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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Early Efforts

My first written reference to this design comes from April 1984, just after I was laid off by Atari. I called the game Arms Race, and here is the complete description:

    This is...the game I have been wanting to do for a long time. I propose a game that shows why the US and the Soviet Union are locked into a dangerous balance of terror. You are the President during the entire 40-year span of the game (1960–2000). All you have to do is get to the turn of the century without igniting Armageddon. It's not easy. The game is actually about geopolitics, not the arms race per se. You are tied into numerous alliances with small countries the world over. The complex web of obligations is constantly being strained by the petty disputes of the small countries. The small squabbles can erupt into war at any time, and the danger always exists that events could suck you into a major confrontation with the Soviet Union. The central question of the game, then, is to ask whether the US and the USSR can carry on a global rivalry without eventually getting themselves into a nuclear war. The answer, of course, is that they can do so only by rigorously constraining and reducing the scope of that conflict.

    The game would use a smart map that presents a great deal of information about nations and their relationships in graphical format. Icons would show treaty obligations, military status, bases, and so forth. Animation would be used in much the same way as other Macintosh software uses animation: to show relationships.

    This game would be serious, it would be very educational, and I think it would grab a great deal of attention. It would not be action-packed, but I think that the launching of Armageddon would be far more wrenching in this game than Missile Command ever was.

As I set to work designing the game, I took some time to study the Macintosh and develop an appreciation of its strengths and weaknesses. I laid these down in a long letter to a publisher. I concluded that the black-and-white display would have less sensory "heat" than the color display of the Commodore 64, the dominant machine at that time, and therefore that Mac games should be more cerebral. Moreover, I suspected that the market of Macintosh owners would be a more serious, more adult group demanding a more mature style of game. I also felt that the mouse, a new input device at that time, was not ideally suited for fast action games; it was better suited to discrete choices than continuous input.


Know thy platform intimately. Understand its strengths and weaknesses.


There was more in the letter, but the key point here is important: I took the time to consider the precise strengths and weaknesses of the platform on which I proposed to work. These careful considerations paid off; later, after Balance of Power was published, several reviewers complimented the game for its deep "Mac-ishness."

By May I was deeply caught up in design details. I toyed around with a number of possible titles: Arms Race, Annihilation of Mankind, Stopping the Madness, Thwarting Armageddon, Man's Last Decade, The Extension of Policy, Words vs. Bombs, and Policy. Plainly, these are all lame titles compared with the final title, Balance of Power. So where did that great title come from? The CEO of Mindscape during my first meeting with him. He just pulled it out of a hat.

In accordance with my most sacred rule of software design ("What does the user do?"), I set down my verb list at the outset:

  • Arm insurgents.

  • Provide shelter to insurgents.

  • Give economic aid.

  • Give military aid.

  • Sell weapons.

  • Apply trade sanctions.

  • Intervene militarily.

  • Sign mutual defense treaty.

  • Hold summit meeting.

  • Set military spending level.

  • Carry out a military demonstration of strength.

  • Declare war.

  • Blockade.

  • Establish/break diplomatic relations.

  • Set rhetoric level.


Game designers have no talent for marketing. Let the pros cook up the title.


The correspondence between this list and the final list of verbs is striking. Seven of these verbs did not make it into the final verb list—but some of them did make it in altered form. The primary difference between this list and the final list is that the final verb list segregated the verbs into groups organized by degree. The basic verb groups in the final version related to insurgency, government stability, and treaty relationships, with a special group of verbs related to the state of alertness of your own military.

The primary area that I cut from this list was trade. The problem with trade is that it's slow and undramatic. Trade sanctions slowly strangle an enemy's economy. A python may be just as successful a predator as a lion, but we don't see many football teams named after pythons. I reluctantly decided to strike trade considerations from the design.

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