The early 1960s were a different time. The chaos in American society over the war in Vietnam hadn’t really started yet. Protests and radicalism weren’t prominent like they became later in the decade.
The Cold War, however, was definitely a thing and it was alternately warm and cold as both superpowers (the United States and the Soviet Union) bounced from incident to incident, with things heating up and then cooling down as time went on.
Check out Clio’s excellent “The Cold War in Board Games” for an overview of how it’s been portrayed in our hobby.
One of the games Clio looks at, and one that I’ve recently played enough to actually review, is 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis was an event that almost did send the world into nuclear war as the Soviet Union stationed intermediate range missiles in Cuba. This was something that the United States couldn’t stand for and they blockaded the small island nation off the US coast.
There was a lot of saber-rattling and finally the Soviets backed down (with some concessions on the US side as well).
This game, designed by Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen with art by Jacob Walker, came out in 2016 by publisher Jolly Roger Games and Ultra Pro.
In it, you and your opponent play the US and the Soviet Union facing off during the crisis, trying to attain a prestige victory.
How does it play?
Let’s take a look.
13 Days is a card-driven game of area control and influence placement.
The map has nine abstracted battlegrounds where you can place influence to hopefully score prestige points. These regions represent three different areas: Political (Green), Military (Orange), and World Opinion (Purple).
Each area is also tied to a column on the Defcon chart. More on this later.
You will be placing influence using the cards in your hand to either Command influence cubes or perhaps use the event to place them (or do other things as well).
The game goes three rounds unless somebody does something stupid and starts a nuclear conflagration (which has happened to us once or twice). This is also a game of brinkmanship, so walking the fine line is very important! Sometimes you fall off of it.
You start each round with three Agenda cards. You’ll place your flag in all three regions (or Defcon tracks if that’s what you draw) indicating where you might be trying to score.
You then discard two of them back to the deck to be shuffled back in for the next round. The one you keep is the one that will score at the end of the round.
Each player is then dealt five Strategy cards for their hand. These are the ones you will play to place influence cubes. These cards can either be US cards, Soviet cards, or “United Nations” cards which don’t have a side.
On your turn, you will play one of these cards. If it contains your event, then you can either play it to Command up to the amount of influence cubes into (or out of) one region, or you can play the event.
If it’s your opponent’s event, however, then you first show your opponent the card and they get to decide whether or not to have the event happen.
After that, you get to Command up to the shown number of cubes in any one region.
UN events are neutral, so either player can use the event for themselves.
There is a Defcon track on the side of the board. Some of these cards may increase a certain Defcon level. Also, commanding more than one cube into a region will increase that colour’s Defcon level by the number of extra cubes you Commanded. If you removed cubes instead of Commanding them, you decrease the Defcon level for each cube above one you remove.
Some events will also adjust Defcon levels.
This can be dangerous.
After a player has played their fourth card, the fifth is saved for the Aftermath. These cards are kept face-down for the end of the game.
At the end of the round, first the World Opinion region bonuses are done for whoever controls them (the Television region lets the winner move one Defcon track up or down one space, for example), then Agendas are resolved. Score as appropriate.
The Prestige track is a scale from US +5 to Soviet +5 (starting in the middle at zero, of course). Scoring is simultaneous, so you’ll end the round with the marker somewhere in that range.
You then check for nuclear war.
Did somebody set it off?
If any one Defcon marker is in Defcon 1, then that player set off the war and loses the game. Also, if all three of a player’s Defcon markers are in Defcon 2, the same happens.
If war is averted, then the next round starts (if it was round 1 or round 2). Raise all Defcon levels by one, deal new Agendas and new Strategy cards, and repeat.
If the third round, then resolve the Aftermath cards. You total the cubes on each of the cards that are either Soviet or US (UN cards do nothing). It doesn’t matter who placed them there. The side who has the most cubes gets two Prestige.
Whoever has the Prestige track on their side wins!
Is 13 Days a bringer of peace and a cooling of tensions or is it an ugly nuclear confrontation that wipes out half the world?
I really have enjoyed my plays of 13 Days. It’s a tight game with prestige going back and forth in a battle for positioning.
I love card-driven games like Twilight Struggle (a game that this borrows some mechanics from), especially loving the tension when you have to figure out when to play cards with your opponent’s event on them. Or sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and play it because there will be no good time.
Let’s go through the components first, though.
The rulebook is very well written. It’s short but complete, covering all aspects of the game. There’s even a playthrough which helps illustrate some of the game’s concepts if you’re still not sure. The playthrough includes designer notes talking about the strategy, since neither of these players is the designer. I thought that was really cool.
The components are nicely made wooden cubes and discs (though my copy came with three extra discs for some reason that I can’t fathom). The cards are pretty good quality, holding up without sleeves after four plays.
The board can be a bit difficult to get to lay flat, though that may be an environmental issue and not a problem with the board itself.
The artwork is pretty good with bright colours (hopefully no issues telling green, purple, and orange apart!). The photos that are on the cards are evocative of the era and definitely interesting from a historical perspective.
How is the gameplay?
It’s a very tense game as you agonize over things like whether you can afford to raise your World Opinion Defcon level by one in order to place enough cubes in one of the regions and take control of it, because that’s your chosen Agenda.
Or that horrible feeling when you realize one of your Defcon markers is in Defcon 1 and you have to get it back down by one space. Or even two if there’s a possibility your opponent chose it as their Agenda (scored Defcon Agendas always increase every Defcon level in that column by one if they are already in Defcon 2, meaning even if you decreased it by one, it would still bump back to Defcon 1 if your opponent scored it).
The designers used some of these concepts in their later game, Iron Curtain, which I also enjoyed (enjoyed enough to review!). I think I do prefer the scoring system in 13 Days, though, since you are choosing among options that you may be bluffing your opponent with (as opposed to just scoring regions as they are complete in the other game).
That being said, there is one niggling issue that is pretty much par for the course in games such as this but should still be mentioned.
Yes, the game is designed so that you do the best you can with what you’ve been dealt. The strategy is in mitigating what cards you have to play.
However, if you have too many of your opponent’s cards in your hand, then you are going to be gifting them a lot of opportunities. I hate that feeling when you are the US player and draw five Soviet cards. Not only are you given them lots of options, but you know you’re putting a Soviet card in the aftermath!
Yes, this can even out over time as there is a set number of each type of card in the deck. Hopefully you’re opponent is going to be in the same boat, or hopefully the plethora of Soviet cards you have this time means you’re more likely to draw an all-US hand next time.
But it’s still annoying and luck of the draw.
Other than that, this is a fantastic abstraction of the Cuban Missile Crisis that can teach you a little bit of history, putting you in the shoes of the great leaders as you are trying to push things so that you are able to win without pushing them too far and causing everyone to lose.
It plays in 25-35 minutes, which makes it a great game to play on lunch.
The last time we played it, we actually did two games, switching sides, and managed to get them in before it was time to get back to work.
As long as you don’t mind the “opponent gets to play their event” aspect of the game (I have a friend who swears off CDGs because of this feature), this is a really great game that I will be playing multiple times to see whether I can become as prestigious as I can.
Now if I only had Kennedy’s winning smile!
(This review was written after 4 plays)