Thursday, September 30, 2010


I don't get sucked into playing war games very often, but when I do.... oh man, can it get serious.

I probably hadn't played Risk in 15 years or so, but last week - during what was supposed to have been a restful couple of days away in the countryside - I got embroiled in a game of it that threatened to go on forever.  After 5 or 6 hours of play, at around 3.30 am, we were still nowhere near to reaching a conclusion.  I seem to recall that it is almost always thus.  You have to tweak the rules a bit to create a more playable game.  It's too easy to earn reinforcements by collecting game cards, and the size of those reinforcements escalates so rapidly that battles and campaigns soon assume enormous - and tiresomely time-consuming - proportions.  I was about to receive 80 new divisions for my next game turn, but it was almost certainly still not going to be enough for me to achieve a decisive advantage over my last remaining opponent, who was tactically in a slightly stronger position than me.  I had become the first player to wrest control of the whole of Asia, and had also won myself a valuable little enclave in Eastern Europe; but my hold over North America, with only a very thinly spread occupying force, looked tenuous.  My wily Bengali adversary was well entrenched in Europe and Australasia, and had just swept through South America, eliminating the last of the other players in the game.  Fatigue eventually won out over our competitive pride, and we grudgingly accepted a 'draw' - retiring to bed with the world divided more or less equally between us.

In fact, I was mightily grateful just to be still in the game.  I had for a long period been hanging on by my fingernails, reduced at one point to having just two or three countries and a handful of army units under my control.  Paradoxically, that made me too weak to be a priority target, as the other four players battled to stop each other gaining possession of a whole continent.  The only reason I survived, and was able to make such a dramatic late resurgence, was that during the crucial middle phase of the game I just hadn't seemed worth bothering about.

Relief and exhilaration at my lucky escape, and satisfaction in my eventual success, was tempered by a due sense of guilt about what a reckless sacrifice of a good night's sleep this had been.

I was also reminded uncomfortably of the intensity of emotion that these combat-based games can arouse, the lingering grudges they can engender.

I was reminded particularly of 'The Ontario Incident' - a truly grim example of fanatical grudge-bearing that occurred in a game of Risk I played back in the early or mid-1990s with my Indian doctor friend, The Younger Dr P (he of the notorious 'IPD Theory of Attractiveness'), and one of his old medical school buddies.  Dr P and I had agreed a non-aggression pact for three turns, to pool our resources in order to try to force the third player out of the game.  We had very nearly succeeded in doing so, and I suggested that we should extend the pact for at least one more turn, until we had finished him off.  However, I had by this point gained control of the whole of North America, with the sole exception of Ontario, which was still held by Dr P with only one or two armies.  I sought his 'permission' to attack and take over Ontario, without detriment to our pact, since the province was of no possible use to him but would  be of significant value to me in earning a bonus of additional troop reinforcements for possessing the whole continent.  He testily refused.  I tried to reason with him.  He still refused.  I reiterated the considerable advantages that would accrue to both of us if we extended our pact through another game turn.  He was unimpressed.  I think I tried to offer him additional incentives - offering to let him direct where I should attack our opponent, or 'allowing' him to take over certain weak and isolated territories of mine as exceptions to the pact.  He wasn't having any of it.  I might have refrained from attacking Ontario if he'd been a bit more reasonable about things, but he was so obstinate and bad-tempered that he turned his back on any possibility of renewing our pact.  So.... I repudiated the pact early and took Ontario off him.

He was very, very annoyed at this "betrayal".  He made it his primary aim through the rest of the game to recover Ontario, and then take the rest of the Americas from me as well.  He concentrated all his efforts against me, almost completely ignoring the third player.  North America became a scene of internecine strife.  I lost count of the number of times that Ontario changed hands between us.  And, of course, the third player quietly rebuilt his position and eventually prevailed over both of us.

There's a lesson or two in that, I fancy.

[I suspect Dr P, like me, occasionally recounts this story ruefully to others.  But we dare not raise the topic with each other.  Our friendship barely survived this savage 'virtual' dispute.]

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