Judging from Mark Mateski’s recent foray into the genre, wargamed-themed fiction is an idea whose time has come. In his thoughtful short story “The Metagame” at the Red Team Journal, he manages to addresses gaming, innovation, strategic evolution, and the nested logics of war.
AS A CHILD, Lewis B____ loved war. All year, he would long for Christmas, not for pudding or carols but for a tin of toy soldiers. It was all he ever asked for, and it was all he ever received.
As an adult, Lewis B____ loved war even more. Every evening on his way home from the factory, he would buy the daily metropolitan just to read the news from the front. He lived alone in a drab flat down by the wharf. No one ever visited, and Lewis preferred it that way.
But Lewis wouldn’t just read about skirmishes and dogfights; he would re-create them. His toy armies rivaled the real ones in number and variety. In every corner of his room, stacked to the ceiling, were carefully labeled tins and boxes, stuffed with miniature soldiers, sailors, and war wagons.
Every evening, he would unpack select units and reenact the battles of the day. Beneath the glow of a single lamp, Lewis would pore through the battle bulletins and extrapolate positions and tactics, his frayed and heavily annotated copy of C. F. G____’s The Science of Modern-Day War open on the floor beside him.
During the first months of the fighting, Lewis’ armies ably replicated the conflict. The war expanded, however, and the larger engagements soon overwhelmed his modest flat. He grew so frustrated at the massive landing at E____ Bay that for several days he didn’t unbox a single soldier. It was then that Lewis began to sketch the outlines of The Game.
For nearly a year, Lewis experimented with different cards, maps, and rules. At first, he despaired of ever being able to capture the complexity of conflict with anything short of an infinite deck. Some time during the middle of the second full summer of the war, however, he realized that The Game worked. He no longer had to bend the rules or add new cards to reenact even the largest engagements. What’s more, he realized that The Game clarified the actions of all players. Lewis had never before seen the clash of arms so clearly. In fact, no one had, not even the distinguished C. F. G____.
The Game in its eventual published form was actually quite simple: eighty-four cards organized into four suits—black, white, yellow, and red—plus four wild cards. Players alternated placing combinations of cards on a highly stylized map of the world.
LEWIS WAS A GENIUS. He was also a coward. As war spread across three continents, he fretted. Should he sell his game? If so, to whom? Should he burn it and retreat to his familiar toy soldiers? Some extra money would be nice, but nosey neighborhood monitors tended to frown on factory workers who thought above their station.
Against his better judgment, Lewis eventually confided in his brother, who knew a man who traded in trinkets—cheap baubles to prop up the spirits of children raised on privation and war. A game? He might be interested. Go see Pablo R____ on S____ Street. Lewis was skeptical, but curious and lacking any alternatives, he went.
Pablo R____ was less of a trader and more of a smuggler, or so Lewis suspected. Lewis showed him the hand-made game. Pablo shrugged. He might be able to sell it to an investor on the island—gangland territory. Lewis panicked. He fled the shop and returned the next day to discover that Pablo had sailed that morning, with The Game.
Pablo did find an investor, who discerned at least a fraction of The Game’s true value. Instead of marketing it to children, the investor sold it for a small fortune to an enemy princeling.
THE PRINCELING GAVE THE GAME to his field marshal who gave it to the head of the royal staff college, General V____, who played it for a week before proclaiming it to be “a paragon of martial sagacity.” General V____ commissioned the greatest painter in the land to design a version of The Game worthy of the general staff. Only ten numbered copies were ever published, each inlaid with gold leaf. They rarely left the general’s sight, and every night he locked them in a vault.
The general believed The Game could help him win the war, but—cautious like the old fox he was—he called the king’s greatest thinkers to a summit, where they tested, probed, studied, and dissected The Game for a month. At the end of the month, the royal mathematician proved that The Game was “a perfect facsimile of the infinitely variable cosmos”; the royal theologian declared The Game to be “a window into the mind of God”; and C. F. G____, who had retired to the kingdom on a hefty annuity, affirmed that The Game “perfectly embodied the principles I elucidated in The Science of Modern-Day War.” The chief royal spy (who was actually a spy for Lewis’ commonwealth) simply asked “What if The Game is a plant?” Everyone laughed.
Convinced The Game was legitimate, General V____ launched a training program. All general officers were required to be instructed on the workings of The Game within six months, other assignments permitting. Some grumbled, at least initially, but their objections waned when the battles began to turn. The princeling pinned medals on his field marshal and General V____ and issued execution orders for Pablo R____ and the initial investor, both of whom were fairly easy to trace. Through a series of improbable missteps, Lewis’ identity remained hidden, at least for a while….