Paradox, I'm beginning to take it personally. Ever since the ruthless cancellation of East vs West (opens in new tab) in 2014, the grand strategy studio has had a hole in its catalogue to match the one in my heart. From Imperator through Stellaris, you can cover almost the whole sweep of human history in Paradox's games (presuming you assume we'll actually make it to space and also that, prior to the founding of Rome, dinosaurs ruled the Earth), but the Cold War—a fascinating era, my era, one I've spent years of my life studying—has been left out in the, uh, cold.
It makes no sense. It makes so little sense that, naif that I am, I've been convinced that Paradox is on the brink of announcing a Cold War game at pretty much every event it's held since East vs West died, including yesterday's. But here we are: CK3 got some kind of horse party DLC (opens in new tab), EU4 continues to sprawl inadvisably, Cities: Skylines 2 (opens in new tab) will continue the first game's proud tradition of letting players accidentally place sewage outlets upstream of the local water supply, and yet the years 1949 to 1991 remain a big blank spot in the modern Paradox library.
It's perplexing, at least to me. The Cold War seems perfectly suited to the studio's blend of war, diplomacy, and espionage. And while there are plenty of strategy games out there that situate themselves in the defining conflict of the 20th century—Twilight Struggle (opens in new tab) chief among them—they're all a bit too stiff. None of them carry quite the same weird, unpredictable and systems-heavy alt-history charm that the best Paradox games do. And if I can't finagle my way into a situation where Chiang Kai-shek somehow ends up in charge of a communist NATO, I just don't see the point.
The Cold War's absence from Paradox's line-up is all the more glaring since, like I said earlier, it once had one in the pipeline. East vs West was a Hearts of Iron spin-off developed by BL-Logic, who made the well-regarded Arsenal of Democracy based on Hearts of Iron 2, and published by Paradox itself. There are still preview videos (opens in new tab) for it up over on the company's YouTube channel.
It made all the right noises in its pre-release press materials: Your task was to navigate a world defined by the ever-looming threat of total nuclear annihilation. As a superpower, you wanted to kill your enemy by pinpricks, through means both subtle and overt, without pushing them over the edge into hitting the big red button. As a smaller country, you wanted to avoid being crushed underfoot, and maybe even win yourself a seat at the table with the big kids if you played your limited cards right.
Espionage was represented by a card game, letting you get up to all sorts of dark arts to further the cause of capitalist democracy/the international proletariat, and your population—BL-Logic boasted (opens in new tab)—was tracked down to an individual level. All the while, the Doomsday Clock ticked away interminably in the background.
I've never really cared too much about the military nitty-gritty of grand strategy games. I'm here to set up alt-histories and play them out: A Jewish Africa in CK3, a Basque-dominated Spain in EU4, putting Trotsky in charge of the USSR in HOI4. It might just be because I know more about it than other epochs, but the Cold War offers more scope for that kind of thing than any other era. Worlds where the Sino-Soviet Split never happened, where Kennedy rode through Dallas with the roof up, where Khrushchev baulked at sending tanks into Hungary or where Gorbachev didn't at sending them into East Germany.
It sounds fascinating, right? Tell me that doesn't sound fascinating. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why Paradox still hasn't plugged the yawning gap in its output. I don't mean to suggest the studio would inevitably knock it out of the park—a stroll through the Steam reviews of EU4's more recent DLC or Imperator will tell you it's more than capable of making mistakes—but the Cold War seems like such a fertile ground for Paradox's whole deal that I'm increasingly baffled by its refusal to shoot its shot.
Perhaps the reason is East vs West itself, which eventually disintegrated when everyone involved realised they had no hope in hell of meeting anything even resembling their planned deadlines. The bones of that project, obviously, still feel exciting to me ten years later, but I have to wonder if Paradox is once-bitten, twice-shy at this point.
The Cold War, after all, was complex. A sprawling thornbush of geopolitical rivalries, alliances, military entanglements and proxy wars, built atop an international economic and financial order that made the trade wars of the 19th century seem as straightforward and parseable as a back-alley mugging. Attempting to capture that, to boil it down into a set of gameplay mechanics that still manage to capture something essential about the whole period, has already failed once. Plus, even though BL-Logic did eventually manage to produce a game set in the era—2020's Terminal Conflict (opens in new tab)—it wasn't well-received.
If that's the case, I hope the studio gets over it. Selfishly, I am absolutely desperate to play with my little tin soldiers of the 20th century, and I am tired of being bamboozled (admittedly, by myself more than anyone else) every time Paradox teases a new game announcement. But I also think the Cold War, by virtue of the same complexity that makes it a daunting challenge to take on, could give the studio a chance to tie together every lesson it's learned over the course of the many games it's worked on. I reckon it's time to push the button.