09 October 2012

Balance of Power - Crawford 1986

Notes from Balance of Power, a book by Chris Crawford published in 1986.

Games vs simulations

Games differ from simulations in three ways. First, games carry an artistic message, with unquantifiable concepts and feelings. Second, games simplify reality: they only keep the conflicts inherent in the situation, and unlike in real life, they provide clear and emotionally satisfying resolutions to those conflicts. Yet games maintain a level of realism appropriate to the audience. Finally, games are accessible; there is no need to study the manual.

Balance of power, in short

The player controls one of the two superpowers, the USA or the USSR, during the Cold War. Each turn, both superpowers send money, weapons, troops, or diplomatic pressure onto other countries to trigger insurgencies, coups d'etat, or Finlandization favorable to them. For example, the USSR can send money to Cuba.

If a superpower contest the actions taken by the other superpower, then a crisis testing the player's brinksmanship follows. Either the player stands firm on its ground (whether s/he was contesting or not), and brings the crisis one DEFCON level higher, ie one step closer to World War III and a nuclear holocaust, or s/he pulls back. For example, think about the Cuba missile crisis of 1962.

When a superpower stands firm and wins the crisis, it gains prestige points. A minor country such as Nicaragua is worth 2 points, while a country like East Germany is worth 200 points. The further down in a crisis a superpower backs down, the more it loses prestige. When the highest DEFCON level is reached, the game is lost for both players.

The game ends after eight turns. The superpower with most prestige points win.

Balance of insurgencies

Insurgencies consist of rebels trying to take over the government of a minor country. The strength of any armed faction is measured from its number of soldiers and its number of weapons. If 100 government forces share 1 weapon, then the government's power should be low, and a superpower providing a couple weapons would really increase its strength. Similarly, 1 government force with 100 weapons should be weak. Thus, the strength of an armed faction is the harmonic mean of the number of soldiers and the number of weapons. It is optimal when each soldier has a weapon.

Balance of crises

Nastiness is a game-wide variable; it describes how slippery taking actions in the world has become. When nastiness is high, the AI is more likely to contest the player's actions, start crises, and refuse to back down. Nastiness increases after each crisis or military intervention of a superpower, and decreases slowly every turn.

Pugnacity is a superpower variable; it describes how trustworthy the superpower is considered by minor countries. Pugnacity increases when the superpower is aggressive and wins crises, and decreases when a superpower backs down in crises. If a superpower backs down late in a crisis, it loses a lot of pugnacity.

Combined, nastiness and pugnacity amplify the amplitude of missteps; an error in judgement can cause the end of the game. This is exactly what Crawford was trying to convey about brinksmanship.

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