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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Settlers of Catan birthday cake

My friend Marina received a wonderful late birthday present: a painstakingly made birthday cake in the form of the Settlers of Catan boardgame. She said her friend cut out hexagons of sponge cake, dyed the icing to represent each of the biomes, and made little fondant pieces to represent the game pieces. Settlers of Catan is one of Ben's favorite games--I've only played it once, on Kate's team--and it seems well-suited to someone who's interested in games as systems.

When I was in high school, I played a lot of Sid Meier's Civilization II--so much so that I used to dream in the diamond-shaped graphic interface (dreaming in hexagons would be crazy, right?). I made my stepfather a Civ II birthday card once, but I never was so creative or talented to make fondant landmarks. The thing is, I wasn't interested in getting better at Civ II, so I'd just win every time on the easier settings by conquering the world. I never tried to build the spaceship--the second option for winning the game--and I wouldn't have been able to conquer the world on a more difficult setting. Instead, I made graphs of the population growth--which always looked the same, obviously--and wrote out timelines of the discoveries and wars, with the idea of writing out a historical narrative of the game I'd just played. Like The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman, Sioux, Babylonian, and American Civilization. My stepfather kept trying to get me to work on strategy rather than petty warmongering; he was a master at the game and its later versions such as Alpha Centauri and I can remember hearing the jangling sound of victorious battles ringing throughout the house all the time.

So here's more from Bookforum about Guy Debord's war boardgame. The essay is heavy on biography, and I'm interested in how he theorized the strategy for the game, but this is interesting:
Atlas Press has just rereleased A Game of War in a new English rendering by Donald Nicholson-Smith, a translator Debord appears to have trusted. The edition comes in a sleek box and includes, for long winter nights, a playing board and little punch-out pieces. It’s difficult to summarize. The board contains two facing territories of 250 squares each. Two of these per side are “arsenal” squares. (Active pieces, we learn, must be in “communication”—i.e., aligned, either directly or through intermediary pieces—with an arsenal.) Territories also include three “fort” squares (which raise a piece’s “defensive factor”—more on that in a second), nine “mountain” squares (impenetrable to all things), and one “mountain-pass” square (for penetrating the impenetrable mountains). Each side has seventeen pieces—an array of infantry, cavalry, artillery, and communications. Players take turns, as in chess. Unlike in chess, they move up to five pieces per turn. Each piece carries a numerical “offensive factor” in addition to its defensive factor; when an attack is under way, offensive factors are summed and weighed against the defense, à la Risk. The game ends when a player’s fighting pieces or arsenals are gone. In the match Debord played with his wife, this took fifty-five moves. Ludologists and the extremely anal-retentive will be relieved to find that errors in the 1987 diagrams have been corrected. The rest of us will be glad just to get the rules down.

In crafting this game, Debord was synthesizing more than inventing. The thinker who inspired him was Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general who spent most of his life fighting the French—first the Revolutionary Army, then Napoleon. His goal was to understand how these unorthodox campaigns succeeded, and his summa, On War, unfinished at his death in 1831, is a military classic. It’s also a book seriously prone to misreading. Debord, who often described living as a private war (and who dealt his own share of Delphic prose), saw Clausewitz’s precepts as life lessons; his game was originally to be subtitled “Strategy and Tactics of Military Conflict (According to Clausewitz).” But that title would have been as wrong as it is ugly. Debord’s game may take its lead from On War’s principles and anachronisms—his generation feared the Bomb, not the cavalry, after all—but it misses Clausewitz’s point. “War, and the form which we give it, proceeds from ideas, feelings, and circumstances,” wrote the general. His key innovation was to depict participants in combat as unreliable, diverse, and prey to loyalties and grudges: to humanize battlefield strategy. Debord’s ambitions traveled in the opposite direction: to shrink the human world down to a game board.

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