The MAD #Wargame – Ultimatum: A Game of Nuclear Confrontation (Yaquinto Publications Inc., 1979)

OVER ON TWITTER, MARK JOHNSON (@WargamesToGo) tweeted about playing some Cold War wargames. “Hey self,” I said to myself, “you have maybe the ultimate Cold War wargame!” So I went deep in the back of the wargame shelves and brought Ultimatum (Yaquinto Publications Inc, 1979) to the table. I remember playing this game more than a few times back in the day. I mean, come on now, any game where almost half the counters are mushroom clouds has to be great, eh?

Look at all them mushroom clouds!

I must be getting old, because this is not the Ultimatum I remember.

“Mr. President, about, uh, 35 minutes ago, General Jack Ripper, the commanding general of, uh, Burpelson Air Force Base, issued an order to the 34 B-52’s of his Wing, which were airborne at the time as part of a special exercise we were holding called Operation Drop-Kick. Now, it appears that the order called for the planes to, uh, attack their targets inside Russia. The, uh, planes are fully armed with nuclear weapons with an average load of, um, 40 megatons each. Now, the central display of Russia will indicate the position of the planes. The triangles are their primary targets; the squares are their secondary targets. The aircraft will begin penetrating Russian radar cover within, uh, 25 minutes.” – General “Buck” Turgidson – Doctor Strangelove (Movie)

I first was blown away by the Initial Set-Up:

Once both players have picked out the forces appropriate to the scenario, they should begin their deployments. ICBM’s are first, then ABM’s, if any. Then place bombers, then interceptors. Finally place the SLBM’s upside down in the sea station boxes. When all the units have been placed, the player’s may study the opposing player’s deployment. They may not overturn upside down SLBM stacks. The players determine who will launch the first strike. This can be done by agreement, or if there is none, then by the roll of the die. The first strike player then picks whichever launch sequence he desires and launches his first attack.

That’s it. That’s the game.


Well, that’s the Basic Game for Ultimatum. Victory is determined by counting the difference in population points destroyed. You have to to kill more to win.

Doubly mad.

I looked through the rules of Ultimatum carefully, looking for some sort of decision to be made. There are a few (very few) decisions to be made, like does the First Strike (FS) player employ a Simultaneous or Phased Launch strategy.

I set up and played the first scenario, The Cuban Missile Crisis. Here you have a bomber-heavy USAF with a few ICBM and several Polaris submarines and some homeland interceptors against a Soviet Union with few bombers, fewer ICBMs and subs, but many interceptors on defense. The war started with a Soviet First Strike using Simultaneous Launch. The result? A US victory but still many mushroom clouds across America.

I felt empty. This Ultimatum is not a game (like nuclear war ever is) but barely even a tabletop exercise.

General “Buck” Turgidson: Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless *distinguishable*, postwar environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.
President Merkin Muffley: You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war!
General “Buck” Turgidson: Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.
– Doctor Strangelove (Movie)

I kept reading the Ultimatum rule book and came to the Tournament Game. I found the description intriguing:

The Basic Game is designed primarily to familiarize the players with the principles and strategies of nuclear war, and to inform them of the strengths and weaknesses of the various nuclear weapons systems….In the Tournament Game the players make the same kinds of decisions about weapons system procurement, global strategy, and diplomacy that the leaders of the two Super-powers faced in the arms race. There is a distinct possibility of nuclear war, and this is the driving force behind the Tournament Game decisions. If such a war occurs, it is fought  under virtually the same rules as the Basic Game except a scenario sheet is not used. But the Tournament Game adds the possibility of winning the Game through non-nuclear means. Such a victory can include conventional warfare or even diplomacy.

Victory in the Tournament Game of Ultimatum is far different than the Basic Game. Whereas in the Basic Game you score for ‘killing the mostest,’ in the Tournament Game you have must 1) Preserves your own population while 2) score points through control of Crisis Areas or destruction of enemy population. Most important is that own population factor; the first measure of any victory level is how much population you have.

Crisis Areas around the edge. Notice “The Button.”

A Tournament Game of Ultimatum is really the Cold War played out. Each turn both players execute three phases:

  1. Allocation Phase – Determine income and spend money
  2. Deployment Phase – Distribute money to Crisis Areas and deploy or activate units
  3. Decision Phase – Call for Confrontations in Crisis Areas or start the nuclear war.

The Allocation Phase in Ultimatum is full of decisions. What do I buy? What do I upgrade? Do I invest in my economy? How much do I spend in a Crisis Area? Just like in the real world there is never enough money (Money Factors – MF) to do everything you want.

I set up a Tournament Game scenario starting in 1960, the game runs to a maximum of 20 turns (10 years). Every turn in that Allocation Phase one must divvy up their budget between new systems, Qualitative Improvements (mostly Accuracy or MIRVs), Defensive Improvements (SAMs and ECM), ASW, and Aircraft on Alert. Oh yeah, you also need to set money aside for Crisis Areas and maybe your Economy (invest now, in 15 turns get 150% return).

