Cataclysm Is a Giant “What If?”
Every time an undergrad asks What if?, a history professor gets her tenure. Yet there’s an undeniable appeal to that question. What if Hitler had been shrewder about invading Russia? What if the United States had gone all-in on the Pacific rather than entering the European Theater? What if both Axis and Allied powers had teamed up to battle aliens? There’s no way to know, man.
Other than that last one, those are the questions at the heart of Cataclysm: A Second World War, Scott Muldoon and William Terdoslavich’s take on the devastating twentieth-century conflict. And they’re also the questions that arise approximately every two minutes while playing.
Before we dive into what makes Cataclysm so compelling, it’s important to establish what it isn’t.
Unlike other hypothetical approaches to WW2, in particular the estimable Triumph & Tragedy, Cataclysm isn’t about combat — which may sound strange for a game about prosecuting a world war. Of course there are armies, and tanks and planes and boats of varying effectiveness, and concerns like positioning and supply and terrain. These are all present and accounted for. But rather than being the highlight of the game, they occur well beneath your level of command. Sure, you’ll order an offensive, and ensure that there are enough troops, planes, and preparations to give your boys on the ground a fighting chance. But when the bullets and shells start flying, your involvement is finished. The dice are rolled, with things like air and armor superiority possibly modifying the result, and then you lay claim to the consequences, whether success, defeat, or total disaster. The orders and outcome are your sandwich bread; everything in between is somebody else’s lunch meat to worry about.
It’s reminiscent of a scene from last year’s Darkest Hour, where Winston Churchill is flummoxed that the French haven’t begun a counterattack against Hitler’s onslaught through the Low Countries. They’re routing and he can’t believe it. What do you mean one of the world’s mightiest armies, backed by one of the mightiest navies, has collapsed? It’s a calamity of such epic proportions that it might be comical if it didn’t mean the rest of Europe might soon be goose-stepping to the tune of the Westerwaldlied.
Those moments of panic — along with their counterpoint, the dizzying thrill of an unexpected triumph — punctuate Cataclysm like raking machinegun fire. But the real focus is on how you cope with them.
Meet the action cup. This is the source of every bit as much consternation as Cataclysm’s bird’s-eye battles, yet also happens to be the concave heart of every perfectly-timed offensive or devastating delay.
Some background. The war in Cataclysm takes many forms, ranging from a limited European Theater all the way to the full scope of the war, with nearly the entire world embroiled in the conflict. Three competing ideologies enter the fray: the Fascists (Germany, Italy, and Japan) staring down Democracy (France, England, and the United States) glaring at the Communists (represented solely by the USSR). But rather than cramming everybody into their historical alignments, most scenarios — including the ten-hour grand campaign — begin in 1933. War looms inevitable, but its shape and form have yet to be solidified. There are armies to raise, satellite states to annex, civil wars to bully, publics to indoctrinate, and a whole lot of toes to step on before the battle lines are drawn. Maybe Fascism will tiptoe around total war rather than barging into it, or perhaps the French will craft themselves into an impenetrable bunker state. Maybe everyone will ally against Communism. At the outset, nobody knows.
And it all comes down to that action cup. Or at least never quite escapes its orbit.
Here’s the deal. Each round, everything is poured into the cup. Military offensives, political actions, the home front, all those armies and tech upgrades you hope to roll out as soon as possible — all except for one piece held in reserve for more timely deployment. From there, every turn is about pulling something from the cup and letting its owner choose how to deploy it.
This cup is more than merely important. It’s the game. Sometimes you’ll have all your armies ready before anyone else; other times a crucial battle fleet will be delayed, delayed, and delayed again. Sometimes you’ll be hampered by a rioting public right in the middle of an unpopular war. Sometimes you’ll have a half-dozen military offensives go by before you’re ready to launch any actual offensives.
