Gamechanger – Balance Of Power
Late 1983 through 1984 were a pivotal time for the computer and video game industry. The Great Video Game Crash seemed to have no end in sight. Atari, careening towards bankruptcy, was drastically slashing headcount to stop-the-bleeding. One of Atari’s most talented programmers, with the hits Energy Czar, SCRAM and Eastern Front (1941) to his credit – Chris Crawford – was suddenly out-of-work and trying to figure out what to do next.
Less than a year before, Avalon Hill had revised advertising for the computer game Legionnaire, mentioning Crawford as the developer – he was one of the few ‘rock star’ programmers to receive such credit. Already a controversial figure in the industry, with a stated goal of pursuing computer games as an art form, Chris Crawford set about to get independent, and in 1985 released the seminal game Balance Of Power. With players taking the role of President of the United States or Premier of the Soviet Union, guiding their countries through 8 years of leadership, Balance Of Power was an unusually deep strategy game for the time. Taking into account military, economic and diplomatic relations, each nation had to further their own interests, and convince enough other countries to follow, to accumulate the prestige points needed to ‘win’.
The game was smash, selling 250,000 units – amazing considering that worldwide computer sales were an estimated 35m in 1985. Especially astonishing when you take into account the vast majority of those 35m computers – C64’s, Atari 8-bits and Apple II’s – did not see a release of Balance Of Power. Rather, the game was sold for 1984-85 ’16-bit machines’ like the Amiga, Atari ST and Macintosh!
In 1989, Crawford released Balance Of Power: 1990 Edition, adding more countries, as well as allowing every country to have an individual AI and agenda.
The new “Multipolar” setting in the 1990 Edition took Balance Of Power to the next level. Allies and satellites now could get mired in their own problems, forcing the SuperPower to prop them up, or lose prestige.
There are lots of deep simulations and games that place the players at the heads of armies and corporations, but very few that make you the head-of-state. And, if they do, such as Tropico, the focus is almost always on internal development, not international relations. Even fewer do that with an intelligent AI, responding to plausible real-world events, and with all of the messy randomness that comes with geopolitics. Balance Of Power is like a rare and unique treasure in computer gaming history.
You can try to dominate the globe, but if you don’t recognize what’s-at-stake for you opponent, in a real walk-in-their-shoes way, things get very bad, very quickly. The Russian’s just aren’t going to put up with an invasion of East Germany…
The gameplay in Balance Of Power forces the player into long-term planning and thinking, with the goal – in the nuclear age – being to survive-and-thrive, not dominate. Most, if not all, first time Balance Of Power players pushed too hard, figuring they’d at least get some impressive end-of-the-world graphics, but no – the stakes are too high for everyone, not just your country. With Balance Of Power, Chris Crawford created something totally unlikely and totally unique – a geopolitical simulation, which is fun and deep, and was a bonafide smash hit title. Although DC True gets a pat-on-the-back for their ‘good try’ effort, Shadow President, no game has even come close to Balance Of Power1 in the last 35 years – a testament to it’s Gamechanger status.
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