It’s the 1980s and the Cold War was just as chilly as it had ever been. That also made it a fertile ground for wargame designers asking questions such as what an invasion of Western Europe might look like if the Warsaw Pact decided to get frisky.
SSI had been asking that question with a plethora of strategy titles such as its “When Superpowers Collide” series along with a number of other developers. In 1986, Datasoft joined the nuclear party with Theatre Europe.
Datasoft wasn’t a mega-giant in simulations the way that SSI was, but their diverse catalog of published games covered nearly everything from action like Bruce Lee, RPGs like Alternate Reality, and arcade ports such as Zaxxon. They were also keen on licensing properties such as Conan (for their 1984 game, Conan: Hall of Volta) along with making an excellent adaptation of The Goonies in 1985. Now they were bolstering their library by publishing this gem from the UK.
Theatre Europe was designed by Alan Steel and the crew at Personal Software Services with Datasoft acting as the publisher for PSS’ game in the United States. In it, players would cover thirty days of battle as either NATO (the Western European alliance with the US) or the Warsaw Pact (the Eastern European alliance led by the USSR).
The game came with a map of Europe divided between East and West and even a mock up of a front page story from “Die Zeitung” setting up a tension-filled atmosphere filled with U.S troop build ups in West Germany, the proliferation of nukes like the Pershing-2, and the Warsaw Pact’s response in doing the same thing setting everything on a teetering knife edge.This was a turn-based strategy game splitting management of your forces and actions through a series of phases. The manual laid out in a tutorial focused on the NATO side though the controls were the same for either one. After picking a side (and whether or not to have “Action” screens), players moved their units with an onscreen cursor controlled by a joystick to pick which ones and where to send them.
Most of the time, you could only move a unit one space, but some units (like an Airborne army) could move long distances across the map. Mountainous terrain may even delay some units moving through them.
After moving your units and hitting the spacebar for the next phase, it was time to attack. That meant picking a unit, picking a target, and so on until you were satisfied that everyone had their marching (or idling) orders. The next phase then launched all of your chosen battles. If you enabled Action screens, you could pick one of these fights and participate in a shooting gallery to help swing the tide in your favor though it didn’t seem to do very much.
Once your units were done duking it out, players were asked to “rebuild”. Each unit had three components — ARM (combat strength), AIR (air strength), and SUP (supply chain strength) — represented by numbers and basically, some of these will have higher numbers in certain categories than others. During the rebuild phase, players added more army, air, or supply points to the units they wanted as long as they had some to allocate.
The air phase allowed players to allocate numbers to different air missions affecting how big an impact your air campaign may have when it’s your turn to attack again. After that, then there was the “Special Missions” phase where you can decide to lob a chemical missile at your enemies or give them a permanent orange afro instead.
After doing all that, it was the computer’s turn to go, and then it started all over again with a new day up until NATO managed to keep the Warsaw Pact from West Germany by destroying so many units or if the Pact managed to overrun their positions and claim all of Germany as a new Soviet satellite by doing the same thing.
Players could decide how difficult they wanted the game with three levels, “1” being the lowest, and whether or not to activate the “Reflex” system at the start. The Reflex system determined what the AI would do if it were attacked with a nuke, for example, and reflexively answer in kind escalating the DEFCON (defense condition) level from 5 (peace) to a lower number (like 2, which was worse). The weird thing was that even after launching a massive frontal assault on NATO forces, DEFCON continued to stay at 5! It was only until I launched a nuke that the scale changed for the worse.
The manual went the extra step in actually apologizing for the huge simplifications made with the simulation. Even though it packed a lot of info into its pages, the mechanics were easy to pick up with many actions focused on a very small number of options. It also goes on to explain certain assumptions made for the sake of the setting (NATO controls the Atlantic, so there’s no sea battles..all of the fighting is done between conventional forces staged in West and East Germany).
It also touches on certain real-life aspects that the developers wanted to include on the surface of the game, such as the Reflex system which they say is based on the “Automatic Computer-Controlled Reaction System” mentioned in the March, 1985 issue of Science Digest.
It also includes their own researched guesses as to the tactical viability of certain units in the game (such as Warsaw Pact units having a higher ARM attrition rate because of an assumption of “higher breakdowns” affecting their combat strength in the long term). There’s also no SDI (Space Defense Initiative) mentioned or used in the game — no “Star Wars” laser satellites waiting to shoot ICBMs out of the sky, or even a hint of that kind of fanciful tech.
The manual also breaks down each unit in the back with all of the in-game numbers representing their strengths in different areas to help players. Following that’s a bibliography noting the works used to research building the game and its scenario.
Like many tactical games from the 80s, this one didn’t re-emerge in a collection or was re-imagined anywhere else. At the time, however, it was ported to a diverse set of platforms including the Apple II, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Atari computers, and the ZX Spectrum making the most of each (the Commodore 64 version, for example, sounds and looks a lot better than the Apple one). Today, you can play it emulated (the image is apparently one that was cracked) on Virtual Apple.
It’s also interesting to note that years before Hideo Kojima’s games warned players of the dangers of nuclear annihilation, Theatre Europe’s designers wanted to do the same thing with their own game as they hint in the manual with a somber note on a world divided and its nuclear arsenal. Today, it might seem a bit preachy. But in those days, it was fact of life for many living in the shadow of the Iron Curtain.