can now be played on computers and mobile devices against friends or strangers. A competitive scene also has sprung up around it, and the board-game conventions Matthews is talking about will sometimes host a tournament of players vying for the Twilight Struggle crown.

Matthews and Gupta have parlayed the success of Twilight Struggle in different ways. Gupta went the video-game route and has worked at a handful of major studios on critically acclaimed games. Matthews has created several new historical board games while keeping his D.C. day jobs. But what the two designers haven’t done is build a new board game together — until now. A few years back, Gupta, freed from a contract clause that claimed any intellectual property he developed, got back together with Matthews to work on a long-simmering quasi-sequel. Their idea was to translate their magnum opus to the 18th-century colonial rivalry between Britain and France. They’re calling it Imperial Struggle. It’s scheduled to be released by GMT next year. Preorders number in the thousands.

This particular afternoon, though, Matthews is focused on Twilight Struggle — specifically beating me at his own game. It’s been a year or two at least since he has played it, he explains, though he could still redraw every inch of the board from memory if he wanted to. Playing as the United States, Matthews ends up with a lock on much of Europe and Asia for most of the game. As the U.S.S.R., I keep a tight lid on the Middle East, which the Soviet side is favored to do. Africa, meanwhile, proves to be a tug-of-war.

About 2½ hours into the game, with annihilation staring me in the face, I manage to eke out a victory by playing a card called “Wargames,” a risky gambit that involves lowering the world Defcon status to just short of nuclear war. “Why did we ever make that card!” Matthews shouts as he lays his cards on the table in defeat. Throughout the game, he has been a deft trash-talker, well-experienced in the mind games necessary to imbalance opponents. But he’s gracious in his loss.

The two of us start boxing up the board and pieces. Matthews, organizing the deck of event cards, mentions that his game has become popular in the former Eastern Bloc states, with translations in Polish, Hungarian and Czech — and special, country-specific cards added to each. He says GMT will probably task him with writing a few new, Soviet-focused cards soon. They're making a Russian edition next.

Michael J. Gaynor is a writer in Washington.

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