Thursday, July 13, 2006

ULTIMATUM! How I learned to stop worrying and love the war on terror through gaming

In today's Los Angeles Times, A7, first paragraph, dateline PARIS: "The United States and five other world powers gave Iran a stern ultimatum Wednesday, announcing that they would seek a UN Security Council resolution authorizing sanctions unless the regime suspended its nuclear program."

Ultimatum! A great word, one that immediately reminded Dick Destiny blog of the board game of the same name, published in 1975 by Yaquinto as "The game of nuclear confrontation."
Ultimatum came with a map of the US and Soviet Union, various table and instructions, pieces representing bomb wings, ICBM (Minuteman and Titan) batteries, and Polaris missile subs. Of course, the Soviet Union's nuclear force was represented more than adequately. In addition, there were a couple thousand game pieces symbolizing mushroom clouds.

You know you want to push it.
Ultimatum was not very exciting after you played it once or twice. Soon after diddling about with diplomacy for a few turns, trying to eke out points in geopolitical satellite areas to the Soviet Union, like Europe, Southeast Asia or the Middle-East, someone would always yell triumphantly and punch "The Button" icon on the board, symbolically signalling the launch of a "first strike." (Attractively pictured at left.)

Then the game when into the meat of play, involving either "phased launch" or "simultaneous launch" of nuclear assets. For the sake of game play, it was assumed there would be no launch on warning -- one side would always have to wait for the bombs to begin landing. Therefore, a "simultaneous launch" in Ultimatum was aimed at putting the enemy's bomber force at major risk. It would ensure that of all assets -- the minor arm (relatively speaking) of the nuclear assault, the offshore nuclear-armed submarines, being closest -- would strike first, decimating the bomber force on the ground. It also gambled poorly against substantial numbers of the enemy's ICBM force surviving.

It was a rash bolt-out-of-the-blue (then called a BOOB attack) cut-the-head-off-the-chicken strategy. And in the game, it never worked. (A DickDestiny NoPrize for you if you can name the bestselling book and straight-to-video movie based on a selective BOOB attack on the US.)

Whatever the attack strategy, the board soon filled up on both sides with attractive mushroom cloud symbols as both armories were expended. This could happen in an initial all out exchange, a thermonuclear spasm, or a series of escalating strikes and counterstrikes against remaining weapons and population centers. (The latter was called a mixed "counterforce" and "countervalue" strategy.)

After the rubble had stopped bouncing, scores were compared. The differences were never worth noting, which was the entire point of the game. Of course, it never caught on like Monopoly or Life or even Risk. But it did have educational value.
al Qaeda attempts small scale decapitating attack on USA. It fails -- Tehran, Qom, Shiraz, Dezful, Damascus, Aden, Mecca, Riyadh, the borderlands of Pakistan, etc, were pulverized in the second player's turn
Dick Destiny blog thinks Ultimatum is ideal for revival. Above, the reader can see the results of something like a generously equipped al Qaeda simultaneous attack with three improvised nuclear devices. (One 12-kiloton blast over Manhattan, one fizzle yield of half a kiloton on the west side of the river, and one 20-kiloton blast over DC).

By the old standards of Ultimatum, that's pretty damn lame! Mouse over the graphic of the map to see the second player's ripost in the floating yellow box, one which destroys all of the Middle East and the northern part of Pakistan. Iraq, already being destroyed, is not included.

Ultimatum again is a bit didactic as well as being more fun to play. There's an actual winner and loser. The Arab world always loses, so the scale for victory has to be slanted a bit. (Since I live outside Los Angeles, I never lose. Islamic extremists never waste a scarce commodity, their atomic bombs, on LA County. No matter what the Bland Corporation thinks.)

Now, taking as a starting point, General Buck Turgidson's advice to President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove: "Well now, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, Mr. President, but I do say not more than ten to twenty million dead, depending on the breaks."

Ten million dead in such a strike, then, might be considered a major tactical victory for al Qaeda, whereas 200 million dead in the Middle East, only a middling strategic victory for the United States and utter and total strategic defeat for the rest of the Arab world.

Ultimatum contains all the rules and technological underpinnings needed to duplicate the conditions of today. For example, there are additional rules for what were called US "silo busters," aimed at destroying deeply buried targets. Bringing it up to date requires only a slight alteration in nomenclature, to "bunker busters."

Rules also cover "Public Statements, Threats and Negotiations." Under "Public statements," reads the Ultimatum rulebook, ". . . as the leader of his country it is the responsibility of each player to occasionally set forth the foreign policy of his nation. For example, he may declare the Middle East as an area vital to the survival of his people. These statements do not have to be true."

Under "Threats" -- "The serious threat of nuclear war or limited nuclear strikes can be used to forestall . . . particularly threatening kinds [of actions]. . . "

Under "Uncontrollable Crisis Area Events," Ultimatum provides a deck of shuffle cards with various unpleasant and strongly negative outcomes. "At the beginning of each game turn, the American player should role the die. If a six results, the top card on the deck should be turned over and its instructions [applied]." Example: Israel invades Lebanon, bombs Beirut and . . . "

If Ultimatum were adopted to encompass a game chapter called Operation Iranian Beatdown, the rules would have to be slightly augmented to allow for the non-American player to have some options. Since the Iranian side has virtually no capability to withstand an American global strategic combined forces assault and no nuclear retaliatory capability, another nation that's crazy, like North Korea, should be made an ally in something similar to Hitler's Axis. But the open-ended nature of Ultimatum, as designed in 1975, does allow for it.
Johnny Comes Marching Home played in the cockpit during Operation Iranian Beatdown


Anonymous Touching said...

I'm going to track this game down now, it sounds like good morbid fun.

3:55 PM  
Blogger George Smith said...

It's good once or twice until the map is covered in nuclear explosion icons. Then you have to make your own rules to keep it lively. The box art is great and the hundreds of mushroom cloud pieces are unique.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who grew up next door to an early warning station ("At least we'd be vaporised immediately instead of dying from radiation", words to calm a sleepless 9 year old?) games like this are fascinating.

Have a look at DEFCON, slightly more tongue in cheek by the sound of things and like all games these days, on the computer, but hey, it has NORAD command centre style graphics. Personally, I'm looking forward to the real time, nuke your coworkers working day length game.

Hope that's interesting,


6:46 AM  

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