Chapter 1: Balance of Power and the Real World

Balance of Power is a game about geopolitics in the nuclear age. You, the player, choose the role of President of the United States or General Secretary of the Soviet Union; the computer plays as the other leader. Your goal is to enhance your country’s prestige. Prestige in Balance of Power is the extent to which your country is liked and respected by the other countries of the world, weighted by their respective military strengths. You want to have many powerful friends, but few and weak enemies.

The geopolitical stage is full of activity: All over the world, internal rumblings threaten the stability of almost every nation. Insurgencies develop to challenge governments with military action. Coups d’etat strike down the leadership of governments and install new leaders. Diplomatic intimidation induces weak nations to Finlandize to the superpowers, in the hope that an accommodating stance toward the powerful nation will prevent an attack.

These processes are the vehicles that you use to enhance your country’s prestige. If an unfriendly government fights a desperate battle against guerrillas, you can provide weapons to the insurgents. If you are adventurous, you can even send your own troops into the country to intervene for the rebels (freedom fighters?). If the rebels succeed in overthrowing the government, their new regime will reward your assistance with friendly relations. Another unfriendly nation might be vulnerable to domestic destabilization; a judicious push by the CIA could topple the government and install a friendlier leader. Or perhaps a little diplomatic muscle-flexing could intimidate a small nation into a sensible Finlandization toward your country.

Of course, your computer opponent can take any of the same actions against your friends. To defend your friends, you have a number of options. You can help a friendly government with weapons shipments or even troop deployments (especially useful against insurgents). You can soothe domestic discontent with economic assistance which will bolster the regime against the possibility of a coup d’etat. Or any threat. This will enhance its confidence against attempts at intimidation by your opponent. Of course, you must honor your treaty commitments if they are to have any meaning.

You are free to engage in any of these policy actions anywhere in the world, as is your opponent. However, every move you make is subject to the acquiescence of your opponent. Should you perpetrate an action that your opponent finds objectionable, he might demand that you revoke your policy. This triggers the most dramatic moment of the game: the crisis. You can respond to his demand in one of two ways. You can accept his demand, back down, and countermand your action. Or you can stand firm and reject his demand, escalating the crisis to the next level. The ball goes to your opponents court, where he must decide whether to back down himself, or emphasize his determination in the matter by escalating the crisis to an even higher level. This process of escalation or retreat continues until either one side backs down, or the crisis escalates to what is called DefCon 1. If one side does back down, it loses considerable prestige in the eyes of the world, for nations lose respect for a superpower that talks big but backs down in a crunch. If neither side backs down and DefCon 1 is reached, then the missiles are launched and the world is destroyed in a nuclear conflagration. Both sides lose.

Balance of Power is thus a game of judgment. In your role as a superpower leader, you must carefully gauge your opponents likely response to every action you take. You must study the world situation carefully in order to be able to recognize those matters over which your opponent will not retreat. You must be able to differentiate these vital issues from opportunistic acts or bluffs on the part of your opponent.

To help the player in this effort, Balance of Power provides a mass of data on the nations of the world. A system of smart maps makes it easy to call up graphical representations of the state of insurgency, domestic discontent, diplomatic affinity, and many more variables for each nation of the world. (If you want to know how many television sets there are in Zambia, the figured is provided.)

The end result is a game that is complex and difficult. The richness of detail creates a compelling impression of verisimilitude. But there is a vast difference between the impression of verisimilitude and its reality. Just how accurate is this game in modeling the dynamics of geopolitical processes?

The complete answer to that question will take another five chapters. In this chapter, I wish to present some introductory thoughts on the problem of realism in Balance of Power. With this as an orientation, the reader will be better prepared to digest the material in the following chapters.

Games Versus Simulations
The first source of confusion that trips up many people is the difference between a game and a simulation. Most people do not perceive any clear distinction between the two. Since the true meaning of a word is defined by the perceptions of the people who use the word, it is not possible for me to authoritatively define the ultimate, true, and final meaning of the word “game”. However, the word has taken so broad a meaning as to lose its utility, so I feel some justification in attempting to more precisely nail down my own use of the word. Moreover, when the ambiguity of a word contributes to confusion, any attempt at clarification is justified.

