Terminal Conflict or: How I Learned to Keep Worrying and Hate the Bomb

By Adrian Burrows on at

To quote the great wordsmith Edwinn Starr: “war, huh, yeah, what is it good for?” Contrary to Starr’s assertion of “absolutely nothing,” the evidence suggests another answer to that question could be "well, quite a lot actually.” Take the First Word War. I’m not about to suggest that the death of around 40 million military personnel and civilians was a good thing – that would be crass as well as insane. Instead, it's the technological and medical advances driven by the Great War that were ultimately positive. The list is a big one: in response to the grievous injuries sustained by soldiers, Marie Curie invented the mobile x-ray machine; the work of field nurses led to the first sanitary napkins; the sun lamp was devised due to undernourishment caused by trench conditions (resulting in the discovery that vitamin D was necessary to avert rickets); pioneering plastic surgery was developed under the leadership of Harold Gillies; and the first-ever blood bank was established. The Great War brought about unimaginable suffering, yet those same conditions led to innovations that would benefit humankind significantly.

That doesn't mean, of course, that technological developments enabled by war are always a good thing. Indeed there is one that many wish we could uninvent: the nuclear bomb. On August 6th 1940 the ironically named uranium bomb ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima by the Enola Gay, a B-29 Bomber. The co-pilot, Robert Lewis, when asked by TV and radio host Ralph Edwards if he remembered his reaction, said that he wrote in his journal “My God, what have we done?” A minute after the bomb dropped 66,000 people died instantly, and another 69,000 were seriously injured. A one mile zone around the point of impact was vaporised, and the terrible fallout spread much further. Despite such devastation it took a second bomb to force Japan's surrender, the plutonium bomb ‘Fat Man’ which killed 39,000 people in Nagasaki. Humanity, which for so long had ruled the planet and bent nature to its will, had finally invented something that could lead to its own annihilation.

The rest of the world’s superpowers were unwilling to leave a weapon capable of bringing about armageddon in the sole hands of the United States of America. Efforts to develop nuclear weapons were re-doubled and soon Russia, the UK, France and others had in their possession the weapons that could spell their own demise just as readily as that of their enemies. In 1986 there were 70,300 active nuclear weapons in the world. And as of 2019, they’re still all here. This poses an interesting question: when we consider the unstable nature of humanity and geopolitics in general, why haven't we blown each other up a long time ago? One answer to this question can be found in Terminal Conflict, which is currently in Early Access on Steam. 

Terminal Conflict is a grand strategy game set at the height of the Cold War. Its developers, Strategy Mill, BL-Logic, Scribble Pad Studios, and Polywickstudio, place the player in the role of commander of their nation’s nuclear arsenal. There you sit, in front of the retro visuals of a war console (or terminal, geddit), playing through different eras and situations from the Cold War, with the power to bring about mutually assured destruction. It’s a heady proposition.

The game approaches this idea with the nuance it deserves. There’s a host of political concerns to consider: state affairs, resource management, military might and relationships with other factions. Fortunately for everyone involved, it’s not just up to the short attention span of one orange-tanned egomaniac to decide whether to push the big red button. The many metrics Terminal Conflict monitors behind the scenes, as you and your rival wage hidden warfare, coalesce around the game’s version of the Doomsday Clock. Established in 1947, the Doomsday Clock is maintained by the members of the ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’, and serves as a visual metaphor for humanity’s possible self-induced annihilation: the closer the clock's hands get to midnight, the closer we are to oblivion. A variety of factors influence the time, but it all comes down to human action – or lack thereof – in preventing nuclear and climate catastrophe. The clock currently resides at a rather terrifying two minutes to midnight, the closest it’s ever been.

Terminal Conflict hangs its mechanics around the clock. You need to achieve the contradictory goals of both furthering your nation's agenda and influence, whilst also avoiding pushing your rival so far that their only course of action is nuclear warfare. At times the game achieves a balance that is both thrillingly tense and ice-cold. At others, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to events. As the player you never quite know or understand everything that is going on. And it is in this that the game best emulates how humanity has thus far avoided nuclear destruction – sheer fluke.

