The entire world is watching you, waiting to see what you will do. As either President Kennedy or Premier Khrushev, you hold the fate of the world in your hands. Nuclear war is bad for everybody…but if you can use your ideology to expose the other’s weakness–if you can push the fragile military, political, and world opinion climate just a little farther–you might have more prestige at the end of this mess.
And isn’t prestige what it’s all about?
How It Works
13 Days is a card-driven area control game for two players based on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Players play as either President Kennedy (USA) or Premier Khrushev (Soviet Union) and attempt to dominate the other in specific battlegrounds and in public perception. The player with the most prestige at the end of the game (or the player who doesn’t trigger global nuclear war) wins.
Each player receives influence cubes and three flags for their nation. The round tracker, prestige tracker, and DEFCON markers are placed on their respective tracks. The USA player receives the “personal letter” card, and starting influence cubes for each player are placed on the board.
Each round is played in a number of phases. First, all DEFCON markers are escalated 1 step. Then, each player receives three agenda cards and marks the battlegrounds for those agendas on the board. Each player chooses one secretly that will be scored at the end of the round. Next, players receive a hand of five strategy cards. The player with less prestige decides who goes first. Players play cards back and forth.
Each strategy card comes in one of three factions: USA, USSR, or UN. If a player plays a card matching their faction or the UN, the player chooses between activating the event or “commanding” (placing or removing) influence cubes anywhere on the board. If the card is from the opposing faction, the player may only use it for commanding cubes but must first offer the card to the opponent to use the event. When players command cubes on the board, the DEFCON track matching the color of the battleground where the cubes are going is escalated; when players remove cubes from the board, the matching track is deflated. Players play four cards and tuck the fifth under the board for the aftermath.
Next the world opinion battlegrounds offer bonuses to whoever controls them. Then players reveal the agenda cards they chose and score them, moving the prestige marker accordingly.
Finally, players check to see if nuclear war occurs (if any of a player’s DEFCON markers is in DEFCON 1 or all are in DEFCON 2 at this point, that player loses).
Players play three rounds (if nuclear war does not happen before), and then the aftermath is totaled. Whichever faction has more command cubes showing in cards tucked for the aftermath scores 2 prestige. The player with the most prestige wins. If tied, the player with the personal letter wins.
Take It to the Limit?
Two-player-only games are a hard space to enter, mostly because there are so many good choices already. Multiplayer games that have a good two-player mode are a boon, but if a game suits only two players, it has to be exceptional to stand out and earn a place in my collection.
Well, friends, I have found one such exceptional game, and that is 13 Days.
I’ve never played Twilight Struggle, the formerly #1 game on Board Game Geek which serves as the inspiration for 13 Days, so I didn’t know quite what to expect. From what I had read of Twilight Struggle, I suppose I expected a strong historical flavor and the tense Cold War back-and-forth gameplay, but I expected it to feel like work. And 13 Days does, in some sense, feel like work: the entire game is wound so tight, there is tension from the very first turn. Yet the game is so immersive and so fun that it’s worth enduring the tension.
What makes 13 Days so tense is that every decision is a compromise. Because you can play cards from any faction–USA, USSR, or UN–you always have an option, something good you can do. But every card also has something that you don’t like–either a good option that will remain unused or a terrible option that you have to offer to your opponent. Any card from the opponent’s faction you have to offer to them first to see if they want to trigger their event, and since you’ll be playing four out of five cards drawn at the start of the round, chances are, you will be helping your opponent. The game is built around minimizing the usefulness of the cards you offer your opponent.
There’s also the tension of the aftermath. Only four cards are played each round, so the fifth is committed to the aftermath, tallied at the end of the game. This is a good way to dump an opposing faction card you simply cannot let your opponent use, but if all you dump is your opponent’s cards, it’s likely that player will get the 2 prestige at the end of the game (and I’ve seen games swung by the aftermath). The aftermath serves as a way to minimize (if not negate) luck if you draw one of your opponent’s super cards, but it’s also something each player has to plan for. Even more than forgoing a good event or the option to command on one of their cards, players might consider burying their best cards in order to win the aftermath.
The DEFCON tracks, aside from measuring how close each nation is pushing the world toward global nuclear war, are also a good gauge for how tense the game is. The DEFCON tracks are something that can be scored (the player higher on the track dominates here), but they are also something that has to be assiduously monitored: just one reckless play, and the entire game might slip through your fingers. The DEFCON system is absolutely brilliant. You can usually sneak cubes onto the board one at a time without penalty, but if you need to make up a massive deficit in a battleground or win a decisive victory, it’s likely your DEFCON tracks will reflect that. Having one DEFCON track in DEFCON 1 or all three tracks in DEFCON 2 is a loss for the nation that does it, so players have to carefully balance placing influence where it matters most and removing it from battlegrounds that are less important. And players have to monitor the flow of their own cubes. Unless an event allows it, players may not move cubes around the board: they may only be commanded onto and off the board, and toward the end of the game, this becomes crucial. If you have your forces spread too thinly, you won’t be able to command enough cubes to lower your DEFCON tracks when you need to. (And oh boy, will you need to.)
