The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play

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I’d like to talk about a game I picked up recently called DEFCON.  This game was released several years ago by Introversion, of Darwinia and Multiwinia fame.  The game itself has a pretty simple setting: it pits countries (or blocs of countries) against each other in a fictional nuclear war.  It’s essentially a strategy game in which you have to place and then command a number of unit and structure types; players must place their missile silos (which also serve as anti-air and anti-missile defence), radar stations, airstrips, radar installations and naval vessels.  There are a number of different naval vessel types, each with different strengths and weaknesses, which can be organised into fleets; they will then move as one group, but individual units can still be commanded to use their unique abilities – such as switching between launching bombers or fighters in the case of aircraft carriers, or switching between active or passive sonar, in the case of submarines.

The game uses a timer to move between different DefCon statuses, from 5 all the way up to 1.  For those not familiar, “DefCon” is a term used in the US Military – defence condition – to denote the readiness status of the military; DefCon 5 is normal peace-time operations, and DefCon 1 is all-out nuclear war.  In each DefCon stage, the player is only allowed to perform certain actions: units must be placed before DefCon 3, units cannot attack before DefCon 3 and nuclear weapons cannot be used until DefCon 1.

It seems pretty simple when laid bare, but it still allows for strategic complexity: each of the unit and structure types has strengths and weaknesses which can be countered by another type of unit or structure.  It’s a strategy game which has been pared right back to its most basic elements, but the depth of tactical and strategic gameplay is still vast.  Even the interface is minimalistic, using neon lines to represent everything, instead of complex polygons or bitmapped sprites; it really does look like something out of the 1980s.  Although if you can already see where this game draws its inspiration from, that should come as no surprise.  The objective of the game is strikingly simple: kill as many of the enemy population as possible, whilst minimising your losses.  There are different game types in which scores are allocated differently, but the essential aim of the game is always the same.

It takes a great deal of inspiration from the film WarGames, in which we see a young Matthew Broderick playing a teenage computer hacker who inadvertently almost starts a nuclear war with Russia.  Young Broderick, using his now antiquated modem, stumbles into a computer which has a program called “Global Thermonuclear War”.  Thinking that this is a game he starts a new session where he “plays” as the USSR and targets nuclear missiles against the good ol’ US of A.  Turns out that computer he’s connected to is a US government supercomputer designed to simulate different global war scenarios – including nuclear war. This computer also happens to have been given autonomous control over US nuclear missile silos, it starts warming up the nukes in real life and pointing them back at Russia.  Chaos ensues.  In the conclusion of the film, Broderick tells the almost-but-not-quite-artificially-intelligent supercomputer to play tic-tac-toe against itself.  It discovers that there is no winning strategy for tic-tac-toe and tests this conclusion in the game of thermonuclear war, simulating countless nuclear war scenarios.  Eventually it announces that global thermonuclear war is a “strange game” and that “the only winning move is not to play” – at which point it promptly turns the nukes off and offers a nice game of chess instead.  Everyone is happy.

I decided, of course, that I’d play as Europe; the game doesn’t let you play as the UK only, but to be honest the UK has a pitifully small landmass compared to every other continental bloc: you can place maybe two ground units in the UK comfortably.  My enemy turned out to be the USA – plenty of nice large targets, such as New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  I carefully placed all my units/structures, issued orders and bided my time until the counter reached DefCon 1.  I’d already snuck my submarines up as close as possible to the enemy coast so as soon as DefCon 1 ticked over, I launched a first strike.  All submarine fleets were ordered to unleash their missiles straight at the enemy’s major cities.  As I expected, the first salvos were quickly taken out by enemy air defences; my hope was that later salvos would overwhelm the air defences and score hits on enemy cities.  A few missiles made it through and I scored a few points, but nowhere near as many as I’d hoped.  My submarine fleets were rapidly running out of missiles, and had been nearly torn apart by enemy surface vessels, so I ordered what remained back to my waters in order to patrol for enemy fleets.

