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This is a Part 1 of a three part post. Click to jump ahead to Part 2 or Part 3.

Fifteen years on, the Cold War looked very different that it did at its start. Initially, while the United States assumed the Soviets had the largest and most powerful army on the planet, the Russians themselves knew that wasn’t so. The Kremlin may well have had a desire to project power globally, but they lacked the resources to do so. Recovery from the Second World War was a huge task, and Stalin knew he did not want to take on the West.

By the early 1960s, the Soviet Union seemed to be much more aggressive internationally, even if it was more bluster than action. Khrushchev emphasized his (largely illusionary) arsenal of ICBM missiles in combination with their early “space race” advances in an effort to force the United States into a negotiation position. For the public, it was seen as a threat of Russian superiority in an eminent World War III requiring rapid advancement in weapons capabilities. The shooting down of Gary Power’s U2 and then the confrontations in Berlin indicated a willingness of the USSR to resort to military force. In May of 1960, the Soviet Union established relations with the communist government in Cuba. The governments of China and Cuba also extended their reach into promoting communist revolution across the globe, leaving the United States with what appeared to be an ever-growing enemy.

Within this context, I am revisiting my look at the Cold War from a strategic level. Before, I looked at the board game Twilight Struggle. This time, I want to focus on computer treatments of the period and I’ll start with the scenarios available for Civilization IV.

Civilization, at its most basic, takes you from the founding of civilization, through today, and beyond. As such, it is bound to pass through the Atomic Era and the post-World War II technologies. Naturally, it is neither particularly suited as a representation of that time nor is it in any way a given that you’ll end up with a binary confrontation between superpowers when that time comes. As the Civilization franchise has evolved, however, the ability to create scenarios with their own special units and technology trees adds the ability to focus on specific eras, perhaps bringing some unique insights to the game as a historical tool.

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The Mexican drug lords have been causing chaos in Texas. Time to send in the troops to bring order to the southern border.

Within Civilization IV, mod-maker MaxRiga put considerable effort into a series of modern mods, specifically targeting on 1901, 1941, 1961, and 2001. There are two scenarios created for the 1961 start, differing in the number of starting civilizations. I decided to start slow and went with the lower number of opponents and an easier setting. I also played as the United States, who starts the game pretty much on top of the world.

I also tried to, at least as far as is possible, funnel my play into the terms of history and interpret what I’m seeing likewise. Of course, this is Civilization. So divisions of Mexicans coming up over the Rio Grande was met with an occupation of both Mexico and Venezuela. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was seizing smaller, independent African countries.

Civilization isn’t a political and economic simulator, even in so much as it has any realism. So eventually the Cold War is bound to become a hot one, otherwise its going to be a long, boring couple of decades of clicking “End Turn.” In my first game, it was some kind of Suez Crisis type indecent that pushed the world over the brink. Egypt and NATO got into a shooting war. While the United States was able to distance herself from that one, the it was the start of the domino effect. By 1968, I was sucked into a Vietnam-style war in Argentina. Well, not quite. I smoked ’em in about a year and a half.

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High tensions in the Cold War. NATO and the Warsaw Pact glare at each other across the Iron Curtain.

While asymmetric wars with third-world countries abound, a true Cold War situation prevails in Europe. (I think) it is a side-effect of Civilization mechanics, rather than anything too particular about the scenario or the mod. The Soviets have declared war on NATO. However, the border between the two remains rather calm. What I think is happening is, on the outbreak of war, I moved troops into Western Europe, augmenting what the scenario already stationed there. Because the NATO border cities are garrisoned with U.S. troops, it appears the Ruskies can’t make a move without declaring war on the United States. Like the real 1968, proxy wars are one thing, but the Kremlin doesn’t really want full-on war with the Americans.

So each turn has become a tense affair. Is this the turn that the USSR will hit me with a surprise attack? Will they find a hole in the NATO armor, forcing me to intervene? Am I going to regret  diverting all those resources to South America? For a fairly one-dimensional simulation, it actually serves up an interesting parallel of the Cold War. Of course, it can’t hurt that I’m deliberately interpreting everything that happens in that light.

Of course, when it comes down to it, it is still Civilization. When the wars do come about, it is a matter of stacking units in adjacent squares and trying to knock each other down. Rinse and repeat for each city until you get tired of warring. Again, you can try to stretch it into a plausible scenario. For example, I had forgotten how resistant cities were to permanent occupation in Civilization IV due to culture. When the war (above) eventually turned hot, I was able to grab Cuba, Poland, Kiev, Leningrad (NATO took this one), and Moscow before I called it a day. I also took Rostov, which oddly enough is located where Sevastopol should be. While holding on to Cuba was doable, Kiev and Moscow both had to be reverted to the Russians. Poland, now liberated, joined with NATO. Rostov (not Rostov) turned Islamic and joined the Caliphate. All-in-all a better (from the standpoint of the story) outcome than I would have hoped for.

