From YAAH! #2: Thinking About and Through Abstract Games

The second issue of YAAH! magazine is out, containing three abstract games by me (Army of Shadows, Guerrilla Checkers, Uprising). I also wrote a short simple article on the think-value of abstract games, these in particular, hooked to Ben Franklin’s love of chess. It’s partly adapted from a presentation I gave at Connections-UK in 2013.

Hope you find it interesting!

FranklinHowe_o

Thinking About and Through Abstract Games

 – by Brian Train

Benjamin Franklin loved Chess. He was always up for a game. In the illustration, the year is 1774 and he is playing with Caroline Howe, sister of Admiral Lord Richard Howe and General William Howe, who would command British forces during the American Revolutionary War.

He loved chess so much that in 1786 he wrote an essay on it, called “The Morals of Chess”:

 “The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it.

By playing at Chess then, we may learn: 1st, Foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action … 2nd, Circumspection, which surveys the whole Chess-board, or scene of action: – the relation of the several Pieces, and their situations; … 3rd, Caution, not to make our moves too hastily….”

In this short piece I would like to talk about Army of Shadows, Guerrilla Checkers and Uprising as examples of abstract games to discuss in light of the points Ben Franklin raised, and their value in developing other skills.

But first, some history: in 2011 I was invited to visit the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California to discuss a project to develop part of a website that would support the Regional Defense Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP). Under the CTFP, officers of foreign militaries attend training and courses, both in their own country or at centres in the United States, to give them the capability to build, manage, and sustain their own counter-terrorism programs.

One challenge with any training is to make it stick with the student, and make the student stick with it. Programs like the CTFP are intended to build an international and constantly developing network, and it is vital to keep alumni talking and in contact with each other. The NPS, as a major centre for delivering training under the CTFP, was developing the Global Education and Collaboration Community Online (GlobalECCO) website, to support students and alumni of the program. Besides print and visual resources on various aspects of combating terrorism, the website would feature a gaming portal. Current and former students and faculty of the CTFP would be able to play strategy games online to foster camaraderie through friendly and competitive play, and broaden and improve specific thinking skills. It would also be a resource for faculty to use to supplement their classes.

The first principle of game-based learning is that the game used should teach simple, basic principles and dynamics quickly, in an interesting way. Everything else is either additional detail or gets in the way of this. In discussing with faculty and staff of the NPS what sort of games to develop for the website, we felt that by providing a combination of simple games with deep strategy, we would have the best chance of creating experiences for the players that would let them get on with the mental contest. We did not want them to struggle with the language of the rules, or a difficult and detailed user interface for an attempted “simulation” that could also be carrying unintended ideological or cultural baggage.

We chose Guerrilla Checkers for the site because it combined two well-known classical games with simple mechanics into something new, with surprisingly deep strategy. I designed this game in 2010. I had been working with some other people on an Afghanistan game, and about oh-dark-I-don’t-want-to-look-at-the-clock one morning I was staring at the ceiling and thinking about the insurgents and counterinsurgents there. Both sides, while occupying the same section of the world at the same time, nevertheless approached the physical terrain (ridges, gullies, roads) and the human terrain (villages, tribes, relationships) in completely different ways. Why not have a game where the two sides are playing with quite different pieces working in quite different ways, but are using the same board with the same ultimate aim of neutralizing the enemy? There are not many abstract games like this, but I liked the idea of asymmetry between players, and Army of Shadows and Uprising would follow on with this concept.

We also agreed we wanted a game for the site that highlighted the essential mismatches between the antagonists in an insurgency: low information vs. high information, and low power vs. high power. I discussed this with Michael Freeman, a faculty member at NPS, and went away to create Army of Shadows and Uprising – two very different design takes on this general idea.

Both games have some common threads between them:

  • First, the concept of the board as an empty symmetrical surface, with the ultimate objective at its centre. The Nexus and Capital represent a concentration or “peak” of power or legitimacy for the State, and so have to be defended; meanwhile, the rebel or insurgent moves in from the political/organizational – not geographical – “hinterland” to occupy it through processes of stealth and growth.
  • Both games are forced to a climax if the Rebel player is to win; in Army of Shadows, he has to dominate the space around the Capital, and in Uprising he must declare the Revolution and dismantle the State (by eliminating all Agents).
  • Both games are “single-blind” games where the Insurgent player can see all and make moves accordingly, and the State player can discover information only through Interrogation and probes.
  • The essential asymmetry of forces – few but unkillable State pieces or Agents (that is, until the Revolution), and numerous but fragile Insurgents – is also emphasized in both games. An uncommon touch is giving the State player a choice of what to do in both games when he captures an Insurgent piece. He can either kill it right away, removing it from the game, or keep it prisoner, which will give him some additional advantages – though there is a slight chance that a prisoner will escape!