The undeniable destructive potential of nuclear weapons led the powers of the world to create a series of rules, checks, and counter-checks which all nuclear nations must abide by. The success of this, as Terminal Conflict brilliantly demonstrates in its gameplay, comes down to trust. You have all these guarantees. But how much do you trust your rival not to press the button?

There are two survival factors whirring around the events of Terminal Conflict, luck and trust. History serves to show how this precarious balance is all that's kept us safe.

On November 7th, 1983, NATO carried out Able Archer 83. This was a test exercise simulating the escalation of conflict between the East and West, culminating in a DEFCON 1 coordinated nuclear attack against Russia. The Able Archer test had been carried out on previous occasions, but in 1983 the decision was made to make this war game more ‘realistic.’ This was achieved by NATO forces throughout Europe taking part – 19,000 US soldiers were airlifted to Europe under radio silence, with the use of new coded communication and several heads of government participating. One problem: the simulation was too authentic. Tensions between the Soviet Union and USA were rising again, so at the very moment NATO was pretending to launch a nuclear attack, the USSR was searching for the possible launch of a nuclear attack.

Soviet leaders feared that the simulation was a ruse, and the exercise was cover for a real attack.  An increased rate of ciphered messages between America and the UK, as well as NATO using never-before-seen military procedures heightened this fear. As NATO simulated running through the scenarios of DEFCON 5 thorough to DEFCON 1, nervous KGB agents reported that these changes were real – that NATO was genuinely readying itself to strike first. As far as Soviet Russia was concerned, NATO was readying to launch RYaN – a surprise nuclear attack in peacetime.

What would Russia do? The only way to prevent a nuclear attack was to strike first. The order was given to ready the nuclear arsenal. How many weapons are we talking about here? Since 1949 Russia has built around 55,000 nuclear warheads. So, a lot.

Suddenly the CIA was reporting increased activity in the Baltics and Czechoslovakia and that nuclear-capable aircraft were being placed on high alert. The world went about its day-to-day business unwittingly as the two greatest superpowers of their time stood at the brink of war. Had the United States responded in kind and readied their arsenal, then it’s safe to say neither you nor anyone else would be reading this today. Thank goodness than that Lieutenant General Leonard Harry Perroots followed his gut and made the decision not to place NATO services on high alert, and thereby helped prevent nuclear war (a decision described by a subsequent US report as "fortuitous, if ill-informed.") Once Able Archer 83 ended on November 11th, the uneasy peace between East and West could once more resume. Dumb luck and trust were all that kept us safe.

It's this kind of context that Terminal Conflict captures so well: the sense that, rather than being in complete control, humanity's been winging it and got lucky. Geopolitics is the push-and-pull between nations out for their own interests, which is all well and good, but also not the ideal background for the safe management of nukes: many unknown individuals have saved us from escalation and possible launches over the decades, but that's no guarantee we'll be so fortunate in the future.

Older gamers may remember Chris Crawford's pioneering Balance of Power, a 1985 game for the Macintosh that is clearly some sort of inspiration for Terminal Conflict. It's strange to think, 34 years later, of how many similarities the games share in their approach and what that says about mutually assured destruction. Neither has the answers (unless you count destroying the human race as an answer), but it's striking how both ask such similar questions. It leaves you with the sobering realisation that, then and now, the situation persists with all its flaws because as a species we simply don't know what else to do.

If you read up on how close we've come over the years, you might have trouble sleeping. In 1961 two 4-megaton thermonuclear weapons fell out the back of a US B-52 plane whilst in flight over North Carolina. The only thing that prevented the bombs from detonating was a safety catch, a safety catch that had a history of malfunctioning and failing on numerous other occasions. Had it done so again, the United States would have nuked one of its own states, and in all likelihood blamed Russia. A year later, the Soviet submarine officer Vasili Arkhipov successfully convinced his captain not to launch nuclear torpedoes at nearby US warships during what's come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crises.

Ever since the invention of the nuclear bomb, such near-misses have become part of our history. Terminal Conflict is a deep and thoughtful simulation about the world that nukes have created, a planet that can be thrown into anarchic chaos by random occurrences and events that the player can't predict or understand. Hours of planning can be unmade by the flap of a butterfly’s wings. The most minor provocation can escalate into the kind of brinksmanship where both parties are guessing at where the edge is. The game shows with power and precision how humanity has so far survived the nuclear age – dumb luck.