The mod obviously was a lot of effort. There are some oddities, many caused by the Civilization IV palette itself, but others integral to the scenario/mod design. The tech tree gets a little unwieldy, with the U.S. getting a bunch of WWI era units (and German ones at that) when resources get a little thin. The deeper, Cold-War-themed tech tree adds some nice chrome, but it sometimes seems a bit unwieldy.  Particularly if you want to stick to the historical theme. I would like to engage in the Space Race starting in the 1960s, but the mechanics seem to make that prohibitive.

An army-group strength cohort of Navy Seals was representing something for the scenario design, but I’m not sure what. My Apache gunship can really slaughter me some commies in 1968-9, having been an initial placement in the scenario. The new units’ graphics can vary from a pretty nice add to the South Park-y “Modern Infantry.”

The biggest gap, to me, is the absence of nuclear weapons. An inverse missile gap, if you will. Nuclear bombs and their delivery systems would seem to me to be a defining feature for a Cold War game. The presence of a nuclear deterrent also should have kept me from (as I did) rolling through Western Russia in 1969 and completely eliminating the Red Chinese in 1975. One well placed nuke could completely neutralize my forces, but nobody has any nukes. I poured some research into the Manhattan Project and had, at least theoretically, some atomic capability by 1970, but nobody else did, and throughout the 1970s it does not appear that anyone has built a functioning bomb. A Cold War without an Arms Race? Why bother?

Now, Civilization IV is addictive as it ever was. So there is that. Think of it not as a Cold War game, using Civilization as the programming medium. Think of it as a Civilization game with some Cold War chrome. At the latter it is successful.

I’ve not delved too deeply into Civilization V and the modding capabilities, and I haven’t even taken a first glance at Civilization VI (V is hard enough on my graphics card). Civilization IV, with the expansions in place, seem to be the golden age for mods and user-made scenarios. If support for that really has been weakened in the new versions, it is a shame.

Can’t Take Me Home

Following a number of mods, the maker of the Cold War scenario formed his own company and set out to make a Cold War game from the ground up.

I first looked into this game a couple of years ago, when I first started writing about wargames. I was noticing the absence of strategic level Cold War games but came across his website through the above Civilization mods. At the time, the game The Cold War Era was only available as a download from the website. The download options included both a pay version and a demo.

The demo itself was well conceived. In single-player mode, the game is limited to 10 years of play (1950-1959). When playing multiplayer, the most permissive of the two installations prevails. In other words, if you download the “limited” version, but want to play against someone who has the full, paid-for version, you can play the entire game, unrestricted, in multiplayer.

The game itself gets less praise from me.

As I’ve said before, it pains me to be too harsh. This is not a product from some big game company, but from a fellow player and enthusiast who is trying to create games for which he sees a need. In this case, however, he has made a product which he is selling, and so while it may not be fair to compare it to triple-A titles, it is reasonable to compare to other products in the same price range.

The game is a continuous time, grand strategy treatment of the period from 1950 through to (I think) 2000. While it can be paused (and you can still do everything while paused) in single-player mode, when playing multiplayer there is no pausing. At least in the version I have, there is also no saving. So if you are going to play, you had better be prepared to play straight through.

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Two months before the demo-version times out, and I am about to lose. I don’t always know why I lose, I just know that I always do. This was the only game I’ve played that featured armed revolution in West Germany.

Graphics are simple but functional. The user-interface, however, feels less than functional.

The game is a simple one. The world is divided into countries/regions, each of which are either pro-U.S., pro-Soviet, or neutral. Every one of these countries has three areas that you can influence. One is called Influence, and represents the relative domination of the superpowers within the internal politics of that nation. The second is the military, which has the government forces versus insurgent forces. The third is espionage. Having espionage within  a nation allows two other options to either enhance or undermine the stability of that country. Each month, you are able to add influence to any nation on earth in one of these three areas (subject to a couple of caveats), up to the ability of your budget to support it. And that is the entire game. Click, click, click, and then wait for the clock to tick forward (or tick, tick, tick in the case of the actions that take 3 months).

There is more to it. Some of it obvious and some of it under-the-hood. The user manual is, well, let’s just call it a work in progress. For example, it describes the conditions in which “revolution” can be launched, but says nothing about what happens from there. From play, it is clear that an armed revolution prevails when it is unopposed by military forces from the other side. I think. But nothing is said about how military forces are eliminated. One assumes there is some additional random function which uses the relative strengths of the military, but who really can tell?

The user-interface feels patched on to the top of this “real-time spreadsheet” model, as opposed to being designed to present the best gaming experience. It’s not the worst design I’ve seen, but it means the game becomes less one of strategy than a challenge to see if you can keep track of all the moving parts within an interface that doesn’t necessarily highlight them. Winning likely involves being able to click away on a country that your opponent isn’t paying any attention to. Of course, playing single-player can eliminate the frantic feel of the game – I have been playing by pausing at every month to review all of the “hot spots” one-by-one.

Now the biggest caveat in all of this is that I am playing the demo version. The demo version is restricted to a 10-year period up until 1960, but it also seems set up to be nearly unwinnable. Unlike what I think is the normal scenario start, where the two superpower budgets are equal, the demo starts with the player having vastly inferior monetary resources. Add to that, it might be impossible to “win” given only 10 years in which to collect whatever points contribute to that win (again, not explained in the manual). It seems all kind of pointless.

