To turn a line from Stephen King’s Hearts In Atlantis, the Cold War really happened. Granted, I was born after a lot of the big events which make up that time, like the Berlin Airlift, the Bay of Pigs, The Korean War, the Vietnam War, everything before America’s bicentennial. But I got see the Berlin Wall come down, the Soviet Union dissolve, and all the messiness which followed after the feeling of “world peace” came over us.

A lot of people can’t seem to understand how the Cold War operated. Sure, they see the tense nuclear standoff and figure that was ultimately the whole show. The two biggest kids on the block staring at each other across the street, each of them with a big pile of rocks they wanted to throw at each other until one of them walked away. But there was a lot more to it, some of it Byzantine, some of it wildly counterintuitive, some of it just plan nuts. And it is that labyrinthine time which Terminal Conflict tries to bring to life, and succeeds at for all the wrong reasons.

This is a sub-optimal outcome.

Developed by Strategy Mill, Terminal Conflict is a turn-based strategy game where players can choose to either play as the USA or the Soviet Union. There are three basic goals for victory: reaching 1991 without turning the world into a cinder, successfully completing the Space Race milestones, or reaching 100 Victory Points. Victory Points, or VPs, are achieved by completing policy objectives selected over the course of ten timeline segments, modeling short periods of roughly five years. Along the way, you’ll be able to build up military forces, perform various espionage operations, research new technologies, and try not to be overthrown in your own country. It’s definitely a “grand strategy” sort of affair, one which has a lot of moving parts which are not always explained as clearly as they could be.

The game definitely leans hard into the early 1980s aesthetic in terms of user interface and related visuals. Portraits of historic world leaders and background images are appropriately lo-fi. Sharp angles dominate sector divisions. Text is blocky and calls to mind the earliest of PCs. Animations are few and minimalist. There’s an almost brutalist design sensibility which eschews any sort of eye candy, as if to emphasize the stakes and get players thinking seriously about the task at hand.

“Sure, let the UN handle it. I’m confident it’ll all blow over in no time.”

Unfortunately, even when you’re focused, Terminal Conflict is not what you would call intuitive, nor does it seem like it’s particularly well balanced. There is no adjustable difficulty, the tutorials are informative without actually being enlightening, and there seem to be a lot more “wrong” options you can make than right ones. The policy positions you’re presented with appear to be completely random, which is understandable to an extent, but also somewhat confusing, since it always seems like the opposing side has more policy options than you do. The AI seems to always succeed in their espionage operations, the leaders they recruit are seemingly immune to assassination attempts, and they seem to be able to gain more influence from the “focus zone” which is the center of attention for a particular timeline segment in the game.

The options for conventional conflict are equally dense, and equally unsatisfying. You can move troops around, place them in strategic locations, and bulk up previously positioned forces from a reserve. However, the actual mechanics of combat are not particularly satisfying. It’s as bloodless as a spreadsheet and just as thrilling.

The number of turns during a given policy period certainly allows you to build up for a war in a certain area. But things like unit veterancy and relative capabilities are not taken into account. Worse, the technology tree is focused entirely on the nuclear arsenal. Smaller improvements in conventional forces, which were sometimes as much of a big deal as nuclear stockpiles, are completely ignored. And the interrelationship between military spending on improving nuclear arsenals and the real life Space Race is equally deleted, creating an “either or” dichotomy which is both frustrating from a gameplay standpoint and historically dissonant. While Terminal Conflict is supposed to be grand strategy, the oversimplification of the tech tree is a major flaw.

As it says in the Bible, God fights on the side with the heaviest artillery.” –Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

While Terminal Conflict comes with a mod editor, and gives players the option to come up with their own scenarios or to modify existing ones, there’s very little provided by default. You’re going up against the computer in the “Balance of Power” scenario, or you’re trying to challenge another flesh-and-blood player to the same scenario. And with the flesh-and-blood, there’s no good way to check if they’re thinking, awake, or even still playing.  While the developers have mentioned that they’ve intended Terminal Conflict to be a “living” game with plenty of updates, finding somebody willing to play is a challenge. And the sometimes bizarre insistence on committing to the bit, such as having players type in a username AND password before starting up a new game or loading a save, is a case where a more deft touch could have been used. Again, the lack of nuance diminishes the game as a whole.

For those who have the patience, Terminal Conflict is likely one of those games that will deliver a shot of satisfyingly high stakes strategy outside of the typical settings. But for the rest of us, it’s the sort of game where it feels like the only winning move is not to play.

Axel reviewed Terminal Conflict on PC, with a code provided by the publisher.

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