Balance of Power: The 1990 Edition
for Amiga (OCS/ECS)
Also available for: PC (Windows)

Mr Creosote:
Company: Incredible Technologies / Mindscape
Year: 1989
Genre: Strategy
Theme: Apocalypse / Multiplayer / Politics / War
Language: English
Licence: Freeware
Views: 2356
Review by Mr Creosote (2022-02-05)

Balance of Power: Geopolitics in the Nuclear Age was the game which certainly made Atari regret firing author Chris Crawford. Developed and published as his first project after going independent, it became a massive hit. It had struck a chord with the elite owning computers in the mid 80s, just at the last high of the Cold War. The 1990 Edition is an updated version Crawford never really wanted. Publisher Mindscape pushed for it and finally, he relented.

Balance of Power, of course, refers to the geopolitcal situation of said Cold War. Two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, locked in a stalemate. Enacting more or less direct control over roughly half of the world each, trying to strengthen their hold on countries in their sphere of influence while carefully trying to expand that sphere. Careful being the key word here, as both sides were (are) equipped with huge arsenals of nuclear weapons, and had both vowed to not hesitate and use them – even if only to ensure mutual destruction.

The game puts this responsibility in the player's hands. Played on a plain, but convenient world map, very different forms of influence can be exerted. Some seemingly peaceful and subtle, like trade agreements, but the range of options goes all the way up to sending troops into battle. Just that in the latter case, you will have to decide whether they should fight on the side of the government or the local resistance.

The game's main currency is prestige, which measures overall world-wide influence. Getting on the good side of local governments increases influence. Overthrowing a local government, the new group in power may be leaning towards the superpower which funded and supported them. Successful operations therefore increase prestige, but each attempt can be diplomatically challenged by the respective other side. A protest being escalated, prestige is again at stake, because at some point, backing down again, yielding to pressure, means losing face. Why back down at all? Otherwise, nuclear war is inevitable and everybody loses.

Therefore, much of the time is spent pondering over such challenges. Wading through dossiers of actions taken by the other superpower as well as various other countries of the world. The latter being a new feature of the 1990 Edition, which considers all other states as potential actors as well, instead of mere cannon fodder to be acted upon. The also newly introduced group of advisors and some associated insta-stats help getting a feeling of the risk involved, though the decision (and therefore responsibility) ultimately lies with the player alone.

The world has lost

At the end of the game, the amount of prestige gained is plotted on a chart and compared. The player with higher prestige possibly interpreted as the winner – though the game does not declare him so. This is because Balance of Power is the first of Crawford's highly didactic games. It may not have been the primary design goal to get maximum enjoyment out. After all, Chris Crawford must have been fully aware of the existence of SSI's earlier Geopolitique 1990, which took a strikingly similar concept and made it into a much more well-rounded game.

Instead, he boiled the Cold War down to its diplomatic core: power games. The design shows an explicit disinterest in classic “gamey” factors such as building up your power foundation through a solid economy or the like. Somewhat ironic, especially in this 1990 Edition, as this ultimately lead to the actual downfall of one of the parties in the real world shortly after this game came out. Though then, there is a game simulating that as well. It's called Crisis in the Kremlin, and it's rather good. Balance of Power, on the other hand, is really about the psychology of the interaction between opposing powers.

The rather unconventionally written manual makes a strong point summarizing the player's dilemma and baseline of the simulation:

The question on your lips is, why would those idiots annihilate the world over economic aid to Nigeria? The answer is, because you were willing to annihilate the world over Nigeria.

Crawford's agenda in writing this game becomes apparent in his writing outside the software itself. There is no winning in his view, just survival. A player simply letting the other side act as they like, never earning any prestige points, would probably earn his approval. After all, this is a survival strategy for mankind. At the cost of the world falling into the grip of an evil empire. USA or USSR, take your pick.

Which is actually another quite interesting point of the simulation. Once again, boiling it down to its essence, Crawford saw that it is really just about power. It doesn't matter why people or countries struggle for power. Sure, the two opposing models of society, of economy, were strongly present in the propagandistic material of the time. Though behind those doors, it is doubtful whether many of the people taking the decisions cared. In the game, as in reality, allying with regimes far removed from one's own nominal worldview is never an issue – as long as it helps growing in power.


The open position the game and thus its author takes can be applauded. It can be called preachy. This distinction is a purely subjective interpretation. What's for sure is that in spite of its limitations, in spite of the rather low difficulty when it comes to “winning” (especially with these new advisors), it makes its points clearly and still manages to entertain while at it. This is due to the complex, relevant decisionmaking it offers through its rather basic mechanical foundation; always a good combination.

Where it possibly stands in its own way, on the other hand, is the limitation to play only from 1989 to 1997 (one turn equalling one year). Long-term development, long-term effects of the policies adopted cannot be witnessed. The real complexity in such a set-up would stem from your interactions with one party having indirect effects on your relations with a third or fourth party. Though this, if present in the game backend at all (although the source code has been made available, I haven't studied it), is not actually noticeable. For sure, opening it up would have meant an even larger departure from the real world situation.

Though today, we do live in another world once again anyway. What makes Balance of Power: The 1990 Edition so fascinating is that it still works nevertheless. Maybe this is because it is reduced in so many ways. This core human conflict it presents is timeless. Regardless of whether it is the USSR backing a weird puppet regime in Afghanistan in the 80s, today's Russian soldiers covertly engaged in the Ukraine, China sending war ships all over the western Pacific Ocean or the USA doing their usual dollar power politics. In the end, we all lose. No matter which side we're on nominally.

Comments (2) [Post comment]

yamada teru:
this geme is good!