GDW Twilight: 2000 - Last Battle: A Review

By the late 1980s, GDW was elbow-deep in both the roleplaying and wargaming business, pumping out an impressive volume and variety of award-winning titles.  The wargaming end of the business around that time saw the release of games like Stand & Die: The Battle for Borodino, Team Yankee, and Test of Arms, which were all part of the company's new (at the time) "First Battle" series.  This series was an attempt at producing wargames that were accessible to new wargamers, boasting an easy-to-learn basic rules set that allowed new players to get the game home and start playing right away.  This was quite a shift in GDW's previous approach to wargames, which were often quite complex and meant only for hardcore wargamers (see Assault, for example).  One game, "Last Battle", was released in 1989 as part of the "First Battle" series and I'm going to talk about how and why I bought this obscure 25 year old game and the circumstances surrounding its recent intersection with my life.


Chicks, Cars, and the Third World War - Twilight: 2000 

First off, I need to explain a bit about my own background in relation to GDW as a teenage roleplayer in 1989 who was obsessed with one GDW roleplaying game in particular - Twilight: 2000. In the late 1980s, I was in my mid-teens and my friends and I were firmly a part of the much admired and extremely popular group of high school kids that spent their Friday or Saturday nights playing roleplaying games.  After the first adventure, we were hooked - Twilight: 2000 quickly became our "go to" game and we played the hell out of it for years.

To provide some background for the uninitiated, Twilight: 2000 was a roleplaying game about World War III and it was released by GDW in 1984 at the height of the late Cold War, right in the middle of Reagan and just before the arrival of Gorbachev when things were tense and it wasn't at all odd to wake up wondering if today was THE DAY when either side would push the button and the human race would finally have the distinct pleasure of kissing its collective ass goodbye.  So this game was really a product of its time and it shows through its basic premise.

In Twilight: 2000, Chadwick drew up a historical timeline that set the stage for a Sino-Soviet conflict in the mid-90s that, through a series of complex but somewhat believable events, sparked a sudden German reunification that quickly spiraled into World War III between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Central Europe.  As both sides wore each other down in a conventional conflict that went nowhere, the urge to use nukes became irresistible but instead of having an all-out strategic conflagration, they inched towards armageddon with a series of limited nuclear exchanges. 

By July of 2000, much of the world is devastated through conflict, radioactive fallout, disease, and famine but the war drags on and the US is about to launch one last major push into Poland to end the war and bring its troops back home to rebuild.  The Warsaw Pact catches the US forces with a well-timed counterattack, however, and pushes them back all the way into Germany.  

Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Twilight: 2000 and Design

The players take on the role of US soldiers who are part of this last failed NATO offensive and the game starts with the group of player characters caught behind enemy lines in Poland (around Kalisz) and they must break their way out of their predicament in order to...well, do whatever the hell they want.  Some groups of players tried to get back home while others conducted guerrilla warfare or turned to looting the countryside while others simply tried to survive.  The characters are given access to modern weapons, vehicles, and other assorted toys and let loose in a post-apocalyptic warzone to create their own destinies.   It was this freedom in particular that appealed to many players and the rules were broad enough to support the players in trying to create their own life paths through the rubble of World War III.

The game tried so hard to be realistic that I think of it as the antithesis of games like Dungeons & Dragons.  There were no spells or wizards or dragons to be found within a thousand miles of a Twilight: 2000 rulebook.  The contents of the player's guide also made it fairly clear that players would be spending most of their time trying to just survive in a harsh post-nuclear environment with danger around every corner.   You had to keep faithful track of ammunition and fuel expenditure, vehicle maintenance and upkeep, food consumption, and healing time for any wounds.  So much for setting out to save the fair maiden from the old castle near Helm's Deep. This was "reality" roleplaying at its finest.

The combat rules were complex but not overly so - Chadwick  Marc Miller was a Vietnam veteran and it's clear that he tried his best to model combat in a detailed and realistic manner but not so much that it bogged down the system.  Things like artillery, anti-tank missiles, armored combat, small arms, and heavy weapons are all handled well by the system and provide for a good play experience.  With the Twilight: 2000 roleplaying rulebook in hand, you were basically all set for a fun evening provided that your players didn't get into a huge battle.  The system was just wieldy enough to handle combat between small-ish forces (less than 10 guys per each side).  When you wanted to run bigger battles, however - and it happened quite a bit in the published adventures - the system would bog down under the strain of it all and the game quickly became unplayable.



I Can't Go For That (No Can Do) - The Arrival of "Last Battle"

To resolve this problem, GDW released a Twilight: 2000 supplement called "Last Battle", which provided roleplayers with a way to resolve larger-scale combat between two forces.  GDW released this as part of the "First Battle" series and I suspect that they were hoping that the wargame-y mechanics of "Last Battle" would appeal to the grognards as well as those who had never heard of Twilight: 2000 and would otherwise want nothing to do with a roleplaying game.  At the same time, I'm sure GDW was hoping that "Last Battle" would make enough of an impact on roleplayers that it would serve as a gateway game to introduce Twilight: 2000 players to GDW's wargame products line.  This notion is certainly supported by the blurb on the back of the box, which claims that "Last Battle" is both a roleplaying supplement and a standalone boardgame.

