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Rob Zacny

Episode 206: Cold Warriors

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Corelli   

It's just Troy and Rob this week as they reflect on Cold War strategy games and the unique challenges and temptations of that setting.

 

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One of my favorite time periods to read about.

Here's my take: The most important story of the cold war is a personal one, not an all-encompassing one. It's not the story of empires jockeying for power as much as it is the individual being crushed by the state. It's not imposing your will on the system; it's the system imposing its will on individuals.

How do you make a game out of that, let alone a strategy game? One approach might be an examination of bureaucracy and the internecine politicking that goes on inside it (MI-6 case officer management sim, anyone?) Either way, I think that "the player as one nation" approach is essentially unworkable because, as you say, the whole point of the cold war is that very little happens on a global strategic scale.

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sclpls   

So much of the feel of the Cold War came down to MAD, and that means you are dealing with game theory. This is why a video game about the Cold War is always going to be a problem. Game theory against a human opponent is interesting; game theory against an AI isn't. Either the AI is predictable, in which case it's boring, or it isn't, in which case it feels arbitrary and unfair. Arguably this is why the most successful game about the Cold War is Twilight Struggle, which is simply a two player board game. However this might also provide the way forward for a successful video game. Twilight Struggle abstracts away the conflict through the area control mechanic, and card driven events. A video game could provide greater detail in terms of how each side goes about spreading the ideology of liberal democracy/capitalism vs. communism. This hypothetical game could also perhaps follow along the lines of the event driven cards where you know certain kinds of scenarios and conflicts will crop up, but you won't know precisely when and what form they take.

Aside from the grand strategy concept, I agree that focusing in conflict less global in scale would also be very fruitful. I think a lot of these conflicts haven't appeared much in strategy games because so much of our game design vocabulary revolves around state vs state conflict like World War II or the American Civil War. However board games like Andean Abyss are definitely demonstrating that it is possible to create compelling strategy experiences around more unconventional types of conflicts, particularly conflicts revolving around insurgency and struggles for state legitimacy.

I don't really expect Paradox to make a Cold War game I want to play, but Paradox games are sort of not for me anyway. They seem to design games that I admire for the research that went into making the game rather than games that I actually think are fun to play.

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hexgrid   

I really wish Gwynne Dyer's "War" series was available somewhere online.  The book is available from Amazon and presumably elsewhere, but I remember the TV series being amazing.  It was a "how did we get here, and where do we go from here, assuming we survive" analysis of the cold war.

 

You can watch a low-fi version of it on youtube.  Part 1:

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I liked the topic, though it would have been nice if some more of the gang were available to participate in the discussion.

 

The nod to Twilight Struggle was well deserved, and I was pleased that you spent some time talking about what gives the game some of its competitive traction.  Troy touched upon the timing element of the area scoring cards in the context of one's influence position in the corresponding region.  Also, though not specifically mentioned, the Defcon state is another great game element that adds both thematic flavor--that era-appropriate sense of being one wrong move from "game over"--and as game balance to counter an overeager power's desire to turn a cold war hot, going against the general gist of what the game is supposed to be.  Any game that attempts to successfully emulate the tensions of the era needs to ooze with brinksmanship, and I think Twilight Struggle achieves that aura well.  It was the board game that brought me back to board gaming after a very long absence, and it will always have a place on my shelf.

 

I'm interested to check out some of the other old school games you mentioned as representative of the cold war category.  The one that Rob recalled playing on 5-1/4" disk (wow, has it been THAT long ago?) I don't even recall playing.  Would be interested to hear from some of the other posters as to what their favorite game(s) is in this category.

 

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I looked up Twilight Struggle and may have to try and track a copy of it down. The real problem would be forcing one of my roommates to play with me/finding a friend to play with.

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Codicier   

I really wish Gwynne Dyer's "War" series was available somewhere online.  The book is available from Amazon and presumably elsewhere, but I remember the TV series being amazing.  It was a "how did we get here, and where do we go from here, assuming we survive" analysis of the cold war.

 

You can watch a low-fi version of it on youtube.  Part 1:

 ooh thanks for that link I've really been in the mood for a good documentary or two recently and that was pretty nice

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hexgrid   

It's actually a 7 part series made for the National Film Board of Canada in 1983.  Wikipedia will tell you it has 8 parts, but I think Wikipedia is wrong in this instance.

 

I watched this on TV Ontario back when it was new, and it stuck with me.  It was a pretty amazing contrast to the sorts of things that were showing up on TV at the time; it came out a year before Red Dawn, for example, and also the year before Reagan's "bomb Russia" joke.  At the point where it was filmed, the Berlin Wall was still standing, and none of the forces that brought it down were really apparent yet.

 

Yet there was this guy, pointing out the absurdity of it all without making it anyone's fault.  And the access he got to do that was amazing.

 

Amongst other things, he managed to score interviews with senior Warsaw Pact staff, which IIRC was unheard-of.  Probably being Canadian helped; Dyer is from Newfoundland.  I find the documentary fascinating at least in part because he looks at war as a systemic problem, rather than something you can hang on the head of a particular group of people.  It's also reminder of the mood and setting of the times.

 

Watch the whole series if you can.

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hexgrid   

Has anyone tried the recent iterations of Harpoon?  I had a lot of fun with it in the mid 90s, but I'm not sure I want to throw $66 worth of dice to see if the new one is good; the screenshots make it look like it hasn't really been updated since win98.

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