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Thoughts on Appeasement and Compellence

February 27th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Design, History

The always interesting Vic Davis has recently posted about appeasement as an historical tactic and game mechanic.

Appeasement as a strategy is often a bad choice. It can be a catastrophic choice under certain conditions. Perhaps the most famous from the last century is the sad spectacle of the Munich Conference in 1938 and Neville Chamberlain’s worthless paper waved in the air with the declaration of “Peace in Our Time.”

It’s funny how a single historical event can completely alter how people think of certain diplomatic strategies. Appeasement was a standard diplomatic tool for most of the modern era, and the bad name it got in 1938-39 has convinced many leaders since that you should never give in to demands, that all concessions are followed by further demands, and that anyone who does anything is just another Hitler on the rise. (See the Suez Crisis for an example of when the Munich analogy blinded Britain to what could have been a sensible negotiation.)

But as a game mechanic, appeasement has issues, as Davis notes. Appeasement can make your opponent stronger, and in a zero sum situation like a game, strengthening your opponent is the last thing you want to do. Good games also enforce fog of war, so imperfect information makes every demand a potential threat.

One problem with appeasement that Davis does not get into is when the shoe is on the other foot. If a player never has a good reason to concede to a demand, why should the AI opponents concede? If appeasement is a bad strategy for the player, isn’t it also a bad strategy for the computer?

Davis writes:

[R]efusing to appease the Dane carries consequences and costs as well. The analytical framework helps identify those costs. Often one cost is that the sword must be bloodied. If the system within which you operate includes the use of force as an arbitrator of disputes then to ignore it as an option is to handicap yourself tremendously.

My bold.

It’s not just “often one cost”, it’s “almost always the cost”. Sure sometimes there are financial penalties like upkeep and the whole guns/butter thing. But for the most part, the calculation between what is a reasonable cost for not meeting an unreasonable demand is broken. And, since war is often the only viable consequence of failure to compel, you will never see anyone make demands of an equal opponent. It’s all about bullying the weak nations, the Melian Dialog in game form. The strong do what they can, the weak do what they must. There are, conceivably, no sticks to beat the strong with.

It’s sort of unfortunate that so many of the implied threats in games are military. The only way to really penalize an actor is through war and conquest. In the Total War games, you can make demands of your neighbors, but the only way they’ll cave in is to show the flag with a neighboring army and add the “Accept or We Will Attack” codicil. The range of other compellent actions is too narrow. No threats of an embargo, or funding an enemy or fomenting revolt.

The other big part of compellent threats missing in most games is reputation. Some games will track whether or not you are a warmonger or landgrabber. But they don’t track whether or not you back up your threats. The rational actor theory of compellence (I wrote my dissertation on compellent threats, by the way) argues that past behavior of an actor is a predictor of future behavior. So if you make a threat as part of a demand, and don’t follow through when called on it, you will have trouble being believed in the future. (In the real world of high politics, this doesn’t work so nicely since the compellent threat is too rare to form solid predictive models of individual behavior. So leaders rely on other stuff like “national character”, psychological profiles or seeing into Putin’s soul.)

In a game that easily models whether a nation is capable of taking Madrid, it shouldn’t be so hard to model whether or not they are likely to. Civ IV’s personality feature is a small step forward here, except that the personalities are generally fairly rigid – some leaders are terrible neighbors, no matter what you do. There is very little “learning” about what an opponent will do, like there is in a multiplayer game; if you end up on a small continent with Shaka, Napoleon and Montezuma, you either restart or hope you are playing the Romans near iron, or Sitting Bull.

Hmmm. That was more rambling than it sounded in my head. Fill the comments with comments.


15 Comments so far ↓

  • Jon Shafer

    Diplomacy in games is really tricky. You really have to “get down to the metal” in what the effect will be for the changes you make. It’s easy to add a feature that no one will ever use (or vice versa) without realizing it.

