Dr. Raymond Kuo shares the Statecraft and Negotiations simulations he created for his class

Monday, August 8th, 2022

Dr. Raymond Kuo created a Statecraft and Negotiations course when he was a professor, and he has shared his Statecraft and Negotiation Simulations:

I created about a dozen original simulations that:

  • Could be played in ~1 hour or less.
  • Examined 1-3 concepts at once (I find the commercially available sims too sprawling and pedagogically confusing).
  • Could be scaled for many different class sizes, but with teams no larger than 4.
  • Ideally don’t use points.

They are listed and linked below. You might need WinRar to open the zipped files. A few notes/caveats:

  • Please attribute them to me.
  • If you modify the design, please let me know! I’m not a professional game designer, so many things need improving. I’d love to see what you’ve done and would be happy to host new, better versions here.
  • They are purely a teaching aid. Feel free to substitute fictional countries if you’d like. I think (?) the learning goals and teacher’s guides are in the negotiation packages, but please let me know if not.

Aid and Development
Three players (USAID, USTR, DRC) negotiate an aid package for the DRC. Explores aid conditionality.

Electoral System Design
Design an election system for an ethnically fractionalized country emerging from civil violence.

Human Rights
Acting as specific countries, players create the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Negotiate over wording and try to exclude certain rights to align the declaration with your domestic political, legal, and economic systems.

Nuclear Weapons
Go nuclear! Or try to mutually disarm. But don’t get tricked. A simple game requiring only 1-2 decks of cards for the whole class.

War Initiation
Can the players avoid starting World War 1? My largest sim, 5-6 countries, ideally represented by teams, not individuals.

War Termination
Companion to “War Initiation.” Players relive the Versailles conference, attempting to end World War 1 on the most advantageous terms. Can you do better than the real diplomats?

COIN and Laws of War
A four-stage tactical decision game that requires some instructor moderation/adjudication. Can you defend a town without violating the laws of war?

Trade
NOTE: A couple of my students designed this simulation, and I think it’s better than my trade sim. Negotiate NAFTA!

The lure of the grandiose explains the pull of Terraforming Mars

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022

The lure of the grandiose explains the pull of Terraforming Mars:

Although the topic is formidably complex — how many people do you know who are qualified to renovate planets? — the game is not a hard-core scientific simulation requiring degrees in astrogeology or exobiology. Rather, the genius of Terraforming Mars is that it takes a topic that should be as dry as a Martian dust storm and turns it into a fun family game that elegantly captures many of the essential processes necessary to make a planet of milk and honey.

The briefly described premise of Terraforming Mars is that a World Government has decided to make Mars so hospitable for humans that they don’t need to walk around in space suits. “Generous funding attracts gigantic corporations that compete to expand their businesses and emerge as the most influential force behind the terraforming,” explain the rules. Such capitalization of terraforming does not seem implausible. We have already seen how government-funded space programs — the ones that brought us Sputnik and Apollo — have been replaced by private corporations and spacefaring billionaires. It is quite possible that the first manned exploration of Mars will be accomplished by the private sector, followed by private developers who know that if people will buy houses in deserts and flood plains on Earth, they’ll buy them on Mars.

But these interplanetary entrepreneurs should remember a simple rule: if the government has to pay you to build somewhere, it’s not out of generosity. Whether it’s tax breaks for building housing in hollowing Rust Belt cities in the United States or free land in Siberia, as the Russian government has promised settlers, those incentives exist because the projects may be unprofitable or unpleasant.

And on Mars, developers who might have cursed zoning boards and environmental impact statements on Earth will quickly discover that the Martian environment is even less business-friendly.

[...]

In Terraforming Mars, each player takes on the role of a big corporation or political group, from the Mining Guild and Interplanetary Cinematics to the Tharsis Republic and the United Nations Mars Initiative. Each corporation has specific capabilities in terms of income, raw materials, or terraforming ability. The goal is to achieve the most points by taming the Angry Red Planet into the Jolly Green World.

[...]

Cities, forests, and oceans begin to sprout on a brown map that soon turns blue and green.

The goal of all this growth is to change three Martian parameters: temperature, oxygen level in the atmosphere, and number of ocean tiles on the map. These all feed into each other. “As the atmosphere thickens, greenhouse effects will raise the temperature. . . . As the temperature rises, carbon dioxide will thaw out, adding a greenhouse warming effect. . . . Then, at 0°C, ice-bound water in the soil will begin to melt, adding water to the surface,” as the Terraforming Mars rules book explains.

The game ends once all three parameters reach a certain level (although even those endpoints seem less than hospitable). The acceptable Martian oxygen level is 14 percent—Earth’s is 21 percent—while the Martian temperature goal is 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit), a bit chillier than Earth’s average temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit).

[...]

