Anybody who was cognisant of their surroundings at the time must still shiver when remembering the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Earth stood on the edge of the Great Abyss and only skilled diplomacy and a powerful navy pulled us back. The naval solution, though, was not the only plan being considered. General Curtis “Bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age” LeMay advocated “surgical” air strikes on Cuban installations in OPLAN-312. HPS Simulations and Jeff Lapkoff of Digital Gameworks have delivered a small but intense solitaire game, DEFCON-2, to show how difficult, dangerous and probably futile such a plan would have been.
That Island is Bigger than It Looks
The primary playing field is the entirety of Cuba along with the Isle of Pines, although the planes of the strike package can be seen to the south if the map is zoomed all the way out. At first, the island seems filled with tiny yellow stars, giving it a benign appearance. The names of provinces appear in red and highlands are shown as grey elongated swirls. Zooming in shows more malignant features. Double mounted SAM missile sites can be seen sandwiched between long-barrelled AA guns.
Frighteningly, these initial sightings represent less than half of the island’s weaponry as radar sites, nuke bases, airfields and even more anti-aircraft weapons are hidden. Swept-winged MIG 19s pop up over high priority targets to abort intrusions or shoot down the probing aircraft. The only friendly sight is the blue star representing Guantanamo.
At the bottom edge of the map are the aircraft of the strike package and their available numbers, small oblongs to pan the map, the selected sector’s number with its contents and the control to set flight altitudes. The aircraft are shown in blueprint-like silhouettes. The top left-hand corner of the screen contains the status of the defenders’ radar net, number of airfields still active, status of the Luna surface-to-surface missile site and the number of Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) sites left. The upper right holds the present score and previous high score.
Animation is surprisingly effective. SAMs streak through the sky trialing thick smoke when a US aircraft approaches; anti-aircraft guns flash like machine guns, cyan lightning marks a successful jamming of a radar station by an EW aircraft, while flames and smoke clouds indicate a good ground hit. The illustration players don’t want to see is the one they get when they lose: the eastern seaboard of the US with a mushroom cloud over Washington.
Sound is equally satisfying. American jets roar into their targets as defenses either rat-a-tat-tat with regular gunfire or SAMs shriek upwards. The introduction screen is hauntingly accompanied by President Kennedy’s address to the nation announcing the severity of the situation. The five-page PDF manual is an exemplar of a manual that can be brief and yet complete through tightly-written sentences and logical positioning of illustrations.
Nukes, Nukes, Who’s Got the Nukes?
DEFCON-2 is somewhat reminiscent of the old Hasbro Battleship game, except the opponent can block the player from marking a square. The map is composed of hundreds of squares, any of which could hide a defensive array or a missile base. Players’ first impulse may well be to whistle up the RF-101 Voodoo recon planes and start using them to check sectors but doing this immediately may be counterproductive. Only twelve of these jets are included in the strike package and each has limited fuel so, after a few missions, they singly go back to MacDill AFB – if they weren’t shot down already. Players’ first move should be to slide the cursor over each square with an eye on the sector info read-out. The installations they should take particular note of are radar stations and, if they’re very lucky, the Luna site. The latter is the coin in the plumb pudding. Unknown to the US at the time, Cuba had several tactical nukes up and running. No threat to the mainland was posed but Gitmo and any landing force would have been toast. The game simulates this problem by having the US base nuked after the US has destroyed a number of sites so the Luna base must be located and destroyed early. By the same token, taking out radar degrades the local air defense system, making the area safer for air missions.
After the manual perusal, the recon planes are sent in by clicking a sector, placing a small blue reticule. Recon covers that sector and the eight surrounding sectors. Players can choose three altitudes: high, medium and low. High is safer but the info coming back is scanty, while low yields accurate feedback but is very dangerous. As a result, medium often works best until the radars in the target area are taken out. Defense can also abort a recon plane back to the strike package — and MIGs can do the same. Once MIGs get involved, the tab for the F-104 Phantoms light up and those go to the area to shoot down or make the enemy back off, assuming the MIGs don’t shoot them down first.
Enemy installations in the reconnoitered light up the F-105 Thunderchiefs for a ground attack. These attacks can be aborted, find no target, do no damage, destroyed, or deliver their ordinance. The first two occurrences send the bomber back to the package but the last three takes them out of the game, posing a major problem for the player. Only twenty-four F-105s are in the package and more than twenty-four targets exist. Indiscriminate bombing and losses will exhaust the number of ground attack plans before all eight MRBM sites are destroyed. When the number of “Thuds” or Voodoos available hit zero, the nukes fly north.
Victory is obtained by destroying all eight MRBMs. Since this result is unlikely, players get different amounts of points for destroying targets to try to beat their personal best. They lose points for a nuking of Guantanamo and aircraft losses. Replay comes in the form of setting the number of defense installations higher or lower and through randomizing site locations with each new game. One can wish for a more standard map panning system but the present one is good enough.
HPS and Lapkoff have created a jewel with DEFCON-2. Few alternate history games can present such an important event in a so exciting and accessible manner. Such approaches using this game as a model to offset the current trend toward detail drowned games.