As a kid, I loved the iconic Milton Bradley game, Battleship—especially when I discovered my family and friends’ strategy and thereby learned how to repeatedly shell their fleets into scrap metal. Had I known that someday my time spent playing Battleship would be put to good use, I may have spent less time cursing the rain through a thin layer of nylon (our family spent many a rainy week stuck in a tent somewhere in the Midwestern United States) and more time drowning enemy vessels. In any event, in an age when board games are typically looked upon as relics of a bygone era by a new generation of gamers, along comes a game like DEFCON—a game that takes many of the core concepts that made classic board games like Battleship so much fun, combines it with 60’s-era nuclear paranoia, and tops it all off with a whiz-bang sci-fi look that makes everything old new again.
Shall We Play A Game?In case you haven’t already guessed, DEFCON is a strategy game, but it’s probably quite a bit different than anything you’ve already played. Obviously, with a name like “DEFCON,” if you assume that the purpose of the game is to nuke the enemy’s territory into a flat pane of glass, you can’t be far off. However, the sole indicator that determines your success or failure is not the number of enemy military units left at the end of the game—it’s the remaining civilian population occupying the many cities scattered around the globe. In an eerie departure from beautifully-rendered strategy games like Command and Conquer 3, DEFCON presents the world in sharply contrasted vector-based graphics that provide a uncanny sense of disconnect between the player and the events happening before him. It’s almost as if the designers of DEFCON wanted to give the player the impression that they’re commanding their forces from an old computer lodged in the depths of a nuclear fallout shelter. Little blips and beeps represent units destroyed or lost, dotted lines follow the progress of ballistic missiles, and as ships sink, aircraft are blasted out of the sky, and nuclear warheads bury themselves into cities, you’re treated to what seems to be the oppressive drone of worn-out air recirculation machines, heavily distorted radio chatter, ancient computers beeping, and the slightest hint of someone sobbing. To top it all off, DEFCON treats the player to a mournful orchestral soundtrack, lending an overall sense of gravity to the events that are taking place outside.
At the start of each game, the Defcon status is set to 5, and a timer begins counting down. As this clock winds down (and the Defcon status decreases from five to one), the tension between countires grows ever higher as restrictions preventing certain types of warfare are gradually lifted. At Defcon 5, you’re limited to negotiating with other countries and positioning your own forces. As you continue to build through Defcon 4, your radar installations become active, and as you pass thorugh Defcon 3 and 2, the restriction on conventional (non-nuclear) warfare is lifted, meaning that naval battles are inevitable as countries try to move their aircraft carriers and submarines to within striking range of enemy cities. Once Defcon 1 is achieved the restriction on nuclear warfare is lifted, making it possible to start wiping out unfriendly cities, which is what the core of the DEFCON’s gameplay centers around. If you manage to annihilate a few million people in your opponent’s cities, you’ll start racking up points—but, if you fail to protect your own populace while doing so, you’ll probably wind up losing a chunk of your own population (and therefore, points). Whether or not you want to spend a portion of your limited stock of nukes on military installations is up to you—just remember that while you’ll have an easier time hitting enemy cities once the defending military installations are gone, you’ll also have fewer missiles to rack up the megadeaths with.
While military units aren’t directly related to your score, they’re still extremely important. You only have a few types of units and installations at your disposal—and the same number as the enemy—but each of these units has fairly large strengths and advantages that can make the Defcon 3 and 2 period of any contest a game of rock, paper, scissors on a massive scale. Paramount among these units is the all-important missile silo, which is something of a misnomer since it can flip back and forth between defensive and offensive roles. In defensive mode, the silo attempts to shoot down incoming missiles and aircraft, which means that you’ll want to plant them around your largest population centers to protect them against attack. With the flip of a switch and a period of inactivity lasting for several game minutes, the silo will convert itself into a standard missile silo that can hurl up to ten nuclear missiles at the enemy. However, the instant you launch a nuclear strike, the position of the silo is revealed (along with the newly-opened gap in your anti-air defenses)—projecting a gigantic “hit me!” sign for the world to see. It shouldn’t be difficult to see how this element by itself fosters an intense “cat and mouse” type of game where players are constantly trying to goad each other into making a fatal mistake. When combined with DEFCON’s other paranoia-inducing units (stealth bombers and submarines, which are countered by radar and aircraft carriers, respectively), a game between two players can become chillingly analogous to many of the events that occurred during the Cold War.