What humorist Will Rogers said about Earth applies equally to Mars: “Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff.” And indeed, there is a limited amount of space on the Terraforming Mars map to create cities and forests. However, the real stumbling blocks—and where Terraforming Mars shines as a simulation of planetary ecology—are the prerequisites for many Project cards. Fancy a fleet of zeppelins as a cheap, low-pollution transportation option? Then someone has to first thicken the Martian atmosphere to 5 percent oxygen. Tundra farming on newly thawed Martian soil? Sounds wonderful, except that the Martian temperature begins the game at minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit), and the card can’t be played until the temperature is a relatively balmy minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit) or warmer. Would you like to import some nice nitrophilic moss that will thrive in salty Martian muck? Those plants need water, which means there must be at least three ocean tiles on the board.

As many a Terran politician has painfully learned, environmental policy often involves painful choices. Damming a river, planting new flora, or introducing non-native animals to an area will help some species but hurt others. Such dilemmas are a feature of Terraforming Mars. For example, players can introduce birds, fish, and herbivores to score extra points—but only at the cost of decreasing their plant production (presumably devoured by the new species).

The Red Planet game becomes truly inflamed when players discover that all those expensive Project cards they purchased become useless once someone has changed the delicate balance of life on Mars. We already see this on Earth, where expensive hydroelectric dams, such as the Hoover Dam or China’s Three Gorges Dam, generate increasingly less electricity because of low water levels caused by drought. Or there is the infamous Soviet plan to divert water from the Aral Sea to irrigate cotton, which turned a large body of water into a desert and created a massive environmental disaster.

How Harpoon V would model the Ukrainian attack on the Moskva

Sunday, April 17th, 2022

Ian B. of the Rocky Mountain Navy looks at how the latest version of the table-top Harpoon war game, Harpoon V, would model the Ukrainian attack on the Moskva:

Given that Moskva is a major combatant with a wide assortment of radars and defensive systems, the result of the attack/accident seems almost implausible. On paper this is a Ukrainian David vs. a Russian Goliath. Alternatively, how could the Russian Navy lose a ship to a fire? A closer examination of a plausible “engagement” using the Harpoon V rules reveals it’s not as lopsided as one might think.

If reports are to be believed, Moskva was struck by by two RK-360MC Neptun (Neptune) anti-ship cruise missiles. Neptune is generally reported to be a Ukrainian version of the Russian Kh-35U but with a longer body, more fuel, and a larger booster. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use the Kh-35U which is listed as the Uran (3M24) [SS-N-25 Switchblade] in Annex D1 of Russia’s Navy: Soviet & Russian Naval Vessels, 1955-2020 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2021). The most important data element is perhaps the damage caused by the 150kg warhead which Harpoon V rates as “35+D6/2” or 36-38 damage points. Admittedly, this number may be a bit low given the Neptune has more fuel and is larger, factors which lead to more damage in Admiralty Trilogy models.

Moskva is (was?) the lead ship of the Project 1164 Atlant class. To Cold War Grognards like me it’s perhaps better known as a Slava-class guided missile cruiser. The lead ship, Slava, entered service in 1983 and eventually was renamed Moskva in 1995. This particular ship was overhauled between 1991-2000 and was to be overhauled again in 2016. Reports indicate the overhaul stalled for lack of funds and the ship reentered service in 2019 with few—or none—of the planned upgrades completed. Full details for Moskva are found in Annex A of Russia’s Navy. Of particular concern to this analysis, Moskva is rated at 341 damage points.

There are many unanswered questions about how the Ukrainians may have hit Moskva with two ASCMs. In Harpoon V one can play out the detection, engagement, and damage results. While many pundits are saying that Moskva “should” have seen—and defeated—the inbound missiles, Harpoon V helps us understand why this may have not been an “automatic” thing.

[...]

The defensive model in Harpoon V assumes ships are at General Quarters with all sensors and weapons at the ready. General Quarters is also very hard to maintain with watertight doors secured and people constantly on edge. It is more likely that Moskva was operating in some lesser readiness condition. This of course means sensors and weapons may not have been ready (extending the Reaction Time) and watertight integrity/damage control teams may not have been set to immediately deal with damage.

[...]

The late Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.) in his book Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) shared a study showing the number of Exocet equivalents (approximately equal to one 3M24) it would take to cripple or sink a warship (see Fig. 6-1, Exocet Missile Equivalents versus Full-Load Displacement for Ships Out of Action and Sunk, p. 160). The table goes up to 7,000 tons but extrapolating the data to ~10,000 tons (Moskva is 9,380 tons standard displacement) indicates that two hits are very likely enough to put Moskva out of action and four or five hits would be sufficient to sink the ship. Assuming two missiles and maybe one sympathetic detonation of ordnance that’s already three hits…with maybe a fourth from fire and flood damage. In many ways the surprise should not be Moskva sinking but if the ship somehow survives.

It’s bad enough losing a ship, but worse not losing it in combat:

At this point the Russian need to claim the ship was saturated with dozens of missiles and they heroically downed all but the last two. The story will be the Captain stood on the bridge with his middle finger raised and said, “F*ck you, Ukrainian missile!”

