After Hours

Replay the Cold War with Balance of Power

An energy crisis. An unpopular American war. The USSR ...er... Russia invading small countries. It's almost like the Cold War all over again. Here's a game from the 80's where you could actually simulate the Cold War - Balance Of Power.

An energy crisis. An unpopular American war. The USSR ...er... Russia invading small countries. It's almost like the Cold War all over again. Here's a game from the 80s where you can actually simulate the Cold War. Check it out.

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The 60s, 70s, and 80s were all times of great strife. We lived under the threat of nuclear destruction within minutes. Oil prices spiked. People were out of work. The Soviet Union invaded countries at will. The United States fought unpopular wars. Democrats hated Republican presidents and had an iron grip on Congress. Iran caused no end of angst. At the same time, with everything that's going on in the world today, it's hard to tell the difference between the Cold War era and the present.

The names, places, and some of the details have changed. The Soviet Union = Russia. Nixon = Bush. Vietnam = Iraq. Tip O'Neill = Nancy Pelosi. However, with a rising China, a resurgent Russia, and a vocal Iran, in many ways today is a lot like Cold War II.

Back in the Reagan era, the PC was just starting to explode in business and at home while the Cold War was reaching its crescendo. In 1985, a game company called Mindscape and a programmer named Chris Crawford created a Cold War strategy game for the Mac and a little PC program called Windows 1.0. This game was Balance of Power.

Balance of Power

Unlike most Cold War games, Balance of Power was a pure strategy game. There was no shoot-'em-ups in it at all. As a matter of fact, if you failed, the game was very matter of fact about it all:

Naturally a nuclear war was not the goal of the game. In Balance of Power, you were either the President of the United States or the General Secretary of the USSR. Your "term" in office was 8 years: 1989 - 1997. Your goal was to maximize your country's power and prestige in the world while avoiding nuclear destruction.

To that end, you created a complete foreign policy that dealt with 62 different countries and their relationship with your country and your opponent. The computer took each policy you tried to implement and then reacted accordingly in a manner that would increase its "prestige." For example, if you were playing the United States and did something silly like invade Iraq, the computer as the Soviet Union would recognize that you were meddling in its sphere of influence and protest -- sometimes with ICBMs.

You had a full range of policy options including:

  • Economic Aid
  • Military Aid
  • Trade Policy
  • Diplomatic Pressure
  • Military Intervention

Beyond that, the game included complete statistics about each country, including GNP, political beliefs, civil unrest, insurgency, and so on. It was quite a sophisticated simulator that gave lots of options and detail. If you chose to check the events in each country and set policy for each one, the game could easily take hours.

From a historical perspective, the game is lots of fun because it features many of the leaders from the 80s along with countries that disappeared at the end of the Cold War. The game includes both East Germany and West Germany as well as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the USSR itself. You'll find such notable names as Mikhail Gorbachev, Ayatollah Khomeini, Muamarr al-Gaddafi, Indira Gandhi, and the ever-lovable Saddam Hussein. To show how little has changed in 20 years, there's also Fidel Castro in Cuba and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Naturally their faces don't appear, but the mere mention in the "newspapers" is a neat twist.

All that in 311 KB

What's just as amazing about how much the game did, was in how little code it took to get it done. The whole game shipped on one low-density floppy disk. There was only one file to the entire game, not dozens of configuration files and DLLs and so forth. The one simple .EXE file took 311KB of space. In an era of games that ship on multiple CDs and can take hundreds of megabytes of disk storage, that's simply astounding.

The original version of Balance of Power, which was written in 1985, ran under Windows 1.0. The version I took the screen shots from ran under Windows 2.0 and debuted in 1988. There was also a Mac version of the game that figures prominently in the manual.

It was written by Chris Crawford, who wrote many strategy games in the 80s and 90s. According to Wikipedia, he's currently working on an electronic storyboard for interactive worlds. From the interactivity in BOP, it's easy to see the correlation.

Check out the gallery

I put together a Balance of Power Photo Gallery displaying the game's box, manual, and some of the screens that you'd encounter. Give it a look. It's interesting to see just how much has changed since the end of the Cold War but at the same time just how far we have to go.

2 comments
Tim_Davidson
Tim_Davidson

This was a GREAT games and it can be found on the web as a free download. Excellent article.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

In Classics Rock, I mentioned a foreign policy simulator from the 80's that allowed you to run the affairs of the US or the USSR during the Cold War. It was called Balance Of Power. http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/classic-tech/?p=162 Beyond SimCity and SimEarth, you don't see many simulation games floating around these days, and none with the simple elegance of BOP. Will they come up with a simulator for Cold War II? I wonder what it would look like.