Terminal Conflict is not a successor to East vs. West, but it's still a decent Cold War strategy game27 Jan 2020 2
Like many grand-strategy fans, I was disappointed when Paradox Interactive cancelled their Cold War Hearts of Iron spin-off East vs West. Sure, you can find many great tactical or operational level games set during this period but there are no strategic level games that capture the diplomatic, technological and economic complexities of the era in a meaningful way.
Developer BL-Logic appears to be giving themselves a second chance, however. Terminal Conflict is a new game they are creating with Strategy Mill, billing it as the definitive Cold War strategy game. So, does it live up to its lofty claim and more importantly, should you consider it for when it leaves Early Access? Let’s find out.
Terminal Conflict has been floating around on Steam for over a year now. It entered Early Access in December 2018 and has had a steady stream of updates ever since. It is a turn-based strategy title that plays out at the strategic level. However, it plays more like a boardgame than a grand strategy title and it’s an important distinction to make. This game is more Twilight Struggle than Hearts of Iron, which is not a critique, but it’s something worth keeping in mind: If you were hoping for the spiritual successor to East vs West, this won’t be where you find it.
This new title abstracts many of the key concepts. Military units are represented as army, fighter and bomber commands. Naval units are represented as surface vessels, submarines and aircraft carriers. There is no depiction of unique military hardware. No F-14 Tomcats, Mig-29’s, Nimitz Class Carriers, T-54’s or Centurion tanks. There is no technology tree affecting unit stats, no combat modifiers nor leadership bonuses. In fact, combat is this game's weakest aspect; it feels a bit shallow. Two army chits will defeat one and naval combat is a rock, paper, scissors style affair. Submarine beats carrier, surface vessel beats submarine and carrier beats surface vessel. I found Terminal Conflict to be a lot of fun to play once I accepted the game for what it is, rather than what I wanted it to be.
The fundamentals are simple enough. You start by selecting a side (shockingly, the USA or USSR), then take turns conducting era appropriate actions across the globe against your ideological adversary. You deploy military units, conduct espionage, instigate coups and try to increase your influence over regions; all pretty standard stuff.
Where this game shines is in the implementation of its core mechanic; the semi-random national focus system. A national focus is a set of objectives that must be completed within a given set of turns. Some focuses have a historical narrative associated with them and fire off a chain of events which have multiple paths to completion.
Successful completion of the assigned objectives nets you victory points. Fail to meet the national focus goals and your opponent gets the victory points instead. Only one national focus can be active at any given time and each side takes turns in selecting the active focus when the previous one is either completed or expires. When there are no more focuses left to select, the game moves its timeline forward five years and a new set of focuses are created. It is a clever mechanic that creates an interesting minigame within the broader campaign for global influence. It forces both sides to focus on one theatre of action or situation for a few turns before the next focus is selected which might have you shift your attention to another part of the world and another set of objectives.
For an Early Access title, Terminal Conflict plays remarkably well. There have been no crashes, no major game breaking bugs and the core gameplay elements all seem to be in place. The UI has some quirks which can be annoying but never gamebreaking. A recent post from the developers has highlighted that they are optimising the UI which will hopefully iron out any remaining problems.
In fact, communication by the developers has been another strength throughout the Early Access period. It is not uncommon to jump onto the game’s Discord server and see the devs actively discussing their game with players. Even more impressive, the devs are happy to take on-board any feedback (there is a channel dedicated to the topic), and even implement suggestions. And if multiplayer is your thing, challenge the devs to a game on Thursdays.
Indeed, Terminal Conflict really lends itself to multiplayer gameplay. There is little down time between turns, a game can be completed within a few hours and the semi-random national focus system keeps the replayability high.
One of the more questionable development choices is the decision to release DLC for the game despite still being in Early Access. In fact, the game already has two ‘upgrade packs’ which I believe is the developer’s attempt at a deluxe edition-type package. But rather than adding an art book, soundtrack, wallpaper or something similar, they add new policies and decisions for both the US and USSR. If you are playing a multiplayer game with someone who has the upgrade packs, then both players automatically have access to the extra content. Despite the naming convention, the upgrade packs feel more like DLC. So, by the time you add in the recently announced ‘Eyes Only’ DLC which is being developed by the modding team behind Hearts of Iron IV’s Road to 56 mod, you already have multiple separate purchases to make in order to get all the content for a game that is, as yet, still unreleased. Add in the $30 price tag for the base game and it all feels a little pricey. They’re not the first Early Access project to do this, but it still feels odd.
As it stands, Terminal Conflict is a solid Cold War experience and this is in no small part due to the game’s art direction. From the retro styled UI inspired by the movie WarGames, to the historically themed events, images, leaders and narratives that pepper the game; it all helps immerse the player in the period. However, the gameplay can sometimes miss the thematic mark. Terminal Conflict never feels tense. It never feels as though the world hangs on the precipice of nuclear annihilation, despite my best, overtly aggressive efforts. This might be fixed with some balance adjustments to the doomsday mechanic. But it stands in stark contrast to Twilight Struggle, whereby you are constantly looking at the DEFCON tracker and biting your nails as you attempt a coup within a contested region. I never had those kinds of moments here.
Terminal Conflict is a good game and I would be remiss to say otherwise. What the game sets out to do, it does well and even in its current Early Access state it is a solid, full experience. The problem is that whenever I play it, I am personally left wanting more depth, less abstraction, more computer game, less boardgame. Ultimately, it’s that distinction between video game and board game mechanics which should guide your purchase.
If you want a high level, mechanically sound, Cold War themed strategy game in the vein of Twilight Struggle, then Terminal Conflict is worth a purchase. If you were hoping for something similar to the cancelled Paradox title East vs West, then you may want to skip this and instead try the Cold War Iron Curtain mod for Hearts of Iron IV.