I'm not sure the gamble paid off.  I can remember dismissing "Last Battle" as too much of a wargame (something I was not interested at all in at the time) and I'm sure there were more than a few wargamers who dismissed the product as simply a roleplaying supplement and not a "real wargame". Were people just confused by this product?  I always got the impression, perhaps wrongly, that "Last Battle" was an effort by GDW to fuse together their roleplaying and wargaming lines.  Although I'm not real clear on the history here, the fact that GDW didn't really attempt anything similar to this afterwards shows that it probably didn't work. I think it says a lot that the game is largely ignored on boardgamegeek and not even listed on rpggeek.  Most people today would look at "Last Battle" and think, "What the hell is this thing?" and that's basically what people thought 25 years ago too.

Anyway, you open up "Last Battle" and you get about 15 pages of rules along with a scenario book that has about 10 scenarios in it featuring forces of various size.  The scenarios are all based on battles from various Twilight: 2000 published adventures, from classics like "Armies of the Night" and "The Ruins of Warsaw".  I couldn't help think about how all of these various scenarios with different forces would probably never make sense to someone with no background knowledge of Twilight: 2000  ("Why are the French fighting the Americans?"  Why is a street gang in New York fighting the US Army?") but would be instantly recognizable to anyone who loved the roleplaying game.

The counters aren't anything special but they contain all the essential information and they're easy to read.  I greatly appreciated the fact that the counters were numbered according to their colors, which made it easier to distinguish between counters on opposing sides (I'm colorblind and telling brown from green is very tough for me).

There are 6 paper maps included with the game and although they aren't terribly exciting in terms of color or appearance, they work well in terms of providing enough playing space for all your counters in their individual hexes, especially handy since there are no stacking limits for soldiers.


When Doves Cry - My First Impressions of "Last Battle" as a Wargame

Playing through my first game of "Last Battle", the U.S. Army faced off against the Los Diablos gang in New York City.  The Diablos had an advantage in numbers but the Army had veteran troops and better weapons so the New York street gang managed to take out one or two soldiers before getting completely wiped out.  So far, so good - but it was nothing too exciting.

The second scenario I played through was based around a particular scene in the excellent adventure module, "Going Home".  In the adventure module, the  players are trying to make their way through war-torn Germany to get back to a ship that will take them back to the States.  Unfortunately, the Americans need to get through the French "neutral zone", which has been declared off-limits to all combatants.  So in this scenario, the US soldiers fight against the French.  This scenario had vehicles in it, an M2 Bradley and 2 Fast Attack Vehicles.  The French had some support weapons as well as a tankbreaker anti-tank missile launcher.  This is where things got pretty ridiculous.

American M2 Bradley advances on the enemy position after getting hit twice by anti-tank missiles.


The M2 Bradley made it to the top of a hill and the French fired their tankbreaker and hit the vehicle.  I rolled on the damage table and got...a "radio damaged" result.  Wait a second.  An anti-tank missile managed a direct hit on the M2 Bradley (on the top of the IFV) and the radio got broken?  The French fired again in a subsequent turn and this time, the turret was completely destroyed but the vehicle was still able to drive around no problem with all crew members alive and inside.  Something was wrong here.

Another problem soon hit me too.  Since your troops have different levels of experience, they all get different modifiers to their "to hit"  and save rolls.  Keeping track of which of your guys had what experience on a crowded map became an exercise in frustration, especially when their were no counters to show experience and guys kept moving around, getting killed, replaced with other counters, etc.  So I really started to dislike this game...and then something wonderful happened.


Don't Worry Be Happy - "Last Battle" as a Roleplaying Supplement

I had a couple of beers.

I came back to the gaming table, a bit reluctantly, and threw caution to the wind.  I guessed at experience levels, I guessed at damage tables, I even guessed whose turn it was.  And I had fun!  Lots of it.  I could suddenly sense that this game, played around a crowded table by a group of teenagers in 1989 with pretzels and bad music in the background and the occasional conversational diversion about how much the latest Miami Vice episode sucked, might work alright provided no one worried too much about following the rules to a tee or fretted over achieving realistic outcomes.  After I stopped approaching "Last Battle" as a serious wargame and looked at it as a roleplaying supplement or a beer and pretzels kind of game, it actually became somewhat enjoyable.

As part of the "First Battle" series, "Last Battle" doesn't measure up to the other products in the lineup.  As a way of resolving large battles in a roleplaying universe using some quick and easy rules, however, it's a pretty decent effort.  As a Twilight: 2000 fan, GDW deserves some praise for offering a product that solved a problem in the game but it's easy to see why it probably didn't get much love from wargamers despite trying to cast itself as such.  I don't know how often I'll be putting this game on the table, but I suspect that when I start to get nostalgic for that time and place, "Last Battle" might scratch the itch for a fun evening of mindless gaming - beer in hand, of course.

