BLUF – A nicely twisted CDG where you might know your history, but to win you’re going to have to out-DIME your opponent to influence the restless people of the world.
Memories of a Cold Warrior
In many ways I am a child of the Cold War. I came of age in the 1980’s and fully remember the “Evil Empire,” “Star Wars” missile defense, the shoot down of KAL007, and the movie The Day After. When I joined the navy we studied all about the “Big Bad Bear” because those darn Soviets were the epitome of evil. I also remember Cold War wargames/boardgames, like Ultimatum: A Game of Nuclear Confrontation (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979) and of course Supremacy: The Game of Superpowers (Supremacy Games, 1984). Even role playing games were all-in with titles like Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1984). It’s really hard to explain the (irrational?) fear of a nuclear war that was part of everyday life back then. It was something I grew up with and accepted.
The Year of COVID Gives Us a Cold War Plague
Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a “Cold War Gone Hot” trope has grown popular in wargaming. I personally have enjoyed several newer titles like Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (MultiMan Publishing, 2020) or Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019). Arriving soon to Kickstarter is a new historical strategy game, 2 Minutes to Midnight by designer Stuart Tonge and his new game company, Plague Island Games.
Stuart was kind enough to send me a preview copy of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Although the design is not final, the game as I played it is very near what you will see in the Kickstarter.
When one first looks at the box and components of 2 Minutes to Midnight, there are inevitable comparisons to the iconic Twilight Strugglefrom GMT Games. After all, both games cover the Cold War, both use cards, and both push cubes around a map of the world. More than a few potential players are likely to pass on 2 Minutes to Midnight because they think they’ve “been there—done that.” That’s very unfortunate because 2 Minutes to Midnight is an easy to learn (but not easy strategy), highly thematic game that forces you to consider all the levers of power a nation has from diplomatic to intelligence to military to economic. All used to fight a tension you might not expect.
As I played the game, there were several “a-ha” moments that help make the game enjoyable and memorable for me. So let me step you through some background to the game, the card mechanics, the thematic cards, and the subtle tension of a play of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Put together, 2 Minutes to Midnight delivers an easy to learn but tense game of deep decisions using history you know, but not as you know it.
From Blue Water to Cold War
2 Minutes to Midnight, is not the first design by Stuart Tonge. That’s a personal favorite of mine I already mentioned, the Cold War at sea Blue Water Navy. Stuart decided to open his own game company and 2 Minutes to Midnight is his inaugural production. The game is certainly ambitious, as Mr. Tonge lays out in the Historical Introduction:
2 Minutes to Midnight is a playable simulation (or historical game if you prefer) of the Cold War from the end of World War Two to the early 90’s when historically the Soviet Union dissolved.
Your task as the American player is to paint the world in red, white, and blue — ensuring Europe remains free, and spreading democracy into every corner of the world — but especially the bits with lots of oil and significant economies.
As the Soviets you must win the Cold War outright or hold on long enough to try to eke out a win by clinging to power. The fall of the USSR was not inevitable. Maybe it was likely that it would fall, but without Gorbachev — the great progressive — a harsher regime could have held on to power for longer and perhaps even evolved into China-style communism with strong trading ties to the international community.
Alternatively, a harsher regime might have held on grimly in relative poverty for another decade while brutalizing the people and threatening annihilation… Let us see if you can do better than history!2 Minutes to Midnight, Historical Introduction
Like the Cold War, 2 Minutes to Midnight is a bi-polar, uh, two-player game though a solo play mode is also provided. According to the box, a full game of nine turns covering 1946 to 1991 could take up to six hours. Fortunately for us with time constraints, shorter scenarios rated for 2-4 hours are provided.
What’s Your Marshall Plan?
On the surface, playing a turn in 2 Minutes to Midnight is very easy. Assemble the proper deck of cards for that turn and start flipping ‘em over to resolve actions. Each card has an event or allows for actions that usually will result in placement or removal of influence in various countries around the globe. One can also foment and resolve coups, create a crisis, and fight small wars—or even major ones.
2 Minutes to Midnight also features a robust technology tree. Developing your superpower economy and maintaining (or gaining) strategic advantage is just as important as what countries you control.