And yet, there is some actual strategy in it. The basic move seems to be to identify neutral countries where you can slowly build support and stoke opposition to that neutral government, and thus be able to flip the government to your side. But the revolution option is a kind of a wild card in this pure-numbers strategy. Winning an armed revolt means flipping all the “opposition” into government, which can suddenly turn a battleground country into a solid lock for one of the superpowers. Within the plan to gain control, you also have to be budgeting for defensive moves as well as advancing along the tech track (Space Race in the basic game, but more to follow). Nothing will ruin your day like discovering that the opponent is about to execute a decisive move, but realizing you don’t have the budget to counter it.

Since I downloaded the demo, it no longer seems to be an option. The Cold War Era has moved its distribution to Steam, and advanced a few version iterations beyond what I have played. The company has also released a sequel, Arms Race – TCWE. The original game now sells for $4.99 and the sequel for $14.99 (the same price as Twilight Struggle, I might point out). The sequel appears to be more of the same, but with better graphics, deeper gameplay, and more bells and whistles. Let’s just say that the cost/benefit hasn’t yet tempted me to buy in at this point.

Another way to look at The Cold War Era is to think of it as a real-time simplification of Twilight Struggle. I say this, because as I was programming my Twilight Struggle opponent, I was thinking of the viability of just such a game. Gone are the Event Cards of Twilight Struggle, and you are left with simply placing Operations Points as a way to vie for control across the Cold War landscape. I think the idea is sound, but I’m not sure the real-time implementation of it actually works.

Sometimes I Feel So Cold

So if Twilight Struggle remains the standard, lets return to that.

My own programmed AI is theoretically capable of making it through an entire game, yet practically speaking, I’m usually met with a thrown exception rather than a victory. It also isn’t that good at winning, although it is good at matching the arc of game play to the historical timeline without being entirely stupid.

Shortly after I wrote my previous Twilight Struggle article, I did in fact spring for the computer version of the game. While much of what I’ve read treats the game as merely an adjunct to table-top play, I think many a gamer would be quite happy with the computer version plus a downloaded copy of the board game rules.

Much of what I’ve speculated upon before purchasing the game has been confirmed now that I’ve played it. The computer opponent is aggressive and challenging and it takes a decent player to beat it. Out the window are any concerns about how the play might conform or deviate from the course of history and, instead, you must concentrate on maximizing your cards’ value within the rules. Well into a game, I’m not sure I even know what countries are controlled or not. Instead, I focus on scanning the board for battleground states with the right combination of own-side and enemy control markers.

Of course, this isn’t a criticism of the computer version. As I said, this stems from the game design and the same would be said about a tabletop game between two competent players. To the contrary, the fact that the computer AI takes the role of “competent player” rather than the more haphazard, exception-throwing personality of my own model is an indication that the programmed opponent has been well done.

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As the U.S., I’m attempting to draw Egypt into the North Yemen Civil War in an effort to destabilize the Nasser government and reduce Soviet influence. It didn’t work.

It is also a well done game all around. It’s an attractive interface that straddles the potentially conflicting needs of looking good on the computer while preserving everything about the board game. The controls work well and are easy enough to be intuitive. I’ve yet to see any crashes, glitches, or bugs. The game is designed to play either against the computer or against another player. I will think more often than not, playing against a friend on the computer would be a nice way to save the trouble of dealing with all the little pieces and such. Especially if you want to split the game over multiple sections, and you have cats, children, or a small apartment to deal with.

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In addition to not having to deal with all the bits and pieces, the player no longer has to do so much math.

Back when, when I first bought the game, I played a couple of times and lost every game. The computer was clearly able to keep more balls in the air than I could, and while I fought him on one front, he finds a continent that I’m not working on to put a solid hold on. I intended to write this article explaining how I was unable to beat the AI.

It was a bit of an embarrassing position to be in. Shortly after I bought the game, I was telling another gamer (of both computer and board games) about my purchase and he said something to the effect of , “yeah, that’s a good little game. I like to use it as training tool to prepare for board game nights.” Similar conversation has surrounded the game since it was first obvious that a computer version was coming out – that the audience was going to be the tabletop player who wanted a fix between opponents. To find that the game was too good for me to play against, well that is kind of embarrassing.

So I picked the game up again before I started writing so it will all be fresh in my mind, and I actually won my first game (both first game this year and first game I won). This win came despite being a little rusty with the rules. So I guess the AI isn’t the master that I’d assumed before. But though I am winning, the games are tense affairs with everything I do seeming to be critical. The game has a setting to handicap the game one way or the other, but I’m not entirely sure how that works or how effective it would be once one can reliably beat the AI.

While it’s nice to have some options for the cold war conflict on a strategic level, what I don’t feel here is a sense of the early 1960s. The Berlin Wall, The Bay of Pigs, Gary Powers U2 downing, Kennedy’s announcement of the Moon race, and the Tsar Bomba all hit the public consciousness in a matter of a year or two. So while strategically, we can’t really capture the spirit of the time, perhaps we can do better with some specific, nuclear-themed scenarios from CMANO.

(on to Part 2).