Tom Clancy used an earlier edition of Harpoon to game out The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising — which he did with Larry Bond, the US Navy officer who developed the game. A Forbes piece from a couple years ago describes the origin of the game:

In July 1976 a young naval officer made the short walk from his warship to a destroyer tender docked nearby. Lieutenant (JG) Larry Bond returned to the USS McKean with a precious copy of the NAVTAG wargame. And because it was a Secret document, he promptly signed it in to his ship’s classified material locker. NAVTAG (Naval Tactical Game) was an official war game used to train U.S. Navy officers how to fight with their ships. It was a great training aid, but its classified status created a bureaucratic barrier to playing it, so it rarely came out of the safe. What Bond thought was needed was a non-classified version which could be played more easily. It was the beginning of the now famous Harpoon wargame lineage.

[...]

When Bond released the first version in April 1980 it was an instant success, even winning the H.G. Wells award in 1981. Bond knew all about wargames, being an associate of Dave Arneson of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Arneson’s company even publish the first two editions. While it was popular with the civilian audience, it was also a hit with professional war fighters. It was easier to play than NAVTAG, and free from classified material, but retained the realism needed in a navy setting.

Arneson was not the only famous person associated with the game. Upcoming author Tom Clancy bought a copy of Harpoon and began corresponding with Larry Bond. Clancy used the game during his research for his first novel, The Hunt for Red October. His second book, Red Storm Rising, was based on scenarios tested out playing Harpoon. The bona fide wargaming gave the book a level of realism and credibility which sets it apart from many other Techno Thrillers. Bond was also Clancy’s co-author on the book.

Red Storm Rising was essentially a Soviet Invasion of Europe war game written as a story. It was a scenario familiar to naval planners. So if you have ever wondered why Russia’s Tu-22 Backfire bombers featured so prominently, it was a real-world concern of NATO navies. Armed with powerful supersonic missiles, these could overwhelm all but the latest warships. It was the threat that AEGIS and the F-14 Tomcat were primarily intended to counter.

In Red Storm Rising — spoiler alert — the Soviet Navy achieves a decisive early victory against a US Navy carrier group by using air-launched decoy drones to draw the carrier’s air patrol far away, while Tu-16 Badger bombers attack from another direction, causing considerable damage. Apparently the Ukrainians pulled off this trick against the Russian Moskva, with their Turkish drone.

Another tactical lesson from the book seems to be playing out, too. Three men and a jeep can race along the road, set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before the enemy can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away.

(The Harpoon V Jumpstart rules are free to download.)

If this wargame had been played at the Pentagon or the White House in the weeks leading up to the war, no strategist or policymaker would be shocked by any event so far seen in the war

Thursday, March 10th, 2022

In the two weeks prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Marine Corps University ran a four-day wargame to simulate the first several days of just such an invasion:

The hope is that students will develop insights from these wargames that help them better understand joint warfighting. In the case of this particular wargame, its near concurrent use with the actual start of the war presents an opportunity to make constructive comparisons and contrasts. Actual events also highlight the importance of the human domain and how difficult it is to effectively model or assess prior to conflict. While the game does make allowance for aspects of the human domain, it is hard to factor in things like the courageous leadership being demonstrated by Zelenskyy and its impact on the will of the fighting forces and the Ukrainian people.

One must be very careful when using a wargame for predictive purposes. But, on the other hand, no one involved in this wargame has been much surprised by anything unfolding on the ground. Almost all of it took place within the game or was discussed at length among the players. This is in contrast with nearly every expert and pundit on the airwaves, who are expressing astonishment at how this conflict is unfolding. If this wargame had been played at the Pentagon or the White House in the weeks leading up to the war, no strategist or policymaker would be shocked by any event so far seen in the war.

Gygax was surprised to find both of the Blume brothers in attendance

Monday, October 18th, 2021

In the fall of 1985, Gary Gygax was the most famous and powerful figure in hobby gaming, Jon Peterson explains:

October 22 was a Tuesday, and Gygax was wrapping up another day at TSR corporate headquarters on Sheridan Springs Road in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. His last appointment was a board meeting just after close of business; with 1,371 shares of stock, he held controlling interest in the company, and thus chaired the board. The meeting started late, at quarter past five. Five of the company’s six directors were present: two of the independent directors, James Huber and Wesley Sommer, and then the three principal shareholders: Gygax, Brian Blume, and Kevin Blume. Gygax was surprised to find both of the Blume brothers in attendance. Though they held a substantial stake in the company—as a family, nearly one thousand shares total—they had lost their executive positions at TSR following a reorganization the previous year.

The board proceeded to review the company’s turbulent negotiations with the American National Bank before moving on to the ostensible purpose of the meeting, a discussion regarding TSR’s royalty payments to authors. In recent internal memos, Gygax had insisted that the company allow its employees, himself especially, to retain all copyrights, trademarks, and royalties for works authored rather than assigning them to TSR; in the eyes of other directors, this was in violation of existing contracts. During the course of this discussion, Gygax mused that since it seemed the board would find it easier to afford him these privileges if he were not an employee, perhaps he should just resign.