Your goal in 2 Minutes to Midnight it to control other countries. If you have influence, the country is the right government type, and is not in a civil war you move along the Victory Progress Track. If your marker arrives at the end of the track, you gain a Star (for the USA) or a Hammer & Sickle (for the Soviets). It’s also possible to lose a star/hammer & sickle by losing influence over countries. Whoever has the most stars or hammer & sickles at the end of the game wins, though there is a sudden death condition which triggers if one side is three or more ahead of the other at the end of turn 4 or any turn thereafter.
Don’t be fooled; the relatively simple rules of 2 Minutes to Midnight open up many complex player decisions. These decisions are driven by the cards. Here is where the inevitable comparison to Twilight Struggle begins. Rest assured though, 2 Minutes to Midnight is NOT a reskinned Twilight Struggle because the cards, though delivering similar game effects, here act as powerful narrative builders.
It’s in the Cards – Mechanics to Theme
If you are a player of many card driven games (CDG) you probably are well versed in the “Ops-Event” card format. Usually speaking, on any given card players have the choice of executing the event (which often results in the card being discarded from gameplay) or play it for “Ops” points—some sort of action. The cards in 2 Minutes to Midnight in many ways play out the same as many standard CDGs, but with a nice mechanical twist that is also the heart of thematic play.
At the start of each turn in 2 Minutes to Midnight, players construct a unique deck which is a combination of historical events associated with that 5-year period and a set of “standard” cards. On Turn 1 this makes a deck of 14 historical events added to the 16 standard cards. Historical event cards are usually resolved but they can cycle into the next turn under certain conditions (more on that later). These are the “event” cards of the common CDG design. On the other hand, standard cards are used to trigger actions and will “cycle” into the next turns deck. This mix of by-turn “event” cards and constantly cycling “standard” cards delivers the same Event-Ops Points decisions as your standard CDG.
“OK,” you say. “So in 2 Minutes to Midnight the designer split the standard CDG one-card design format into two separate cards. All that does is drive up the price of the game because of more cards. Big deal!” Yes, it is a big deal because by splitting the cards Mr. Tonge was able to dig deep into the theme of the Cold War and deliver us a retelling of history that is at once familiar, but also unpredictable.
Those unique event cards in every turn of 2 Minutes to Midnight are the thematic heart of the game. The cards take you through major events of the Cold War in 5-year increments. But watch out; you might think you know what will happen, but our past may not, literally, be “in the cards” as you play. You might think you know what historical event is coming, but the deck is shuffled so events happen sometime during the turn but almost certainly not in historical order. Furthermore, each event does not automatically resolve like it did in our timeline. The Bay of Pigs? There’s a chance it doesn’t happen, as well as a chance the US goes “all in” unlike the historical result. The event may even be delayed, cycled into next turn’s deck. The Soviet crackdown on Solidarity didn’t have to happen in 1980….
It Takes DIME to Deal With All That Unrest
In a not-so-subtle way, 2 Minutes to Midnight is a supercharged DIME game. DIME is an acronym for Diplomatic-Intelligence-Military-Economic and used to describe the levers of power available to nation-states.
When a card is flipped in 2 Minutes to Midnight, players will try to place influence. Sometimes that influence is diplomatic and other times it is economic (investments). Spies are powerful intelligence tools that can suppress unrest or steal (or protect) technology or interfere with trade. Technology, like your military, is important as it becomes die roll modifiers leading to success—or failure. You might need to resort to your military to resolve aggressions or even occupy a country. Placement of influence can also trigger other events, from unrest causing coups to civil war.
During my early plays of 2 Minutes to Midnight I focused on placing influence as I tried to out-DIME my opponent. As the turns progressed I came to be annoyed by the constant unrest and coups and uprisings that I had to keep swatting down. There were times when there was even unrest in my homeland that hindered my choice of actions. Gradually, it dawned on me that the constant unrest is a feature and not a bug of the game design. While the cards and actions in 2 Minuted to Midnight are your DIME toolkit, there is another power in play – unrest.