The flags each player has to mark which agenda cards they drew at the start of the round help players tell at a glance where their influence might matter. I love this, because it helps narrow the focus of the game. It’s also ripe space for bluffing. I might place my cubes in one battleground, trying to lure the opponent into overcommitting his forces there, only to disperse my forces elsewhere with little time for him to recover. Of course, the opponent is also doing the same to me, and this raises the stakes, turning an already tense game into a game of guess/double-guess. Is the opponent going for where he’s strongest? Or does he know that’s where I’d suspect he’d go, and is he trying a coup somewhere else on the board? The limited focus of the agenda cards places the emphasis where it belongs: on outguessing your opponent. But you also have to be careful, because unused agenda cards are recycled through the agenda deck, so if you allow your opponent to gain a foothold in a bogus battleground, you might just be setting them up for future success.
I’m impressed by how balanced 13 Days is. It would be easy to accuse the game of having luck–you draw five cards from the deck randomly and are forced to play four; if you draw all cards of the opponent’s faction, that limits what you can do. And while I understand this potential complaint, I don’t share it. I’ve won games where I’ve drawn “terrible” hands, and I’ve lost games where I couldn’t have drawn better. The whole game is in how you play the cards you’re dealt, offering your opponent what would have been great several turns ago but is useless now. Since the deck is equally balanced between the three factions, it’s also likely that if I draw my opponent’s cards, he or she is drawing mine. With the option to bury a card in the aftermath, I haven’t felt like my games have been reduced to lucky plays.
Further, I haven’t felt like either the USA or USSR is more likely to win. In my games, in fact, the win ratio has been evenly split. It’s also impressive that, while it’s possible to win decisively, victory is never certain until the end of the very last round. Because a player can lead by no more than 5 prestige, it’s possible for the opposing player to overcome their deficit and even win in a single round, especially if they dominate in the aftermath. (This happened to me in one game, and while it was mildly upsetting, it was still pretty cool to watch.) This may seem like it would negate the planning that led to the lead if the game can be won in a single round, but in my experience, completely overcoming a full deficit is rare. This does, however, force both players to remain engaged, invested, and on their toes for the entire game. Rest comes after the game is in the box and not before.
The thematic underpinnings of 13 Days elevate it in my estimation. The theme works tremendously from both a historical perspective and an engagement perspective. Designer Reiner Knizia is often panned as someone who applies theme as an afterthought to his designs, but this isn’t always (perhaps even often) the case. Theme for Knizia is engagement based. No, in game mechanics, what you’re doing is nothing like exploring Lost Cities. Yet the risks required of the players, venturing into the unknown with just a plan and a prayer, feel similar to exploring Lost Cities. 13 Days has the historical theme–cards bear titles of real events that happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the card photos remind players of what moving cubes around the board is supposed to represent–but it also has engagement theme: you really do feel like you’re in a Cold War with the other person. Each of you is pushing as close as you can to the brink without going over, and you’re hoping the other person pushes just a little too far so you can reap the prestige when you clean up their mess. Also helping the theme is the inclusion of a booklet on the historical background of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since this happened before I was born, I was grateful for the refresher, and you can tell from the booklet that it was lovingly crafted by an enthusiast.
There’s not much to say against the game. Some of the rules in the rulebook were unclear (for example, it was unclear from the rules who dominates a DEFCON track), but what questions the rulebook left unanswered were readily explained on the Board Game Geek forums, where the designers are active. A few of the agenda cards are misprinted, but really, what the cards do is clear enough from context that once you know how to play, you’re not likely to be reading those cards anyway.
The components in the game are serviceable. The card design is very nice, the board is clear, and the design aids players in knowing what to do, but there’s not much here that’s designed to wow players aesthetically. I’ve heard some complaints about the card thickness. I didn’t see much of an issue when I opened the game, but since I knew this would be a good lunch game choice, I also sleeved the cards right away. The game is functional, but it’s clear that the focus is on gameplay. And for gameplay as good as this is, that is perfectly fine, especially since the game looks good enough. The price tag of $40 may seem high for a small deck of cards, some cubes, and a small board, but trust me: this is a game you’ll want to play over and over.
13 Days is a reliable choice for an intense strategy game that can be played in under an hour. (In fact, once you know what you’re doing, it’s not uncommon to fit two games into an hour.) Most two-player-only games stick around only if my wife will play them since she is my primary two-player partner, and usually the groups I play games with are larger than two. I don’t think my wife will like 13 Days, yet I’m still keeping it around, and more than that, I’m actively hoping that others can’t show up to my gaming lunches just so this gets played more. I can’t compare this to Twilight Struggle, but 13 Days is a compelling two-player game in its own right. It combines skillful hand management with bluffing, area control, and a little bit of luck to create a nigh perfect two-player game that thrills each time it hits the table. If you like historical themes, and even if you don’t, and if you want excellent, tense two-player gameplay, you simply must check out 13 Days.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Ultra Pro/Jolly Roger Games for providing us with a review copy of 13 Days.
Simple rules belie a deep, strategic tug of war
Tense gameplay where every decision matters
Every decision is a grueling compromise
Fits the theme in both its historical window dressings and its means of engagement
Perfectly embodies what can be accomplished in two-player-only gameplay
Luck plays some role in what options are available to players
The game is very tense--some players won't like that
After holding the world in your hands, you have to go back to day-to-day living
And another one to add to my (ever growing) wishlist