Even fifty years after Russia has posed a reasonable threat against the western world, an obsession with the Cold War has lingered. Supreme Ruler: Cold War takes a look back at the post-war conflict that almost was. Unfortunately all the game seems interested in is looking. With no direction, apparent purpose, or ultimate goal to the game, it’s a curious retrospective of the Cold War.
Even though western popular culture maintained Russia as the go-to villains even into the Clinton years, by the time that the Cold War ended America had outpaced the Soviets militarily and improved relations had reduced tensions to a formality. Hatred for the Russians existed because…well, Rocky had to fight someone. But in 1949 tension across the world was high, the first proxy wars in Asia were about to be fought, and competition for support in Central America and the Middle East had just kicked off. Supreme Rulers captures none of this. There’s a map of the world circa 1949. That’s it.
The game has three modes: sandbox, campaign, and scenario, none with any important differences. Apparently the goal of each game mode is to “win” the cold war by holding more world influence than the Ruskies after an allotted amount of time. The lack of tutorials and impenetrable interface make it difficult to tell exactly how the player is supposed to do that, but the goal nonetheless remains the same. There seems to be two major ways to ensure your international dominance: by making more friends than the Russians or by pounding them into irrelevance.
The beginning of the game takes place in 1949 and all but sandbox mode give the player one year to outpace Red for world dominance. In the meantime, you must manage the day-to-day affairs of governance. The game never tells you how to do this, but each important aspect of ruling comes with a cabinet minister that can be programmed to adjust spending, taxing, trading research, and so on.
I made two honest attempts to win the world: one by trying to buy a neutral country’s allegiance with monstrously unfair trades and the other where I got fed up and declared war against the entire planet. But since the game doesn’t explain how to earn foreign respect, improve your country’s image abroad, or even how to control your own armies, every action is a crapshoot. Anything that the player does is at the mercy of a complex and invisible equation. The player is forced to figure out each mechanic alone and then discover that most of them don’t even work.
After my second attempt at playing this game I programmed my ministers to manage resources on their own and left the game alone while I went to a friend’s to play Smash Brothers Brawl. When I returned home that night, I found that the marginal lead over Russia had held and that I’d beaten the game. Supreme Rulers is the only game that I’ve ever played that rewarded me for playing a better game. But still it provides an interesting interpretation of the Cold War.
According to Supreme Rulers the tension of the Cold War was inevitable. Ideological clashing could not be avoided, and nothing any leader had done could have improved it. In fact, any attempt to speed a solution along (say, within a year) could only worsen the situation. The Cold War of reality took thirty years to overcome and consequences of the tension still haven’t completely resolved; no short course of action could repair it. Only patience could.,
The best solution is to carry on, weather the storm. Send the ministers to their desks and have them keep up the good fight at home while the commander-in-chief receives letters from foreign leaders and updates on the situation. Left to the invisible hand of the free market, all things are mended. The Soviet Union can only collapse in the long term, and so long as administrative intervention is minimized (or eliminated), American small-governance will prevail.
The supreme ruler of the game’s title is the one that stands back and lets the equation run its course. The game places you in a complicated world and steadfastly refuses to tell you how it works or even how to use the machinery that affects it. Of course the meddlesome player will only implode the world market or ignite tensions abroad. The free market dictates the world and works only when uninterrupted. That, or the game is broken and has no business being played.
There are probably people that would enjoy the stubborn imperviousness of Supreme Ruler. Those same people would probably find satisfaction in meticulously pining over every detail and absolutely maximizing every statistic that the game operates. I still beat it while I was eating pizza and falcon punching my friends two blocks away. Supreme Ruler: Cold War can only find hope as a niche game and that niche can have it all to themselves.