A clash of the great superpowers from the end of World War II until the dawn of the Information Age.
The player can choose to play as either the Soviet Union or the United States, fighting in historical scenarios such as the Korean War or Vietnam War as well as fictional ones, such as the Soviet Operation Potomac, or invasion of the United States. Players collect an income of tribute based on the strengths of their territories and client states. The Americans start with the Statue of Liberty wonder, while the Russians begin with the Kremlin. The Americans automatically use the governments Republic, Democracy and Capitalism, while the Russians use Despotism, Monarchy and Socialism.
In addition to the traditional method of conquest to achieve victory, players can win through an "industrial victory" if their income is significantly higher than their opponent's.
This campaign has unique mechanics in four respects. First, players can "build" nuclear weapons with tribute, although the tribute cost significantly ramps up as a larger arsenal is required. Nuclear weapons can be fired upon any territory, although not client state, controlled by the other faction except for the capital territory. Territories attacked by nuclear weapons lose ownership; they become wastelands that will require a turn's worth of military action to reoccupy. Second, this campaign introduces the concept of "client states." Client states are won through "police actions" conducted by the player, such as drug war clearing the Colombian rainforest of drug trafficking in exchange for loyalty of the Colombian government. Players can move their armies through client states, and collect income from their territories as well as rare resources; however, if their needs are not met, typically by keeping their territory strengths at level 3 or higher, client states may revolt and join the other faction. This campaign also introduces "espionage missions," short mini-missions that can be done as well as regular battles in the same turn. Espionage missions typically yield benefits such as extra tribute, bonus cards, partial destruction of the opposing faction's nuclear arsenal, etc. Finally, armies can move anywhere in a player's territory in one turn.
Declaring war on the opposing superpower costs an extravagant amount of tribute, more in fact than both sides actually can muster for a few turns. Declaring war will also vastly increase the likelihood of an all-out nuclear exchange.
The campaign map for the Cold War campaign in Rise of Nations is a very simplified version of a world map, and for instance some vital events of the Cold War such as the Iran-Iraq war and the Malayan Insurgency are notably absent.