Epistemic Status: Parable. Can’t tell to what extent I am being serious but it’s not zero.
Recently I made a huge mistake. At heart, I am a gamer. Playing games is fun and makes me happy, whereas not playing games often enough is less fun and makes me sad. I especially love high level competitive board and card games, with two of my favorite vacations being at the World Boardgaming Championship.
I’ve spent many days at conventions playing Advanced Civilization and enjoyed them all, from the early round games I won easily to my last place finish in the finals at AvalonCon and getting blown out by calamities early in the finals at WBC. Some day when I have the time to do so, I will go back and try again.
So when board gamer extraordinaire (and Magic: The Gathering Hall of Famer) Randy Buehler approached me about playing in an online Advanced Civilization game, that sounded like a lot of fun. It also sounded dangerous. Would I end up spending way too much time and attention on the game? Spoiler alert: Hell yes. He assured me that I would only need to check the game twice a day, and that seemed like a reasonable schedule and a good time, but would I be capable of that? Spoiler alert: Hell no. I would stay up nights to finish up trade negotiations. I would lay in bed unable to sleep thinking about what would happen two or three turns down the line. Actions in the game, including both others’ decisions and my own mistakes, would threaten to fly me into rages. My sleep and work suffered, and when I had an otherwise awful week on top of everything, things got pretty bad. Luckily they found a replacement, and I was able to leave the game without breaking it up – the others are still having fun and have the entire last third of the game to play, although I was far from the only one who got pulled in too deep!
You may be wondering whether this contributed to my not updating the blog for several weeks. You would be correct. Pro Tour: Amonkhet was also a major contributor to that. Hopefully I can get back in a good groove.
If you are interested in checking out the website, it is: http://civ.rol-play.com. Advanced Civilization is one of the all-time great games, and I am strongly considering writing a guide, but just remember that it is super, duper, ridiculously long (both the game, and any guide I would write) and with the extra information you get in an online game you can get wrapped up in the game far more than you might think. I do still intend to try a real-time, one-day game online sometime, and to play games in real life. So in some sense I’m giving it a very high recommendation, but in another sense I’m warning you to stay away. It is up to you to decide which end of this should win.
There are a lot of stories I could tell about the game, but the one I want to tell is a parable of how Trump won the Republican nomination.
To be clear, this is only a parable. I have nothing against anyone who played. The guy playing Crete, as far as I can tell, was a nice guy trying a strategy out in a game, and was actually very considerate of everyone in other ways, such as helping us track public knowledge about what cards were where. Would game with him again, and that goes for the other players as well. No matter how mad I was at him in game, that does not reflect badly on the person and stays in the game. The game is always self-contained. That is (part of) the Gamer’s Code of Honor by which I got 10 points to spend on other skills. That’s a lot of why we play. The fact that I was losing the ability to keep it self-contained was the whole reason I had to stop.
Because it all hit me a little too close to what’s left of home. Again, this is a parable.
Crete, played by a player who credibly was willing to fight a war even if it meant going down in flames (partly because he was going down in flames by default regardless), decided to start attacking other players. He had the choice to attack, and therefore hurt, whoever he wanted. At first, the motivation was to do what was best for Crete. When that first attack brought no retaliation, he attacked again where he would benefit most and also took a cost-less opportunity to hurt my position. No one wanted to do anything about it, because that would motivate Crete to attack them instead of other players. The next turn, he attacked two more players, and did his best to hurt people’s positions even when it didn’t help him, counting on his credible threat to retaliate against anyone who stood up to him. Out of the six other players, he had now hit five of us.
Given that this is a trading game, we had an easy solution to this: If we all just stopped trading with Crete, no amount of war would do him any good, and he would be left in the dustbin of history.
Despite that, everyone else seemed content to sit there and take it, other than one of them trying to retake the city Crete had raided. People thought Crete was weak, and could not actually win the game, so better that he not turn his eyes and fleets in their direction.
I decided not to take it. It was a matter of principle. Madmen cannot be allowed to win the day by threatening to engage in destructive behavior and destroy those who stand in their way. At some point, one must retaliate and stand up to bullies, or bullies will rule. We are told that what they are doing is ‘irrational’ but if it works, why is it irrational? We are told that striking back against this is ‘irrational’ but if it is clear the good people of the world won’t stand up to this behavior, they are asking to be curb-stomped by it over and over again – and we would basically deserve it. Decision theory says we must fight now, so that we did not have to fight in the past and do not need to fight in the future; pacifism is a losing strategy. Our desires for justice, for revenge, for retaliation sometimes gets out of control, but it is that risk that keeps the bullies and evildoers in check. We remain civilized in part because everyone has their breaking point, and you can never be sure where that point is.
And again, all we had to do was agree to stop trading with the pirate king. If you can’t agree to stop trading with a bunch of pirates who are raiding your cities, in a game with no stakes, what hope do we have standing up to real bullies in real situations with real stakes? Will evil always triumph over good because good is dumb?
So I declared an embargo against Crete and called upon the other victims of his aggression to join me. When Crete explicitly threatened to attack anyone who joined, I promised to help defend the cities of those who cooperated, and to give better pricing to embargo members than non-embargo members, with my intention to be slightly nicer than normal to allies and much less nice than normal to those who were attacked and yet wouldn’t join.
What did the others do?
Illyria, who Crete hadn’t attacked, announced they wouldn’t cooperate. I’d expected that, but had hoped for better.
Africa joined the cause, but was already on really bad terms with Crete and the two of them basically never traded, then demanded I give him increasingly better terms even when we’d already agreed on terms, because I’d said that embargo members get a ‘good deal.’
Assyria outright asked to be bribed to join the coalition.
Egypt didn’t even give me a chance to bribe him and just traded with Crete.
Only Babylon agreed to cooperate, and likely only because he absolutely needed to do a large trade with me that turn or we both would suffer, and even that was as part of our deal.
Around this point, I managed to find a replacement, so the story will continue without me. I hope the new Iberian president can brig home the victory, but I fear that everyone will just keep being nice to Crete and he will find a way to catch up and maybe even win.
In case it isn’t clear yet, the nations of the game are the candidates, and Crete is Trump. No one thinks he can win, but he’s good at hurting others, so everyone treats him nicely and cooperates, hoping he’ll clear a path for them to win. He hits more and more people, and when anyone starts hitting back, he threatens to hit them even harder instead of hitting others. If someone threatens a fight, he says bring it on, cause he’s got nothing to lose.
When someone does stand up to him, others refuse to cooperate, because they figure staying out of the fight means watching others destroy each other. So no one can afford to stand up without falling behind the field, and everyone learns not to poke the bear, even though the bear is busy poking everyone in sight, with or without that being a metaphor for something else. At some points, everyone looks around to see if coordination is going to happen, but it never gets off the ground in time. Everyone thinks there’s plenty of time for that later, if need be.
Then, by the time everyone realizes that wait a minute, that guy is actually going to win, and honestly they’d prefer any other result, it’s too late. He wins. People like him win. They get the job. They go on television. They scam investors. They start and run business after business, as I have seen up close. They take leadership roles, then take advantage of people like you and me, over and over again. They use this leverage, and their willingness to hurt others on a whim and break deals, to gain further power and leverage, and do it again on a bigger scale. Everyone tells you to put those guys in charge, to do business with them, to pitch them for their investments. If you don’t make the deal, others will blame you. Screw them. If you did make the deal, you would have inevitably been thrown you under the bus, because that’s who they are.
They enslave our children’s children who make compromise with sin.
No matter what they are offering, it is not worth it, because all they will do is eat you last. Walk away. Stand up, say no, fight back, and take the consequences.