With all the news about the Iran deal lately, it seemed like a good idea to revisit a game I played a while ago called Cheater’s Risk.
Cheater’s Risk is an online game based on the book Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty. It puts you in a world in which nuclear weapons have been eliminated, and tasks you with secretly creating your own nuclear arsenal in order to attain absolute nuclear superiority. Its based on how we verify nuclear weapons treaties and the elimination of weapons and projects.
It’s clearly meant to be more educational than entertaining. Cutscenes provide information about the dangers of thermonuclear weapons, aspects of the creation of thermonuclear weapons, and the feasibility of the elimination of thermonuclear weapons. The Stimson Center, which has created this game, has conducted a lot of research into the possibility of complete worldwide nuclear disarmament, and they provide their information readily to anyone interested.
The Stimson Center wanted to show that a rogue state that wanted to develop nuclear weapons in secret would have an extremely difficult time of it. They inform you at each step how they calculate your risk of detection. I think it’s an interesting way of educating those who fear, or pretend to fear, that Iran can easily develop nuclear weapons in secret.
For obvious reasons, I decided to play as Iran for this play through. My first choice was whether I wanted to build a uranium-based or plutonium-based weapon. You can either make it yourself, or just steal it from others. I decide to try the Plutonium Path, as a compromise between Uranium processing and theft in terms of ease and danger.
Since I need to create my own plutonium, I need a reactor. My next choice is what sort of reactor to use. I go with a light water research reactor. It’s less risky with regard to detection than some of the other reactors, and I won’t need to try to obtain any heavy water. Additionally, I choose to divert existing fuel from international safeguards. Next, I decide to build an advanced reprocessing facility. I don’t want emissions detected, especially since none of my neighbors would be especially happy to learn I’m building thermonuclear weapons.
When given to choice on whether to important my plutonium reprocessing technology or make my own, I choose to develop it. Importing is riskier, and I’m not especially worried about technological difficulties.
I can either try to process my plutonium rapidly or slowly. The odds of detection are 85% vs 3%, so yeah, I’m going for slow. Like I said, none of my neighbors would want me to have weapons, and those odds are terrible. It’ll take about two months, versus the one week of fast processing, but I’m not in a rush to have complete and total nuclear domination. I’d rather attempt to go undetected.
Once I’ve made my choice, I get to pick the odds. I’ve presenting with a grid of squares, one of which I have to choose. If I pick the wrong one, my nuclear weapons program is detected. I’m also given the choice to abandon my pursuit of nuclear weapons entirely, but that is a weenie choice for weenies, so I’m going for it!
Success! Detection evaded! I’ve got my plutonium. Now I have to work on the warhead design. Again, I can import a design or develop it myself, but why risk importing anything?
I have to say, I like the way the game handles the odds. It makes it feel much more fair. A lot of times, a game just tells you whether or not you got caught, and sometimes the alleged odds seem imbalanced. Here, though, by picking the square yourself, it’s all on you.
My next choice is whether or not to test my weapon. Well, I have to make sure it works, don’t I? Unfortunately, nuclear weapons tests are very hard to hide, and my odds of detection are at 98%. I can’t beat those odds, and I get caught. Luckily, the game lets me play on, anyway.
Had I not been caught, I’d have about 10-50 nuclear weapons. An impressive arsenal, and about 10% of Israel’s nuclear weapon stockpile.
The game makes it clear that, even with thermonuclear weapons, though, I’m still far from invulnerable. The world is likely to turn against me now, and unless I’m willing to shoot through me to get the other guy, I don’t have many realistic options. Now that I’ve broken the precedent, everyone else will feel free to reestablish their own thermonuclear arsenals. The USA can have nuclear weapons again in a few weeks.
It’s not much of a game, but it’s not really intended to be. It’s more of a lesson that has active input. This requires you to put in more thought, and pay more attention to the instructive cutscenes. I think it is a good education tool, especially since it does have a goal and the possibility of competition, perhaps making it more interesting than passive lessons for schoolchildren. If you’re an instructor teaching lessons on how thermonuclear weapons or nuclear disarmament work, I recommend using Cheater’s Risk as a tool for your class.