It was of course preposterous for a majority shareholder to suggest their own resignation, but Gygax found the room coldly receptive to this course of action. The presence of the Blumes worried him. He turned to the Board Secretary, Willard Martens, to ask if his personal stake relative to the other shareholders had changed recently. At first, Martens replied only that Lorraine Williams had exercised her option for 50 shares in TSR. Williams had joined the company in April as Vice President of Administration; her options alone could not endanger Gygax’s majority.

“Have there been any other changes?” Gygax further inquired.

Martens only then volunteered, “Brian Blume exercised his option for seven hundred shares.”

Realization set in. Gary Gygax said simply, “I see.”

What did Gygax see, in that moment? He saw enough shares in play that he stood to lose control of TSR, a company he had founded and transformed into a global brand. But he surely also saw something even more dear at stake: that he might lose control of Dungeons & Dragons.

They are looking for the best possible move every time, instead of a good move

Monday, August 30th, 2021

To compete means to risk losing, and women, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing explains, judge this risk differently than men:

A Stockholm University study of 1.4 million [chess] games over 11 years showed that elite women are less likely to use an aggressive opening move than elite male players. The women devote more deliberative thought to their first 25 moves: they are looking for the best possible move every time, instead of a good move.

(That means they often run short on time in tournaments and have to rush at the end.)

Women are less likely to arrange a draw when the outcome is predictable — women want to play the game out. If it’s a sure win for women, they want to get that win.

(Men seem to get bored or decide that the time spent finishing the game is more trouble than it’s worth.)

Could the Germans have taken Moscow?

Saturday, July 10th, 2021

When more than 3 million German and German-allied troops surged across the border on June 22, 1941, many expected Operation Barbarossa to be a walkover:

“Bolshevism will collapse as a house of cards,” predicted Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. An embarrassingly large number of U.S. and British experts agreed, mindful of then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s officer corps purges and the Red Army’s incompetent performance against tiny Finland in the 1939 to 1940 Winter War. An unending series of Soviet military disasters in the summer and fall of 1941 — including the killing or capture of 650,000 Soviet soldiers at Kyiv — only reinforced that opinion.

But the red banner flying over the Reichstag in May 1945 proved the experts wrong. And a new computer wargame helps explains why.

[…]

The game is a number cruncher’s dream, tracking everything from the number of operable tanks and trucks, to the combat and administrative competence of individual generals, to whether sufficient raw materials are reaching arms factories.

[…]

Battlefield success in the game depends on factors like morale, combat experience, troop fatigue, and the skill of their commanders. Because the Germans have better troops and commanders in 1941, they can chew up the Soviet armies, forcing the Soviets to hastily commit unprepared reserves, which in turn get destroyed in a vicious cycle.

[…]

Compared to the lavishly equipped U.S. Army of World War II, the German and Soviet armies faced a logistical nightmare. Although the United States and Britain held an abundance of Detroit-made trucks to haul supplies, the Germans and Soviets were always short of vehicles, and the ones they had were quickly devoured by Russia’s primitive roads. While armored units were fully motorized, Germany and Russia’s poor infantry relied on horses to haul artillery and supplies. For them, World War II was more like World War I (what historian Omer Bartov has called the “de-modernization” of the German army in the East) and only a short step away from French leader Napoléon Bonaparte’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812.

Hence, both sides on the Eastern Front relied on railroads to move troops and supplies. Armies tended to move along routes where there were railroads to supply them, but even then, logistics were difficult. Compared to Western Europe and North America, rail lines in Russia were sparse and wider than European tracks, which meant the Germans had to re-lay them as well as repair Russian scorched-earth damage to rail yards.

[…]

The game features a detailed logistical model that tracks supplies by the tons. (Yes, the tons, although the computer does most of the bean counting). Fuel, ammunition, and food are transported along rail lines to depots, where they are distributed by truck and horse-drawn wagon (and a limited capacity for aerial resupply). But railroads have a limited capacity; the rail lines actually change color on the map as their capacity is quickly overloaded. That leaves trucks, but there aren’t enough of them. And the more trucks that travel through Russia’s forests and swamps, the more trucks that break down. (Yes, the game tracks broken-down and repaired vehicles.)

This is devastating for all mechanized units, for which gasoline is life. But especially so for the Germans in 1941, who relied on their fast-moving panzers to encircle and pin the Russian armies until the foot-slow infantry moved in the for kill. Without gas, the tanks can’t perform their bold maneuvers.

This isn’t a problem at the start of the game as the Germans begin their offensive from well-stocked bases in East Prussia, Poland, and Romania.

[…]

The biggest question: Could the Germans have taken Moscow if they concentrated all of their forces on a single knife-like thrust to the Soviet capital? War in the East 2 suggests this strategy would have been a disaster: There simply wasn’t the rail and truck capacity to mass forces for a Moscow-only offensive.