Games and simulations are similar in that they attempt to represent reality, but they differ in the intentions of their designers. A simulation is a serious attempt to represent the operation of some system with a verisimilitude that the most knowledgeable experts in the subject would find acceptable. A simulation is often created with the intention of predicting the behavior of the system under situations not otherwise obtainable. For example, aircraft designers use computer simulations in the early stages of their work to test their ideas. It is much cheaper to simulate the behavior of an aircraft in a computer than to build the aircraft, watch it crash, and go back to the drawing board. Similarly, designers of nuclear weapons rely heavily on simulations to refine their designs. Its difficult to find spare cities laying around on which to test one’s newest 20 megaton H-bomb. So they try it out on the computer.

Another common use of the simulation is for training purposes. 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 firs 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. An unfortunate problem in translation, though, has been the source of some confusion. The German term for these simulations is Kriegspiel, which can be translated literally as war-play, and was translated into English as “wargame”. However, the German word did not carry with it the connotation of frivolity that the English word carries. Certainly the German approach to the simulation, with its huge array of formidable rules and its unyielding emphasis on their precise application, and the grim mien with which the German staff officers approached their Kriegspiel, would contradict any thought that this was playful activity.

Simulations are also used in business training. The aspiring executive can make her mistakes more cheaply in the confines of a simulation. She can try different marketing strategies, variations in the amount of money invested in research and development or manufacturing, and see how well her simulated company fares against its competition. The simulation allows one to see the complex interrelationships in any functioning business more clearly. It also provides a common basis for thinking within the organization. If all executives in a company have experienced the same simulation, they have a better basis for communicating their thought processes to each other.

In all these cases, a dominant factor in the utility of the simulation is its verisimilitude in detail. The simulation must accurately predict the lift of the new aircraft’s wing - if it is wrong, the airplane might crash. If the nuclear weapons simulation miscalculates the neutron budget of the hydrogen bomb, it might not detonate in combat; this would create an acute embarrassment to its designers. If the business simulation leads its students to misjudge their advertising budgets, their companies could go out of business. In all cases, the simulations are required to correctly predict a great many details. In most cases, these details are expected to be numeric quantities.

A game is dramatically different in its intentions. 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. The difference is a matter of soft concepts versus hard concepts - those things that cannot be measured as opposed to those things that can. A simulation and a game attempt to communicate entirely different messages. The simulation communicates technical information, while a game communicates something closer to an artistic message.

In actual practice, the information versus art distinction between simulations and games is muddied by a variety of additional considerations. Consider, for example, a low-cost entertainment flight simulator commonly available for microcomputers. Surely the fundamental factors calculated by the program are no different than those modeled by the multi-million dollar professional flight simulators. Even a consumer flight simulator must calculate lift, altitude, airspeed, and the like. How, then, is it different from a professional flight simulator?

The answer lies in my earlier phrase “verisimilitude in detail”. If your simulated aircraft is moving at an altitude of 8,000 feet, with a bank of 30 degrees and an airspeed of 180 knots, the microcomputer flight simulator is under no obligation to calculate the resultant lift with any great accuracy. If it makes some approximations here and there, if it cuts a few corners, nobody will be upset with it. By contrast, the professional simulator had better compute the lift accurately — that is its only reason to exist! If a pilot training on a professional flight simulator learns an incorrect response to a problem because of a flaw in the simulator, he could repeat the mistake in a real aircraft and jeopardize peoples lives.

This is one reason why professional flight simulators require large and powerful computers with lots of RAM, while entertainment flight simulators can operate on microcomputers with far less power. It takes a lot of computer horsepower to compute all the little details correctly. A simulation running on a mere microcomputer must cut a few corners.

[2014: that’s not true anymore; computers nowadays are immensely powerful.]

The home flight simulator faces a set of requirements that is different but not lesser than that of the professional product. The home flight simulator must create the illusion of accuracy, not its substance. A great deal of effort must be expended to create that illusion, to orchestrate the small visual or mental cues that will convince the user to suspend his disbelief. The user must, at some emotional level, believe that he is not sitting at the keyboard of his computer, but flying an airplane.

