Strategy Games and the Post-Apocalypse

Just as I associate post-apocalyptic video games with one franchise, Fallout, so I associate post-apocalyptic strategy with one game, Vic Davis’ Armageddon Empires. It’s an excellent game, whose design I dissected several few years ago. It’s also a unique game – both in the sense that it’s original, and in the sense that it’s the only “strategic level” post-apocalyptic game I can think of. Even adding a few strategy games that take place at smaller scales produces a very short list1.

There has been at least one strategy game that used a post-apocalyptic theme as a fig leaf over more traditional mechanics: Days of Ruin/Dark Conflict, the last game in the Advance Wars series. Along similar lines, the final campaign in the original Wargame: European Escalation took place after the war went nuclear. Not having made it that far2, I would love to know: did that play any differently? Or was it the same old Wargame?

From the opposite perspective, Conquest of Elysium 3 is a fantasy strategy game whose mechanics would translate extremely well to the post-apocalypse. Exploring a dangerous world, capturing settlements and mines, defending them against bandits and wandering monsters… reskin the elementals to cars and the magic gems to guzzoline, and you could make a decent Mad Max game.

Some possibilities are apparent, such as an updated Fallout Tactics-style squad-based game or another strategy game about defeating post-apocalyptic rivals, a la Armageddon Empires. Perhaps more interesting are variants on the basic post-apocalyptic theme.

First, what about a more down-to-earth, less total apocalypse? What I have in mind is something like Twilight 2000, an old tabletop RPG3 set in the aftermath of a limited nuclear war. The US is split between rival governments; the remnants of the NATO and Warsaw Pact armies huddle in cantonments, trying to feed themselves… and yet, some semblance of our civilisation remains. Humanity is able to recover. In fact, 300 years later in the timeline, humans have made it into the stars.

Another possibility would be uniquely suited to the strategy genre: a game about rebuilding the world. Imagine guiding the progression from the original Fallout to the “post-post-apocalyptic” New Vegas. And most strategy games are about building up from scratch, which makes perfect sense in a post-apocalyptic setting. I think this would work especially well in a 4X game, where the barbarians are raiders, the goody huts are relics of the pre-nuclear age, and over time the player pushes civilisation back into the wilderness. Other possibilities include a city builder, or maybe even Wasteland Tycoon.

Personally, I don’t think we’ll see my dream post-post-apocalyptic 4X any time soon. 4X developers4 are extremely conservative with their chosen settings, hence the profusion of fantasy games trying to be the next Master of Magic and space opera games trying to be the next Master of Orion 2. We might possibly see one in a mod — over the years, I’ve heard of a few post-apocalyptic Civilization scenarios doing the rounds. Still, I can wish…

  1. Fallout Tactics is a squad-based tactical RPG. Convoy is a new (and apparently flawed) indie game billed as FTL meets Mad Max. And if zombies count, Sarah Northway’s Rebuild was a Flash game that took place in the aftermath of a zombie invasion.
  2. I thought the campaigns were the weakest part of European Escalation. I much prefer the dynamic campaigns of its sequels.
  3. There was also a spin-off video game, in which it was apparently ridiculously easy to get stuck with no way to continue.
  4. And game developers in general.
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