The game is Gary Grigsby’s War in the East 2, from Matrix Games.

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency

Tuesday, June 15th, 2021

Ben Espen reviews the D&D-inspired anime Goblin Slayer, whose main character is old school:

The Goblin Slayer, in his obsession with killing goblins, studies them relentlessly. He learns their ways, and schemes better and better ways to kill them. It reminds me very much of this Hill Cantons blog post about they way Chris Kutalik’s Vietnam veteran father played D&D like he was leading a patrol in ‘Nam. All the other adventurers find the Slayer kind of weird. And he is kind of weird. But he is really good at what he does, and he takes a real problem very seriously that no one else does. The metajoke here is of course that everyone else this fantasy world thinks they are playing the modern roleplaying game of improv theater with fantasy superpowers, while the Goblin Slayer lives in Fantasy F**king Vietnam.

Here’s how Chris Kutalik describes Fantasy F**king Vietnam:

My father was a Vietnam vet. Not a “I scrubbed B-52s on Guam” or “flew F-16s in the Texas National Guard” kind of vet, but a Purple-Hearted combat veteran of the First Cavalry. I always felt that he hated the war though, what it did to him body and soul — he still carries shrapnel in a shoulder to this day. It haunted him, but he spoke freely of it and even let it enter our play with him.

On long hikes he’d send me or my brother, stick in hand, to walk point — several yards in front so that the sudden blast of an imaginary mine or grenade didn’t wipe out the “squad”. Hike done we’d jog back to the car Jody-chanting: “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, living my life full of danger.”

And I played D&D with the man.

Somewhere in the summer of 1981, I ran a few sessions as a DM where he played a first-level mook of a Fighting Man, fittingly called the Tunnel Rat, alongside my brother’s bland-by-comparison elf. He played the game with every bit of a rigor that phrase conjures up for latter-day REMFs.

He pored over the equipment tables, grilling me on the properties of this or that item. It took him about five seconds to grasp the killing power of the standard Molotov-like flask of oil. He bought 20. Grokking the need to travel light and mean he skimped on armor and the excess weapons so common in our summer camp D&D experience. He bought dogs instead.

Viet Cong Tunnel Complex

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency. At first my brother’s PC walked point. When that nearly ended with his death at the hands of a goblin ambush, he switched to running his dogs into rooms and closing the door before running in on the attack. When that stopped working, he doused the dogs with oil, set them on fire, and loosed them into the massed ranks of his opponents.

There wasn’t a trap in the place he didn’t find, and little in the way of anything hidden missed his eye.

The game was tense, adversarial even. It brought out a side of him that scared me a little. I think sometimes we forget that games — especially such demanding ones as the role-playing variety — aren’t always leisurely fun, sometimes they mix passion and a welter of emotions in them. Those sessions certainly did, but I treasure them because they taught me something about the man.

This is the flip side of Tucker’s Kobolds:

Tucker ran an incredibly dangerous dungeon in the days I was stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C. This dungeon had corridors that changed all of your donkeys into huge flaming demons or dropped the whole party into acid baths, but the demons were wienies compared to the kobolds on Level One. These kobolds were just regular kobolds, with 1-4 hp and all that, but they were mean. When I say they were mean, I mean they were bad, Jim. They graduated magna cum laude from the Sauron Institute for the Criminally Vicious.

When I joined the gaming group, some of the PCs had already met Tucker’s kobolds, and they were not eager to repeat the experience. The party leader went over the penciled map of the dungeon and tried to find ways to avoid the little critters, but it was not possible. The group resigned itself to making a run for it through Level One to get to the elevators, where we could go down to Level Ten and fight “okay” monsters like huge flaming demons.

It didn’t work. The kobolds caught us about 60′ into the dungeon and locked the door behind us and barred it. Then they set the corridor on fire, while we were still in it.

“NOOOOOO!!!” screamed the party leader. “It’s THEM! Run!!!”

Thus encouraged, our party scrambled down a side passage, only to be ambushed by more kobolds firing with light crossbows through murder holes in the walls and ceilings. Kobolds with metal armor and shields flung Molotov cocktails at us from the other sides of huge piles of flaming debris, which other kobolds pushed ahead of their formation using long metal poles like broomsticks. There was no mistake about it. These kobolds were bad.

We turned to our group leader for advice.

“AAAAAAGH!!!” he cried, hands clasped over his face to shut out the tactical situation.

We abandoned most of our carried items and donkeys to speed our flight toward the elevators, but we were cut off by kobold snipers who could split-move and fire, ducking back behind stones and corners after launching steel-tipped bolts and arrows, javelins, hand axes, and more flaming oil bottles. We ran into an unexplored section of Level One, taking damage all the time. It was then we discovered that these kobolds had honeycombed the first level with small tunnels to speed their movements. Kobold commandos were everywhere. All of our hirelings died. Most of our henchmen followed. We were next.

I recall we had a 12th-level magic user with us, and we asked him to throw a spell or something. “Blast ‘em!” we yelled as we ran. “Fireball ‘em! Get those little @#+$%*&!!”

