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The Tsar Bomba, King of Bombs

It took our team nearly 2 years to finish designing Proliferation: The Game of Nuclear Strategy. Since the inspiration behind the game was world politics and nuclear armament, we wanted to make the game as realistic as possible, jampacking it full of facts and subtle nods to real historical events. In the process, our team members became versed on the complex, terrifying, and often incredible history of nuclear proliferation across the world.

Countless hours of research was required to get Proliferation to the place it is today. And since we still have all these facts swirling around in our heads, we thought we would share some of the most surprising ones we discovered while designing your future favorite tabletop game.

With that being said, it’s time to talk about the Tsar Bomba.

FACT: The Tsar Bomba nuclear test resulted in the largest man-made explosion of all time.

The 27-metric-ton thermonuclear weapon detonated by Russia on October 30, 1961, was 1,570 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and represented the culmination of over a decade of brinksmanship between the former Soviet Union and the United States. Its blast measured in at 50 megatons, producing a mushroom cloud 42 miles high and 60 miles across. The explosion was 25% as powerful as the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, causing windows to shatter on houses located up to 560 miles away. 3rd degree burns were possible for up to 62 miles from the blast site.

The Tsar Bomba was to be dropped at 34,000 feet and explode at 13,000, attached to a heavy, slow-falling parachute, especially to make sure the aircraft dropping the weapon had time to escape the damage. Even with this precaution, once the bomb detonated, the aircraft originally carrying it dropped a half mile out of the sky before regaining control.

The sheer power of the Tsar Bomba is nearly impossible for a human being to imagine. For example, the white-hot flash that signaled the bomb’s detonation lasted a full minute, a sight that could probably only be compared to the heaven or hell described in religious scripture. The Russian town of Severny, located some 34 miles away from the blast, was completely leveled. Finally, the bomb had an impressive seismic magnitude of about 5.25, meaning the explosion even created its own sizable earthquake!

FACT: The next scale of nuclear weapons test would have ripped a gigantic hole into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Tsar Bomba explosion was measured in the megatons, each of its 50 units signaling one million tons of TNT detonating at once. However, this explosion was definitely not the most powerful one that could be planned or imagined by mankind; there were plenty of plans for gigaton weapons tests, scaling the might of the Tsar Bomba by a factor of one thousand. And while a gigaton weapon was never produced, both the USA and Russia had official plans for one.

The mushroom cloud produced by the Tsar Bomba reached over 40 miles high, ascending past the stratosphere at some parts. While nuclear bombs do not scale well at such extreme ranges, rendering a blast unpredictable in nature, a gigaton weapons test would have literally ripped a gigantic hole in the Earth’s atmosphere, trumping any man-made damages to the planet by many multiples.

Life on Earth would have been irrevocably altered forever.

With the built-in unpredictability of scales inherent in larger nuclear tests, was the Tsar Bomba one of humanity’s closest calls to creating a manmade mass extinction event? And why would we do something like this in the first place?

FACT: The Tsar Bomba explosion was more of a political move than a true weapons test.

As already stated, nuclear explosions at such a high yield are unpredictable in nature, and do not scale linearly. The Tsar Bomba did not produce an explosion twice the size of a bomb half its size: It produced far less than that, meaning that two half-sized Tsar Bombas would be more deadly than a single, full-sized one.

In other words, the Tsar Bomba, though deadlier than any other weapon created, was highly impractical.

The Tsar Bomba explosion was, instead, a moment of political posturing by Russia, ending a moratorium of weapons testing held between them and the United States for nearly half a decade. The leader of Russia at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, reportedly exclaimed, “let the 100-megaton bomb hang over the capitalists like a sword of Damocles!” when presented with the idea of such a large nuclear test. The bomb would close some of the perceived gap by Russia in the Cold War with the United States, and create a new round of brinksmanship the likes of which the world had not yet seen.

At the time of the Tsar Bomba test, Russia was unable to actually produce a delivery system for its nuclear weapons that could reach the mainland United States. The Tsar Bomba was delivered by aircraft, unable to fit on a ballistic missile, and would almost surely be intercepted by the USA in the case of an actual attack. This meant that the Tsar Bomba had to act as a different kind of deterrent entirely, giving Russia a leg up in the newly emerging frontier of massive weapons.

A little known fact about the development of the most powerful weapon in history is that some of the scientists on the team that created it meant for it to be the last test ever. Well aware of the sheer destructiveness of megaton-yield weapons, the scientists were hoping that the terror-inducing political display would deter any nation from testing ever again.

And that, unfortunately, proved to be completely false.

FACT: The United States did not see the Tsar Bomba as a political move.

President John F. Kennedy of the United States immediately denounced the weapons test after receiving news of the detonation, calling it international “terrorism” and “blackmail”.

In fact, the detonation of the Tsar Bomba forced the United States’ hand when it came to brinkmanship. Kennedy quickly pivoted to shaming the size and power of the Tsar Bomba internationally, claiming that not only did the United States also possess such weapons, but that they were essentially morally above testing them. The intelligence agencies quickly went on a (mostly true) campaign to inform the public that such large bombs were impractical, and that using many smaller bombs was a superior strategy. One paper even went on to call the Tsar Bomba explosion “more bluff than bang”.

Shortly after the detonation, the United States reciprocated in withdrawing from a nuclear weapons test ban as well, resuming tests that same year, and completely shattering the hopes that the Tsar Bomba would end nuclear testing in general. Even though both the United States and Russia would go on to downplay the significance of the Tsar Bomba test, the later declassification of documents from the Kennedy administration would prove the opposite. The 50-megaton test played a pivotal role in the foreign policies being taken up by both nations, and then was quickly and forcefully discarded to the dustbin of history.

With the possibility of mass contamination, unpredictable yields, and the potential for holes ripped in the atmosphere, what did the world gain from testing the Tsar Bomba?

With weapons tests occuring to this day in North Korea and dangerous nuclear rhetoric mirroring the Cold War from the United States and Russia over Ukraine, it could easily be argued that we gained little to nothing. The test did not put an end to nuclear weapons testing in general, and the significance and sheer magnitude of megaton explosions is lost on the public to this day. The tunnel vision needed to entertain the idea of a gigaton bomb at all shows how the vast potential for mankind to completely obliterate itself, be it through nationalism, stupidity, or even paranoia, is truly in the hands of just a few individuals with terrible ideas.

In Proliferation, you can use the Tsar Bomba Nuke Card to completely take out your enemy. But, just like the real thing, you’ll find using the card highly impractical, immediately painting a target on your back. It takes 3 turns to launch, and might be better thought of as a political statement anyways.

Creating Proliferation has been an excellent opportunity for our team to learn about one of the darker sides of humanity. We hope that spreading information and awareness can help to keep people educated, and move toward a society with no Nukes… Or at least a lot fewer than there are today.

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