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Full Steam Ahead – Wargame: European Escalation

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 3 hours

Before saying anything else about this specific game, I want to tell you how it came to be in my library. It was my fourth year at the University of Calgary, and I was in the middle of writing a project for, I think, Cold War Politics (it was either that or US Military Politics). This project was a beast to write, and after my third night in a row staying up until 3:00 AM, I opened Steam. I needed something, anything, to take my mind off of this paper.

Enter Wargame: European Escalation, a real time strategy game set during the Cold War. Players experience a variety of scenarios in which the Cold War degrades into an armed conflict, the forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact facing off in the European theatre of conflict.

Given the course I was working on, and my natural interest in the history of the Cold War, especially in Germany, I thought this seemed like an interesting game. So, I made a deal with myself: once I finished the project, I would buy it and play it. I completed the paper, bought, and downloaded Wargame: European Escalation.

Three hours later I stopped playing it, not returning to it until I started writing Full Steam Ahead. Turns out writing academic papers fuelled by sleep deprivation and heavy metal music is more fun than Wargame: European Escalation.

The only winning move is not to play…

Do not allow me to dissuade you. The game is a lovingly crafted, realistic game of war. Eugen Systems, the developers behind this game clearly put a lot of research into the military units and technology available to the various factions of the time period. Leopard tanks, Chinook transport helicopters, Tunguska anti-aircraft guns, and SMERCH rocket launcher bring war out of the theoretical scope and into your gaming room.

I know my opponent is somewhere in this postal code. Fortunately, I have Soviet artillery on my side.

While my interest in the Cold War is primarily politically inclined, it is interesting to experience some of the scenarios that my professors actually described using the words “There but for the grace of God.”

On a more personal note, one of the campaigns, named “Brüder Gegen Brüder”, plays out the potential NATO response to a East German invasion of West Germany. I have family living in the now united Germany who fled their homes Saxony to seek out a better life on this side of the Iron Curtain. Some games don’t do an especially good job of making the stakes of an individual mission, level, or objective meaningful to me; not Wargame: European Escalation.

I have lived my entire life with maps of a unified Germany. This isn’t true of my entire family, though.

So, why did I stop playing in the first place? Simply put, the game is brutally difficult and it does not care whether you succeed or fail. There is no tutorial. It is very likely that you will fail the first game you play, as well as the second, and the third, and so on. Unlike some games, where losing can be a very informative experience, lose in Wargame imparts very little knowledge.

This time, I decided I would play as much of the “Brüder Gegen Brüder” campaign as I could. After five hours of continuous play, I had successfully cleared one more level than my last playthrough. I didn’t feel any better at the game, I just felt more… stubborn. Perhaps this is an accurate reflection of my aptitude as military commander, but it is frustrating all the same. I like my games to be challenging, but not infuriating.

However, anger is not what I’ve been feeling these days. I suppose that the emotion that more accurately describes what I feel these days is fear.

We live in a world where two nuclear powers are becoming increasingly aggressive in their dialogue towards one another. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fear of nuclear war has diminished greatly. In fact, I don’t remember ever being legitimately afraid of nuclear warfare in my entire adult life until the last few months. In any case, I am afraid now.

The fear of troops crossing the Iron Curtain never came to pass in real life. In this game, they are the primary plot point.

I wrote that previous sentence on the 30th of September, 2017. It wasn’t until October 1st that I found out that a terrorist attacked the city of Edmonton. I have family in Edmonton. I have friends in Edmonton. I’d bet good money that most of Almost Infinite’s readers live in Edmonton. Edmonton is a city that means a lot to me, or, at least, it means much as it can mean to someone who lives in Calgary.

My fears range in scale from the possibility of nuclear devastation to becoming a victim of terrorist or indiscriminate violence, or even losing someone I love to such things. In the midst of this, many world leaders seem to espouse the message of fearing one another. Media organizations the world over amplify the message, some intentionally.

That message of fear is not what this blog is about. Not to me, anyway. This is a blog about games, and Full Steam Ahead is specifically a series about what games make me think and feel.

The attack in Edmonton began at an Edmonton Eskimos football game. We know that gatherings for music, for theatre, and for sporting are occasionally targets for terrorist violence, but we forget why these events make such an attractive target: they bring people together. In Edmonton, people from all walks of life, from different races, religions, and backgrounds came together in support of a game. Players come together too. We’ve recently seen how teams come together in support for each other, even in the face of tremendous criticism, not only from their governments but from their fanbase.

There have been people in the wake of this latest attack calling for people to fear those around them, to suspect people based on their differences, to treat them differently because of who or what they are. I instead, suggest we all do what the fans and players of games do: come together, in spite of differences. Come together in spite of discord, in spite of the fear of violence on a personal or international scale. Come together to support the things we believe in, like unity, fairness, and friendship. Come together to cheer on those who work, play, and when necessary, fight, to make the world a better place.

So, what does any of this have to do with Wargame: European Escalation? Directly, not much. There is a multiplayer mode, which lets players fight against one another. Me and a friend played this game against one another, this brutally hard, unforgiving, beast of a game. The game isn’t any easier against a friend. The game isn’t any more forgiving. But we can come together, sharing in its difficulty, in its triumphs, in its defeats.

In my case, mostly defeats.

I spent a solid evening being confused by the user interface, exasperated with the AI, and watching my armies get thoroughly trounced. Since then, my friend has confessed he felt much the same way most of the night. The point is that we did this together. We can come together for games. We can come together because of games. I might not win Wargame: European Escalation, but by coming together in friendship, maybe I can win a bigger game.

Next Episode: Half Life Deathmatch: Source

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