This Old Game – NATO Commander
Before he became a universally-accaimmed game designer, Sid Meier was just a recent computer science graduate from the University of Michigan. All-be-it, one who could beat the crap out of an actual retired Air Force pilot, Bill Stealey, in Atari’s flight-sim arcade game Red Baron. Stealey was impressed when Meier shared that the secret of his victory was that he’d figured out a pattern in the games artificial intelligence. When Sid boasted that he could program something better in a week, Stealey suggested they form a partnership. Together, they founded Microprose Software in 1982.
In the early 1980’s, most computer games were ports of console video games, computerized versions of strategy board games, or derivatives of Dungeon or Star Trek. Microprose, aimed to make their own games, and their first, Hellcat Ace – a World War 2 flight simulation – was such a massive hit. So much so that Microprose was a profitable company in only its second month of existence. Impressed by Chris Crawford‘s war-game Eastern Front: 1941, Meier set about expanding Microprose’s reach into strategy games.
The result was a wonderful game, released at exactly the perfect time. In 1983, Cold War fears were high, and the “NORAD gets hacked!” movie WarGames as playing in theaters. NATO Commander took the Eastern Front formula and turbo-charged it. Set during a (then) present day Soviet invasion of Germany, NATO Commander added to the realism of the simulation with randomized and triggered events. These ideas, Crawford borrowed and used again in his Balance of Power series. Game design giants standing on each-other’s shoulders.
Like Eastern Front, when it was released, NATO Commander was sometimes criticized for being imbalanced in favor of the Russians, and I think that is entirely the point for both games. It’s not that NATO (or Germany in Eastern Front) cannot win, it’s that the path-to-victory is never ‘CHARGE!’. Rather, it’s subtile and reliant on timing, terrain, trying only to fight-when-you-can-win, and hoping for good luck. You need to manage-the-war, as much as you need to fight it.
NATO Commander is an important game because it sought to simulate as many of the variables of late 20th century warfare as possible. Lose too many cities, and/or too many units, too quickly, then the French nor Italians aren’t going to want to sign up for a meat-grinder. If you can slow the Warsaw Pact forces down, or inflict sufficient damage on them with your seriously outnumbered but more advanced and cohesive military, then the tide-of-battle can move your way.
Actions-in-the-field have consequences, and while nuclear and chemical weapons are available, they have serious military and political implications, and can often backfire on your overall strategy.
Sid Meier went on to use many of the tricks from NATO Commander in a series of three other war-games: Crusade In Europe, Decision In The Desert, and Conflict In Vietnam, and by 1986, had – at least through the present – retired from computer war-gaming. But, in just four short years, he created some of the finest ever. And the best of the bunch, a unique and overlooked game, was NATO Commander.