Tuesday 6 September 2016

Cardboard - 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis board game review

It's 1962, I'm pretending to be Russian and someone has left me in charge of the nuclear codes again. Ruh roh. Time for some strategic Cold War cube-shuffling in Cuban Missile Crisis game 13 Days!

13 Days - Random Nerdery review

I'm not usually a huge fan of the 'modern day conflict' type genre, so when Esdevium Games sent over a copy of this for me to investigate I wasn't exactly spraying the living room with polystyrene packing beads in a rush to break out the game like I was when, say, Colt Express turned up.

However, this was pitched to me as a mini-Twilight Struggle where you could get the same tense tug-of-war experience in a much shorter time, making it definitely worth a look. Having reigned supreme at the top of the boardgamegeek.com rankings for what felt like forever (until it was unceremoniously swatted from the top spot by Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 at the beginning of 2016), the Cold War themed two-player epic Twilight Struggle has always been one of those games I felt I should be trying but have never quite gotten around to. These days the 3+ hour play time is also a big ask, so the promise of something similar in condensed form was definitely interesting.

13 Days - game setup

Jolly Roger Games' 13 Days focuses on the few days in October 1962 when the world came terrifyingly close to obliterating itself in a nuclear war between USA and USSR over the (not unprovoked) deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The two sides struggled with mistrust, miscommunication and the need to save political face, but after tense negotiations an accord was reached between Kennedy and Khrushchev, staving off Armageddon for a little longer.

Before playing 13 Days my knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis was limited to vague awareness and X-Men movies (Professor X saved the day, right?) but it's impossible not to absorb some of the information included in this game. There's an informative little pamphlet in the box that gives you plenty of background on the Crisis and every Strategy card has a snippet of historical flavour text to tie it back to real events, helping to remind you of what a truly scary period of time this was.

The game uses an area control mechanism to simulate the conflict, having two players take on the roles of the USA and USSR. Players use their Influence on political, military and world opinion targets to gain the most Prestige at the end of three rounds of play and win the game.

13 Days - round order

Each round you'll have an Agenda card which forms your secret objective for the next few turns. Some Agendas are based on 'dominating' a particular spot (or 'battleground') on the board by placing a majority of Influence cubes. Others are related to your position on one of the three DEFCON tracks (political, military, or opinion) which go up or down as you place/remove your Influence cubes, or via card effects.

13 Days - Agenda cards

Completing these Agendas gains you Prestige points and swings the little tug-of-war marker on the Prestige track closer to your side (and victory!)

13 Days - Prestige track

Players are dealt three Agenda cards each, and both place their miniature flag tokens on the three battlegrounds or tracks targeted by these Agendas. They then choose one of these to be their real target (tucking it under the board in the spot indicated) and discard the other two. This means you're never sure which spot is your opponent's true target until it's revealed at the end of the round and you realise you've piled all your little Influence cubes in completely the wrong place. Very tricksy!

13 Days - battlegrounds

Next, both players get a hand of five Strategy cards. These are the cards that drive the game, allowing you to 'Command' (place or remove) Influence cubes and manipulate the DEFCON tracks or use 'Events' which can modify these Command actions.

13 Days - strategy cards

Cards belong to one of three factions: USA, USSR or neutral UN. If you play a card from your own faction, you can choose whether to Command its value of Influence cubes or to use the Event written on the card. If you have to play a card from your opponent's faction you can still Command the number of cubes shown, but your opponent gets to use the Event, effectively giving them another turn. Disaster.

It's hugely upsetting to pick up your hand of cards and see that most of them belong to the other faction. However, (once you've had a little sulk) this does allow you to work on one of the cleverest puzzles in the game: when to play each card whilst making sure your opponent gets the minimum benefit from your misfortune. I really enjoyed this mechanism; I thought it was a clever set of decisions to throw in, and the idea that sometimes you can only choose the 'least worst' option adds to the tension and helps evoke the theme.

Players take turns to play these cards until only one is left, with the remaining card getting tucked under the board in the 'Aftermath' space.

13 Days - Aftermath

At the end of three rounds the Aftermath resolves - the little stack of cards tucked under this spot in the board throughout the game is revealed and the Influence cubes shown on the cards for each faction are counted up. Ignoring any UN cubes, the player with the highest number of Influence cubes gains another 2 Prestige. This potentially game-swinging amount means the decision of what card to save for the Aftermath really is tough. Do I give my opponent a super-useful Event now, or take the risk of putting this 3-Influence card into the Aftermath and hope it gets cancelled out at the end? Argh!

The winner of the game is the player with the most Prestige at this point. It can be ended before this, however, if a player 'accidentally' triggers a nuclear war with their position on the DEFCON tracks (during the jarringly benign-sounding 'check for nuclear war' step) causing them to lose the game.

13 Days - DEFCON track

These tracks give you something else to panic about while you're balancing achieving Agendas, playing the right cards and second-guessing your bluff-tastic opponent.

13 Days - winning prestige track

There's plenty more to the game than I've mentioned here, but you can find out about that in the rule book, which is nicely written and includes a handy play-through of the game which helpfully explains lots of the situations you might get into. The components do the job and the odd typo on the cards didn't cause any major misunderstandings (although PDF paste-up corrections are available on BGG here). My one gripe is the box; hugely petty and insignificant, I know, but my shelf space is limited! If the board needs to be held in place with a chunk of cardboard you've picked the wrong size box, especially when most of it is filled by empty air!

13 Days - box insert

Packaging rants aside, I think this is a great game. I didn't think I was going to be a fan because of the Cold War theme, but 13 Days holds its own in a competitive two-player-only market with a huge amount of strategy, tough decision making and tension packed into a little box. [Even if the box isn't little enough... Wait, no, I'm talking about the box again, argh!]

Designers Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen have managed to cleverly condense a deep, thinky game into a nicely manageable 45 minute play time, with mechanisms that fit the theme beautifully and lots of potential replayability. I guess that's Twilight Struggle knocked off of my wish list...

13 Days - board title

Designers: Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Publisher: Jolly Roger Games, Ultra PRO
Players: 2
Age: 10+
Cost: RRP £34.99 [Take a look at Esdevium's store locator to find a local brick-and-mortar retailer in Europe]

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