The only winning move is not to play.

Think 2020 is the year of the shit hitting the fan? Believe it or not, it could be worse. Much worse. You could have me in charge of defences in a global thermonuclear war. How do I know not to have me at the helm? Why a game of DEFCON, of course.


DEFCON is a simple little game, an RTS where you don't worry about resources or unit management. All you do is plonk down some radars and nuclear weapon silos, then sit back and watch the tutorial kick your arse back into the stone age.

Not happy with failing to complete the tutorial, I dove straight into a game against five AI opponents hoping that I could at least have a shot of not finishing last. I have been randomly assigned the entirety of South America to protect, defend, and ultimately see as the last thing standing in the nuclear winter.

Yeah, this won't go very well.

It's Defcon 5, the closest we'll get to peace, and we've precious minutes to shore up our defences. First up, a bunch of radar sites to keep an eye on incoming threats. You don't need to worry about resources to pay for them or build times to wait for their construction. Just throw them down so that you've got coverage of your territory, for if you can't see incoming nuclear warheads, you're screwed.

Next up are the all-important nuclear silos. By default, they shoot down incoming missiles, but with a right-click, they can be turned into offensive structures, each with ten nuclear weapons ready to rain down upon your neighbours. Dot them around to keep your citizens sheltered.

Finally, air and sea units allow you to scout out enemy territory, destroy incoming bombers, or traverse the seas in submarines to launch nukes from under your opponent's very nose. You can't do anything offensively until Defcon 3, but that is rapidly approaching by the looks of it. I don't even know what happened to Defcon 4.

Seeing some argy-bargy in the Atlantic between the US and Africa, it's about time I muscle up and get stuck in. Probably incredibly unwise to do so, but a show of force is what DEFCON is all about. Nuclear missiles will sail through the skies. When and where is up for debate.

Battles are a complete clusterfuck, but neon-like vector graphics and dead simple depictions of each unit make for quite the attraction. This isn't war. It's almost charming. It's bloody deadly, though, as ships disintegrate before my very eyes.

Defcon 2 is fast approaching. Each level means something new to think about, though I forget what, save for Defcon 1: the shit has hit the fan. You're free to fire.

I have the remarkable idea of forming an alliance at this point in time. The US looks like a formidable ally...

European something-or-others, perhaps a sub, maybe a bomber, have launched nuclear missiles from the mid-Atlantic. I don't know where they're headed at the minute, but I've got defences in place to shoot them down, and fleets of ships and aircrafts ready to intercept. Some have already been lost to the pre-missile skirmishes, but many remain on standby, waiting for the call.

If they spot something that needs doing, your units will get right to it, but you can override the action with orders to move or attack specific targets whenever the thought pops into your head.

Those thoughts didn't pop into my head, but something out the corner of my eye popped out to me.

Is that... is that a US warhead floating over Mexico?

Huh. I guess alliances are a one-way street. Right. Like a toddler with a tantrum, it's time to throw everything within range at my target: Anything on US soil.

Hitting radar dishes will blind them to threats. Hitting silos will deplete their nuclear reverses. Hitting cities will dwindle their population, and ultimately score me points. It's not the kind of statistic that you want to score points on, but this is the kind of game you never want to see in life, so better here than in reality.

The slight error in my plans for revenge came in the form of the US defence systems swatting practically everything out of the sky without a moment's pause. The odd missile got through, but the vast majority were shot out of the sky, rendering them utterly useless.

I had just thrown missile after missile into the bin and wondered why the US didn't fall to its knees, all the while the Europeans were having a field day in the Atlantic.

Victory for someone was imminent, the graphics told me, and the countdown clock began. By this point, I was very much resigned to defeat. I had missiles left, but they were swatted out of the skies. I had some defences, but they weren't really doing their job. What few ships I had left were nowhere near to being useful, and launching slow-moving bombers to intercept fighter jets wasn't what they designed to do.

And so, for the last long minute of the game, I did nothing, and let the world fall to pieces.

What an utter, miserable failure of an attempt that was. Well, it's not even worthy of being called an attempt. That was pathetic. War Games had it right. I should have played Chess.

Final Word

I might have made all of that sound somewhat entertaining, but here's how DEFCON played for me: You set up your units and then you lose. That's it. That's DEFCON. You start the game and you get shat on by everyone else.

It's the nature of the game. Pick off the weakest targets one by one. Work together until you stab them in the back. Exploit every weakness. You'd have thought that with so few unit types and no resources to worry about that DEFCON would be a doddle, but a doddle it ain't. It sucks.

You don't have much to think about in terms of controls, and the game moves at such a snail's pace that you have to whack up the clock lest you fall asleep - at which point you blink at find yourself two levels of Defcon closer to the game end than you really want, getting bombarded by seemingly everyone with no hope of coming back.

I'm sure that, with the simplicity and straight-to-the-point nature of DEFCON that there's a good time to be had here, especially with friends in - perhaps - a real-time mode, where communication and alliances may actually count for something (until they inevitably don't because only one player can 'win').

But I don't have that, I'm not likely to have that, and so DEFCON doesn't sit well with me. It looks alright, I guess, but that's about the only positive I can pull out of my time playing it. Everything else is a theoretical 'yeah, might be good, under different circumstances'.

If you've got those circumstances available to you, maybe you want to try it out. Think of it as a shorter game of Diplomacy, perhaps.

Fun Facts

An 'Office Mode' allows you to play DEFCON at work, double-tapping escape to revert back to your spreadsheet while important events are brought to your attention through the system tray notifications. Definitely a mode for slower games, though...

DEFCON, developed by Introversion Software, first released in 2006.
Version played: PC, 2006.