Was Thucydides’ unsuccessful attempt at relieving Amphipolis simply the result of bad luck, as he seems to imply in his own account, so that on another day the whole course of the Thracian campaign against Brasidas might have turned out differently? Was the Athenian expedition to Sicily always a hubristic bit of imperial over-reach doomed to failure, or might it, in slightly different circumstances, have been the brilliant gambit that led to an overwhelming victory in the war and the establishment of a true Athenian Empire? Now you too can explore the counterfactual possibilities that Thucydides dangles before his readers, by playing an exciting new board game, Pride and Glory: the Peloponnesian War. If I actually had any free time, I now have a new way of filling it in prospect…
The game isn’t yet on the market – indeed, it looks as if this is advance publicity for a fund-raising drive to move it into production – so this commentary is based on minimal information and lots of speculation – but when has that ever stopped me? Nice board, good to see that they’ve included Sicily as well as Greece (though one might imagine that Strategic Rule No. 2, just after “Don’t invade Russia in winter”, would be “Don’t commit all your forces to a major sea/land operation a long way away from home without thinking this through really carefully, cf. Gallipoli”). It will be very interesting to see how the combination of grand strategy game and individual battle games (see the smaller board at the top of the picture) works out in practice – rather than leaving the results of battles to chance or to a mechanistic calculation of the relative strengths of the forces involved, as in many games focused on the strategic element, here we have the possibility that a player may undermine his/her successful strategic strategy (sorry, but you know what I mean) by being a lousy general, or alternatively may rescue an aimless strategy through, effectively, the brilliance of an individual general (think Brasidas in Thrace?). And I’m surprised that I hadn’t thought before now how well Thucydides’ narrative organisation – “So ended the summer. In the following winter…” – lends itself perfectly to a turn-based game….
I’m a bit more concerned about one or two of the other elements. “Players fight to gain Glory Points by expanding their empire, winning allies, and being victorious in battle.” Hmm. Glory Points? I’m not sure that’s entirely in the spirit of Thucydides – that’s the Alcibiades view of war as an opportunity for personal fame and excitement, an anachronistic throwback to a Homeric model of bloodthirsty heroism that sits in stark contrast to the stated, down-to-earth motives of Athenians and Spartans (it’s all about hegemony and spheres of influence), let alone the tragic strand that Thucydides weaves into his account (it’s all about the Plague, Mytilene, Corcyra, Melos…). Does one gain or lose Glory Points for massacring civilian populations in order to demonstrate to one’s allies that rebellion would be a really bad idea?
There’s also the Interesting question of underlying assumptions about the process of decision-making: how to recreate the tendency of both sides in the war to pursue inconsistent strategies as a result of divided assemblies, especially in the case of Athens, swayed by the powerful and seductive rhetoric of figures like Pericles and Cleon? Ignore the problem and assume for the purposes of the game that there is a single, unified, controlling mind in charge of both empire-building and battles – or introduce some sort of random element, so that on the roll of a die Pericles is fined or ignored, or the assembly changes its mind about massacring the people of Mytilene? Thomas Hobbes’ conclusion from the example of civil war in Corcyra was that Thucydides thus revealed the desperate need for monarchy, as the only means of keeping a state in good order; one wonders whether the game makers have reached the same conclusion.
Before the makers start worrying that this apple of free publicity has got a worm in it, and abandon plans to approach me for an endorsement, I should stress that I do know it’s a game, with all the constraints and imperatives that implies. It’s not just the fact that re-enacting massacres of women and children may not be entirely family-friendly (though one hears of worse things in some of these video game thingies), but also the need to find a compromise between historical accuracy and game mechanics, to produce something that’s actually enjoyable to play. This is actually, for me, one of the most interesting lines of thought prompted by the news that this game is in development.
