Global geopolitical simulators have a pretty spotty history as strategy games. Chris Crawford's effort in 1985 with Balance of Power was notable for both its ambition and its sterility as a game. 1993's Shadow President from D.C. True was more detailed and a better game, but it still suffered from basic playability issues. While it follows squarely in the tradition of the aforementioned games, DreamCatcher Interactive's SuperPower allows you to actually watch the missile trails and points of impact when there is a thermonuclear war, which is something the preceding two games didn't offer. Unfortunately, that's about the only thing it has going for it.
SuperPower bills itself as both a wargame and a geopolitical simulator. The manual makes much of the fact that the data in the game is as accurate as possible. The game doesn't lack for ambition--it allows you to take control of any one of 140 nations in the year 1997 and make decisions regarding its political, military, and socioeconomic development. To do this, you allocate funds in four areas--demography, politics, military, and economy--and make decisions on weapons development and perform espionage and covert operations. On the surface, it seems like there are an overwhelming number of options. Extensive play, however, reveals that the game is not as deep as it seems.
SuperPower is played in one-week turns. During each turn, you can allocate your funds, purchase or sell resources (energy, ore, cereal, meat, and wealth), raise or lower taxes, direct weapons research, and make requests of foreign governments. You can, of course, also invade other countries. You don't represent a specific leader or political party, so there are no elections to worry about if you're a democracy. Your government stability actually refers to the stability of the system itself, so if a democracy falls, the country is thrown into anarchy. If the country in question is the one you're playing, the game ends.
There are no difficulty levels in the game, as your chosen objectives determine how hard it will be to win. Objectives can be stay in power, balance resources, eliminate armed rebels, and conquer the world. Only staying in power is mandatory, although you can add any or all of the other three. Obviously, conquering the world will be harder as Albania than as the United States, so you can adjust your level of difficulty that way. Norway has no armed rebels, so eliminating them is fairly easy. And so on.
Each action you take in SuperPower has numerous effects. For example, raising industrial taxes increases your available money, but lowers your production capacity, resources, urbanization level, and population support. Buying ore from another nation increases your production, population support, government stability, and urbanization level, and it improves your relations with the country you bought the ore from. It also costs you money.
Notable by its absence is any kind of simulation of world financial markets, and some of the game's apparent assumptions about the importance of corporations and their influence feel quite dated. There are also some amusing socialist biases built into the game mechanics, such as the fact that donating to an international monetary fund automatically increases your population support, while lowering a country's contribution lowers it.
As a real-world simulator, the game falls completely flat. In one game we played as Finland, we invaded Sweden on the first turn (January 1, 1997) and conquered that country easily. For the rest of the game, Sweden was run as a conquered nation, with hardly a peep from the world at large (except Belgium, which broke off relations). While public support for the Finnish government dropped, it dropped more when Finnish taxes were raised by 10 percent. A few months later, a global war broke out when Vietnam invaded Mexico.
The game comes with several scenarios, one of which gives you (as the United Kingdom) the task of destabilizing the Polish government because of a trade dispute. After invading Warsaw and being repulsed, the UK was invaded by Bulgaria. And Belgium as well, which seems to act as sort of a global policeman. Shortly thereafter, Russia invaded Japan, and France invaded Germany. It seems pretty clear that there are some problems with the way the game handles alliances.
While these may have been extreme examples brought on by unusual events, playing in a more conservative fashion yields equally bizarre results. In one game as Iraq, we ramped up Iraqi weapons research, tried to keep a low diplomatic profile, and worked to covertly destabilize neighboring governments, just as in real life. After several months of apparently normal world events, Bangladesh was invaded. By Austria.
This could all be excused if SuperPower worked well as a traditional global conquest game, with the added veneer of realism provided by being able to sign cultural exchange agreements with Ghana. Unfortunately, it doesn't. Approximately 60 percent of the game involves simply hitting the "Next Turn" button, because once your country is running smoothly and your research decisions are made, there just isn't that much to do. The simpleminded combat ensures that global conquest will either be sterile or tedious, which in turn guarantees that SuperPower isn't compelling as an empire-building game. Much of the game seems geared toward military conflict. The weapon research options are extremely detailed, with no fewer than nine separate areas available for research in a single system like the main battle tank, including separate ratings for armor protection again conventional and NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) weapons, sensor ratings, weapon damage, range, precision ratings, engine speed, training level, and communications. There is even a generation level for weapon systems, reflecting an overall development of newer and better types. You can also purchase and sell military technology. The manual does a good job of describing the strengths and weaknesses of each type of unit, but less so with the actual effects of the different research components. Still, this could easily be picked up through experience once units are in combat. You would think so, anyway.
The actual combat system is severely flawed. While the game boasts that it has the most comprehensive weapons database seen in a computer game, consisting of more than 1,400 unique systems, the way these weapons are actually used in combat is laughable. Strategic movement is automatic, without any regard for whether the country in question can even get its units to that particular region. This allows even small Third World nations with no significant navy or air force to conduct massive transoceanic invasions. The operational system has been abstracted heavily so that movement is simply point-to-point, from anywhere in the world to anywhere else. To conquer a nation you only need to control the map point that is its capital (no matter how many cities or bases it has), making it pointless to do anything but simply send your forces from wherever they are straight to that map point.
The tactical engine is equally flawed. While the military manifest conveniently lists your forces by unit type, these categories carry over into tactical combat, so you'll find your units deployed on the battlefield as 70 Challengers, 11,000 infantry, nine Harriers, and so on. No provision is made for actual military formations (such as armored brigades), let alone command and control of these formations. You can group units together, split them up, and give orders to move and engage, but these mechanisms are so cumbersome (due to the interface) and so nonsensical (due to being divorced from reality) that it's much easier (and probably more "realistic") to let the game auto-resolve all combat instead of using the pauseable real-time system. This, in turn, makes the fact that combat is resolved on a supposedly accurate satellite map of the actual terrain completely irrelevant. Which is no loss, since the terrain seems to have little effect and is arbitrarily chosen due to the abstraction of the point-to-point movement system.
There are a number of interface issues that make SuperPower even more problematic--the lack of hotkeys being a notable one--but with all the game's other problems, it's not worth going through them in detail. Something as simple as selling multiple commodities to different nations requires far more mouse clicks than necessary, and the combat interface is nearly hopeless. To top it all off, the game has some severe technical issues--we experienced frequent crashes to the desktop on two different test machines running different operating systems. As a sort of warning about the game's poor QA, two of the five tutorials have replicable terminal bugs that prevent you from completing them, forcing you to return to the game's main menu screen. SuperPower's graphics are functional, but no more, and the game actually encourages you to replace the rudimentary music with your own MP3s by integrating an MP3 player into the interface.
SuperPower will please neither hard-core wargamers nor those just looking for an enjoyable way to conquer the world. It's an idea that has been tried before and done better, and for gamers who really want to play a geopolitical simulator, it would be worth the effort to track down a copy of Shadow President and a machine that can run it reliably in MS-DOS and play that instead. The only drawback there is that you won't see the missiles.