    The game I enjoyed diplomacy in most was a Napoleonic board game called Empires in Arms. Although I’ve read much about it, I have never played the actual “Diplomacy” game (shameful, I know!) and I know there are obvious lessons to learn from here as well. I’m curious if the AI in any game has ever given a truly proper performance. Anyone have suggestions on (electronic) games that have done diplomacy really well?


  • Troy

    Strangely enough, absolutely not the computer versions of either Empires in Arms or Diplomacy. Both miss the essential diplomatic dynamic of the board game versions.

    Diplomacy is really tough, and I think a lot of games get little pieces right. Civ gets the +/- of relations down pretty well; you can repair a bad relationship if you try hard enough, and the new random events put it even more in your control since you can provoke a war gradually by pissing off your neighbors.

    The larger Paradox games get the interrelationships right, how treating some people well will spin off good vibes with their friends. There’s also leadership talent and religious stuff, to boot. But often relations enter a spiral where you have a bunch of people who love you and a bunch of people who hate you. There is also too much balancing and not enough bandwagoning.

    The old Imperialism games were great, because they explicitly used trade as a bonus to diplomacy. Buy somebody’s stuff and they like you. So you would find yourself in competition for markets and being cautious about who you forced out. In the end, it often boiled down to how much land you directly controlled, but the colonial expansion was very well paced.

    In a way, there’s an uncanny valley thing with diplomacy. The more options you add, the more things I wish I could do. We need more than a simple war/peace thing, of course, but there’s something to be said for simplicity.

  • Paul

    Good stuff.

    Game design seems to be obssessed with warfare, but maybe an artifical mechanic to enhance the benefits of peaceful cohabitation would be something to try. The problem, of course, is that living peacefully with a neighbor while still furthering your own interests is more difficult to model than throwing spears at each other (and maybe not quite as fun, either).

  • Troy

    Well, it doesn’t have to be peaceful. Just different types of conflict. And different ways to model expectations of conflict. It’s all Hobbes out there, a war of all against all.

  • Scott R. Krol

    It can be done, just that the level of AI we deal with needs to be bumped up. Unfortunately since AI development isn’t very sexy everyone is concentrating on the next great graphical embellishment…

  • Jimmy A. Brown

    The old Imperialism games did have one of the more satisfying diplomatic experiences. It hadn’t occured to me exactly why, but I think you nailed it with its incorporation of trade. Other games may include it as a minor factor, but Imperialism brought it to the forefront. Even as much as I enjoy Civ IV, it bugs me when I can have a table full of trade with Montezuma right up until he attacks for no real reason.

    Modelling of military conflict is definitely easier, even allowing for the apalling level of troop losses that games permit the player to endure. It is also easiest for players to grasp. I think those things as much as substandard AI make it a preferred method of victory (fortunately the game ends before the rebuilding phase). Other types of victory are more abstract, but to my thinking, Imperialism showed that the overall design of the game can help address many of the flaws in computer AI.

    Not that I am opposed to better AI, of course.

  • Vic Davis

    Reputation is a great point. I see this personally a lot in poker games where you have to assess the other players’ bidding strategy and reputation/past behaviour plays a huge part. The analysis though often becomes such a house of mirrors that it’s no wonder a random strategy is often the dominant one. :) Being crazy and not rational can pay off.

    The big thing about computer 4x strategy games that makes the diplomacy so unsatisfying is the artificial nature of the win conditions. Any game where you have to conquer/anihilate your enemies to “win” is not going to mimic/simulate the richness of real life because that just doesn’t happen. Since the dawn of the modern nation state in the 17th Century very few nations have simply dissappeared. As it’s been amply pointed out by others, despite the new unifying trends of globalization nation states are multiplying rather than dissappearing/combining. It’s almost like you can’t lose the game… if continued existence of the nation is the key win condition.

  • Troy

    “Being crazy and not rational can pay off.”

    That’s what Kissinger thought; Nixon should take advantage of his reputation as a loose cannon and use the uncertainty to paralyze enemies. This flies in the face of conventional deterrence theory, which relies on everybody knowing what the other actor intends to do.

