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Thermonuclear war is the game about which it's been said that the only winning move is not to play at all. What would it look like if yo...




Thermonuclear war is the game about which it's been said that the only winning move is not to play at all. What would it look like if you had to play it out anyway? ICBM is a game which answers that question. Millions will die as eight global regions duke it out with every weapon of mass destruction in their inventory. 

ICBM is a real time strategy game from Slitherine with sparse graphics but a deep well of strategy to explore. At the beginning of the game you will be presented with a mostly empty map of the world. Eight regions, such as North America, East Asia, and Europe, are each outlined in their own color and dotted with targets, ahem, cities filled with millions of innocent civilians. In terms of military power, things start off completely even, with everyone building from the same relatively blank slate. Once the clock starts ticking, the player is given a wide open decision space in terms of what to research, what to build, and where to deploy it. Additionally, at some point alliances will form, which the player is free to enter into, or not, though isolationists will likely find themselves very, very alone once the nukes start flying. That's because alliances allow not just the sharing of vision, but also the sharing of technology, both of these things being absolutely crucial to gaining an edge over the enemy. 

At the start of the game it would be foolhardy to rush into conflict. ICBM is all about the slow burn as you build up forces and technology, shaping your strategy as you go. Radars must be built so that you can find targets to begin with, as well as defend against the enemy. Then you'll need to decide on what your offense and defense will look like. Do you want wings of bombers or fleets of subs? Maybe you'll attack from space, or a good old fashioned carrier strike force?  As you're building up, you'll likely find yourself skirmishing with neighbors. Maybe you catch their sub lurking off the cost and sink it, or maybe they notice your isolated radar site and take it out with an airstrike. Since everything you build costs you time that could have been spent building something else, you'll feel these losses. On top of that, this fighting adds tension to the game, since you never know if this is IT, or just another quick strike before things quiet down again. 

Once things do kick off, you'll quickly find out just how well or poorly you have planned, and also how well your enemies have done. Didn't bother patrolling your coastlines at all this game? Maybe there's a couple subs hanging out there ready to waste your infrastructure in a matter of seconds. Underestimate the enemy air defenses, and now your bomber wings got wiped out before reaching their targets? That's the ballgame folks. Just the same, the enemy will be running up against your defenses and maybe you've got some surprises for them too. This quick release of destructive energy is what all of the tension of the early game build up has been leading towards. ICBM even has specific mechanics to ratchet this moment up. 

One is the option to turn off a feature which pauses the game for every little semi-significant update (like spotting a new enemy unit) because once the full scale war kicks off, it's going to get hectic and there's no fun in stopping it every few seconds. Second, there is a tool for setting up large scale coordinated strike plans that can be set in motion with one click. Given enough buildup time you can find yourself in command of dozens or hundreds of weapons of mass destruction. The tool makes it easy to divvy up appropriate targets for them and even time the attacks to hit all at once. 

For long time strategy fans, you'll likely remember DEFCON from 2006, a game which certainly paved the way for this title. Where DEFCON was streamlined and colorful, ICBM is grayer and more complex. One could certainly enjoy both games, but I could also see someone greatly preferring one over the other. I appreciate the more complex and involved systems in ICBM, where you have a great deal of freedom in shaping your force composition, but while playing I was constantly reminded of how DEFCON managed to provoke a stronger emotional response despite it's more colorful and simpler presentation. Almost 15 years later, I can still vividly recall the ambient sounds in DEFCON which included distant alarms, doors closing, and someone crying in the background as the war played out on screen. ICBM feels much more sterile in terms of presentation. It's functional, but not much else.

ICBM offers a fun take on strategy gaming, especially if you can get online and play with a group. I could see friends taking multiple runs at each other using different strategies and styles. There is also an online ELO ranking if you want to get into serious competitive play. The AI does a good enough job, but of course will never be as creative or unpredictable as another human. 

ICBM is available from the usual online stores, as well as directly from Slitherine.

- Joe Beard


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