The retaliation came not long afterwards: the first salvo of enemy missiles was unleashed.  As soon as an enemy silo fires its missiles, its location is immediately revealed to the enemy.  At that point, I targeted each of my missile silos to fire three missiles each at one of his silos, hoping to cripple the most devastating enemy weapon.  At the same time I ordered sortie of fighters on scouting missions over enemy territory, hoping to reveal the location of the enemy airbases and take them out with bombers.  As our missiles passed each other over international waters, my fighters brought the enemy territory into view and I had my first moment of panic: the enemy had only fired a few missiles from each of his silos before converting them back to air-defence mode.  My silos were still firing missiles, and I had no chance of converting them back to air defence mode in time.  The enemy would easily be able to shoot down my incoming ICBMs, while my territories were wide open to incoming missiles.  It was an extremely costly miscalculation on my part: the death toll climbed steadily.  Only a few of my missiles made it past the air defences; nowhere near enough of them to take out the enemy silos.

I decided to throw caution to the wind and launch an all-out attack – I was already in well over my head so I had little to lose.  I re-targeted my silos at enemy cities, ordered my carrier fleets in closer, ordered sorties of fighters into enemy territory and sent bombers to take out the silos.  It was time for mutually-assured destruction; the red mist had descended and I wanted to make damn sure that didn’t go down without causing as many enemy casualties as possible.  Long before the last missiles in my silos had launched the enemy silos opened up again.  Soon the map was awash with missile trajectories, and most of them were heading straight at me.  I managed to cause a good deal of destruction to the enemy cities and racked up pretty steep death toll.  Where I’d gone for maximum casualties, the enemy had chosen a more precise and ultimately more devastating strategy.  The first wave of missiles took out my airfields.  The second and third ICBM waves completely annihilated my silos.  Then the enemy submarines made an appearance off my coast; I moved from mild panic and rage to sheer terror.

My infrastructure had been utterly crippled.  I had no air defences left.  All my silos were gone, and I didn’t even have any airstrips to launch bombers from.  The bombers on my aircraft carriers had been unceremoniously shot down by enemy air defences and fighters.  The enemy had brought his naval fleets in behind mine, cutting off my only escape route, and a fierce naval battle had erupted – one that I was losing.  The enemy submarines rose out of the water and unleashed their cargo at me.  I hastily scrambled the remnants of my carrier fleet back towards my own shores, but they were still being ripped apart by enemy fleets as they withdrew; they didn’t make it back to my own shores.  All I could do was watch the enemy missiles languidly spiral down towards my cities, racking up massive casualties as little white flashes exploded across my territories.

Finally, the victory countdown appeared.  When one player has launched more than 80% of their missiles, a 45-minute victory countdown appears – when the timer runs out, the player with the most points wins.  In one last desperate attempt, I moved the remains of my submarine fleet back into enemy waters and fired a final salvo; some of the enemy silos were still firing missiles, so I had a good chance of getting a few hits in.  I managed to score a few hits on some of the larger cities, but most of my missiles were shot down by enemy silos which had already exhausted their missile supply and converted back to air-defence mode.

I have played games of DEFCON in which I’ve “won”, and by “won”, I mean that I scored more kills than the enemy did.  But even when I “win” a game, I still feel like I haven’t achieved anything.  I don’t know whether Introversion were trying to make some kind of political statement with this game, but this game certainly left an impression on me.  In the early stages of this game you’re forced to make hard decisions which, as I discovered, can come back to haunt you later on.  Do you send in your submarines alone with no support on a near suicide mission to the enemy coast, or do you send some surface vessels along for support and leave your coastal defences weakened?  Do you wait for the enemy to bare their teeth first before retaliating, or do you try and get an early strike?  Do you go for precision strikes against enemy ground units, or do you go for maximum casualties and try overwhelm the enemy air defence with sheer volume?  Which cities are you going to abandon and allow to fall?  Who is expendable?

What I take away from this outstandingly haunting game is an overwhelming sense of futility and dread.  I don’t know if it’s the simplistic neon interface masking the brutal truth of what this game is really about, watching the “score” counts for either side racking up slowly but steadily, or the sheer terror of watching all your carefully laid strategies being torn apart like a wet paper bag in a mushroom cloud…  Even winning a game still involves the enemy scoring hits against your cities and racking up a death toll counted in millions.

I never found a winning move in DefCon.  I can happily gun down countless hordes of near-photorealistic enemy soldiers in first person shooters without a second thought.  Sailing a fleet of nuclear submarines up to the American coast to launch a sneak nuclear attack on New York, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles is an entirely different affair.

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