Have You Played… Defcon?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Ohh no, I can’t play Defcon [official site]. Not any more. I had a few fun lunchbreaks playing Introversion’s slimline strategy game with co-workers but no, I think I’m done with global thermonuclear war. I think the coughing got to me.

So then, we’re all going to die! Almost all of us, anyway. With nuclear armageddon inevitable, Defcon stages set to tick down at fixed intervals whether we want them to or not, you’d better prepare. It all plays out from the cold, detached view of a war room world map.

Defcon 5. Maybe start building bases, plopping down radar facilities, airbases, and nuclear missile silos. Your ships and submarines can freely roam the world so hey, get out there and meet people. What a lovely day to be alive!

Defcon 4 ticks over after a few minutes. Oh. No, that’s fine. Sure, your radar is keeping a close eye on everyone now but isn’t it nice to know where your friends are? You might want to declare someone your BFF, just in case, someone who’d never betray you.

Defcon 3 and away we go! Air forces and navies start scrapping but hey, it’s just a bit of roughhousing. We can get past this, can’t we?

Defcon 2 and ha ha c’mon gang, surely we can set aside our differences and…

Defcon 1. The silos open, bombers take off, and submarines surface. Hopefully you’ve hunted down their subs and have interceptors jets ready but… you’re going to get hit, and many people will die. Megadeath after megadeath is reported. The music goes awfully somber. After the initial salvos, you try to eke out your remaining warheads and strike carefully. You’re all losing, but you can still make them lose more. The spluttering coughing of nuclear fallout starts.

I suppose players could decide not to launch. They could let the world live in peace – awfully tense peace, but peace none the less. But you will launch. You always do. I know you. Don’t think I don’t. When Defcon 1 hits, I’ll be mashing that big red button because I know you’ll do it too.

(Thankfully, several times real people with real big red buttons – please don’t spoil the Hollywood dream for me – have proven themselves more responsible than I.)


  1. Xocrates says:

    It was the first game I dedicated any serious time to multiplayer, and until LoL came along, probably the only one I’ve played for more than a couple weeks.

    I eventually stopped playing it because I realized the atmosphere and dark tone were no longer having an effect on me, which in a way frightened me more than when it did.

    I actually reinstalled it recently, but the AI is really quite shit and the multiplayer is pretty much dead for casual play so there’s not much for me here anymore.

  2. Banyan says:

    Alice’s comment about the coughing hints at it, but this is the example that springs to mind about how sound can take a game to the next level. Taking an abstract extinction simulator and deciding that the only human elements be muffled and subdued conversations and weeping, as if heard from the other side of closed doors, was inspired.

  3. Turkey says:

    I haven’t really played through an Introversion game since Uplink. I keep supporting them by buying all their games, though.

  4. Cooper says:

    This game is only for noobs looking to boost their KDR…

  5. jon_hill987 says:

    No, since the only winning move is not to play.

  6. Rich says:

    If your bombers didn’t take off until you hit Defcon 1, you were playing it wrong.

  7. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    I played this when it first came out, and really enjoyed it, up until one game when I nuked Rome.
    I’ve never been to Rome, or had any special connection to it, but for some reason seeing the text “ROME HIT 2M DEAD” just stopped me in my tracks, and I started to think about the consequences of such a thing (that I had just done).

    I’ve not really gone back since, but this is a powerful game considering how barebones it appears to be.

    • Napalm Sushi says:

      It’s possible to expand the scale of the map in the pre-game setup, which in turn increases the number of cities displayed. In a similar manner to seeing the mushroom cloud over Sheffield in Threads, watching places like Manchester and Birmingham get hit suddenly makes the idea of nuclear war look a lot less abstract than it usually seems.

      • RaunakS says:

        Christ Threads was a tough one wasn’t it? We were forced to watch it in school (alongside Mother India and Bondarchuk’s Waterloo) twice to make us understand what warfare really meant and I have nightmare about it to this day. That old woman pissing herself was a scene from hell.

        I mean, I had panic attacks in 2001 after the Parliament terrorist attacks when everyone was absolutely certain nukes were gonna be used.

        I don’t think I could ever play a game like DEFCON where I am dooming people to nuclear holocaust. It’s way too raw. Even for a game, this kind of simulation seems barbaric.

        • Rich says:

          Try When the Wind Blows: a twee little animated film by Raymond Briggs (of The Snowman, Father Christmas and Fungus the Bogeyman), in which an elderly couple live through a nuclear war and then slowly die of radiation poisoning.

          • RaunakS says:

            Thanks for the rec! I’ll see if there are any legal options to watch it online here.

          • Al__S says:

            like The Snowman, it’s also available in book form.

          • Al__S says:

            It is, of course, unlike the other Raymond Briggs work utterly, savagely, heartbreaking without any redemption. Even when you know the story, you hold out hope.

        • Sin Vega says:

          Threads is fucking brilliant. Don’t watch it.

  8. Grayman says:

    I had a lot of fun with defcon. A spectator was watching a match I was in. This person kept saying that the bombs were getting close to his home town. Through commentary I found it, and used up my spare ordinance.

  9. geldonyetich says:

    A lot of games on my Steam game list go unplayed because I simply don’t make the time for them. DEFCON, however… after what I heard about it, I was just too soft-hearted to play DEFCON.

    • A Wanderer says:

      A brilliant game.
      I remember my second match against the IA. I was playing as the USA, the IA as the USSR. A classic Cold War scenario. All my fleets were down at Defcon 1, but my subamrines remained intact and undetected. I swore myself to play defensively – never nuke a city, only target the silos.
      When we reached Defcon 1, the truth dawned on me ; I had lost. My fleets were gone. Half of my planes had been taken out.
      And they opened fire, five nukes from a submarine. Five nukes that were easily intercepted by my silos – I was on defence, and they were ready to take down incoming nukes.

      In an instant, all my resolutions were gone. I panicked. I returned fire with everything I got. All my silos, all my submarines, hundreds of nukes targeting Russia. Moscow was hit by twelve nukes. Leningrad by ten. And I kept firing. Again and again, until nothing was left, until the nuclear fallout covered half of the world. I even nuked the little, unsignificant cities in the center of Russia – five or six nukes for each of these one million inhabitant cities.

      And then I watched the result. Five million dead for the US. Two hundred and twenty for the USSR.

      I never played that game again.

  10. unacom says:

    I have and I probably won´t play it again.

    It forces me to think about how easily we fall for the belief in the necessity of barbaric acts.

    For me it is one of the very few games that have a credible claim to being a work of art.

  11. Titler says:

    The really sobering part of the game is when you realise it’s massively downplaying the lethality of modern nuclear weapons in both numbers (the game only launches at most a few hundred, compared to tens of thousands active) and power (there’s no multiple re-entry vehicles, or penetration aids like chaff)… and that for gameplay reasons, it adds a defensive system of missile interceptors which doesn’t exist, and possibly never really can against ICBMs. So DEFCON is actually a positive spin on nuclear war.

    And that’s what makes it so brilliant. That and the ability to “End Christmas, forever” by nuking Santa on the 25th.