Despite its tremendous significance, the Cold War of 1946 to 1989 has been represented by very few truly historical games. Most games about the period deal with military “what if” battles that, although interesting, miss the point. The Cold War was all about avoiding major wars and gaining influence by diplomacy and skulduggery. Chris Crawford’s 1980s Balance of Power got this theme right as did, to a lesser extent, Battlegoat Studios/Paradox’s Supreme Ruler: Cold War. The former is now abandonware and the latter still too militaristic. Alina Digital tries to hit the right balance of finesse and force with Arms Race – The Cold War Era (TCWE).
Rolling Your Own President
The game’s utilitarian graphics are divided into a world map, an information and action panel and a combination spreadsheet/menu bar. Before these are seen, the fun starts with the setup screen. Here, players pick presidents or premiers: Truman, Kennedy, Nixon or Reagan for the US or Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev or Gorbachev for the USSR. A picture of each behind a desk with suits indicating their persistent trait of a military, scientific or diplomatic bonus greets players. A second trait is chosen by players from historic, military, scientific, diplomatic or global skills. Suits change with these skills so one can see a militaristic Harry Truman wearing a Stalin tunic.
The world map divides the world into countries or regions such as Central America. Areas controlled by the US are outlined in blue and those aligned with the USSR in red. Neutral areas remain a lush green. Areas where major wars are being fought are shown as black with orange shell bursts and spouts of black smoke. The map view can be panned with right click-drag and clicking on countries puts their status in the information panel, jammed with crucial data. This panel is superimposed on the lower part of this map. During the game, flags will appear on the right side for countries at war and flags for player opportunities fly on the left. Pictures of the national leaders are on opposite ends of the panel, showing their influence in terms of firepower and their global influence. A row of flags across the middle of the panel contains flags of countries that could be of interest and clicking on them snaps to their place on the map and divulges their information with possible player actions. Information includes how much influence either superpower exercises in the country, the relative importance of land, air and sea power there, each power’s budget, the popularity of the government and the level of opposition. The amount of the player’s diplomats, troops and spies available is seen and the amount of each type of asset present in the country is marked in three rows of horizontal images with buttons to add more assets if possible. Buttons for spies to meddle in other countries’ affairs are there as are opportunities to change governments. A large message window flashes events occurring in the country. The most important statistic is the country’s value in points (called “scores”) for the superpowers’ tallies. An inset will show very short animations of parades, riots or important advances for each side.
At the top of the screen is the detailed menu bar showing the status of each power and the crucial tabs for departments. Data includes the number of points for the countries in the powers’ spheres of influence, the current budget levels, current date and the all-important available political points. The department tabs open up to tech trees for space and military progress and expenditures, a roster of all countries in influence spheres which has a further drop-down to buy spies and diplomats, a screen showing economic growth or decline, description of the global consequences feature and a tab for choosing to play in month-long turns or three pausable RTS speeds.
The amount and kind of information listed above shows this game is not simple. Unfortunately, the tutorial on the setup screen is just a link to an inadequate YouTube tutorial and the eighteen-page PDF manual, while explaining all the concepts, doesn’t put things together well. A very good user’s guide has been posted in the Steam community hub.
Sound effects of riots, parades and battles are appropriate but not overwhelming. The music is ominous enough but not distracting.
The Game that Came in from the Cold
The game starts in 1950 with both superpowers at parity with budgets, influence and number of countries in spheres of influence. Both sides have three non-accumulating political points each year. These points are used each time players increase departmental expenditures or boost revenues. The use of points and the budget are the keys to the Arms Race. Use of points decrease revenue and the annual budget calculations give players the parameters for action with growth allowing advances in research and hiring of assets. Deficits that bring the treasury down to less than 2000 will cause a “Crises of Elites” which increase domestic opposition, perhaps a civil war, and wipe out all investments to date. Growth is determined by present balance, influence tally and a random “market black hand” modifier.
The first investments should be in the ground facilities for the space program with some dollars for weapon research. Later on, research into spacecraft (called “launches”) is added. Progress in the space race early is the fastest and easiest way to gain global influence but is also the most expensive due to the AI’s strong completion. Remember, the Cold War was won by one side bankrupting the other.
Once financed well, the space race and weapons development roll on their own leaving players to the twilight world of coaxing countries into their spheres. A three-pronged approach covers fending off enemy incursions, seducing neutrals and flipping the other side’s satellites. Spies create riots to encourage opposition parties or stage parades to bolter friendly governments. These events can only be staged once every three months. Sending more diplomats increases influence in that nation. When a friendly party is attacked, troops can be sent in and, if friendly revolutionary forces exist, arms can be supplied. Once opposition and influence both reach eighty, a coup can pull a nation into a player’s power. Revolutions occur when the opposition is at eighty but players’ influence is less than the other side’s. The country is controlled by the player but the revolutionaries must be steadily bolstered. The purchase of spies, diplomats and military items is a drain on the budget.
Global consequences affect both global and national influence. These consequences come as a set of six events per decade such as the Berlin Airlift or the Prague Spring. The sets change each decade. Players have no control over them except by having Reagan or Gorbachev as a leader and having some success in small wars.
The Cold War was a murky period; each side had its successes and dismal failures that were often distorted by propaganda. The public felt that the time was a dark roller-coaster with unexplained ups and downs. When the end came, its suddenness was like an electric shock and represented a break with a reality they were familiar with. Arms Race’s difficulty levels forces players to take this ride. The easy level must be played first and ends with one side having more points. Only then is medium accessible with victory obtained by having fifty more influence points than the AI. Hard represents the last-man-standing nature of the conflict: one side’s or the other’s home country falls to a coup or revolution.
Is this game absolutely historically correct? No. Some events like the Berlin Airlift are taken out of chronological order. Are all elements properly presented? No. Domestic factors aren’t represented and neutrals could form their own block, e.g. OPEC. Could the game be more exciting? Yes. The developers won’t add multi-play until enough copies of the present version are sold. Should there be a clearer walk-through the complicated mechanics? Definitely! Yet, the game captures the essence and tension of the period. Players will be drawn into the struggle year by year, advance by advance, shadow war after shadow war. The balancing acts the US and USSR had to perform are captured vibrantly. Until a developer like Paradox comes along with a more detailed but playable product, Arms Race will fill the strategic Cold War niche nicely.