Review: 13 Days – The Cuban Missile Crisis
Designer: Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Publisher: Jolly Roger Games / Ultra Pro
Category: One Vs. One, Political
Player Count: 2
In high school, our history teacher junior year told us there would be an event that we would remember for the rest of our lives, like how his generation remembers the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That was September 5, 2001. A week later, he said “I told you so.” For his generation, the JFK assassination wasn’t the only event—the entire cold war was a constant spectre, and perhaps never bigger than during the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The entire cold war has been documented in the excellent, intense, long board game Twilight Struggle, which sat at the top of the BoardGameGeek rankings for best games of all time for several years. It is one of my favorite games, not only because of its fascinating content and educational value, but because of its incredibly deep and frustratingly intense gameplay. 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis makes no attempt to hide its inspiration; this is a clear attempt to borrow much of Twilight Struggle’s DNA and convert it into a 30-45 minute game focused entirely on this single event. Can the game live up to Twilight Struggle’s gameplay while delivering it in a quarter of the time? Let’s find out!
There is no gore or swearing on the cards represented in this game, but the material is very adult, in the sense that it is complex, political, and scary. After all, we’re talking about two superpowers threatening to blow each other up. The box says 10+, but I think I would struggle to explain to a preteen how the world ever even got to this place. I also think 10 is a little young to learn a game this complex (I cannot see my 10-year-old nephew lasting even through the rules explanation, but that’s an admittedly small sample size).
When a game design has a clear ancestor, there’s always a concern that the new game will live in the old one’s shadow. 13 Days moves out from under Twilight Struggle by presenting an intensely streamlined package. The art design, and much of the gameplay, is strikingly similar, but you can already see from the board that there are 9 areas to influence instead of over 50. And that’s one of several differences.
Players no longer have to chain influence, but they’re restricted to a hard limit of 5 cubes per battelground, and 17 total. And they only play 12 cards—4 cards in each of 3 rounds—instead of the 60 or so cards each player plays throughout a game of Twilight Struggle, not including headlines. One area where the game is slightly more complex is DEFCON, which has moved from a single track to a situation where each player has their own markers on each of three different DEFCON tracks. I like how this more clearly ties the color-coded battlegrounds to different DEFCON situations, but I dislike that it creates unsatisfying scenarios where both players can lose.
There are also no more coups or realignments—or dice at all, a large divergence from Twilight Struggle. Twilight Struggle used those elements—and even dice rolls on events—to generate huge swings, which could result in shouts of joy or frustration from the players. Without those, 13 Days isn’t as, well, mean. While the general system of cards played for Command or Events is nearly identical to Twilight Struggle, the tension comes from being stuck with giving your opponents their Events. In 13 Days, though, the Events aren’t nearly as obnoxiously powerful and plan-wrecking as they are in Twilight Struggle. This game has a lot less teeth, which may be a boon for lots of players who threw their cards trying to play Twilight Struggle. There are also several other ways that 13 Days plays a little nicer. Instead of score cards, a separate Agenda deck is used that requires players to telegraph the three places they might try to score this round (they only get to pick one), there’s no control to break on battlegrounds, and there’s a hard limit of 5 points ahead, without any auto-victories. For me—and I never thought I’d say this about a board game—13 Days is not nearly “mean” enough, and therefore loses the infuriating agony that makes Twilight Struggle so spectacular.
In the end, though, it might be a fair trade off. After a ten minute explanation to my primary Twilight Struggle sparring partner, we were able to get our games down to 30 minutes after the first one. Most of our Twilight Struggle games take 90 minutes to 3 hours, and we’ve played it a lot to get to that point. For wanting a quick fix of a very similar concept, without that huge variability in time commitment, 13 Days gets a lot of things right. The theme is just as evocative, if not more, since it’s so focused around a single event. It also has its own cool subtleties with the DEFCON tracks and Agendas, and it’s considerably more accessible for introducing to new players as a stepping stone to its behemoth of a big brother. And in that scenario, it’s a benefit that 13 Days plays so much less aggressively. While it’s not quite the same vibe as Twilight Struggle, it’s still a great game that should appeal to fans of Twilight Struggle as well as history buffs who want a quick 2-player experience.
Thank you to Ultra Pro for providing a review copy of 13 Days: the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Bottom Line
13 Days: the Cuban Missile Crisis is lacking most of the teeth that make Twilight Struggle so intense, but it keeps most of what else makes Twilight Struggle so great and delivers it in a very fast-playing package.