Friday, January 11, 2008

Featured game: NORAD, a game of terror

Every one of us can recount minute-by-minute our experience of 9/11. It was a terrifying day, and it still echoes through society, affecting our everyday lives.
Yet throughout my childhood we also lived with a low-level daily terror because of the nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States. If a nuclear war had broken out between the two nations in 1960s the trauma for the survivors would have been nearly unthinkable. By the 1970s and the advent of fleets of ICBMs their actually might have been less trauma. Many fewer would have survived and most of the dead wouldn't have had much time for terror with 20-minute flight times. It's likely most would have had no warning at all.
But in the 1960s the threat was from bombers, which have flight times measured in hours, not minutes and no doubt there would have been ample time for the population to become quite terrified indeed.
Although published in 1972, NORAD is set about a decade earlier, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's really less of a wargame than a military-themed abstract strategy game. The designer, Dana Lombardy, said he couldn't design a "simulation" with the information publicly available. Unlike the Nuclear War card game, which was published a few years earlier, NORAD is not a humorous game. Instead it's rather stark in presentation and theme.
As a game, there's not an awful lot of replay value. There are no random elements. It's a game of bluff and deception, albeit not a particularly subtle one, especially in the original magazine version. I never had the reprint, but it appears some changes were made to make it a little more realistic. The original, SDC magazine version, has to be played with the right mindset. It predates the era of the "rules lawyer."
If the Russian gets "gamey" and flies his bombers freely all over the map then the game won't work at all. While a little zig or zag here or there is OK, the Soviet player should generally fly his bombers directly to their targets in order to stay within the spirit of the game.
The game does evoke its subject well, and maybe worth a quick play now and then with youngsters as a quick illustration of a by-gone (and good riddance) era.

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