Welcome back to the fifth installment in my series on board games about the Cold War! Today, our game will be 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games). As usual, we’ll look at it in both game and academic terms.
What kind of Cold War is this game?
13 Days deals with the fateful time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962. Two players take the roles of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev to guide their super powers through intense negotiations and improve their prestige by resolving agendas in their own favor. While tough stances will lead to success in the bargaining, they will also escalate the crisis further and threaten to start a nuclear war.
What’s Noteworthy About the Game?
The game is most remarkable among the Cold War board games for its uncommon approach to counter-factuals and, as befits a game about a nuclear crisis, its thorough exploration of brinkmanship.
History-as-it-was is never exactly repeated in historical board games. The events might or might not happen in a given game, and if they do, maybe they happen at a different point in time or in a different country or with more or less success. However, most board game designers shy away from including specific counter-factual events in their game – maybe from fear of sliding away from history and into speculation, and maybe just because hypothetical events and measure vastly outnumber factual ones. The smaller a game is in scope, however, the more manageable it becomes to integrate these counter-factuals. 13 Days does this in regard to the American options toward Cuba: Historically, the United States placed Cuba under “quarantine” (effectively a blockade without using that term) to prevent any further shipping of Soviet missile parts, other weapon systems, or troops to operate them to Cuba. However, there had been alternative plans. The boldest of them, proposed by the military hardliners at the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (or ExComm for short), called for a full-scale US invasion of Cuba. Another one aimed at taking out the Soviet missiles via air strikes. These three plans – quarantine, invasion, air strikes – are at the disposal of the player in 13 Days.
Nuclear weapons were a new feature of the Cold War, and the early years of it were characterized not only by immense increases of their delivery range and destructive power, but also by immense theorizing how they were best used as a bargaining tool and a threat. In the words of Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.“ Colloquially, this attempt to go to the brink without falling over came to be known as “brinkmanship“, and it’s the way to go in 13 Days. When you strongly commit to one of the agendas, you will raise the level of nuclear tensions. Keeping them just under the level when your head of state will become nervous and hit that big red button is the ideal outcome for you. However, the selection of agendas and the actions of your opponent can unexpectedly raise tensions, so you might want to be a bit more careful than that – but maybe that’s just a feint by your opponent? 13 Days will really get into your head like that. And, when both of you are too reckless, there is also the chance of mutual defeat because both powers resort to nuclear war. This has happened in my plays of 13 Days, and it was a very sobering experience for both players who’d felt before that they had this nuclear crisis thing pretty much under control. For that alone, 13 Days deserves your attention.
Among the Cold War board games, I bestow on it the title of The Tensest.