June 24, 2024

Pop nukes in Twilight: 2000 ~ Surviving Nuclear War Amongst Conspiracies

RockyMountainNavy, 6 June 2024

One of my favorite roleplaying games is Twilight: 2000. In the game, players are cast in the role of survivors in a post-nuclear holocaust world. T2K is what I term an “adventure wargame” which blends wargaming and roleplaying games. While I enjoy the blend of game mechanisms, the setting of T2K also appeals to the historian in me. Though some may look at the game setting as quaint alternate history, a closer study reveals the world building of T2K taps into several popular culture themes where, while the “history” of the game has changed since 1984, the campaign framework of survival, nuclear war, and conspiracy remains timeless.

Then and now

My first “encounter” with T2K was the 1984 first edition (see Chadwick, F. (1984) Twilight: 2000 – a role-playing game of survival in a devastated world. Game Designers’ Workshop.). The setting of T2K describes itself this way:

The year is 2000 AD. For five years the armies of the world have fought back and forth across and increasingly devastated planet. Chemical weapons, biological agents, tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, every horror from a technological cornucopia of destruction was used. And in the wake of war came famine and plague, until well over half the planet’s population had been carried away (T2K Play Manual, p. 2).

In 2021, Free League Publishing released Twilight: 2000 – Roleplaying in the World of War III That Never Was, 4th Edition (see Harenstam, T. (2021) Twilight: 2000 – Roleplaying in the World of War III That Never Was, 4th Edition. Free League Publishing.). Like the original Chadwick version, the default setting is grim:

TWILIGHT: 2000 is a roleplaying game about survival in mankind’s most desperate hour. In the year 2000 of a history that took a different turn from our own, the world is ravaged by war. (T2K4e Player’s Manual, p. 7)

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Photo by RMN



At heart, T2K—old or new—is a survival game. T2K4e lays out the theme early in the Player’s Manual in a section called “What Do You Do?”:


Your most immediate goal in TWILIGHT: 2000 is to survive. You will need to scrounge for food, ammunition and fuel for your vehicle from day one. You’re in hostile territory surrounded by enemy soldiers and marauders who will kill you on sight and take what’s yours. You need to keep moving, stay alert, and be prepared to fight for your life every day (T2K4e Player’s Manual, p. 8).

The T2K4e setting is slightly different from the way the original T2K marketed itself. The back of the GDW game box describes the game this way:


Twilight: 2000 is unique in the field of role-playing games. It’s set in a post-holocaust nuclear environment, but with modern soldiers thrown onto their own resources by the gradual breakdown of the command structure and civilization. Modern equipment is there, but very rare. Gasoline is almost non-existent, so units carry alcohol stills to make their own fuel. People remember what it was like before the war, but civilization is unraveling everywhere. The war goes on, but that’s the least of a character’s problems (T2K back of the box).

Not only is T2K a survival game, but also a military role-playing one at that. Making a military role-playing game, especially in 1984, was not as easy as it sounds. As Lawrence Schick wrote in the book Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books 1991):

Serious role-playing games are built around drama, and there is no situation more dramatic than that of a soldier in wartime, so you might think the military is a natural setting for role-playing. However, RPGs work best in anarchic situations—where the player characters are their own bosses—and, in the army, discipline and coordinated group action are the keys to success. To get around this, the most successful military RPGs have settings where small groups can act with a large degree of autonomy, on commando raids, during guerrilla warfare, or (most popular of all) after civilization has broken down due to holocaust or invasion.

The first attempt at military role-playing was Eric Goldberg’s Commando (SPI, 1979), which was primarily a board game of small-unit combat that had some role-playing features. The first version of The Morrow Project (Timeline, 1980) was also mainly a set of combat rules, but the designers were perceptive enough to set it in a post-holocaust future where the players could have freedom of action. This was also the case with Aftermath (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1981), a game of paramilitary survival after a nuclear war.