It’s a very long time since I did this sort of thing seriously (to date myself, and to highlight the possibilities of really politically dodgy games, anyone out there remember Raid On Iran?), and my vague understanding is that there is now a substantial theoretical literature on the subject (whereas my understanding of the theory of games, as opposed to game theory, is drawn entirely from an Iain M. Banks novel). But I’m going to pontificate anyway… The basic imperative for any game is to produce an appropriate balance between skill and chance, but the more specific and detailed a game becomes (in other words, not just an entirely abstract game like chess or draughts, but something with some degree of connection to a wider world, whether the world of property and urban topography like Monopoly, or C19/C20 European politics like Diplomacy, or Cold War MAD like Nuclear War) then there is an added imperative to ensure that the game is more or less compatible with that wider world as the players understand it, real or (mostly) imagined. The course of the game and its results should be reconcilable, so to speak, with other things that we as players know or intuit or assume about that world; the game refers to something beyond itself, and has to play along with that. And, yes, one of the consequences is that someone like me gets extremely cross with people who ignore the conventions of late nineteenth-century international diplomacy when playing Diplomacy, and manifestly have no honour and no concern to keep up appearances – but at least the game itself tries to work against this tendency.
The more historical a game is, or seeks to be, the greater the problem in finding a balance between historical veracity and playability. One needs to identify the right level of complexity and specificity (obviously there’s a significant difference between, say, hoplites and cavalry, that needs to be taken into account – but what about the fact that Spartan hoplites were full-time warriors so clearly should have a +0.15 movement advantage when engaging the enemy over level terrain provided it isn’t the day after one of their religious festivals? Yes, this is one reason I stopped wargaming, and board games are generally more sensible in such respects…). There’s also the tension between determinism and hope, so to speak: how far was any given battle or war a “close-run thing”, and insofar as it wasn’t, how far should the game reflect this? A game of the Punic Wars in which the Carthaginians never won would be no fun for one of the players if not both – but one in which they had an even chance would face suspicion of historical inaccuracy. Obviously it depends largely on what sort of a game one is looking for, and how far historical veracity is fetishised by designers or players.
The interest for a historian in such games is in part the possibility of exploring counterfactuals: could things have turned out differently? Of course, the usefulness of such an exercise depends on the game design, and how far the designers have subordinated themselves to what actually happened. To put this in concrete terms: I can imagine a Peloponnesian War game in which invading Sicily is almost never a good idea, and one in which it might be a workable strategy on a regular basis. Further, there might be different reasons for the latter result: either that the designers have eased up on the veracity side in the interests of gameplay, or they’ve decided that the chances of success were actually quite decent, even if that didn’t work out on the one occasion the game was actually played in real life.
Further still: easing up on one link to historical experience (i.e. ignoring the idea that if the Athenians invade Sicily they should normally lose, since this is what happened, regardless of whether this makes for a good game) could serve the interests of another, perhaps greater link to reality (since if it’s too obviously a bad idea then the Athenians will never invade Sicily in the game, even though they did actually do this in real life). Unless, of course, there is also some sort of irrational demos mechanism that occasionally generates random imperatives (“Invade Sicily this year, whether or not you think it’s a terrible idea”) as discussed above…
Standard historical games demand a compromise between what actually happened, what the designers think were the relative probabilities of different outcomes, and what makes for a good game for all players. A Peloponnesian War game adds an extra recursive layer: our (and the designers’) perceptions both of historical reality and of the counterfactual possibilities are filtered through and shaped by Thucydides’ interpretation and representation of events (arguably to the extent that we don’t have access to any reality, only to Thucydides’ imaginative creation).
In theory, then, there’s a wonderful opportunity to test some Thucydidean principles and see what happens: could Pericles’ strategy have succeeded if he had lived to maintain it? Would the Spartans have done better with a more energetic approach, as recommended by the Corinthians? Would the Athenians have been better off allowing Melos to remain neutral? Can I legitimately spend my occasional research day playing board games, provided that I analyse the results afterwards and write them up? But all this may depend on how far the designers have produced a game that deliberately reflects a Thucydidean world-view (and what they thought that was: the Athenians’ ‘might is right, biggest bastard wins’ approach, or a more tragic perspective), so that one must adopt a Thucydidean perspective to thrive, and how far they have sought to recreate the historical reality of C5 Greece, against which we can test Thucydidean perspectives…
Either way, I’m going to be first in the queue for a copy.