This requirement does imply that a certain level of accuracy be achieved. When the player puts the plane into a dive, it had better accelerate. But the exact rate of acceleration is utterly unimportant to the home user. More important would be the sound of the wind rushing by the cockpit faster and faster and the scream of the engine as the plane picks up speed. The simulation designer regards such factors as secondary and concentrates attention on the rate of acceleration. But the game designer sweats blood over the creation of his illusion.

Another difference between the game and the simulation arises from the players expectation of a clear conflict. In the real world, conflict is tamed by a variety of social inhibitions. Conflict exists and is unavoidable in a wide range of human activities, but we have developed a complex array of mores and psychological repressions that soften the conflict and divert it to productive ends. The businessman snarls, “Lets get out there and sell so many units that the competition wont know what hit em!” While these mores make possible our civilization, they grate against a physiology that is adapted to resolving conflicts with claw and tooth, not a handshake and a smile. There thus exists a craving for entertainment that provides simple, direct conflict with simple, violent resolution. Any game that hopes to achieve commercial success must accentuate the conflict and remove the inhibitions that frustrate our bloodlust. This does not mean that all games must be blood-soaked shoot-em-ups. They must, however, clarify, and emphasize the conflict inherent in the situation and provide the emotionally satisfying resolution that our real-world conflicts so often lack.

A third differentiating factor is the accessibility of the game. A simulation need not balk at requiring its users to study long documents or undergo lengthy preparations. A game, on the other hand, must be immediately accessible to its user. Consumers will not tolerate a game that requires them to read long, boring manuals before they can derive any benefit from it. In this respect, Balance of Power is one of the most demanding games in the marketplace, for its hefty manual is a necessary component of the game.

Implications for a Game Modeling Geopolitics
The considerations discussed so far make it possible to understand the basis for answering the question, “How realistic is Balance of Power?” The fact that it is a game does not mean that it must be fundamentally inaccurate; it is, after all, a representation of reality. But it will necessarily distort reality in a variety of ways. For example, the game accentuates the conflict in the geopolitical scene and presents a simplified view of the complex processes of the real world. These are distortions of reality but they do not make the game untruthful. A good portrait painter accentuates those facial features that reveal character and simplifies away those features that compromise his representation; in the process, the painter distorts reality to reveal truth, not deny it.

Consider, for example, a very simple question: How many of the worlds countries should be represented in the game? At first blush, most people would declare that all of the worlds countries should be included in the game. That certainly seems to be the safest and most accurate answer. But this is a game about geopolitical interactions; the question is, would the inclusion of all countries enhance or obscure the clarity of presentation of geopolitical interactions? A great many of the 150 countries of the world spend long decades in peaceful obscurity before some chance event propels them onto the world stage. How many Americans had heard of Grenada before the American invasion? How many Americans have heard of such countries as Cabinda, Andorra, San Marino, Oman, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, or Gabon? How many know the difference between Mauritania and Mauritius? Would learning about all these tiny countries add to ones understanding of grand geopolitical forces, or would it distract ones attention from such forces?

The geopolitical system consists of two superpowers, a dozen major powers, a few dozen minor powers, and a host of non-powers. The role played by the non-powers in the geopolitical arena is little more than that of a pawn. Any game purporting to illuminate the nature of geopolitical processes must focus primarily on the superpowers. Such a game must obviously have some pawns for the superpowers to squabble over, but their role will always be minor.

In designing Balance of Power, I decided that the inclusion of too many non-powers would be detrimental to a game, even though it would be a positive factor in a simulation, so I settled on a final count of only 62 countries. Verisimilitude of detail is desirable in a simulation, so more countries add to the value of a simulation. But the inclusion of many non-powers would only create a distraction. An excessive number of tiny countries in Balance of Power would be like verbiage in a sentence, clutter on a desk, or busyness in an image.