These were followed by Behind Enemy Lines (FASA, 1982), a World War II game; Recon (RPG Inc., 1982), set on the fringes of the Vietnam War; and Merc (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1983), which tried to capitalize on the brief public fascination with mercenary soldiers fighting in Third-World nations. None of these games met with sustained success. It looked as there might not really be a steady market for military RPGs until GDW released Frank Chadwick’s Twilight: 2000 in 1984. Once again the setting was after civilization was shattered by World War III, but this time background was more believable and worked out in great detail. (Schick)

How that nuclear war “happens” in both editions of T2K is perhaps best viewed through the lens of popular culture as seen from viewpoints in 2021 and 1984.


Nuclear War – The Free (League) way

The road to war in T2K4e is found in Chapter 1 “The World at War” in the Referee’s Manual. It briefly describes itself this way: “The timeline of alternate events given here is the one we suggest, presenting a clear and short path of alternate history from the Moscow Coup of 1991 to the outbreak of World War III” (T2K4e Referee’s Manual, p. 8). Given the fourth edition of T2K is written from the “future” of the game, it is not surprising that the setting uses a common alternative history approach of taking an event in the past and changing the outcome to set off a different thread of history. That said, the actual events Harenstam and team chose to use in the chronology of their alternate 1991 to 2000 leverages popular European-centric security worries—incidentally predating the 2022 start of the war in Ukraine—such as:

  • Baltic security: “At dawn on May 9, Soviet tanks thunder into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania…”
  • The role of Sweden in NATO – “In Moscow, the Kremlin draws the same conclusion, and now sees Sweden as a de facto NATO member and thus a hostile country.”
  • Renewed Middle East conflict – “Israel draws the conclusion that the US has abandoned them and that the country must rely on itself.”
  • Tactical nuclear warfare in Europe – “Fearing total defeat…[the Soviet Union] green lights the limited use of tactical nuclear strikes against NATO troop concentrations in Europe…” (T2K4e, pp. 6-8).


tsar bomba50
Notional “Tsar Bomba” against London (militaryinfo.com)


While all of these security concerns are legitimate, especially when one considers they come from a European perspective, the road to war in T2K4e nonetheless feels a bit contrived. The designers actually address that very concern with these words of advice:

As a Referee however, nothing stops you from creating your own alternate timeline for the game if you feel another timeline would be more plausible or useful for your needs. All you need in the end is a situation where NATO and Soviet forces have beaten each other bloody on the battlefield of Europe in the spring of the year 2000. Exactly how the world got to this point is not essential information for playing the game (T2K4e Referee’s Manual, p. 8).

While I agree that a detailed chronology is not essential to a game of Twilight: 2000, a good timeline is an important part of the world building for the setting that builds adventures. It also highlights an issue that historical, or in this case alternate-historical, settings have in that there is a certain degree of believability needed to draw players in.

Perhaps the best summation of the Harenstam version of nuclear war “history” is captured in the text describing the United States in the world of T2K4e: “For it was not the people that led American and the USSR to war, but those in charge who put ideology over reason” (T2K4e Referee’s Manual, p. 25). One could reasonably interpret that statement as throwing shade on U.S. and Soviet leaders in the 1980’s when the original background of Twilight: 2000 was developed. Here, the writers of T2K4e may be onto something because…


Nuclear War – Reagan’s way

…there is some historical basis for Harenstam’s shade. Military historian, West Point instructor, and U.S. Army officer Benjamin Griffin in the book Reagan’s War Stories: A Cold War Presidency writes:

Reagan’s rhetoric throughout the 1970s and actions early in his presidency convinced many that he not only accepted stability enforced by the threat of “mutually assured destruction” but might even be happy to push the nuclear button…It certainly did nothing to alleviate fears in many Americans that the President was leading them to war. Popular culture increasingly reflected this sense; films like Wargames in 1983 sought to show the futility of nuclear conflict and the real sense of one occurring” (Griffin, B. (2022) Reagan’s War Stories: A Cold War Presidency. Naval Institute Press. p. 110).

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Photo by RMN


In 1981, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) published what at that time was the largest release of declassified data in U.S. history. Soviet Military Power was publicly released ostensibly to inform the American people of the danger of the Soviet military build-up though others saw it as naked propaganda vice public diplomacy. After skipping publishing a 1982 edition, the series resumed in 1983 and continued through 1991. The Preface to the 1981 edition was plain spoken: “There is nothing hypothetical about the Soviet military machine. Its expansion, modernization, and contribution to the projection of power beyond Soviet boundaries are obvious” (Soviet Military Power 1981, p. 4).

