Gaming World War III: The Importance of the Time Period


The number of NATO-Warsaw Pact wargames produced in the past forty-five years stands as a testament to the longevity and popularity of the genre. Even today, nearly thirty years since the end of the Cold War, new NATO-WP themed games continue to be developed and sold. Used games still command a hefty price on eBay and other online auction sites. A NATO-Warsaw Pact war in Europe remains one of the most prominent ‘What if’ scenarios to explore, and there’s no shortage of gamers, both old and new, who want to delve into this realm of ‘alternative history.’ There is no shortage of titles available to satisfy the wants of any gamer. Operational level games still seem to attract the most attention rather than games focusing on division-level, or lower unit battles. Casual, and serious students of both wargaming, and history are partial to playing out an entire NATO-Warsaw Pact war in Europe from beginning to end.

The time period a game is set in is an important variable for gamers to consider when they are deciding what title to play. The Cold War lasted forty five years. During this era the capabilities of Warsaw Pact and NATO conventional and nuclear forces ebbed and flowed. At different time periods in the Cold War one side enjoyed a real or perceived advantage over the other, and it was factored into their respective war planning at the time. The same holds true in the development of operational level civilian wargames.

Some titles focused strictly on a contemporary conflict, without much thought about what force capabilities might be just a few short years down the road. Jim Dunnigan’s 1973 title NATO: Operational Combat in Europe in the 1970’s is an excellent example of this. As the title indicates, this game simulated a hypothetical Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe in the mid-70s. This was a time when the US military was firmly embedded in its Post-Vietnam malaise. Force capability, and readiness were down across the board. At the same time, the Soviet Union was introducing new, technologically advanced tanks, IFVs, and combat aircraft into its military. It was widely believed back then that if the Red Army, and its Warsaw Pact allies came west during the mid to late seventies, a Soviet victory would’ve been assured. Today, this view continues to be widely held.

Games that came out when the Reagan buildup was underway in the 80s modeled the modernization and improvements in US and allied forces to varying degrees. Since the war in question never came about it’s difficult to say with any certainty what titles were most accurate, and which ones failed miserably. Based solely on the performance of the US military in Operation Desert Storm, it’s safe to assume that if war had broken out in Europe during the 1986-1989 period, US Army divisions, and USAF combat wings would’ve wielded ample amounts of combat power, flexibility, superior leadership and combat doctrine.

In recent times, 1985 seems to be the generally accepted timestamp where the Warsaw Pact advantage in quantity, and NATO’s growing superiority in quality cancelled each other out, thus providing an even playing field. World at War: Eisenbach Gap and the follow on titles of the World at War series are set in the summer of ’85. Although the series is fixed on company and battalion level engagements, it’s worth mentioning here because of its time period. The M-1 Abrams and Leopard II main battle tanks were still in their teething stages, and available in fairly limited numbers. By 1987, the majority of US and West German heavy maneuver divisions in central Europe were equipped with these tanks, and the balance of land power leaned heavily in NATO’s favor.

The 2018 title 1985: Under an Iron Sky imagines a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict in Europe at the operational level in July, 1985. It is a monster game, covering every aspect of the hypothetical conflict. I would say more, but I have not yet played the game in full. Hopefully that will change in the near future. 😊 In any event, from the few game turns I have been involved in, I can say that the even playing field of 1985 exists, and either the NATO or Warsaw Pact player can achieve victory with the right strategy, and some luck. If Under an Iron Sky were set in ’87 or ’88, the Warsaw Pact player would’ve been at a heavy disadvantage.


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