But the beauty of this system is that it forces you to make sub-optimal decisions based on oppressively incomplete information. Why not wait to invade Russia? Well, because it’s obvious that they’re mobilizing for war, so it’s either you attack now while you have the numerical advantage, or risk watching them grow steadily more powerful with each dip into the cup. Why annex a country when it would anger your rivals? Well, when else should you have done it? The pretense for invasion presented itself now, not later.
This isn’t to say your fate is entirely capricious. Not at all. Instead, Cataclysm’s battles and action cup are thick with uncertainty in order to emphasize that your ideology’s success is about more than bullets. It’s also about politics and timing.
Let’s start with politics. At first glance, the record display and nation boards aren’t as gripping as maps of Europe or the Pacific. They’re grids scrawled with minuscule script, perfectly at home on an accountant’s desktop. They also happen to be where much of the game’s action takes place. As nations progress through uncertain peacetime and into less-certain war, they’re preoccupied with more than military matters. For one thing, civilian life isn’t likely to weather the coming conflict, so a shrewd leader will gradually nudge his people into embracing rearmament, then mobilization, and eventually total war. But the more committed your government becomes, the less sturdy your home front. It isn’t possible to keep your citizens perpetually happy when year after year of an infinite conflict are crawling past. Mobilize too early, linger at war too long, leave your populace too restless, and you’re liable to exhaust your economy and morale.
This is where timing becomes crucial. A surprise attack by the Fascists on France might leave them prematurely crippled and unable to keep up the recruitment race. Or worse, a carefully-enacted Fascist triumph could send the entire French government into a tailspin, resulting in collapse and total surrender. Just like that, the Vichy state has been formed, and without a single “special” rule dictating that France is prone to producing Pétains.
There are other possibilities, like Japan mobilizing too early and finding themselves exhausted long before they can glance suspiciously at Pearl Harbor, or the U.S. losing interest in the war before it’s even begun, or Britain falling to shambles because of defeats away from home. Then again, maybe everyone will acquire a taste for bloodletting and push the conflict well into the 1950s. Like the rest of Cataclysm, these options rely on a host of interconnected rules, a marriage between politics and military as bound in heaven as it is unholy.
This is a lot to absorb, though it’s also hard to imagine how such an ambitious undertaking could have been writ any simpler. As is the case with many sandbox simulations, the issue isn’t so much the rules as what to do with them. First-time players are likely to find themselves staring at the list of potential political actions, wondering at the value of lending aid to a civil war, whether the penalties for invading a nation within a rival’s sphere of influence are worth the trouble, or what the hell is happening in China — let alone whether they should shore up their stability, increase their government’s commitment to war, or compel a friendly power to join the fight. In that sense, Cataclysm achieves an additional, if occasionally frustrating, level of verisimilitude. The destination is clear, but the path is murky.
Thankfully, this tapestry of rules is at least logical, allowing players to steer their nations despite the uncertainties of battle outcomes and production deadlines. Every so often something leaps from the table as unaccountably wonky, such as France’s low efficiency making it strangely difficult for them to make nice with Britain, or the fiddly lines of communication, supply-hindering submarines, and naval base ranges of the Pacific. But for the most part the action cup parcels out decisions that are just bite-sized enough that you won’t choke on them. Just make sure you try your hand at the introductory scenarios first.
The price of this complexity is a certain degree of finickiness, which is further amplified by the game’s frustrating — albeit necessary — sense of doubt. This keeps Cataclsym a few steps short of perfection, while also providing ample reason to return for another try, and another, and another. It’s an uneven experience in that regard, both galling and illuminating, especially when playing as a nation without as much to contribute to the course of the conflict. It’s little surprise that it plays best with three, and even then the USSR can feel like the little man at the table.
Despite these reservations, Cataclysm makes good on nearly all of its ambitions, presenting a dozen hypothetical versions of the Second World War that are all plausible in their own right. Every pull from the action cup represents its own What if? scenario, every battle is heavy with the possibility of triumph or disaster, and every coup, speech, and mobilization has the potential to save or doom the world.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Much like Cataclysm, I draw things from a cup. Usually raffle winners!)