“What, in these narrow corridors? ” he yelled back. “You want I should burn us all up instead of them?”

Our panicked flight suddenly took us to a dead-end corridor, where a giant air shaft dropped straight down into unspeakable darkness, far past Level Ten. Here we hastily pounded spikes into the floors and walls, flung ropes over the ledge, and climbed straight down into that unspeakable darkness, because anything we met down there was sure to be better than those kobolds.

We escaped, met some huge flaming demons on Level Ten, and even managed to kill one after about an hour of combat and the lives of half the group. We felt pretty good — but the group leader could not be cheered up.

“We still have to go out the way we came in,” he said as he gloomily prepared to divide up the treasure.

Tucker’s kobolds were the worst things we could imagine. They ate all our donkeys and took our treasure and did everything they could to make us miserable, but they had style and brains and tenacity and courage. We respected them and loved them, sort of, because they were never boring.

The first two works that Tom Clancy published were a letter to the editor of Proceedings and this plan

Thursday, May 27th, 2021

The first two works that Tom Clancy published were a letter to the editor of Proceedings and this plan for using hovercraft to deploy MX missiles:

A successful MX deployment system must meet a number of tests:

  • Insensitivity to first strike: The deployment scheme must allow a large proportion of its missiles to survive a strike and retaliate in force. The MX is more likely to deter a war rather than fight one if this criterion is met.
  • Reconstitution of forces: The insensitivity to attack must continue for an indefinite period of time. This will allow NCA to determine how many missiles have survived, choose an appropriate response, and to redirect the missiles to still-valuable targets.
  • Continuous launch capability: The system should be able to launch under the widest range of circumstances, including disablement of the missile carrier itself.
  • Separate vulnerabilities: The distinct nature of this leg of the strategic Triad should be retained, forcing an opponent to contemplate the most difficult range of tasks.
  • Communications security: The most attractive aspect of the land leg of the Triad is the availability of secure two-way communications at all times.
  • Environmental impact: As was demonstrated by the MPS deployment mode; any system which has a negative impact on local populations or environments will generate significant legal and political resistance.
  • Operational safety: Since any deployment system will touch upon civilian areas, its routine operation must not be perceived as a possible danger by the populace.
  • Cost: Ideally, the system should be as inexpensive as possible to initiate, operate, and maintain. To this end, a system that does not operate continuously has long-term advantages.

A number of deployment systems have been examined, and each fails on one or more of these criteria. The MX has been described as “a Rolls Royce without a garage.” But a vehicle exists to deploy the MX that meets the above preconditions: the U. S. Navy’s air cushion landing craft (LCAC).

LCAC with MX Missile

The LCAC has a standard payload capacity of 60 tons, and an overload capacity of 75 tons. This is less than the weight of the MX (85 tons) , but well in excess of that for any other American strategic system except the obsolete Titan II. The LCAC has a speed of 50 knots, and a range of 200 nautical miles. It can cross land or water, and does minimal damage to the terrain.

Were the MX missiles to be deployed on vehicles of similar performance, they would represent exceptionally elusive targets. Once deployed, the LCAC(M)s would scatter like quail before am incoming strike

I’m not sure I’d consider a hovercraft the most stable platform for a 72-foot missile. Clancy’s concept bears little resemblance to the G.E.V.s of Steve Jackson’s futuristic wargame;

GEV Cover

Tom Clancy’s third published work, by the way, was The Hunt for Red October, which I enjoyed in audiobook format not too long ago.

A near miss means you still lose

Tuesday, May 18th, 2021

In 2010, a cognitive neuroscientist named Reza Habib asked twenty-two people to lie inside an MRI, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), and watch a slot machine spin around and around. The pathological gamblers got more excited about winning:

“But what was really interesting were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.”

In the late 1990s, one of the largest slot machine manufacturers hired a former video game executive to help them design new slot machines:

That executive’s insight was to program machines to deliver more near wins. Now, almost every slot contains numerous twists — such as free spins and sounds that erupt when icons almost align — as well as small payouts that make players feel like they are winning when, in truth, they are putting in more money than they are getting back. “No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines,” an addictive-disorder researcher at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine told a New York Times reporter in 2004.

The maladaptive variety is what gives competitiveness its bad name

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing draws a distinction between adaptive competitiveness and maladaptive competitiveness:

Adaptive competitiveness is characterized by perseverance and determination to rise to the challenge, but it’s bounded by an abiding respect for the rules. It’s the ability to feel genuine satisfaction at having put in a worthy effort, even if you lose. People with adaptive competitiveness don’t have to be the best at everything—they only strive to be the best in the domain they train for. They might be perfectionists at work, but they don’t care if they’re the worst at tennis and shuffleboard. They are able to defer gratification, meaning they accept that it can take a long time to improve. Healthy competitiveness is marked by constant striving for excellence, but not desperate concerns over rank. It’s adaptive competitiveness that leads to the great, heroic performances that inspire us all.