(Update:  In the original post, I incorrectly stated that Frank Chadwick was a Vietnam veteran.  In fact, it was Marc Miller who served in Vietnam.  My sincere apologies to both men.)

Comments

  1. Groovy. My role playing days were filled with D&D, and this James Bond thing set in space or something. Then we got girlfriends and it all died. Never saw nor heard anything about this. Great write up.

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    1. Thanks Kev! Twilight: 2000 is great and James Bond set in space sounds pretty awesome. Girlfriends sound better though. Funny how I had to get married to come back full circle to the old gaming hobby!

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  2. Good ole D & D was my gateway to wargames. Those were some great times.

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    1. It's kind of great how many people say that D&D got them into wargaming. Maybe it's the dice appeal? I'm not sure. I think Gary Gygax started off with wargaming before he created D&D. Here's a link to his rules for a wargame of his called "Fantasy Battles" in 1972. You can definitely get a sense of what's coming down the road just from reading it: http://tinyurl.com/qd99m2h

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  3. Oops, also the irony about making a wargame to assist with RPG combat resolution. Since RPGs started as miniatures games (EGG/Arneson Chainmail into D&D) or wargames (GDW's Imperium to Traveller), the way that they got so complex they needed to loop back to their origins to re-simplify them for pure combat is poetic or something. We also later used miniatures rules to address the issue as boardgames were so expensive to produce and something of an odd, niche-y market.

    Dave

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    1. Thanks David! Yeah, I think another extreme example of this was the Leading Edge RPG combat system, Phoenix Command. The ballistics were based on computer modelling and calculating the flight path and damage inflicted by each bullet meant spending hours upon hours working out a single combat on pen and paper. At some point, the push to be "realistic and gritty" went too far and got bogged down in laborious tedium. I actually recently got my hands on a copy of Phoenix Command and I intend to do a write-up some day to talk about this issue. I think sanity prevailed at some point and many recent RPGs are more "play-friendly" while still managing to keep things a bit realistic.

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  4. Brad--

    It looks like my original comment (before "Oops" above) got lost. It said something like this:

    You are correct, "Last Battle" was an RPG adjunct for T2K, one of a more-or-less permanent effort to address "mass combat" resolution for RPGs, whether T2K, Traveller, 2300, etc. All of that stuff sat uncomfortably between the RPG and wargame. I agree with you that the "scenarios" were particularly odd, that's just an expression of the wargame DNA in it. I thought that was probably not time well spent, more practical to say, "You're the Ref buying this, you know what you want to use it for."

    One correction, Frank Chadwick was not a Vietnam vet, that was Marc Miller.

    Thanks,

    Dave Nilsen

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    1. Hi Dave,

      Sorry your original comment got lost and thanks for resubmitting. Also a big thanks for the correction about Frank and Marc. I'll put an edit in the article right away to reflect that. I have to say that despite the cheeky review I wrote above, I really was sincere in that I think LB would have been a huge hit in my gaming group at the time. It made bigger battles much more playable and that really opened up the possibilities for the T2K GM in terms of what kinds of settings and scenarios could be played out. Looking back, I wish I had bought it back when it came out. And I would agree about the scenarios. Most people I knew who ran T2K games wrote their own stuff or heavily modified existing adventure modules. I don't know what it was about T2K but people got really attached to their characters (moreso than most other games) and developed them carefully over the course of play so it just begged the GM to tailor specific adventures or scenarios to the PCs rather than play out an existing module without heavily modifying it. Anyway, thank you again!

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  5. Brad--

    Happy to help reminisce. I know what you mean about it feeling weird. For some reason there were lots of LB parts and Twilight Encounters parts lying around the office and I'd always look at them and think, "what the hell is this from? Oh, right." There was something about them that had to be vague and generic enough to serve the RPG, but was presented like a wargame component and didn't want to fall into a category in my mind. TE also suffered from the confusion that it fell into the grey area between T2K first and second editions. Brilliant Lances, the starship resolution adjunct for TNE, fell into a similar trap. It only existed to be a fully realized resolution for the RPG, as the range-band system in the basic rulebook was inadequate. But somewhere along the line when you put parts into a box the price point gets so high that some logic gets imposed on you that you must make it look like a stand-alone game, which it was never intended to be, so it accretes misperceptions. A miniatures framework seemed to work better, maybe because minis is where it all began, back with Chainmail.

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    1. Your server is in China, Russian Far East, Mongolia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Australia. UTC +8.

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    2. Thanks for your insightful comments, David. That certainly sheds light on how Last Battle came to be and why it was presented as it was. I can understand now the tension that must have existed between the intent and the final product. It also explains the release of the Twilight: 2000 miniatures line (oh how I wanted those). The system just begged for it. I admire how much GDW tried to support T2K and expand the options for people who played it. It was a great company and it took risks to meet its vision. I miss it.

      As for the server, you're correct! I live and work in Japan. Wargaming and blogging is a nice way to escape the occasional sense of disconnect that comes from being in such a different culture.

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