Roll a D6 for Armageddon

Counter from NATO

One of my favorite wargames growing up in the eighties was NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games). This was a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. For a kid who had just read his first Tom Clancy novel, it was heady stuff indeed. Massive columns of Soviet armor rolling across the border, a desperate defense, a maelstrom of modern weaponry. Whoah.

Although it was the hot topic during the eighties, I never thought I would have any interest in NATO vs. Warsaw Pact gaming again. I was surprised, though, by how much fun I’ve been having with Lock ‘n’ Load’s Word at War: Eisenbach Gap, a smash-mouth shoot ’em up that gives you Team Yankee facing off against platoons of T-72s. So this past week I set up the old NATO game with its now obsolescent future, and once more the red columns came rumbling through Fulda and across the North German plain.

Any game on NATO‘s scale has to deal with the nuclear option. Gamers being who they are, how do you keep them from just pressing the big red button right around turn 2? Eisenbach Gap is able to sidestep that question because it’s really not much more than a firefight game. NATO, however, offered an ingenious solution. Here’s how it worked.

Either player, during the appropriate turn phase, had the option of initiating tactical nuclear warfare. If you did so, you immediately rolled a die: on a 4, 5, 6 you got away with it, and the dynamics of the game changed dramatically as each player was able to use nuclear delivery assets to strike the opposition’s force on the battlefield. (There’s nothing like airbursting one over Third Shock Army’s HQ to bring that pesky Soviet offensive to a halt . . .) But, here’s the rub: if you rolled a 1, 2, or 3—a 50% chance—the game ended. Immediately. That’s it. It’s over, no do-overs. This represents the possibility of the “limited” exchange spiraling out of control. As the rulebook explains, “In this case the initiating player loses decisively for having brought down Armageddon.”

As a kid, playing NATO solitaire, I approached this decision, and the die roll that followed, with the greatest solemnity. I would make myself wait and come back to the game table a couple of hours later to see if I still really wanted to do it. If so, then I would toss the die the length of the room, to make sure I got a clean roll. And if I was unlucky, I would dutifully pack up the game and put it away.

What I like about this mechanic is that it breaks the frame of the game. By forcing the player to risk something very real—not just prospects for victory, because every wargamer wins and loses lots of games—but the time and experience already invested in setting up and playing the game and all the potential play that still remained. All on a coin toss—no modifiers, just a straight up 50% chance of oblivion.

Because let’s face it, having to pack up and put away a game prematurely is probably the only kind of nuclear deterrent a wargamer can understand.


  1. Brett said,

    March 17, 2008 at 9:20 am

    Yes, that’s pretty harsh! I never played NATO, but one of my favourite wargames as a teen was GDW’s Battle for Germany, which has a more sophisticated but possibly less interesting mechanism involving escalation and de-escalation, going up to a (limited?) strategic exchange which didn’t end the game, just affected supply, re-organisation and so on. Somewhat more similar to NATO and definitely more fun than BfG‘s mechanism was 3W’s alt-history Germany vs Japan game, Tomorrow the World. There you could throw down nukes with abandon until there were 35 on the board, at which point there’s a die roll every turn for a nuclear winter and the end of the game, everybody loses. And if you keep nuking the chance goes up … The trouble is that by this stage of the game a) you’ve gotten pretty reliant on being able to nuke threatening enemy stacks and b) you might be losing and willing to take the risk of ending civilisation just so your opponent doesn’t win. Such fun!

  2. Chris Baer said,

    March 19, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Nice piece, and I feel chagrin that I fudged that roll while playing NATO solitaire as a teen. Too much work to clean it up, which speaks to the point you make.

    It’s been a while since we’ve seen a NATO/Pact grand operational land combat game like GDW’s Third World War series or VG’s NATO. Lots of contemporary air combat games, and some abstract Cold War titles like GMT’s Twilight Struggle, but really, nothing new on the Brigade/Divisional level.

    Last operational NATO/Pact game I can recall is Group of Soviet Forces Germany from S&T 220 in ’04, which has a mandatory d6 roll each time the Soviet player uses chemical weapons, a “6” ending the game with a strategic escalation. The rules suggest that the Soviet player should put up “a meaningful amount of money” to be given to the NATO player if the world happens to blow up. This is a Ty Bomba design, so not sure if this is tongue in cheek or not . . .