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Ananda Gupta – Principal Game Designer at Riot Games

Part I: Designing the Cold War Experience

When Jason Matthews and I set out to design a game, we didn’t initially anticipate the Cold War as our subject matter. But when we looked at the offerings already out there (in 2001), the Cold War games were few and far between. They were either symmetric geopolitics games like Supremacy and The Cold War, which strove to provide a balanced multiplayer experience at the expense of historical context and detail, or treatments of World War III like The Third World War or Bruce Costello’s Dropshot series. No one had yet created a global game covering the mostly-bipolar rivalry between the US and USSR.

We were both pretty new at game design back then, so we weren’t all that systematic about how to tackle the design problem. Mostly we wanted to create a game that was simpler and faster to play than the other games using the card-driven game system, which Mark Herman created in 1993 with We the People, a game about the American Revolution. We the People was an elegant and streamlined design. What made the system clever was, among other things, how many situation-specific game rules were placed on cards rather than in the main rulebook; this reduced the up-front investment in rules learning and also centered the rules most relevant to a player’s immediate situation right in front of them. But many of We the People’s successors made use of this innovation to add more rules weight to the rulebook in addition to what went on the cards, and Jason and I thought that trend needed some counter-weight.

Starting from there, Twilight Struggle found its path. It’s a 2-player game, with one player as the United States and the other as the Soviet Union, starting right after the end of World War II and ending in 1989, when the Berlin Wall historically came down. The players receive a hand of cards that they can use for Operations - which can place political influence on the map, or attempt Coups to strike at countries with opposing influence - or Events, which model specific historical events in the era. The object of the game is to score victory points, which come from outcompeting one’s opponent in the right regions at the right times, managing one’s own domestic political pressures, and clever play of Events. Other systems capture the space race, which can reward its leader with special capabilities and victory points, and the ever-present threat of nuclear war.

At the start of the design process, we had several specific elements of the Cold War’s strategic experience that we wanted to capture in the game. They were:

  1. The domino theory;
  2. Political pressure to act;
  3. Shared strategic priorities with uncertainty.

The domino theory - that a country’s own political realignment can drive a similar realignment among its neighbors, and generate momentum that will be much harder to resist later than earlier - was widely accepted during the Cold War. Today, international relations theorists don’t put much stock in its explanatory value of 20th century events. This brings us to a crucial point for military professionals who engage with games: games often enshrine incorrect or implausible dynamics in their rules, because otherwise hindsight will reduce, rather than enhance, the players’ understanding of the problems their historical counterparts faced. In Twilight Struggle, therefore, even though the domino theory may not have been an accurate-in-fact model of regional politics, it’s in the game because allowing players to ignore it would provide an unrealistic understanding of the real constraints decision-makers faced at the time.

This also shows up in Twilight Struggle’s military operations rule, which punishes players if they allow their opponent to expend more military operations (coups and war-related events) than they do. It represents domestic political pressure on political and military decision-makers to take action against the opposing superpower. An important part of evoking the Cold War era is this feeling of incomplete agency; of being able to generate pressure on one’s opponent, but also facing pressure from the game itself.

This incomplete agency extends to winning the game as well. All competitive games must measure victory somehow; like many others, Twilight Struggle uses victory points. Early versions of Twilight Struggle used a heads-up scoring system, where regions would be predictably scored each turn and players could plan around the timing of regional scoring, and also account for the shifting value of each region as the game went on. But this did not adequately capture the Cold War mentality, where sometimes the main reason for extending influence or conducting operations in a region was merely that the opposing superpower was doing so. Concealing the scoring in players’ hands as cards therefore fulfilled a dual purpose: players who drew scoring cards would have less operational firepower at their disposal, since scoring cards have no Ops value, but confer foreknowledge on their holder that, and when, the region will be scored. Regional and battleground victory points remain something of an artificial construct, but it was one we were willing to live with; a system that allowed more variation in which countries are Battlegrounds (granting points every time a scoring card comes up for their region) might have led to an even more strategically fluid situation, but with a Cold War that looked a lot less like the actual one.

There was one element that came into the game during the design phase without our intending it:

  1. Crisis management

The feeling of paranoia and impending disaster that in many ways defines what it feels like to play Twilight Struggle came about almost entirely by accident. The game was well into development when we confronted a problem: not enough cards were being played as Events each turn. So we searched for reasons to reward Event play more… but ultimately, the carrot approach floundered, since just pushing more power into Events would simply make them more important than board position. We hit upon the idea of triggering opposing events when they are played for Operations, and it took less than one test game for us to realize that was the right approach. Now, not only did many more Events occur, but players faced a fascinating dilemma with each hand of cards they picked up - how to make the best use of their own Events and play around their opponent’s. Beginners often feel overwhelmed by the problem they have to solve, less aware than experts that their opponents usually feel the same way - and this, we felt, also captured the emotional essence of the Cold War. Leaders are often much more aware of their own problems than their rivals’, and sometimes act overly conservatively in response.