The maladaptive variety is what gives competitiveness its bad name. Maladaptive competitiveness is characterized by psychological insecurity and displaced urges. It’s the individual who can’t accept that losing is part of competing; it’s the person who competes when others around him are not competing. He has to be the best at everything, and he can’t stop comparing himself to others even when the competition is over. He doesn’t stop when the whistle blows. He drags others into competitions they don’t want to be in, by provoking them. And he will resort to cheating when he can’t win.

The only thing worse than hardly knowing anything was knowing a little bit more

Sunday, January 31st, 2021

Tom Vanderbilt decided to learn to play chess as an adult, when his daughter started learning:

Even as your skills and knowledge progress, there is a potential value to holding on to that beginner’s mind. In what’s come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger showed that on various cognitive tests the people who did the worst were also the ones who most “grossly overestimated” their actual performance. They were “unskilled and unaware of it”.

This can certainly be a stumbling block for beginners. But additional research later showed that the only thing worse than hardly knowing anything was knowing a little bit more. This pattern appears in the real world: doctors learning a spinal surgery technique committed the most errors not on the first or second try, but on the 15th; pilot errors, meanwhile, seem to peak not in the earliest stages but after about 800 hours of flight time.

[...]

In the face of my agonised dithering, they would launch fast, brute-force attacks — sometimes effective, sometimes foolhardy. “Children just kind of go for it,” Daniel King, the English grandmaster and chess commentator, told me. “That kind of confidence can be very disconcerting for the opponent.”

Young children, for example, have been shown to be faster and more accurate at tests involving “probabilistic sequence learning” — the sort in which people must guess which triggers will lead to what events (for example, if you press button A, event X will happen).

After the age of 12, this ability begins to decline. As researchers suggest, people start relying more on “internal models” of cognition and reasoning, instead of what they see right in front of them. In other words, they overthink things. In chess games, where my adult opponents often seemed to battle unseen internal demons, the kids just seemed to twitch out a series of moves.

[...]

When I asked our chess coach about what it was like to teach adult chess beginners as opposed to child chess beginners, he thought for a moment and said: “Adults need to explain to themselves why they play what they play.” Kids, he said, “don’t do that”. He compared it to languages: “Beginner adults learn the rules of grammar and pronunciation and use those to put sentences together. Little kids learn languages by talking.”

[...]

A study that had adults aged 58 to 86 simultaneously take multiple classes — ranging from Spanish to music composition to painting — found that after just a few months, the learners had improved not only at Spanish or painting, but on a battery of cognitive tests. They’d rolled back the odometers in their brains by some 30 years, doing better on the tests than a control group who took no classes.

A game that plays people

Sunday, December 20th, 2020

A game designer working in the niche of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), LARPs, experience fiction, interactive theater, and “serious games” — fictions designed to feel as real as possible, games that teach you, puzzles that come to life all around the players — immediately recognized QAnon:

I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)

[...]

QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.

[...]

In one of the very first experience fictions (XF) I ever designed, the players had to explore a creepy basement looking for clues. The object they were looking for was barely hidden and the clue was easy. It was Scooby Doo easy. I definitely expected no trouble in this part of the game.

But there was trouble. I didn’t know it then, but its name was APOPHENIA.

Apophenia is: “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas)”

As the participants started searching for the hidden object, on the dirt floor, were little random scraps of wood.

How could that be a problem!?

It was a problem because three of the pieces made the shape of a perfect arrow pointing right at a blank wall. It was uncanny. It had to be a clue. The investigators stopped and stared at the wall and were determined to figure out what the clue meant and they were not going one step further until they did. The whole game was derailed. Then, it got worse. Since there obviously was no clue there, the group decided the clue they were looking for was IN the wall. The collection of ordinary tools they found conveniently laying around seemed to enforce their conclusion that this was the correct direction. The arrow was pointing to the clue and the tools were how they would get to it. How obvious could it be?

I stared in horror because it all fit so well. It was better and more obvious than the clue I had hidden. I could see it. It was all random chance but I could see the connections that had been made were all completely logical. I had a crude backup plan and I used it quickly before these well-meaning players started tearing apart the basement wall with crowbars looking for clues that did not exist.

These were normal people and their assumptions were normal and logical and completely wrong.

In most ARG-like games apophenia is the plague of designers and players, sometimes leading participants to wander further and further away from the plot and causing designers to scramble to get them back or (better yet) incorporate their ideas. In role-playing games, ARGs, video games, and really anything where the players have agency, apophenia is going to be an issue.

This happens because in real games there are actual solutions to actual puzzles and a real plot created by the designers. It’s easy to get off track because there is a track. A great game runner (often called a puppet-master) can use one or two of these speculations to create an even better game, but only as much as the plot can be adjusted for in real time or planned out before-hand. It can create amazing moments in a game, but it’s not easy. For instance, I wish I could have instantly entombed something into that wall in the basement because it would have worked so well, but I was out of luck!

