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Breaking the Game
Setting Your Own Victory Conditions


Some 17 years ago I learned a life lesson playing an insanely involved table top war game. Empires in Arms is played by seven players in turns that take between one and four hours. Each turn represents a month. The game runs from 1805 thru 1815!

It takes a year to play this game if you can get seven guys together around the same table for four hours per week. In many ways this is a paper version of the computer war games I see advertised on TV, where you build your economy, make political decisions, conduct diplomacy and fight wars.

Having come in second as the Spanish player, which, in the Napoleonic Era, was a nation in the geopolitical ICU, I decided to try my hand at playing the premier power—France; the glorious France of Napoleon Bonaparte. The game’s victory conditions were built around glory—in other words, around the recreation of one man’s megalomania; a nearly divine drive to pave his way to immortality with the corpses of millions, that became a national suicide on the order of Hitler’s war against the world powers over a century later.

Basically, if you behave as Napoleon did—a man with brilliant battlefield instincts and lacking the grand strategic sense of the president of an outlaw biker club—and roll poor dice, you will lose terribly. If you roll fair dice you will enjoy an epic disappointment of a second place finish, and if your dice are hot, you shall win the game. In any case, you will finish the game as the head of state of a country that has been bled dry and is teetering on the abyss.

I decided to see if it was possible to—instead of fighting endless wars—build France into a power that is a factor at sea and unassailable on mainland Europe.

I surrendered to England, retired Napoleon, and then, while that nation of shopkeepers and Mother France enjoyed 24 months of sacred peace, I conquered Europe, most of the Near East, turned Turkey into a puppet state and launched a successful invasion of Russia from a solid supply base in Bessarabia. I did such a good job of not winning that the French military was unassailable. Eventually the Brits declared war and took back the Near East. Having not made the blunders in Russia and Spain, and on the high seas that Napoleon had, the Nameless Minister of France received the surrender of Europe within four years. My fellow monarchs were bored to death.

I must state that I am not overly bright and am not even a second tier war gamer. The men I played with ranged from chemical engineers, theoretical math geeks, and an actual rocket scientist! I simply broke their will because I broke the game; wrecked the accepted social construct. In a viciously competitive setting where the only value is glory, I refused to value it, and it gave me power in game terms that shocked the other players. I was a mediocre battle commander. But, with the French army and marshals being ‘The Best’' once I did what no other E&A player had ever done—fully build the French military to potential—it was as if I had invented a nuclear weapon, and war became so unthinkable, so pointless, that the war game ground to a halt.

There has been noise about starting another E&A game. Whenever this call goes up among these men I am mentioned as a ‘must have’ player, and a motion is also immediately passed to bar me from ever playing France or Britain, the two top tier nations in the game. I would have felt no pleasure from breaking a game dear to children. But to earn the ostracism of men intellectually my betters seems an honorable thing. For nearly two decades now I have recalled that rise to simulated infamy I enjoyed, and have sought to use it as a model for considering the real contemporary world.

When looking into dynamic events observe that some minor players in this World Game accrue destabilizing power through denying the values that sustain The Game. Their bemused opponents do not see things in this light, but either attribute this power to a rival belief and begin wondering if their moral compass is true, or by simply wallowing in denial.

One thing I have come to suspect is that barring a planet wide natural disaster, the ordering of human affairs will continue to teeter and totter along in a seemingly unsustainable way, until someone in one of those few key positions decides to break the game. And don’t think it’s not a game.

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PelekesiMay 11, 2015 2:38 PM UTC

I just finished reading Bernal Diaz's Conquest of New Spain.

Cortes was so succesful because he broke the game and the MesoAmericans just couldn't wrap their heads around that in time. The game was take prisoners by slashing to bleed them out or cut tendons. You would sacrifice the prisoners to appease the gods, eat their skeletal meat (protien being rare in pre-Columbine mesoAmerica), intimidate the other city and levy tribute. The weapons designs and training all supported this goal.

Then came the Castilians who attempted to kill in battle rather than trying to win glory by taking prisoners. The Castilians acted like friends but sought lordship, not tribute or alliance (except in the short run). The Mesos started to adapt but really, it probably would take a generation or two for society to undergo that big of a change.
responds:May 16, 2015 6:46 PM UTC

Congrats on the read.

I like your take on it, Pelekesi.

Bernal Diaz's account is a great illustration of the interaction of ritual and tactical behavior.