Friday, November 27, 2009

Conquering the World Once Lunch Break at a Time

Back in high school, my friends and I couldn't get enough of playing games. If you're a regular reader of this blog you're aware of our obsession with role playing games. But those weren't the only games we partook in. My friends and I loved to play board games, war games, card games, video games, and if we were really hard up, we'd just roll dice around. Naturally, as we were focused on something less than enriching ourselves, we tried to find a way to integrate games into our daily activities at school. It was in that spirit that I stumbled onto the idea of what we came to call "simulations." Essentially, these were a cross between role-playing games and war games. Each player would play a specific geopolitical unit (usually whole countries) and, armed with little more than a factsheet about their countries capabilities, were free to play in a manner restricted only by their imagination and the leniency of the gamemaster (who was just about always myself.) There were some loose rules enacted to ensure some measure of fairness, but otherwise there were no limits on what could be done. Typically I'd manage to sign up about 6-12 friends of mine for one of these. Each morning they would issue "orders" (passed to me in the cafeteria in the morning or in class at some point during the day) which I would then process that night instead of doing my homework (this in part is how I ended up at a local state university instead of say, a real college.) Then the following morning I would issue a "report", usually styled in the manner of a newspaper story, detailing the results of the days previous orders. This was all great fun on my part, which is why we ended up doing it probably half a dozen times or more. In our last simulation I even charged a fee to play, which was then rewarded to the winners. Typically the simulations would drag one for a month or two, and only when the players who hadn't been eliminated agreed to end conflict (typically because they were allied with each other.)

Now as you can imagine of a game being played by teenage boys, these simulations typically dissolved into warfare in pretty short order. At the outset some of the players would feign measures of diplomacy and conciliation, mostly because I think they got the same thrill that Hitler probably did when he signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that feeling of just having set up a very, very large and nasty trick on someone else. Actually the example is fairly apropos, as it was not uncommon for the players to sign various treaties at the outset (sometimes literally, turning them into me as gamemaster after the fact) which they would begin scheming to undermine about as long as it took to get out of earshot of the other parties. But usually it only took one act of completely inconsequential aggression (or completely inconsequential staged aggression) to kick off a conflict, and then the next thing you know armies are being mustered, fleets sent to sea, and civilians incinerated in nuclear warfare. Once conflict ensued it was settled only when the leader of another country was toppled or assassinated, because when you are playing a completely imaginary game you really have no incentive to surrender before your imaginary existence is terminated.

Of course, the same people tended to participate over and over again. For us, this meant that the warring camps were established almost right at the outset, as the players had long ago discovered who the could cooperate with and trust. The most formidable pairing was our own Nat-Wu and our mutual friend James, who won several of the simulations mostly by virtue of the fact that they actually cooperated and trusted each other. The usefulness of these characteristics cannot be overstated. The players they typically opposed operated more like the rogues out of the Batman television show than any sort of functioning alliance. In one legendary example, one of the players baited one of his allies into launching a single nuclear device at the country Nat-Wu was playing. Now if you know anything about nuclear warfare, you know that it's one of those things where if you're going to go for it, you'd better go all out from the beginning. I don't know how he convinced his ally that launching a single nuclear device was a smart way to go about starting a war, but the logical result followed; NatWu obliterated several of that player's cities in return, and then invaded him for good measure. As far as I recall (this was a long time ago) this goading was the result of a merely personal spat between the two "allies", but the consequence was the complete destruction of their respective countries by Nat-Wu and his ally James. The goading player was content to see his own country obliterated, if only his ally was obliterated first.

As I state above, action was limited largely by the imagination of the players, tempered by some measure of reality (the games were supposed to be a "simulation" of the real world after all.) This didn't mean that players wouldn't occasionally test the limits of reality (and my patience.) One player insisted on building impregnable city-fortresses beneath the seas. Because this project required an inordinate amount of his GDP and was scheduled to be completed some fifty years into the game, he was caught somewhat unprepared for the land invasion that subsequently captured his (still occupied) above-ground cities. Another player expressed a strong desire to build an army of robot tigers with which to invade his neighbor. I staged an intervention in that instance, and he resigned himself to conquest via an old-fashioned army of tanks and infantry.

But our simulations reached the true height of absurdity in one particular game, where the players each played individual states in a future American civil war. Imagine a future American where 90% of able-bodied men serve in the military, approximately 3/4 of a state's budget is devoted to military spending, and where there are absolutely no ties of affection or brotherhood between any of the states, and you have some idea of what this simulation was like. I believe the players were at war after approximately one turn, and were certainly scheming against each other before that. Again Nat-Wu and James triumphed, but this time they were in fact the only two players who could manage to cooperate in any sense of the word; all other players fought them or each other without any real sense of strategy or cooperation, and each was obliterated in turn, with only California holding out for any length of time thanks to massive amounts of manpower. But this particular simulation has obtained legendary status thanks to the wanton cruelty the players visited upon each other. I'm not entirely sure how this began, but the contest quickly became an effort to see who could be executed in the most imaginative way upon their capture. This included one player being strapped to a missile and shot at a target (effective and quick, but fairly unimaginative) and another player being strapped to a rocket car that's then driven into a wall (effective, not as quick, and highly imaginative.) That particular game terminated in a trick ending. I permitted one of the players whose plight moved me to pity (he was eliminated early on, mostly through no fault of his own) to "retroactively" rig a gigantic nuclear device at the center of the world, which he detonated shortly after the victory of the Nat-Wu/James alliance. This was much to their surprise, but much to everyone's amusement. In our world, that counted as going out in style. Those were the days.

Anyway, it must be the onset of the holiday season that's prompted me to wax nostalgic and embarrass myself and my co-bloggers by putting all of this online for the world to see. I may no longer have time for games during lunch breaks, but that doesn't stop me from wistfully recalling days of such pointless and humiliating activity. Ah, youth!


adam said...

What? I didn't partake in any of that loser crap!

Xanthippas said...

True. I'll go back and edit the blog post to note that. Not.