The real heart of the Tournament Game in Ultimatum is those Crisis Areas. Both players are spending money (influence) and final control will be determined by a Confrontation. In that Confrontation, both players will announce a strategy. Different strategies give different die modifiers to the confrontation die roll. Strategies range from Economic to Political/Social to Guerrilla to Conventional War to Tactical Nuclear conflict! Here is how the Ultimatum rule book itself talks about Crisis Areas:

One of the most important ways to spend money factors is on the seven Crisis Areas. Money spent on these areas can result in points for the player without endangering the player’s own population through nuclear war. On the other hand, MF’s invested in qualitative improvements and defense measures do not directly result in points gained unless there is a nuclear war and the player’s own population is in severe danger. Because gaining control of the Crisis Area is a safer way of getting points, players should usually allocate a substantial portion of their MF’s to the Crisis Areas.

As I so often do in these coronatine days, I played two-handed solo. For each side I chose a general strategy to follow. For the US I decided to invest in a smaller but more capable nuclear force and focus on the First to Third World for Crisis Area investment. For the Soviets, the strategy was a more numerous but less capable force with priority of investment in Crisis Areas going from Third to First World. Almost immediately both sides changed their investment strategy as I realized how stupid it was for the superpowers to compete that way for the Soviets would fall far behind. So while both power maintained relative parity in Europe (65 Points), Japan-Korea (40 Points), and the Middle East (35 Points) the real areas of confrontation were Latin America (20 Points), Central East Asia (15 Points) and South Asia (15 Points). Southeast Asia, at only 10 Points, became a real backwater.

“Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.” – General Jack D. Ripper: Doctor Strangelove (Movie)

My Tournament Game play of Ultimatum came out much different than my first play. As the game progressed toward the late stages the need to gain control of Crisis Areas led to Confrontations. Both sides were relatively even, but quickly Latin America went to the Americans while Central East Asia and South Asia went to the Soviets. A massive US investment in Japan-Korea followed to ensure it entered the US sphere. It was at this point that the one Optional Rule I was playing with came to the forefront.

Uncontrolled Crisis Area Event ‘Cards’

Optional Rule 6. Uncontrolled Crisis Area Events is a set of 26 ‘cards’ that depict events that can greatly alter history. At the beginning of each game turn, the American player rolls one die and, if a six is rolled, turns over the top card. That’s how it came to pass that a severe depression hit the Common Market (Europe) countries, Ireland invaded Northern Ireland, the Communists took power in France and Italy and withdrew from NATO all while Greece and Turkey went to war and NATO dissolved. The net impact to the game was a die roll to see how many MF the Soviets gain. A roll of 5 gave the Soviets +16 – a nearly 50% boost in their budget that turn. It was enough to embolden the Soviets to confront in Europe and tip it into the Soviet sphere.

“Well, boys, I reckon this is it – nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies. Now look, boys, I ain’t much of a hand at makin’ speeches, but I got a pretty fair idea that something doggone important is goin’ on back there. And I got a fair idea the kinda personal emotions that some of you fellas may be thinkin’. Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human bein’s if you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelin’s about nuclear combat. I want you to remember one thing, the folks back home is a-countin’ on you and by golly, we ain’t about to let ’em down. I tell you something else, if this thing turns out to be half as important as I figure it just might be, I’d say that you’re all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing’s over with. That goes for ever’ last one of you regardless of your race, color or your creed. Now let’s get this thing on the hump – we got some flyin’ to do.” –  Major T.J. “King” Kong: Doctor Strangelove (Movie)

Clearly falling behind, the Americans decided the Soviets had to be stopped – at any cost. So the nukes started flying with a US First Strike using a Phased Launch strategy. The Soviets had not invested in Aircraft on Alert nor much ASW so many Soviet bombers were caught on the ground while US submarines got good strikes launched. Many mushroom clouds later the (gruesome) tally was counted up. In the future, historians would write much about the American Marginal Victory (have at least 100 population points left while scoring 10-25 points more than opponent) and try to make sense out of it.

That was a mad game…and it left me wanting more.

Ultimatum is a snapshot in time representing the world of nuclear warfare in the 1960s and early 1970s. This is the world before the START Treaty. It also has many interesting optional or special rules. Like letting the US build “silo busters” when they didn’t. Like adding Cruise Missiles to American bombers in later periods. Like adding a Directed Energy ABM for the Americans (aka Star Wars). It could use an update; indeed, I found my handwritten notes for US vs Soviet nuclear forces from the mid-1980s.

“It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.” – Title Card: Doctor Strangelove (Movie)

As I often do, I always read the Designer’s Notes. Here’s where Ultimatum may have the greatest understatement by a wargame designer ever written:

There is one final note to be made on the design on this game. Several hours were spent attempting to give the players some reason (moral, love of fellow man, nationalism) for avoiding nuclear war. The destruction of a nation of tens of millions of people weighs heavily on the minds of the leaders of both the Soviet Union and the United States. But in a game the players have no such weight balancing their decisions. It becomes an abstraction and the players easily forget what the game is simulating. More than any other game on the market, this can create problems in the simulation of reality.

In Ultimatum, it is best to think of the Basic Game as the ‘Combat Game’ and the Tournament Game as the ‘Cold War Campaign.’ As much as I remember playing the ‘Combat Game,’ I totally had forgotten about the Tournament Game. However, it is that Tournament Game that teaches the most about the Cold War. I agree with the designer; at heart Ultimatum is a flawed simulation of reality, but that very flaw actually teaches us maybe the most important lesson of the Cold War. Ultimatum is a mad game about a very MAD* time.


*MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction





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