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Twilighter Struggle? – 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis Review

The Cuban missile crisis represents that notorious moment in world history when it seemed as if the US and USSR really would step over the line into a nuclear war – good job we trust the Russian and US leaders now, eh?  At the height of the Cold War American spy planes had discovered evidence of Russian missile sites being built on Cuba, putting them within range of the American mainland, and for nearly two weeks Kennedy and Kruschev went up against each other in a tense standoff, fingers poised over the triggers.  Over fifty years on the crisis has faded into history, but remains the closest we have come to mutually assured destruction.  Designers Asger Granerud and Daniel Pedersen are relative newcomers on the game designing block, but they have clearly seen potential in the drama of that time, and  13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis, their new game, has already generated a significant buzz.

13 Days Board Game

A political crisis? Good job that never happens any more…

Condensing the Struggle – from three hours to 45 minutes!

Part of that buzz has resulted from the description of 13 Days as a shorter, leaner and easier to play interpretation of Twilight Struggle, the epic two-player card driven game that was for many years the number one rated game on Board Game Geek.  Like its distant relation, 13 Days accommodates only two players, but the promise is of a tense, engaging and deep game that plays in only forty five minutes or so, compared to Twilight Struggle’s three hours.

The box is an attractive affair and made of solid stock, lined front and back with photographs depicting the main protagonists and events of the crisis, and opening it is a pleasant surprise.  The components are of good quality and could even have fitted into a box only around two thirds of the size.  Underneath the folded game board sit the cards, six flag tokens and a bag of cubes and tokens, and they are well packed so that there is little danger of them falling around the box.  There are also two booklets, but fear not, for this is not a two-rulebook extravaganza, a la Fantasy Flight.  Instead the second booklet is a detailed and involving account of the background and drama of the crisis, a really wonderful and considerate touch.  It also explains the events on the various cards in more detail, which is a great way of bringing the theme of the game to life.

A couple of pieces of cardboard keep everything snugly in place and, while this game could definitely have come in an even smaller box, I appreciate that would have meant losing some of the evocative art.  Even so, the components are highly portable and 13 Days does not take up a huge amount of space when it is set up to play.  This will hopefully serve to broaden the appeal of this game, and there has clearly been serious thought given to all aspects of the presentation, and that bodes well.

13 Days Board Game

The box could be even smaller, but it’s portable enough as it is.

The DEFCON is on!  But some cards are FAQed…

13 Days Board Game

Oops – the DEFCON cards contain incorrect text.

The instructions and rules are reasonably clear, although there are a couple of very small problems with some of the iconography, especially the use of the DEFCON icon, which can be a little confusing.  More seriously, incorrect text on some of the Agenda cards has made its way into the finished product.  Now, I worked out all on my own what these cards were meant to say and it is hardly a game-breaker, but I can see how they might be misinterpreted.  There is a helpful FAQ available which clears up the error, and it is an unfortunate oversight, but really just that rather than symptomatic of bigger problems.  In any case, the positives massively outweigh the negatives, and the rules actually take up less than half of the booklet, the remaining twelve pages given over to a detailed, heavily illustrated and extensively annotated sample game. A brilliant touch!  Bravo!

13 Days is played out over three rounds, in each of which the players choose and activate four cards each.  It doesn’t sound like much of a recipe for a game let alone a world-shaking drama but the choices are subtle and nuanced, and each will have the player trying to balance varying different requirements while trying to double-think their opponent and avoid triggering a nuclear war.  At the beginning of each round the players receive three Agenda cards each and place their flags in the areas pictured on the cards, but they will only select one of those three as their scoring card for the round, so you will certainly know what your opponent might be up to, but little more than that.

Secret agent?  Select your battle ground!

13 Days Board Game

Learn to fear the DEFCON track – mutually assured destruction is on the cards.

After this the players receive five Strategy Cards each and take turns to play four of them, one at a time.  If you have played Twilight Struggle, or even 1960: The Making Of The President then you will recognise these multi-use cards here which can be used either to place or remove influence cubes on a single area or to trigger an event.  Cards are marked as US, USSR or UN, and while the United Nations cards are neutral, playing your enemy’s card for cubes allows them the choice of triggering the event described in the card’s text.  There is also a Personal Letter card, which begins 13 Days in the nervously sweaty hands of the US player, and it can be used to boost your influence, but then gets given to your opponent.  Having possession of the Personal Letter is one of the possible scoring Agendas, and it also wins tie-breaks, so you will not want to give it up lightly, especially as there is no guarantee of ever getting it back!

There are three ideological battle grounds in 13 Days, representing military, politics and world opinion, and they each have three areas on the board as well as a DEFCON track.  It is on the board that the tug of war (literally!) will take place as players add and remove cubes from their very limited supply (only 17 each, no more), but those moves will then often have repercussions in the form of rises and falls on the various DEFCON tracks.

Want to tip the balance?  Look to the Aftermath!

