Unplayable Classics: Balance of Power

On October 21, 2008, in Games, by peterb

This is a brief review that will appear in next month’s PTD Magazine. Thanks to PTD for graciously allowing me to pre-publish it here.

We’ve all seen that guy. The one out on the dance floor, doing that shuffly dance guys do. The guy is convinced of his own savoir-faire. He’s convinced he’s talented. He’s convinced he’s irresistible. To everyone else in the room, however, he looks like a clumsy, embarassing dork.

In the world of computer games, that guy’s name is “Chris Crawford.”

Crawford was the author of a number of fair to middling games in the 1980s. The most notable aspect of his games it that he is willing to tell you, in soul-crushing detail, exactly how brilliant he thinks they were, in various media outlets, books, and articles. Somehow the fact that most of his games aren’t actually any fun to play has managed to elude the man for over 20 years now.

Balance of Power, for various platforms, is yet another Crawford game that takes someone else’s great idea and makes it boring. The idea of a superpower game of brinksmanship, risking prestige and war, had already been done right by SSI and Bruce Ketchledge in their gripping game Geopolitique 1990. Crawford took this basic idea and added a few things: an arguably better user interface, more minor nations and random events, and an insufferably preachy tone (“We do not reward failure,” the game lectures you when you lose, which is clearly true, since I was never rewarded for the epic failure of purchasing it). Every moment spent with the game is a moment you miss doing something more entertaining, such as clipping your toenails.

If you hate yourself and your life, you can subject yourself to Crawford’s java-based beta of “Balance of Power: 21st Century” at his web site, storytron.com. The graphics and user interface aren’t as good as the original game, but to make up for that, it’s even less fun.

Balance of Power: The 1990 Edition by Mindscape. No score given for this game: We do not reward failure.


10 Responses to “Unplayable Classics: Balance of Power”

  1. honus says:

    I know you say “brief” but it isn’t really much of a review. What is so bad about it? I’m afraid to try it myself got fear it might give me a flesh eatting disease.

  2. peterb says:

    It’s a cop-out, but the brevity is dictated by the format.

    Specifically, in Balance of Power you try to advance your geopolitical position by selecting minor countries to intervene in. Then you make a request, demand, or threat. If the country refuses all of your threats, the game ends and you get a snotty lecture.

    Really, that’s about the size of things.

  3. Berry says:

    I went and looked at Storytron, clicked through to “How to Play”, looked it over and decided “this will be made of suck”.

    Does he even NEED Java to do that? And does he understand the difference between Java and Javascript? I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

  4. Hans Larsen says:

    I remember playing an Amiga game of that name and with same topic. It was boring for sure but it was not that horrible as I remember it…

    But it was earlier, maybe around 1986 or 87.

  5. Andy P says:

    Had the misfortune of hearing this self-indulgent wank-off talk at GDC a few years ago. I’ve honestly never taken such a dislike to anyone in all my life. The man is an arrogant, self-aggrandising maggot.

    I’m actually amazed he’s released/releasing a game because he proclaimed at that talk that “I do not make games”, because games are toys and toys are unworthy and beneath him. As this was the Game Developer’s Conference you can imagine this went down about as well as a silent but deadly fart in an elevator full of nuns.

    Has he finally realised that the eternally pretentious field of “interactive storytelling” (which he declared to be the new coming in video-based entertainment) is nothing but a masochistic exercise in self-flagellation? Has he returned to making games in order to genuinely find new ways to develop the artform? Or is he desperately trying to bring in a few quid by trading off being moderately well-known, somewhere on the B-list on a good day, more than two decades ago?

    I neither know nor, honestly, do I care. When the time comes for Chris Crawford to move on to the next world, the sum moral worthiness of the human race will increase. The man is pond scum – and his games, or interactive stories? Even worse.

  6. Thomas says:

    To be fair, the man is also a raging homophobe and misogynist who justifies his opinions with junk science from evolutionary psychology. It’s possible that his games are not actually the worst thing about him.

  7. greay says:

    I’ve never played any of his games, but I have read a couple of his books and think he does have some really worthwhile ideas about interactive storytelling. The challenge has been reconciling these ideas about how to make a compelling dynamic narrative with… well, fun.

  8. Andy P says:

    Sure, and when someone manages that (Crawford’s been trying for twenty years), maybe then they can make a big song and dance about it.

    Until then… I’ll get on with actually enjoying myself, thanks.

  9. Jon Perez says:

    You are dead on right. Balance of Power truly sucked while Geopolitique 1990 was heavily addictive.

    Chris Crawford is a blowhard who yaks endlessly about gameplay but in the end doesn’t really know how to make playable games.

  10. Ken Prescott says:

    I remember buying Balance of Power for the Amiga back in the day.

    Well, that was a waste of $19.95.

    The big problem with game play: the game did not give you enough synthetic experience to make useful decisions.

    Compounding the big problem, there was stuff going on that was (a) absolutely inscrutable (i.e., you as the player had zero insight into the decision-making used by the AI) and (b) horribly unrealistic. (For example, aiding the Afghan insurgents could very easily start World War III, despite the fact that it had been underway for several years. Indeed, it was ridiculously easy to start a nuclear exchange.)

    The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War was absolutely impossible to achieve.

    I tried the Storytron Balance of Power 2009. It’s even worse. As the US player (the only role possible), you have exactly zero useful moves.

    I am convinced that Balance of Power series reflects less any real sense of international relations and far more Chris Crawford’s political biases.