The way I see it, part of the gameplay narrative of 2 Minutes to Midnight is the a reminder that the Cold War, while commonly seen as a bi-polar conflict (like 2 players in a boardgame) was actually composed of many smaller conflicts that included not just other nations, but other people. The constant unrest in 2 Minutes to Midnight is as though the “third world” (player?) or opposition political party at home is constantly reminding the superpowers (or you as the “party in power”) that they too have needs and concerns that you must respect (or at least deal with) if you want them to be in your sphere of influence and not actively oppose you.
As much as I personally am a wargamer and never am one to pass an opportunity for a good battle, in 2 Minutes to Midnight I found that unrest was my best friend for influence. If a country was already friendly I had to use all the DIME tools I could to keep the unrest down. Conversely, I could use unrest to disrupt my opponent. It’s subtle, but the tension between influence and unrest is what makes so many decisions during play generate a narrative that has real meaning and importance.
It’s the End of the World As We Know It
One thing I remember from my plays of Supremacy were all the little mushroom clouds placed around the world as nuclear armageddon unfolded in front of you. If you are looking for a game of superpower nuclear armageddon then 2 Minutes to Midnight lives up to it’s name—close but not quite. Stuart points out that, “There is no strategic nuclear exchange modeled in the game — it would be quite unlikely that anyone involved in such a thing would consider themselves a ‘winner’, so I made an early design decision that would not happen.” Which is fine. I don’t want a game of the end of the world, but enjoy the tension of being “that close.”
Cold War, Burning Memories
Playing 2 Minutes to Midnight for me is a bit of a nostalgia trip. When an event occurs, I see in my mind the news reports or talking with my friends about it. In some cases I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise and tingle as I relive the fear of what could have been. For myself, playing 2 Minutes to Midnight is my chance to “do it right” and try to win while avoiding the ultimate game ending event.
When playing 2 Minutes to Midnight with a group of non-Cold Warriors, you will likely all find yourself starting to follow the story, paying particular attention to placing influence for causing (or defending) unrest. The narrative of play that develops is very enlightening. My boys said they couldn’t understand how America could possibly drop into unrest until we started talking about the Vietnam War at home and the Oil Shock of the 1970’s. These conversations caused them to look at many of the events in a new light. They started to realize that all-too-often what happens “over there” really does have an impact “back here.” They also started looking closer at the Soviet system and how it seemed rigged for failure and the huge efforts it took, sometime demanding humbleness on the world stage, for it to have any chance of thriving. 2 Minutes to Midnight also exposes the easy way of the military option, or literally “Peace Through Superior Firepower.” It’s easy to go for the military option and forget that you could invest in a bit more DIME.
Making the Cold War Tangible
One final comment on the components of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Although I had the privilege of playing a preview copy and I know all the components are not final, I really like how Stuart has creatively used different bits to help you understand, at a glance, what is going on on the board. From traditional cubes to cardboard chits to translucent bingo chips, all the components physically on the board are easy to understand, tell apart, and more importantly help tell YOU what is happening. I will mention that the preview box was literally, and I mean literally, bursting at the seams as it was not deep enough for all the components once separated and bagged.1 Not only does 2 Minutes to Midnight generate a compelling narrative, in play it also looks compelling on the table. By the way, you will need the dining room table for this game; fully laid out 2 Minutes to Midnight was hanging over the edges of my usual 3’x5’ gaming table. This is game not only with a big theme, but with big physical demands.
…Then the Wall Fell…Maybe
The Cold War was fought out over a relatively long time—nearly 50 years. Getting to the end of a game of 2 Minutes to Midnight is simultaneously exhausting (so much has happened) yet very fulfilling. The best satisfaction comes from achieving a peaceful world. Even if that does not happen and one side has collapsed in unrest, or lives crushed under a jack-heeled boot, the story you create with the cards in 2 Minutes to Midnight makes the entire Cold War come alive on your table. Which is exactly why 2 Minutes to Midnight deserves to be a gaming collection—it both teaches and tells the story of the Cold War in a highly interactive manner and shows that what happened maybe was destined to happen…or maybe it was just luck (or misfortune) that things turned out the way they did.
The Kickstarter campaign for 2 Minutes to Midnight opens June 14. So please show Stuart some love and check out the campaign and support it if you can.
1 Stuart assures me this is a pre-production issue and the final version will have a box of sufficient depth!