How DEFCON Taught Me To Worry About The Bomb

By Charles Ellis 17 Jun 2020 1

Defcon is a pretty bleak game. Perhaps I’m just getting to a particular stage in gaming where I have to play with friends or not at all, but playing Introversion's End-of-the-World sim is hard enough with a group, but playing it alone only makes it worse - seriously, don't do it. Although, any game dealing with nuclear combat that isn’t bleak is probably a game that shouldn’t be dealing with nuclear warfare in the first place.

With the terrifying reality of nuclear annihilation only a few buttons (or rays of sunlight!) away at any time, it is a subject that should be treated with respect. Defcon passes this particular test (that many games dealing with war don’t even attempt) with flying colours. The minimalist layout, with few buttons and your view dominated by the neon lines of a world map, really places you in the chair of a commander hidden deep inside a command bunker, launching nuclear strikes that end the lives of millions.

This article was originally published in May 2017.

Defcon in this way does a far better job at immersing the player in a specific place at a specific time than other strategy games currently available. Many strategy games place you in a godlike position, where you are simultaneously able to direct advancing armoured columns onto the battlefield and then zoom down to micromanage a critical unit like you are its squad leader or tank commander. Many games claim to immerse you in command, but Defcon is one of the few games that make you feel like you are actually a commander, both in the powers you do have over events and in the restrictions you also must contend with.


Gameplay in Defcon is simple. There are no build orders, little base building and zero resource gathering. It differs from many games in its emphasis not on growth and prosperity but on destruction. In other titles you start with a wild world and tame it. In Defcon, you start with a perfect (or not, depending on your stance on nuclear weapons) and annihilate it.

At the start of a session, you are in command of a continent.  Every player begins with the same sized nuclear arsenal, which are spread between the classic Nuclear Triad of Submarines, ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) and Bombers. The player then deploys these assets in and around their continent, along with fleets, airbases and radar stations to detect incoming threats. All deployment takes place in Defcon 5. Modelled on the US’s Defense Condition system used to this day, Defcon 5 represents the world at peace. Then, when the timer finally counts down to Defcon 1, nuclear weapons may be unleashed. In between, navies, air forces and nuclear bombers will clash in ferocious combat, although it is ultimately an exercise in selecting units and right-clicking to attack enemy units. Regrettably, there is not that much to it, with whomever can get there “firstest with the mostest” usually being the victor. Fans of air and naval combined operations will probably come away a little disappointed and it is unfortunate that the early phases can sometimes be lacking in strategy or tactics as groups of ships slowly grind each other other down to nothingness. Conventional warfare in Defcon ultimately comes down whomever has more ships and more aircraft overhead.

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The main event, of course, after the buildup of Defcon 5, 4, 3 and 2, is the all out destruction of Defcon 1. The result is a tense and unstoppable escalation to Nuclear Armageddon. Come Defcon 1, a cacophony of messages will explode onto your screen, as each player begins to put their ICBMs into the air. Unlike earlier phases, there is a definite choice in what strategies you wish to adopt. Launching immediately or waiting for later each have their merits and will depend on your positioning and who hates your guts more.  Target designation and seeking to overwhelm the enemy’s defences are also key strategic elements to be considered. The interface is at times awkward, and you must select each silo and each target individually. Simple enough at first glance, but when time is of the essence and there are six silos plus any number of missile submarines to get fired off, it can feel like you’re fighting more with the interface (or faulty bomb doors) than with the enemy.

Yet I wonder if all this is for a purpose. Nobody (in their right mind) wants nuclear war, yet now I’ve just been transformed into Gen. Buck Turgidson, complaining about how irritating it gets when I don’t get the nukes off fast enough! Defcon’s got a message, and it’s at its best when it is being shown to the player: it reaches its darkest point when the nukes start landing. The music rises in tempo, a dull flash over the target and the number killed rises up from the ruined city. These numbers will often reach into the tens of millions. The world’s metropolises will be reduced to wastelands bathed in sickly yellow green radiation. Hit a continent enough, and it will glow with sickly radiation. This is, apparently, what “victory” in nuclear war looks like. If you have a particularly active imagination, please play Defcon responsibly.

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Really, that warning goes for anyone wishing to play this game -- I myself cannot imagine becoming a “hardcore” Defcon player. Even two consecutive games leaves you mentally exhausted, with the blood of millions of pixels on your hands. There are several game modes, ranging from inflicting maximum casualties upon your enemies to making sure you protect your cities as much as possible. Assuming your opponents are not ignoring you entirely, millions of deaths are to be expected. The scale of destruction in Defcon is one of its more disturbing qualities.

The ultimate recipe for depression with Defcon, however, is to play it solo, against the AI or strangers on the internet. To be at its best the game requires you play with friends or at least acquaintances on voice communications. The chatter, ribbing and cries of terror as a tidal wave of ICBMs suddenly appears on your opponent’s screen are greatly amusing. In the coldly computerized world of Nuclear Warfare where human interaction, like in real life, is key. And “Victory” includes green clouds representing nuclear fallout.


In a world of AAA games spruiking power fantasies, Defcon is a marked change of pace. Although the ultimate power fantasy - there’s not much that goes beyond being able to drown the world in nuclear fire - the title’s sparse interface, pared down graphics and disturbing theme make it something you’d not necessarily want to play, but one that you should play at least once. Important games, in the sense of important literature or important films, are rare things, yet Defcon is one of those. Its simplicity makes it ideal for a casual gaming group, especially one that plays face to face, and the ease of learning makes it easy for even complete novices to pick up the game rapidly. Don’t play Defcon to feel empowered; play it to see where ultimate power leads you. Until we meet again.

This article was kindly donated to Strategy Gamer by the author.



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