  • Scott R. Krol

    “Any game where you have to conquer/anihilate your enemies to “win” is not going to mimic/simulate the richness of real life because that just doesn’t happen. Since the dawn of the modern nation state in the 17th Century very few nations have simply dissappeared.”

    Yeah, that was the main driving force for my sci-fi wargame (unfinished) in which victory was set forth by political desires dictated to the player. Victory would never involve complete and total annihilation.

    Then again, you could make an argument about WWII being a perfect example of a total conquest in the modern age.

  • Michael A.

    I was going to post a long response to this on my blog, but in deference to work requirements, I think I shall just reply very briefly here.

    I agree with the points raised, but the main issue I would point to is (lack of) economic reality.

    In reality, military operations are extremely expensive and conquest rarely pays off (consider the recent three trillion dollar war debate). In reality, large empires were (are) invariably involved in a continual struggle for solvency trying to maintain the large standing armies simply required to maintain their position (never mind expanding). E.g., the annual Spanish revenue from the Americas in the 1580’s was 2 million ducats – the armada cost 10 million. By the time Philip died, he bequeathed 100 million ducats in debt to his successor – and this was the Spanish empire at the height of its power.

    In games, on the other hand, war almost always pays for itself with a rapid recovery and incredibly fiscals. Maintaining empire is trivial, and the result is that once a power has reached a certain size (in the hands of the player), it becomes an unstoppable steamroller. As opposed to reality, it is always most efficient to conquor a region.

    Total conquest is a historically rare outcome in war because in reality the costs tend to exceed the benefits. That makes appeasement a practical solution, because the potential aggressor gains more from letting the appeaser live, than they would from war.

  • Jon Shafer

    @ Michael A.:

    Unfortunately, the economic consequences of war (at least, realistic representations of them) don’t translate well to most games. If war is too expensive then players won’t utilize it. Most find war is the best part of strategy games like Civ. If you make war too hard/costly then you may be REMOVING fun rather than adding it.

    Diplomacy isn’t going to be made more fun if you simply force players to use it instead of fighting. You’d need to both 1) curtail the rewards for war and subsequently 2) make diplomacy fun/interesting/viable. Making the first change without the second will just hurt the game. It’s the necessary second part that’s hard.


  • Michael A.

    I hope that goes without saying. :)

    Though I’m not sure I entirely agree that people find war the best part of strategy games like Civ. Civ has a powerful… well… Civilization element in it (at least that’s what I’d call it in boardgame speak). There is a lot of entertainment to be had from simply “building” an empire, which is also evidenced from the elaborate stories players build from the limited templates such as Europa Universalis or Crusader Kings.

  • Jon Shafer

    Yeah, there’s certainly more to Civ than just combat, but if you go and compare conquering the world with selecting 10 Buildings from a list for each of your cities… well, I know what I find more interesting. ;)


  • Michael A.

    People have different priorities. I know several people whose key enjoyment in Civ is to build up the biggest, most productive empire possible … to them, wars seem mostly a distraction. Similarly, it is obvious that to some Paradox game players, the key experience in the game is the story being told, rather than the wargaming part.

    The key, I think, would be to incorporate restrictions on the player in a manner such that it becomes an integral element of the game experience. If board games can manage this, why shouldn’t computer games be able to?

  • william morrison

    As an oldman who don’t play computer games I learned a lot. Games to dominate for good or bad or simply the game itself are to win. I suppose a person might secede to their rating of themself and lose on purpose real soon. Or take their time to the ultimate death of whatever fate. I saw from comments on AI, whatever good or bad or ineffective from AI, and games to win for the ultimate, EMPIRE. Seems fair unuf. That ultimate GAMES PLAYERS go for broke everytime. A template of sort for AMERICA to follow. In our wake destruction is guaranteed. Real GAME players the one-percenters safe money following itself back and forth over moral consideration. Dispassionate. Other people being screwed play. So that’s came into my mind reading comments.