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Chris Crawford on Designing the Game "Balance of Power"

Legendary game designer Chris Crawford explains the atmosphere and process of designing the classic game, "Balance of Power."
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

In March of 1984, Atari was in its death throes and I, along with almost everybody else, was laid off. The severance package I received was more than generous; it gave us so much money that I wouldn't need any income for nine months. That would be plenty of time to develop a new game; I set to work considering my options.

It was tempting to do yet another Atari game; I had mastered the platform, my name alone would sell games, and I had a number of good ideas. I built two prototypes, one that I called Western Front (1944), a simple translation of Eastern Front (1941) to France. The other I called The Last of the Incas, covering the struggle of the last Inca emperor to raise a revolt against the Spanish. I quickly rejected the first option as too derivative. Besides, I was finished doing wargames; they no longer held any creative attraction for me. This decision was, in financial terms, imbecilic. I had a big hit in Eastern Front (1941); a second game in the genre would surely make a bundle of money. Artistically, it was a sound decision: If you've mastered a problem, it's time to move on. This provides us with a useful criterion for establishing motivation (Lesson 47).

The Inca game struck my fancy, but I decided that it was time for me to make a break with the past, to look forward rather than backward. It was time to make the jump to a new machine.

Three options lay before me: the IBM PC, the Macintosh, or the soon-to-be-released Amiga. I quickly rejected the first option—nobody played games on the IBM PC in those days. Besides, it was a horror to program and supported only text displays. I interviewed at Amiga, and they offered me a job, but I decided that the Macintosh would do to Amiga what the Apple II did to Atari. Although the Amiga had superior hardware, the Mac's overall design impressed me. I was especially impressed by its emphasis on user interface. Here, I decided, lay the future. Choosing between the Mac and the Amiga was one of the more momentous decisions I ever made, and I made the right call.

Sequels are for entertainment; they have no artistic content.

So I signed up for the Apple Developer program and ordered a development system consisting of a Lisa computer and a Macintosh. It was very expensive; worse, I had to wait for two months to get my Lisa. I used the time to think long and hard about my design. I also collected and read a great many books on geopolitical conflict. The most influential of these were Henry Kissinger's two books on his years in power: White House Years and Years of Upheaval. You are welcome to think ill of the man's politics, but I must insist that his books are illuminating and well written. They certainly had a large influence on my design.

The UnWar Game

I was, and remain, a child of the 60's. Although I never marched in a demonstration, smoked dope, or took any kind of mind-altering drug, I embraced the core values of the 60's counterculture, the most prominent of which was pacifism. War, in that view, was the greatest evil mankind had ever created, and was to be avoided at all costs. As the 1984 electoral campaigns heated up, there was plenty of belligerent talk from the right wing, and a series of alarming events boded ill for the future of peace. And here I was, profiting from the sale of wargames, and contemplating designing even more. It was wrong, and I knew it. But what could I do?

Don't struggle to find the answer, struggle to find the right question; the answer will then be obvious.

As soon as I had phrased the problem in that form, the answer was obvious: I would design an unwar game, a game about the prevention of war, a game about peace. After weeks of feckless hand-wringing, it all became perfectly obvious once I had phrased the question in the right terms.

Now, there have been plenty of "nice guy" games in which players are encouraged to love each other, be nice to the little bunnies, and throw away their weapons. Unfortunately, these "cooperation" games all share one crucial problem: They were boring! Recall Lesson 10: A game, like a story, must have a conflict.

The taxonomy of play in Chapter 1, "Definitions, Definitions," shows that games are a form of organized conflict. So my task was to design a game that was full of conflict, but lacked war. This is not so difficult a challenge as it might seem at first. As von Clausewitz noted in On War, "War is the extension of policy to other means." In other words, it is an extension of geopolitical conflict, not the first manifestation of it. War arises when conflicts between nations cross the line from peaceful into violent expression. Hence, there can be plenty of conflict in an unwar game—it's just not violent conflict.

I found my theme song for the project in Peter, Paul, and Mary's rendition of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." The killer line was this:

How many deaths will it take 'til he knows that too many people have died?

This project pushed me to my emotional limits; listening to that song gave me the strength to carry on.

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