Updated: Aug 27
"Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."
—John Fitzgerald Kennedy, September 1961
Hello, fellow gamers, and welcome to my new game design blog for "Escalation: Nuclear War in Europe"! Allow me to introduce you to the new game I am designing. Sit back and enjoy the story.
Ever since I was a teenager, I have been intrigued by the idea of a nuclear war. The movies I watched: Dr. Strangelove, WarGames, Fail-Safe, and The Day After.. all told a story of massive destruction and global catastrophe. I remember watching in awe those ICBM missiles flying through the orbit, high above the ground like man-made asteroids. Then seeing them fall onto the planet, exploding in huge red flashes of light, with gigantic mushrooms rising above.
I was fascinated with the idea that humankind, so advanced and skilled that it can explore the deep reaches of space, could use that same technology to destroy on such a massive scale. I thought that we should be more advanced than this. So I decided to read as much as I could on the subject, and the more I read, the deeper I went into this rabbit hole.
What I found out is that many scenarios can lead to nuclear war. For instance, a rogue military faction or a terrorist group could initiate an attack with a single device. Or maybe the nuclear forces on a Launch on Warning posture could falsely detect a launch and decide to retaliate while pressured by a short time to respond. Historical cases like when Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov stopped the retaliatory strike in 1983 show that this is a likely scenario.
During my research, I found out about the works of Herman Kahn. He was, among other things, a notable military strategist employed at the RAND Corporation. RAND was an American think-tank that worked for the government in defining strategy for the nuclear age.
Kahn was a modern-age von Clausewitz, and he created several seminal works on the subject of nuclear warfare. He was ready to talk about things that others were afraid to think about. His two works, "On Thermonuclear War" and "On Escalation," left a mark on me. Especially the latter work, where he describes in detail how a crisis would progress from the initial peacetime stage to the upper-most nuclear exchange stage. Wow, I thought to myself, this could make a very intriguing game.
But it was challenging to design one. It took me years and many different approaches to finally make a workable game system. How would one make a game about nuclear war? Firing all weapons and bracing for impact isn't much of a game but more of a mathematical equation. But the concept of crisis escalation finally gave me something to work with.
So here is the story of the game I am designing. It begins on a map of Europe during the Cold War. As we are in a Cold War, our primary actions are done through our intelligence assets: secret agents and security services (in other words: spies). Europe is divided into 3 blocks: NATO, Warsaw Pact, and neutral countries. Within each block are countries (like West Germany or Poland), and within each country, there are land areas.
During the initial Cold War stage of the game, you use your agents to try to infiltrate the opposing countries and to stop your infiltration. You can, for instance, influence an area and increase your control (or reduce the opponent's). You can use agents to infiltrate the government of the opposing country. You can influence its army and security forces or even incite revolts if you succeed. Agents can also execute sabotage and incapacitate or eliminate opposing troops and facilities.
As the game progresses, you pull that tug-of-war left and right, trying to win more points than your opponent. But simultaneously, you are climbing up the escalation ladder until you cross the threshold that divides you between the Cold War and the Conventional War. When that happens, the game escalates, and you start fighting for real.
When you enter the Conventional War stage, you can now perform military actions and move into the enemy territory. Your armies and airforce start fighting, and World War 3 starts. While the Warsaw Pact tanks are coming en masse, NATO desperately tries to ferry the reserves to the European mainland. As the countries fall left and right, the game escalates even more until it passes the threshold again. This time it escalates to the Nuclear War stage.
At that moment, you unleash your nuclear weapons on the enemy. ICBMs and tactical nuclear warheads lay devastation on the enemy territory. This is when the game can escalate above the maximum threshold, which results in the destruction of the planet and the end of the game. Will you go too far while trying to win the game?
The game is called: "Escalation: Nuclear War in Europe". It can be played by 1-2 players. Its special solitaire system uses a set of Solo Bot cards and allows you to easily play by yourself. It is also full of beautiful comic-book-style illustrations. That is because I wanted a contrast to the very dark theme of the game. Call it my version of dark comedy.
Please, let me know what you think. Are you interested in this kind of game? Does the subject fascinate and frighten you as much as it does me? I can only hope that the ideas we are discussing here will remain in the realm of gameplay. Let us all learn something from this cardboard time machine.
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