At ExtraNewsFeed, Mintaro Oba discusses “How Settlers of Catan Explains International Relations.”
Besides the simple fact that it’s fun, Settlers of Catan (together with gin rummy, which I’ll discuss in another post) is the best representation of international relations in game form. And it raises fascinating questions about the nature of rules and how we create them — questions that are unfolding on the international stage today.
Cooperation in a Competitive World
Some games, like Pandemic, are almost entirely cooperative. On the other end of the spectrum are games like Risk — either entirely zero-sum (“my gain is someone else’s loss”), based too much on chance, or both.
Settlers gets it just right. It’s basically competitive and zero-sum; you have to build and grow your settlements, cities, and roads to get to ten points before anyone else. There’s a finite amount of the space and resources necessary to expand. The robber and certain bonus cards allow players to go on the offensive against other players. There’s a good chance players will be at each others’ throats as the game winds on.
But on the margins, economic interdependence allows for some cooperation. Players can only start off with a certain amount of the necessary resources. Some territories are more productive than others. Yet at various points in the game, any player will need brick, wood, iron ore, etc. So, players trade their comparative advantages; a player with a surplus of iron ore can exchange with a player who has a surplus of brick. Both benefit.
I’m not at all sure that it is the best simulation of international relations in game form. Moreover, despite apparent mutual benefits from trade—and unlike real global politics—Settlers of Catan is still a game which can only have one winner. In this sense, while trade may appear mutually beneficial, if it shifts your opponent closer to winning than it shifts you it’s a bad move. Ultimately, that’s a variant of non-cooperative, near-zero-sum play.
Having said all that, semi-cooperative game design is an important game design challenge precisely because semi-cooperation is so common in many real-world situations. You’ll find my thoughts on the issue in this presentation I made last year to the RAND Center for Gaming.
National Defense University has recently published Charting a Course: Strategic Choices for a New Administration, edited by R.D. Hooker, Jr. In a chapter on “The Future of Conflict,” T.X. Hammes emphasizes the importance of wargaming in examing emerging issues and challenges:
As a power projection nation, our deployment options may become more limited. We have to think through the implications of forward basing in theater versus basing in the United States and deploying only for a crisis. Our enemies and allies see the increasing density of A2/AD systems globally. It is essential we modify our planning accordingly. Wargaming must examine the operational impacts of fighting a variety of enemies with long-range sea and air precision strike. China will not be the only power to own such systems. Just as importantly, wargaming must explore the political implications when an enemy can threaten other nations that support our deployment chain. (Japan, for example, is crucial to any effort to help defend South Korea and could easily be targeted by the North Korean regime in time of war.) Accordingly, we must seek methods to attack an opponent’s strategy rather than simply destroying its forces.
We need wide-ranging research and supporting analysis as well as wargames to address key questions. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work’s memorandum on wargaming is a very strong first step. Continuing research is required to answer a wide range of questions:
- Most importantly, how can strategy neutralize potential opponents’ strategies? For instance, how do we counter the perception that China may be able to exclude U.S. forces from the region? What steps can we take to assure allies that in fact we can honor our treaty obligations?
- How do we protect those nations providing support as we do so—in particular, the politically sensitive targets that can be attacked with long-range, precise, but relatively low-explosive-weight weapons?
- If we forward deploy, how dispersed will forward forces have to be to survive? How much would we have to invest in hardening forward bases versus investing in protecting stateside bases and building the lift necessary to deploy?
- What are the political/alliance costs if we choose to station fewer forces forward?
- Are we willing to employ long-range strike from the United States if we know the enemy can reply in kind? • Once forces are deployed, how do they operate in the presence of swarms of smart weapons?
- Do we need to deploy more forces forward to ensure they are there for the fight? Or should we just preposition the equipment and supplies? Or are both supplies and forces safer out of the potential theater of operation?
The Journal of Political Science Education, now with a new editorial team under the leadership of Victor Asal, is looking for contributions:
Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (editors: Mitchell Brown and Shane Nordyke): Submissions should use the highest standard of evidence in writing about evidence-based approaches to teaching practices and encourage assessment of such teaching and practices. Submissions can be diverse in terms of topic, analytic approach, and levels of analysis, but must maintain systematic methodological approaches. Length of manuscript may range from 3,000-8,000 words, and research notes between 2,000-5,000 words. Authors of accepted papers will be required to make datasets publicly available online through their choice of venue or provide a compelling rationale if they are unable to do so.
Political Science Instruction (editor: Joseph Roberts): Submissions should focus on innovative teaching cases that discuss useful pedagogy, including strategies, games, and experiential learning in teaching political science to diverse audiences. They should also be organized around real classroom problems and potential solutions. Submissions may range in length from 2,000-4,000 words.
Reflections on Teaching and the Academy (editor: Mark Johnson): Submissions should be from experienced scholar-teachers that focus on reflections on timely and important teaching topics that include transitioning between institutional types, teaching under-prepared students, training graduate students for teaching careers, and other issues. Submissions may range in length from 1,000-2,000 words.
Books, Teaching Tools, & Educational Resources (editor: J. Cherie Strachan): Submissions should help readers identify available new books, software and resources, and to improve classroom and co-curricular learning experiences through reviews of textbooks, pedagogy tools and other related resources. Submissions may range in length from 500-2,000 words.
You’ll find more information at the Active Learning in Political Science blog.
Kathleen Mercury has a useful website on game design, largely aimed at designing strategy games for children. You’ll find it at http://www.kathleenmercury.com.