Once the US and USSR have played four cards each the remaining two cards (one for each player) are stashed under the board in the Aftermath pile and will be retrieved at the end of the game to secure extra Prestige for one lucky combatant.  Then the three purple battle grounds of world opinion give out bonuses to the players who control them, and – breathlessly – the hidden Agenda cards are revealed and scored.  The cards that deal with the areas on the board offer Prestige based on the number of cubes the leading player has, while those that deal with the DEFCON tracks reward the most belligerent player.  But – and this is a big but – the DEFCON tracks are no mere convenience to show power, as having just a single marker in the DEFCON 1 area after scoring will trigger a nuclear war and lose you the game.  If you happen have all three of your markers in DEFCON 2 then the same thing happens.  Gain points from the DEFCON tracks, if you like, but it is a dangerous game.  Oh, and did I mention that all DEFCON markers move one space towards annihilation at the beginning of all three rounds..?

13 Days Board Game

A is for Aftermath (if you live that long).

This nuclear dance of death and the tug of war on the Prestige track continues for three rounds, Oppenheimer’s baby permitting.  If you get to survive that far then you reveal the cards in the Aftermath pile, tot up the influence cubes pictured on the US and USSR cards, giving the player with the most 2 Prestige, and the winner is declared.  In the case of a draw  the owner of the Personal Letter takes the win…but we all know that there are no winners in a nuclear war, right?  Right??

Does it flash by?  Or does it feel like it takes 13 Days?

13 Days is a streamlined joy to play, and commendably easy to learn, but has serious depth.  Its give its players a whole lot of tension and enjoyment, and feels like a game that could come in a much bigger box, even though in reality it should have come in a much smaller box!  It is well balanced, beautifully illustrated, and the designers have clearly gone the extra mile to make sure that information about the subject is everywhere you look, from the quotations on the side of the box to the flavour text on the card to the separate historical leaflet.

13 Days Board Game

Commands, Events, photos and flavour text as the US, USSR and UN come into play.

On the minus side, there’s no denying that you can be solidly kicked in the warheads by a terrible card draw in 13 Days.  Playing as the US and beginning the round with five USSR cards in hand is pretty soul-destroying (or the other way round – let’s not be partisan here!), as your opponent can then choose to trigger all of the events, but it is worth persevering, as players can still craft out a sneaky advantage through the order in which they play their cards, and in almost every case there are some subtle ways to edge out extra Prestige, which is, after all, what the game is all about.  Also, it can be hard to ignore that it comes down to pushing cubes around on a board in a very abstract fashion.

Is the theme explosive?  Or fission fizzle?

13 Days Board Game

Prestige matters, as does the Personal Letter…if you live that long.

Some people might also find the theme a little strange.  My other half is not particularly enthralled by the subject of 13 Days, while I am totally invested in the history of the thing, and have always viewed it as a pivotal moment in the twentieth century.  As somebody who grew up when the Cold War was still very much a frosty entity, I remember the fear and foreboding of the times, while my gaming partner…well, the youth of today!  What is particularly great about 13 Days, though, is that even if your gaming partner thinks that Kennedy, Castro and Kruschev are some new rock supergroup or a firm of solicitors, playing this game with you will only take around 45 minutes.

It is pretty well known that 13 Days and other card-driven games really come to life when both players are fully conversant with the decks and aware of which cards might just tip the advantage in their favour.  As 13 Days only has 39 Strategy Cards (13 each for US, USSR and the UN) it does not take many plays to begin to feel where the various strengths and weaknesses lie, and the tight playing time means that the investment needed to be playing this to a proficient level is much lighter than for its heavier relations.  It is also hard to ignore that it is just leaner all round, and whether that is a good thing or not depends very much on where your gaming tastes lie, but it dodges the boredom factor very deftly indeed.

Is 13 unlucky for some?  Or is it a hit?

13 Days Board Game

This is where it all kicked off…

There are some games I never want to play again and some I want to play much more often and can’t.  13 Days is definitely a game I want to play more often, and while my gaming partner might not find it quite as deeply thrilling as I do, that just means that those occasions when she does agree to play it are going to be all the more worthwhile.  Besides, there’s bound to be a friend I can entice to play this thing at some point, but in the meantime I’ll just have to behave very, very well indeed and choose 13 Days as my gaming reward for good deeds done.

As if that’s not enough, Granerud and Pedersen are already designing 13 Minutes, a cut down version of this, and personally I am getting all excited about Granerud’s new cycling game Flamme Rouge, which promises a more lean design that packs a punch.  These two are marking themselves out as designers to watch, and 13 Days is a mightily impressive debut, especially for a game that attempts to condense the Twilight Struggle experience into 45 minutes.  It stops just shy of getting a perfect 10 from me, and I might find its replayability limited over the years, but this game is staying in my collection and going nowhere, and I give it a boomtastic 9 out of 10.

13 Days Board Game

It’s a constant cuboid struggle.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.