July 23rd, 2008

Balance of Power

Whenever someone brings up old Windows, I think back to a game that I had as a kid, Balance of Power. It was originally developed on the Mac, and had a windowy, mousy interface, so the PC port shipped with its own copy of Windows 1.0, on two 5¼" floppies. As I was googling around in nostalgia, I came across Chris Crawford's online version of the book about the game. I haven't finished reading it, but so far it's great, with detailed analsyses and historical examples of the real-world political phenomena represented in the game.

It's also really funny in parts. Here's a bit about the religious component of insurgencies:

Westerns may think of religious insurgency in terms of recent [1985 -xach] expressions of Islamic extremism, but religious factors played a large role in insurgencies during the Reformation and were the primary expression of insurgency during Roman times. It is not that religion exerted life-and-death influence over people's hearts and minds in these societies; it's just that churches were the primary locus of social activity in these societies. Were a major insurgency to form in the United States, it would probably be based in shopping malls.

There's an informative passage about the role of simulations and the role of games. For simulations:

The military has used simulations since their creation in the 1830s by a Prussian staff officer. On a large table with markers representing military units, officers consulting a detailed manual of rules maneuvered their armies in imaginary campaigns. The training value of such simulations was scoffed at by other armies until 1866 and 1870, when the Prussian army smashed first the Austro-Hungarian army and then the French army in two stunning campaigns. The rest of the world very quickly adopted the use of military simulations.

For games:

A game is to a simulation as a painting is to a blueprint. A painting of a house gives you an emotional impression of the house; a blueprint of the house tells the carpenter exactly where to put the windowsill. A game is no mere approximation of a simulation or a lower-quality version of a simulation. Instead, a game focuses on presenting broader, less quantifiable concepts. One would not use a painting as the basis for building a house, nor would one use a blueprint to convey his feelings about the house in which he spent his childhood.

Sprinkled throughout are historical examples of the game concepts (insurgency, coups, international crises, etc), with statistics about success and failure, and their impact on the design of the game formulas. For example, after discussing the successful riotous revolts in Haiti, Iran, and Poland, he concludes:

These examples of successful popular revolts are the exceptions, not the rule. Civil unrest is the norm in many nations of the world and it boils into the streets with depressing frequency. In all three of the above-cited cases, (Haiti, Iran, and Poland), the leadership refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation until it was too late. The reason for such a callous attitude is the frequency of civil disorder and its usual lack of issue. Most of the time, the police crack down and the crowds disperse after venting their rage. There have been some 10,000 riots in the last forty years; about 100, or 1% of these, yielded a change of executive. Little wonder that political leaders seldom see civil disorder as a threat to their jobs.

The last chapter is all about the development of the game itself. It's interesting to see a world where a guy can write an abstract, brainy geopolitical strategy game, for the Mac, on his Lisa, and eventually, with much difficulty, find a big audience for it.

So go read it! It's part 1985 time capsule, part far-ranging but easy-reading geopolitical power history, part game design philosophy, and part game development journal. The style is accessible and informative. And it's free!