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1981 Edition courtesy DIA


With the benefit of historical hindsight, we also see that policymakers of the day were increasingly concerned about all-out nuclear war:

In 1983, war between the United States and Soviet Union seemed perpetually imminent. Reagan’s “uncompromising idealogical offensive” left Soviet leaders deeply concerned that the United States was not just prepared for a fight but might actually provoke one. The double provocations in March—declaring the USSR an “Evil Empire” and announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative—created in Moscow an impression that the American president would go to any length to eliminate the USSR…The Soviets would not stand idly by and were preparing for the apocalypse. Over the summer, Andropov became increasingly convinced the United States was seeking to launch a first strike. The Politburo sent “urgent and detailed instructions” to KGB operatives in the United States to collect evidence of war preparation. This alert coincided with the deployment of Pershing II missile, which was ample evidence in itself.

The Soviets contributed to the tension as well. In September 1983 they scrambled fighters to intercept a plane that had intruded into their airspace…The destruction of Korean Airlines Flight 007 killed 269 people, including an American congressman. (Griffin, p. 124)

russia attack on korean flight 0071

In November 1983, Hollywood made their contribution to the tensions of the day:

A 1983 made-for-television movie, The Day After, may be the most famous example. It is a depressing movie of life in a small Kansas town following World War III. Critics saw it as, although “terrible” in terms of writing and acting, an “effective primer on the horror of thermonuclear war.” Many found it a “rallying cry” for the “nuclear freeze” movement; that possibility sufficiently worried the administration, which previewed the film, to request a “town hall” with [Secretary of State] George Schultz (Griffin, p. 111).

Jason Robards The Day After
Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards), nearing the end of his life and the end of The Day After. Many people likely dreaded to watch it and felt stressed out watching it, and yet, in 1983, there was so much buzz about the film, you couldn’t not view it. (thetvprofessor.com)


In Europe, military exercises in November 1983 also played into building tensions. The command-post exercise Able Archer saw the deployment of 16,000 troops to the continent and an increase in military readiness levels around the world. As Griffin relates: “Senior Soviet military leadership and the Politburo nonetheless viewed that year’s exercise as a “most dangerous” provocation, given its realism.” The Soviets increased their alert levels at Soviet air bases in Eastern Europe and at some missile sites (Griffin, p. 125).

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Photo by RMN


[Interlude – No War Scare?]

[A recent journal article by Douglas Selvage concludes that the “War Scare” of Able Archer 1983 is misunderstood. In the article “Comrade Kryuchkov’s “War Scare” (1983), or the Bureaucratic Origins of the “Able Archer” War-Scare Thesis” the author argues that the war scare was a product not of so much tensions but slow bureaucratic inertia:

Many historians argue that the world came to the brink of nuclear war during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Able Archer nuclear-release exercise in November 1983. This war-scare thesis originated with Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky, who made this assertion based on several telegrams that he had seen at the State Committee for Security (KGB) residency in London in 1983. The article contextualizes and analyzes the telegrams based on the statements of leading officers of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (FCD), responsible for foreign intelligence, to their Soviet-bloc colleagues in the years 1981 to 1983. Based on this analysis, the telegrams that Gordievsky cited had not “created a vicious spiral which was steadily and dangerously raising tension in Moscow,” as he later asserted. Instead, they reflected the bureaucratic strivings of the head of the FCD, Vladimir Kryuchkov, to finally develop an early-warning system against Western military attack, which he had narrowed down to potential nuclear-missile attack (Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie). (See Selvage, D. (2024). Comrade Kryuchkov’s “War Scare” (1983), or the Bureaucratic Origins of the “Able Archer” War-Scare Thesis. International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 0: 1–17.