Army of Shadows was implemented for the website under the name Asymmetric Warfare. Besides Guerrilla Checkers, the site also features InfoChess (a Chess variant designed by John Arquilla, another faculty member at NPS) and several less abstract games on the spread of ideologies, financing of terrorist networks, and the stability vs. legitimacy dilemma faced by governments confronting domestic insurgencies. Meanwhile, I continued to give away copies of Guerrilla Checkers and Uprising I had made myself, at game conventions and conferences I went to.

Value of abstract games

Now, back to Ben Franklin. He understood that games help us to think about how the world works in new ways, and to change perspectives. Every society plays games; play itself is a universal human experience. This is one reason why games give us so many metaphors in every language.

Games are there not just to amuse; they are used to instruct, teach and otherwise mold brains. Abstract games have been used as teaching tools and intellectual exercises for military students and professional officers, for centuries. And in civil society, developing skill at Chess, Go or other “deep” games was once considered part of a gentleman’s education.

There is an established body of research on cognitive development and improvement through playing Chess and other abstract games. The quote by Benjamin Franklin illustrates three of the abstract thinking and cognitive skills developed by Chess: foresight, circumspection, and caution. The same could be claimed, to a greater or lesser degree, by nearly any abstract strategy game, and to these I would add other skills such as:

  • Strength of memory, pattern recognition, and pattern manipulation. The game of Go is one of the world’s oldest games. It features undifferentiated pieces and an empty board that has pieces placed on it during the course of play. Guerrilla Checkers of course borrows from this for the Guerrilla side, and from Checkers for the mechanics of the COIN player’s movement and multiple-capture ability. To play either of these classic board games well, you have to be able to recognize classical patterns and arrangements of pieces, just as much as you have to learn combinations in Chess. Meanwhile, Army of Shadows requires memory skills on the part of the State player.
  • An ability to create and reason through alternatives, and to take action without complete information. During play of any of these games, there will always be a wide choice of possible moves, and you have to exercise your judgement about which one is optimal. Army of Shadows and Uprising are games where incomplete information is central to play: players must exercise their decision-making skills with this limitation, to discover or deceive the opponent. (Oddly enough, no one seems to have thought of retrofitting the idea of hidden information to classic Chess until “double-blind” Chess, also known as Kriegspiel Chess, was introduced about 1895.)
  • The mental flexibility necessary to appreciate asymmetry in situations, that is, to be able to flip roles mentally and play from another’s perspective. All three of these abstract games rely on an asymmetrical balance of forces at the beginning, and in each game the players win in different ways. The teaching point is to demonstrate that battles are seldom if ever symmetrical, in force structure or objective. They also play quickly enough that within an hour you can play one or more pairs of games where you switch roles.

All of these skills are critical to creative problem solving. What more could you ask of the development of a leader, analyst, or other decision maker – or for that matter, your own brain?

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About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

5 Responses to From YAAH! #2: Thinking About and Through Abstract Games

  1. alsandor says:

    I have just downloaded the PDF version, a saving of 30$ over the shipping-dead-tree-issue price. I will upload it to the cloud and read it upstairs on my tablet. Glad I was able to obtain a copy without sacrificing a limb. I would have purchased a paper copy, but see below.

    *flame on* I am seriously annoyed at the shipping costs charged by some game publishers for shipping their magazines from the US to Canada. A difference between 6$US for domestic and 20$US for all foreign orders to ship to Canada??? Boxed items I can understand, but magazines…a 5$ surcharge should be all that is necessary. We’re being charged the same as if we lived in deepest Siberia. They do know there is a special rate for shipping between Canada and the US, right? *flame off*

    • brtrain says:

      Sorry man; shipping is not my department.
      But that is one reason why Flying Pig made up the PDF version, so you could save $30.
      I don’t know of any other game-in-magazine magazine that does this, unless it’s primarily PDF already (e.g. John Kula’s Simulacrum).

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