If you are a designer, and have puzzles, and have a plot, then apophenia is a wild card you always have to be concerned about.

QAnon is a mirror reflection of this dynamic. Here apophenia is the point of everything. There are no scripted plots. There are no puzzles to solve created by game designers. There are no solutions.

QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data, presented in a suggestive fashion in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe “guided apophenia” is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you “figure it out yourself” you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to “connect the dots yourself” you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at. More about this later.

Everyone on the board agrees with you because it’s highly likely they were the ones that pointed it out to you just for that purpose.

[...]

Every cloud has a shape that can look like something else. Everything that flickers is also a jumble of Morse code. The more information that is out there, the easier it is to allow apophenia to guide us into anything. This is about looking up at the sky and someone pointing out constellations.

The difference is that these manufactured connections lead to the desired conclusions Q’s handlers have created. When players arrive at the “correct” answers they are showered with adoration, respect, and social credit. Like a teenage RP, the “correct” answer is the one that the group respects the most and makes the story the most enjoyable. The idea that bolsters the theory. The correct answer is the one that provides the poster with the most credit.

It’s like a Darwinian fiction lab, where the best stories and the most engaging and satisfying misinterpretations rise to the top and are then elaborated upon for the next version.

Stefan Zweig liked to play an interesting game

Tuesday, December 8th, 2020

The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, during his many years of delightful and luxurious travel, liked to play an interesting game — one very similar to a practice that Seneca had:

As soon as Zweig arrived in a new city — no matter how distant — he would pretend that he’d just moved there and desperately needed a job. He would go from store to store, checking to see if they were hiring. He’d read the help wanted ads in the newspaper. He would often go all the way through the hiring process until he got an offer. Offer in hand, he would then walk out and enjoy his trip, feeling the pride and comfort of knowing he could handle starting from scratch if he had to.

Seneca’s version of this was to practice poverty once per month. He’d wear his worst clothes and eat the cheapest food. He’d sleep on the ground. The point was to get up close and personal with the thing most of us secretly and subconsciously fear: losing everything. Being poor. Having nothing.

The invasion of Japan might have resembled the Okinawa campaign

Sunday, August 23rd, 2020

The US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan 75 years ago, but what would an actual Allied invasion of Japan have looked like?

A clue can be found in Japan ’45, from John Tiller Software, a hobby wargame that depicts Operation Olympic (a sequel, Japan ’46, covers Operation Coronet). Japan ’45 is a battalion-level simulation involving thousands of U.S. Army and Marine, Japanese, British and French units maneuvering over a 2-D map of Kyushu.

At first glance, the Allies appear to be an unstoppable juggernaut. They field a staggering array of units, including tanks, armored cars, infantry (foot and mechanized), paratroopers, commandos, artillery (towed and self-propelled) and anti-tank guns, backed by fighters, bombers, battleships and destroyers. They enjoy far more firepower and mobility than the Japanese, whose army is mostly a First World War-style force of foot infantry and artillery.

But the unstoppable Allied war machine soon clanks to a halt. For starters, the terrain is not friendly to a mechanized army. In Japan ’45, the map of Kyushu is studded with rice paddies, forests, hills, villages, rivers and streams. The terrain restricts movement to a crawl, and provides natural defensive cover for the defenders. Despite all those Allied Sherman tanks, there will be no dashing Patton-esque blitzkriegs on Kyushu.

And what nature can’t provide, Japanese shovels will. The invasion beaches on Kyushu are studded with minefields, trenches, bunkers and pillboxes. The Allied player can only gnash his teeth as bombs, napalm and one-ton shells from battleships barely scratch Japanese troops embedded deep in their fortifications.

Finally, there is the Japanese soldier to contend with. The core of the Imperial Army was its legendarily tough infantry, which could withstand the hardest privations, and preferred to fight hand-to-hand with the bayonet. Even if their weapons aren’t quite as good or plentiful as Allied equipment, they’re good enough to inflict massive casualties on the invaders.

Playing Japan ’45, as the Allies against the AI-controlled Japanese side, graphically demonstrates that Operation Olympic would have been a meat grinder. U.S. Army and Marine assault troops splashing ashore suffer heavy losses from minefields, artillery and machine guns. Pinned down on the exposed beaches, the riflemen and engineers advance inch-by-inch. Eventually the Japanese are dislodged from their entrenchments, and once in the open, they are vulnerable to Allied air and naval firepower.

But then what? The terrain on Kyushu is too rough and restricted to allow an Allied breakthrough. Once the Japanese defenders are pushed off the bushes, they just regroup inland among the hills and woods, and the Allies have to dig them out again.

The game suggests the invasion of Japan might have resembled the Okinawa campaign, where U.S. troops had to battle through multiple Japanese defensive lines in a grinding battle of attrition that cost 50,000 American casualties — and 400 ships sunk or damaged by kamikazes — before Okinawa was conquered. Like Okinawa, the question is not whether the Allies will capture Kyushu, but what price they will pay for it.