I love games. Card games, classic board games, word games, war games, party games, euro-style board games, computer games, role-playing games – I love all kinds. As a child, I preferred games to toys, even though I had no siblings. I would pull out a game, set it up on the floor, and move around from one side of the board to another taking turns for several positions. I had something of a desire to play well, but of course I couldn’t develop much of a taste for winning, since every victory I earned also gave me a loss. I was really more interested in the design of the game, its dynamic, its economy.
This interest has led me to invent several games during my life, as well. Often a good book is what inspires the creative urge. Everybody wants favorite books to go on and on. For most people, rereading the original, reading sequels, and watching movie adaptations is enough to satisfy the longing; but I sometimes want to live inside the book by turning it into a game. Twice this year my reading has suggested game ideas to me. Neither has progressed so far as even a single rule or sketchy board design, but both have me thinking about basic assumptions of games that could stand rethinking.
After speaking of the moral decline in Renaissance Italy, Durant says this about the political situation in the early sixteenth century: “France, Spain, and Germany, weary of sending tribute [in the form of Church revenue] to finance the wars of the Papal States and the luxuries of Italian life, looked with amazement and envy at a peninsula so shorn of will and power, so inviting in beauty and wealth. The birds of prey gathered to feast on Italy.” In my ears, these words sound a clarion call for the creation of a game. The board is rather obvious. The situation of three kingdoms battling each other over neutral ground is obvious. But what roles do the players take? If the game pits France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire against each other, what controls Italy’s conduct? Is the weak defense of the Italian city states represented by rules or by a player? Or should players take the cause of Venice, Ferrara, Florence, and the Church, with the other European forces coming in randomly and anonymously to make things more difficult? But perhaps players wouldn’t play governments and armies at all. Maybe they could each represent an ideal: papal political power, Church reformation, Italian unity, money, and artistic achievement. Each of these players may find the need to make and break alliances with any of the others in order to meet the changing exigencies of foreign invasion, New World discovery, and plague.
Earlier this year, I read in Gibbon about a period in Roman history in which the people of the city had very little to do with selecting emperors, instead, legions deployed all across Europe proclaimed Roman rulers at the drop of a toga. At one point, no fewer than nineteen separate monarchs had arisen at once, each with some power over lands, money, armies, and citizens. Some of these rogue leaders marched on Rome in the attempt to become Caesar, but others just stayed in their corners of the Empire, content to be “first in a small village rather than second [or dead!] in Rome.” This section of the Decline and Fall got me thinking about goals in wargames. When we engage in war around a kitchen table, we normally assume that the contest will have one winner. We might even accept the premise that that sole winner will rule the whole world, and all the losers, nothing. But real life isn’t like that. Each player in an actual political struggle may have a different goal, and one person achieving his goal doesn’t necessarily preclude anyone else from achieving his own. What if one game of four players could have any number of winners from zero to four? Maybe each player could draw a card at the beginning of the game to see how broad his aims are. Or maybe everyone just needs to remain alive. That last scenario wouldn’t necessarily result in players never attacking each other. Sometimes people or legions revolt if a leader doesn’t show enough ambition. Maybe petty king A needs to attack petty king B just long enough to get what food he needs to feed the people of province A so that they don’t stage a bread revolution. And maybe Caesar needs to depose A to keep the trust of his legions, but if Germans are pouring over the Rhine, the Emperor may be just as happy to let A rest quietly on his rebellious throne.
The more I think about it, the more I like this last game. And if I invented it and played it against myself, I might even learn how to win, since I wouldn’t necessarily have to lose.