Drop the Big One and See What Happens

They don't respect us, so let's surprise them. / We'll drop the big one and pulverize them. —Randy Newman, Political Science

When 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis arrived in the mail, I headed over to my Dad’s house and asked what he remembered about those two weeks in October of 1962. He was just a kid at the time, only six years old. His parents had sheltered him and his siblings from the full brunt of what was going on, but they still had a number of specific instructions, right down to the portion of the basement they would retreat to in the event that an air raid siren sounded. Mostly, he remembers being afraid. His older brother would act out at times. “Why should I be good?” he would ask. “We’re just going to get blown up anyway.”

It’s sobering to dwell on just how close we came to annihilating ourselves. And if nothing else, 13 Days absolutely captures the sense that the warning lights are on, the lid has been flipped back, and that red button is staring you in the eye, waiting to unleash the end of the world.

Hot dogs or borscht: the question that dominated the 21st century.

Compared to Twilight Struggle the scope may be more limited, but the stakes are as high as ever.

13 Days has been billed as “Twilight Struggle in 45 minutes,” and it isn’t hard to see why. Not only does it occupy a similar Cold War setting, but many of its best tricks have even been lifted wholesale from its predecessor, minus the scope and drama provided by Twilight Struggle’s three-hour playtime. It’s a bit like a younger sibling suddenly turning up in his older brother’s duds. In this case, however, imagine everyone’s surprise when the kid wears them, not necessarily better, but with his own sense of style. 13 Days might sound like a knockoff. In reality, it’s anything but.

With that behind us, let’s talk about what 13 Days gets right.

For one thing, there’s the agendas. Now that Khrushchev and Kennedy are squaring off on the world stage, complete with round-the-clock televised and radio broadcasts and speculation, both are in a position where they would rather not blow up the entire planet — obviously — but where both must still seek to appear the stronger head of state. This places both statesmen on the edge of a razor. Look too weak, and the entire world will know it. Come across too strong, and the entire world might not wake up tomorrow. You might say that the only winning move is not to play, except not playing means the other guy gets to walk all over you.

And that’s why every round, each representing four days of the standoff, revolves around a set of agendas. Kennedy, for instance, might find himself in a position to capitalize on the political situation in Cuba, display a better state of military preparedness across the globe, or dominate the airwaves. Khrushchev, on the other hand, might be more interested in removing the United States’ missile bases in Turkey or appealing to the U.N. for political mediation.

The trick is that while each player is given three of these agendas, marking all of them on the map to remove any doubt about what they might be pursuing, each side will only actually be interested in forwarding one of them. Selected in secret, this pair of objectives determines which nation appears more prestigious at the end of each round, and provides ample opportunities for distraction. When Kennedy starts paying extra attention to the Atlantic, is he preparing to dominate in Cuba, or trying to distract from the fact that he’s more interested in political domination? When Khrushchev starts pushing his weight around in Italy, is he merely probing for an over-investment from the other side, or is that really the epicenter of his interests?

I can see my house from here. Nicely, we're not in the immediate blast zone.

This is one Bermuda Triangle you might have no choice but to get lost in.

The cards themselves are designed to be sheer agony to work with, and this is where the comparisons to Twilight Struggle are at their firmest. Each depicts both an event and a strength in influence cubes, and players are free to pick between either. However, to remove the temptation of tossing out any opposing events — say, when Kennedy finds himself staring down at the Fidel Castro card in his hand — you’re first forced to offer an opponent’s event to them before you can spend it for influence. This might sound terribly limiting, but timing is everything, and even that Castro card can mean zip if Cuba isn’t the center of the action or if the enemy has invested all their cubes elsewhere.

All this talk about timing, influence, and opposing events might make the game sound complicated. There are certainly a lot of little ways to manipulate the cards, right down to the fact that your final unused card of each round is added to a special “aftermath” pile that might mean a last-second victory for someone. What makes 13 Days such a triumph, however, is that it runs so smoothly that all this stuff disappears into the background after a few hands, letting you forget the mechanical stuff and get on with the business of almost ending the world.

That “almost” is crucial here. See, the most impressive element of 13 Days is the way it handles brinkmanship, portraying its crisis so flawlessly that most of my games have come down to the humming of a wire, the ticking decay of radioactive isotopes, the sweat on a soldier’s forehead as he stares down the sights of his rifle. Most of the time, adding influence to a zone is how you win an agenda. Dominate a space with an attached agenda and you score prestige at the end of the round. Easy peasy.

Nope. The problem with influence is that it’s a loaded gun, and it’s pointed in both directions. Every time you add more than a smidgen of influence to the map, your position on one of three DEFCON tracks slides ever-closer to total war. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want, with many agendas targeted at being the nation more willing to fight for its place in the world. Unfortunately, while you often want to be higher on the DEFCON track than your opponent, you never want to be too high. That’s the point where cowboys start riding bucking broncos out the back of B-52s.

Thus is the essence of brinkmanship distilled. Both sides are playing footsie with the precipice and hoping they won’t be the one to tumble over the edge. In one game against my Dad, I was utterly crushing him. My Kennedy controlled Cuba. He controlled Turkey and Italy. He controlled the U.N. He controlled the seas and the airwaves. In fact, the only thing he didn’t seem to control was his temper. And my Dad laughed out loud when too many of my DEFCON markers were in the red at the end of the second round. We both lost, in a way, but I lost more. Making it be the other guy who ends the world might be the sort of victory that would make even Pyrrhus weep, but at least it’s a victory.

Holding hands, skipping merrily along, singing ashes ashes.

To the very brink we go.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m totally smitten with 13 Days. It isn’t a replacement for Twilight Struggle, but it’s a fabulous two-player game nonetheless, admirably capturing the terror, miscommunication, power plays, and brinkmanship of that crisis over half a century ago. And really, it’s something wonderful that we survived that whole mess and can play a game about it.

Posted on April 13, 2016, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Holy crap, this looks incredible. So happy this turned out well.

    Thanks for the excellent review, Dan. I’ll be looking into this pronto.

    • Bigfoot sighting!

      • Heh. It’s true I haven’t had as much time for boardgaming lately. A big project at work has been occupying more and more of my time. I keep meaning to get back into it. A game like this that doesn’t take all night to play but still provides some of the same levels of strategy sounds like exactly what I’m looking for.

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