Cataclysm: A Second World War (GMT Games, 2018) is an interesting game. I have been trying to get my head wrapped around the game, but I think I didn’t actually grok it until listening to the Three Moves Ahead Episode 439 podcast. Host Rob was joined by Bruce Geryk (@SpaceRumsfeld) to discuss Cataclysm. After listening to their discussion I finally realized a major reason I have a hard time wrapping my head around the game is because I was expecting Cataclysm to be a wargame when it is not.
Let me explain.
Looking at the GMT Games publisher’s page forCataclysm the second paragraph (Not Your Father’s Panzer Pusher) is squarely aimed at the wargamer. It talks about grand strategy, military pieces, military production, prosecuting war, no Combat Results Table but operational effects, resource acquisition, control of border states, and perceptions of power. Everything I think about in a wargame.
However, the next paragraph is actually more important:
Flags are the currency of political capital in Cataclysm. Nations earn flags through public mandate or provocation by opposing powers. Spending this political capital is subject to the effectiveness of your power, which determines how easily you can implement your policies. Readying for war requires you to increase your commitment, straining the stability of your government. You can offset this by using propaganda to shore up your position. You can form strong alliances with friendly powers, or use diplomacy to sway your neighbors to your side. You may need to pressure reluctant partners into taking action. Manage your political actions to suit your goals, but be wary of provoking your opponents, allowing them to earn flags in reaction.
As Rob and Bruce discuss, it is the political game that is actually the core of Cataclysm. Indeed, in the 3-player game they played there was almost no combat. Now that I think of it, I agree that Cataclysm is actually a political game where there is a chance of a Second World War breaking out. This realization requires that I recognize that the “core mechanic” of Cataclysm is not the combat model (my wargame expectation) but the Flags and Political Actions. Once I make this connection the whole “game thesis” as Bruce puts it makes sense. I went into Cataclysm expecting a wargame but instead played a strategy game of politics and diplomacy where war is just another option in each nations toolkit. To put it in Clausewitz-like terms, in Cataclysm, “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”
Thinking about Cataclysm as a Clausewitz-influenced strategy game instead of a wargame actually grows my respect for the design. I encourage you all to listen to the 3 Moves Ahead podcast, and especially Bruce’s comments on the “game thesis” as I think this will help many folks wrap their own heads around this game. I have to admit I am more excited about the game then Bruce and Rob seem to be. Now that I have groked the game thesis and realized Cataclysm is “not a wargame” I want to get it back to my gaming table and play with this newfound perspective.