Part II: Playing Games Critically

Examples from history make everything clear, and furnish the best description of proof in the empirical sciences. This applies with more force to the Art of War than to any other.

Carl von Clausewitz, “On War”

Most people who play wargames and historical games play them for fun, and generally, that’s the purpose we design them to. And many professional military personnel enjoy them as well - as evidenced by the birthday party held for the United States Marine Corps each year at the San Diego Historical Games Convention every November. But players at the start of their military careers, who seek to make life-and-death decisions and hope to understand how others made those decisions under similar circumstances in the past, have to approach games with a different lens.

Earlier, I alluded to game rules that impose historical context on the players, to correct for their hindsight bias. In Mark Herman’s For the People, fortresses grant a simple +2 defensive modifier in combat, and furthermore there are no differing levels of fortification: a space is either fortified or not, and that’s that. This is ahistorical: Washington DC was the most heavily fortified location in the western hemisphere during the American Civil War, given its location so close to the border between Union-controlled Maryland and Confederate-controlled Virginia. Why, then, did Herman design the game that way?

In interviews, Herman has said that the reason is simple: if Washington had a historical level of fortification in the game, the Union player would feel safe about its defense, in a way his or her historical counterparts simply did not. The Union leadership consistently overestimated the Confederacy’s capability to assault Washington, and devoted significant men and materiel to safeguarding it, even though a smaller commitment would probably have let them hold it against any realistic Confederate attack. But a player of For the People unfamiliar with the historical record might conclude, incorrectly, that fortification in the American Civil War had a marginal effect in battle and that the Union decision to fortify so strongly (as opposed to garrisoning in such numbers) was a mistake. This happens because games, unlike books, are designed to induce a deep empathy with the decision-makers involved, such that their decisions seem plausible, even when history suggests they were wrong. This is also why some players can comfortably read about Nazi Germany’s campaigns, but don’t feel good about stepping into the shoes of von Manstein or Rommel.

Games can also distort reality just to make the game more playable. The COIN (COunter-INsurgency) series of games from GMT has exploded in popularity, since it has introduced players to a variety of conflicts rarely or never before gamed. Volko Ruhnke, the creator of the COIN system, lamented in the Andean Abyss designer’s notes that 90% of wargames cover 10% of actual war; the countless titles about the Bulge, Gettysburg, and Waterloo belie the ways in which the vast majority of violent human conflict has occurred.

Andean Abyss, set in the mid-90s, invites the players into the roles of the Colombian government, FARC, right-wing insurgents, and the drug cartels. Guerrilla units must be spotted before they can be engaged, and that almost always leaves them a time window to disappear again if they don’t want to fight. As the government builds its capabilities, it can gradually acquire the ability to shrink or eliminate these windows, and mount effective, if expensive, counter-insurgency operations. Games in the series now cover conflicts as diverse as Caesar’s campaign in Gaul to the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Yet every COIN game makes a massive simplifying assumption: guerrilla presence is known with perfect accuracy. In a COIN game, if an area is free of guerrillas, all the players know with certainty that there are, in fact, none there. This makes the games playable, since no system is needed to track hidden movement and deployment. That’s not to say nothing can be gained from playing games that make this type of tradeoff! But a military officer seeking to learn about counterinsurgency strategies would do well to remember that this is an example of games’ primary purpose as entertainment taking precedence over replication of the actual conditions decision-makers faced.

Therefore, to return to the spirit of the Clausewitz quote at the start of this section, games and historical records both serve as “examples of history”, but they have different goals for those who engage with them. Books and case studies seek to present history so that the reader can understand and assess the facts of what happened; games sometimes intentionally obscure what actually happened so that players can experience it as the participants did - and the participants usually had a thoroughly incomplete picture of what was actually happening. Training, then, should incorporate both: games, for practice at decision-making under uncertainty and to develop empathy with the people who had to make hard decisions in real life, in the hopes of doing better next time it counts; and traditional history, to understand the limits of that empathy’s usefulness and to see the whole picture as we know it.

Ananda Gupta is a Principal Game Designer at Riot Games. He has worked in the game industry since 2003, and won the James Dunnigan Award for game design in 2005. His most recent digital game work is on Riot's "League of Legends: Teamfight Tactics", and his most recent board game is "Imperial Struggle" (GMT Games, 2020). He lives with his family in Los Angeles, California, USA. LinkedIn profile:


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