In the year that followed Able Archer, Hollywood again weighed in with another film. The 1984 movie Red Dawn captures some of the fear of the time:

  • Col. Andy Tanner: The Russians need to take us in one piece, and that’s why they’re here. That’s why they won’t use nukes anymore; and we won’t either, not on our own soil. The whole damn thing’s pretty conventional now. Who knows? Maybe next week will be swords.
  • Darryl Bates: What started it?
  • Col. Andy Tanner: I don’t know. Two toughest kids on the block, I guess. Sooner or later, they’re gonna fight.
  • Jed Eckert: That simple, is it?
  • Col. Andy Tanner: Or maybe somebody just forget what it was like.
  • Jed Eckert: Well… who is on our side?
  • Col. Andy Tanner: Six hundred million screaming Chinamen.
  • Darryl Bates: Last I heard, there were a billion screaming Chinamen.
  • Col. Andy Tanner: There were…
  • [he throws whiskey on the campfire; it ignites violently, suggesting a nuclear explosion]

quote from IMDB


[Interlude – Where did the Chinese go?]

[Interestingly, the Red Dawn mention of China being on the U.S. side was also reflected in the original T2K setting. Both references were made in the years of good relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) following the visit of President Richard Nixon to Beijing in February 1972 and the recognition of the PRC by President Jimmy Carter in January 1979. Following that it indeed looked like our militaries could work together:

Sixty-five British aerospace companies exhibited and marketed in Shanghai during March-April 1980, which typified the aggressive sales campaigns being conducted by various Western governments inside China. January 1986 saw the first Chinese International Defence Industries Expo, which had forty-five U.S. and thirty-one French booths. The Asian Defence Technology Exposition (Asiandex) featured military exports in November 1986 (Bussert, J.C. and Bruce A. Ellen. (2011) People’s Liberation Army Navy: Combat Systems Technology, 1949-2010. Naval Institute Press. p. 12).

The Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989—after the publication of GDW’s T2K—changed everything. “However, after 1989 many of these military sales were cancelled” (Bussert, p. 14). Whereas the chronological background of T2K starts in 1995 with, “full-scale war erupted between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China” (T2K Referee’s Manual, p. 23) there is no mention of the PRC in the “history” of T2K4e as found in the T2K4e Referee’s Manual.]


On a more personal level, it was in 1984 that I came into possession of the book Warday by then-popular author Whitley Strieber (before he wrote of alien contacts) and James Kunetka. The book is a fictional first-person narrative of the two authors taking a trip across the United States five years after a 1988 nuclear war that lasted for 36 minutes. While I personally loathe Wikipedia, it has one of the better summaries of the war’s aftermath in the book that shows the fears of anti-nuclear advocates of the day:

Manhattan and the remaining undamaged boroughs are evacuated, cordoned off, and eventually fall into ruin, without water, electrical, or transit systems. Water in New Jersey is contaminated by runoff from damaged petrochemical industries. Philadelphia and Houston are evacuated because of heavy fallout from the D.C. and San Antonio bombings. Radioactive dusting of the Midwest and Central Plains causes a famine that kills millions. Less than a year after the war, a new strain of influenza known as the Cincinnati Flu quickly reached epidemic levels, killing 21 million throughout the United States and millions more worldwide. The remaining U.S. citizens remain in danger from radiation poisoning and from a new incurable disease of unknown origin, Non-Specific Sclerosing Disease.

Soon there is no longer a single United States; California and Texas form de facto independent nations, with autonomous military forces and currencies. The now-nearly-powerless federal government is re-established in Los Angeles. (Wikipedia)

The Players’ Guide to Twilight: 2000 (version 1.0) from the original publisher in 2006 provides some further insight into popular culture influences on the first edition:

The 1980’s were a time of apprehension. With the Soviet Union a super-power co-equal with the United States, the globe was locked in a Cold War (and had been since the end of World War II): neither side dared escalate their conflict behind minor border skirmishes and regional wars. Yet each side maintained massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons as deterrents to World War, and with the associated danger that they would someday use them.…

It was in this pervasive atmosphere of impending doom that Twilight: 2000 burst on the role-playing game scene at Thanksgiving November 26, 1984.…

