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.