Relative Realism
The final general point I must make about the realism of the game is that the concept of realism is always measured relative to the perception of the viewer. A professor of political science will necessarily view the game in a different light than a twelve-year-old. The level of accuracy of the game must be gauged against the intellectual background of its likely audience. This is one of the reasons I chose the Macintosh as the initial target machine - my hunch was that the Macintosh audience would be an intellectually mature group. A complex game such as Balance of Power demands a great deal of intellectual effort from its players.

[2014: The user base of the Mac audience is no longer much different from the user base of Windows machines.]

The game designer must pick a target level of realism appropriate to his audience. By doing so, he gains the scorn of those more educated than his target and loses the comprehension of those less educated than his target. The distribution of education in a large population being what it is, most game designers tend to target toward a sixth-grade education. It takes a strong-willed (in the words of one editor, fanatic and obstinate) game designer to shoot for a college level of education in his game.

I must admit that I aimed a little too high with Balance of Power. I assumed a good deal more understanding of geopolitical issues of the average American consumer than appears to be the case. Many players seem to regard the game as unwinnable. This has been a source of dismay and embarrassment to me.

Realism as Process Versus Realism as Data
Another important consideration regarding the nature of realism concerns the realism of the process as opposed to the realism of the data. Most people think of realism in terms of data. They ask if the Gross National Product is correctly reported, or if the number of troops in this country is accurate. But data is not the most important element in realism - process is. Thoreau made the point in Walden:

“If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter - we need never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications?”

What is important is the principle, not the instance, and principles are processes. The actual amount of the GNP of Ghana is less important, for the purposes of a game on geopolitics, than the manner in which GNP changes with time. The fact that Nicaragua has poor diplomatic relations with Washington is less important than the reasons why Nicaragua has poor diplomatic relations with Washington. You can’t interact with a fact. It’s like a dead fish - it just lies there. But you can interact with a process. You can shape it, change the parameters that affect its behavior. Ultimately, you can learn about it. Facts are best relegated to books and other static media, and computers are best applied to problems involving processes, for computers are not ‘Data processors’ but ‘data Processors’.

Processes are the real stuff of the world. If we have the wisdom to survive the next 100 years, our descendants will look back on our squabbles with Nicaragua as so much irrelevant nonsense. But the same principles, the same processes that govern our relationship with Nicaragua, will still be in force. More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides, writing about the Peloponnesian War, said, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” Replace Athenian with American and Sparta with Russia and you may have our epitaph. The facts of Athens and Sparta are dust, but the principles have not changed.

This concept - which I call process intensity - is the organizing principle of this book. The chapters focus on the four processes of geopolitical interaction that I chose to emphasize in the game: insurgency, coups d’etat, Finlandization, and crises. I give the facts themselves short shrift. Facts are transitory, while processes are the enduring truths.

A number of people have asked if I plan to prepare an update to the game, incorporating the latest changes of the international scene. They seem to believe that events like the fall of Marcos and the American attacks on Libya somehow change the circumstances of the game. These events change only the cosmetics of the game, not its substance. Balance of Power is a game about geopolitical interaction, the principles of which have not changed fundamentally since the introduction of the nuclear-tipped ICBM. It would take but a few hours work to rearrange the game to include the events of the last year. For that matter, it would not take much more time to make the game cover the period of the 1960s. In the last twenty-five years the details have changed but the principles have not, and Balance of Power is a game about principles and not details. I have no plans for any updates, for there is nothing in the game to update.

[2014: My publisher prevailed on me to make an updated version nonetheless. The basic gameplay didn’t change, but I added bells and whistles.]

[2014: Since the end of the cold war, geopolitical dynamics have changed, and so a new Balance of Power would be appropriate — if ever I get enough time.]

Realism and Learning
If the realism of the game is measured relative to the level of expertise of the perceiver, then it follows that the learning process of the game must itself make the game seem less realistic. That is, the beginning player will accord the game a great deal of respect, but as he plays the game and learns the principles behind it, his growing understanding of geopolitical processes will make it easier for him to see the flaws in the design. This is a natural and predictable phenomenon, and is in fact the best measure of success of the game. A game that fails to change its player is a failure. A game should lift the player up to higher levels of understanding; in the process, the player who once stood at its feet later stands on its shoulders.