Initially, Frank Chadwick’s design concepts envisioned extremes environments with features of Mel Gibson’s Mad Max and Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son. Unfortunately, such concepts were already common (and not especially successful) to the market place. The breakthrough came on a long drive back from Origins Game Convention (Dallas, 1983). In an overloaded rental van, Frank Chadwick, Loren Wiseman, Bill Keith [aka William H. Keith, Jr. who also writes under the pen name Ian Douglas], and Andrew Keith talked for hours about a modern military role-playing game which concentrated on equipment and realistic military situations, and by the end of the trip the concept for Twilight: 2000 was far enough along for specific design to begin in earnest (Players’ Guide to Twilight: 2000 (version 1.0), pp. 1,3).


Conspiracy disjointed

The final element of the campaign framework for Twilight: 2000 is a secret. Well, not so much a secret as a conspiracy. The original T2K in the mid-1980’s was written at a time when the image of the U.S. Intelligence Community was at an all-time low. As Griffin relates in Reagan’s War Stories:

As he entered office [1980], the intelligence community was still reeling from the Church Committee investigations starting in 1975. The committee uncovered wide-reaching abuses of power by the FBI, CIA, and NSA; its findings resulted in significant new oversight for the agencies…The shocking illegal actions, paired with a lackluster record of accomplishments, had left the agency [CIA] diminished in the eyes of Americans. Popular culture reflected this. Movies like All the President’s Men (1975) and books like Robert Ludlum’s 1980 The Bourne Identity showed an FBI and a CIA run by cynical, power-hungry men who routinely ordered illegal and immoral actions. (Griffin, p. 96).

It is also important to realize that the original T2K of 1984 was published two years before the Goldwater-Nichols Act which reorganized the military creating not only geographical and functional joint commands but also streamlining civilian control over the military:

Goldwater‐Nichols Act (1986).The Goldwater‐Nichols Department of Defense (DoD) Reorganization Act of 1986, sponsored by Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative Bill Nichols, was enacted primarily to improve the ability of U.S. armed forces to conduct joint (interservice) and combined (interallied) operations in the field, and secondarily to improve the DoD budget process. The act contained three major changes: it greatly strengthened the influence and staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman, compared to those of the service chiefs and military departments; it increased the authority and influence of the unified combatant commands that control U.S. forces in the United States and around the world; and it created a “joint officer specialization” within each service to improve the quality of officers assigned to the Joint Staff. (encyclopedia.com)

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Joint Chiefs of Staff: 1986.  Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff –– Joint Staff Pentagon Washington, D.C. 20318-9999.


The combination of distrust in the Intelligence Community and a military that was not (then) aligned under the President as it is today formed the basis of the split American polity in the original setting. In the future-history of the original T2K two rival governments form; CIVGOV led by the President Broward and Congress operating with the support of the CIA and MILGOV led by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Cummings supported by DIA which refuses to recognize the President. The Chronological Background for T2K goes so far as to state, “Although Cummings’ decision would later be widely criticized, there was much validity to his position.” The account continues:

While some military units sided with the new civilian government, the majority continued to take orders from the Joint Chiefs, particularly those overseas, for two simple reasons. First, the habit of obedience was deeply ingrained, and, in many cases, was all that allowed units to survive thus far. Second, the Joint Chiefs controlled virtually all surviving telecommunications networks…In North America, the main effect was a further erosion of central authority. Forced to choose between two rival governments, both with considerable flaws in their claims to legitimacy, many localities simply chose to ignore both. (T2K Referee’s Manual, p. 27).

The 2021 T2K4e keeps the same military-civilian split but the Referee’s Manual is much more nebulous as to the how and why of the split:

The United States did not suffer the mass conventional battles of Europe yet it’s decent into chaos and deprivation was only slightly slower, coming from nuclear strikes and the breakdown of society. The old system of democratic rule fractured along two primary lines of government—an emergency military junta, and the original civilian government. The vast majority of Americans fall under the aegis of neither. Instead, vast stretches of this huge country are under control be it from former elected authorities, militias, communal-based councils, and other, darker experiments in applied “democracy.” (T2K4e Referee’s Manual, p. 25).

Jericho TV series (2006) courtesy netflix.com


Back to the (never) past

Writing a believable “historical” RPG setting is not an easy exercise. The writers of the original T2K in 1984 had a bit of an easier job as they only needed to “predict” a somewhat plausible future. The writers of T2K4e took on a more difficult job, that of writing an alternate history backstory. The Designer’s Notes for T2K4e talk to some of the difficulties:

When writing the new alternate backstory for the game, the goal was a short and concise timeline with a distinct Cold War feel, that had a clear point of diversion from actual history, and would lead to a situation in Northern Europe in the year 2000 well suited to the gameplay we wanted (and close to what the 1st edition depicted). We did not aim to write a detailed timeline with the highest possible level of realism (whatever that might be) covering the entire globe. That was simply not a design goal.

However, after having released the Alpha PDF document to our Kickstarter backers, we quickly realized that the backstory timeline was a hot topic among parts of the community, and we received lots of feedback on it. While staying true to our design goal, we have made a number of significant changes to the timeline based on insightful feedback. We have also moved the timeline from the Player’s Manual to the Referee’s Manual, so that you as a referee can modify the timeline after your own taste without contradicting anything in the Player’s Manual. (T2K4e Referee’s Manual, p. 111).

While not every Twilight: 2000 player might agree on the “history,” by sticking to a campaign framework built around survival, nuclear war, and conspiracy the essential RPG setting of the T2K universe stands strong even across multiple editions spanning nearly forty years. The “believability” of the setting of each is further strengthened by drawing from popular culture which many players can relate to. We can argue the details, but there should be no disagreement on the board pillars of the setting. For both players and GM’s the charge is simple:

“Good luck. You’re on your own now.”


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4 thoughts on “Pop nukes in Twilight: 2000 ~ Surviving Nuclear War Amongst Conspiracies

    1. Agree. I think I wrote this piece in part to show just how the current setting, while inspired by the original GDW version, is very different perhaps in ways that don’t totally work.

      1. The problem with the GDW version is that it is stuck in the past. Even using the Gorbachev Coup Point of Departure it was written in the mid 90s. It’s speculative fiction, regardless that its POD (of version 2\.2) is in the past. So it aged like milk left on a hot porch. Understandable. Warfare itself had displayed drastic changes (still felt today) in the wake of 9/11. All those technologies would have been available in 1998. We’ve moved one step beyond now (in 2024). So that war, if it happened wouldn’t be a 1984 vision of a Fulda gap. It would be different. As you and I discussed, we haven’t even discussed second-order effects in the Balkans, Chechnya, etc. due to the Soviet Union surviving as a POD.

        But my issue isn’t with GDW. They did their best to speculate about a near future (kind of combined with an Alternate History in version 2.2). My problem is that Free League, with the benefit of 24 years of hindsight for the setting, managed to do almost no fact checking or hire any political/military consultants who knew what they were talking about, to the point of having organizations that *currently exist in 2020* (the date of publication) that COULDN’T have existed in 1998-2000. To wit; they did a bad, slapdash job. And then they compound it with the ultimate TTRPG designer/publisher cop out by saying “you could write your own.” I mean, I could design my own game, but that’s not why I BUY a game.

        Anyhow, great article, RMN.

  1. I remember browsing through Soviet Military Power back in the day. Serious stuff back then.

    The only Twilight 2000 timeline for me is the original 1.0, fully meshed with the Cold War.

    The later timelines that followed (various incarnations of “Berlin Wall Falls – Just Kidddding!!”) with all the Pact countries suddenly falling back into line, never made a lick of sense. Likewise with the 4e timeline, which is serviceable only if you don’t look too closely.

    Using the original timeline, and simply adding an alt-history divergence point around 1985, not only maintains the original feel of the game background, but offers some fascinating possibilities. Now you have the decade 1985 to 1995 that veers away from the real world, with all the political and technological effects that implies.

    You want LAV-75s in your game? No problem, easily explained as there is no post-Cold War Peace Dividend. Ditto for G11s and advanced combat rifles.

    I have my thoughts written up here: https://polandcampaign.com/2018/11/16/i-blame-this-man-grigory-romanov/

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