Rod Humble is the CEO of Linden Labs. He is also makes small games, the most famous of which is probably the conceptual game The Marriage. He’s also a wargamer, and I wish I’d had more time to talk to him about what he was playing when I briefly saw him at E3 this year. He’s written his own miniature ruleset for Napoleonic battles. In general, one of the coolest guys in the industry who acts like he is continually astonished that he is a senior executive.
Anyway, Rod recently made a very simple game set in World War II. STAVKA-OKH is quite unlike any other wargame, in fact I’m not even sure it is a wargame. STAVKA-OKH is a game that is partly about strategy, partly about percentages, but really about decision making, player identity and the verdicts of history.
You can play a game in a matter of minutes, so I recommend you do so before you finish reading this post. It’s free. Read the rules carefully, since it’s an odd game.
First, you are a senior general in one of the totalitarian armies on the Eastern Front; the game chooses for you when you start up. You don’t assign the forces that are given to you – you only choose between three possible plans of attack. Each of these plans has a strength or a weakness strategically depending on the enemy plan, and each has different odds of being overruled entirely by the dictator.
So, the only real choice you make that can decide the outcome of the war can be regularly invalidated by your political master. Any decisions you make are contingent.
Success earns you glory, failure costs glory – unless the dictator has overridden your plan. If it’s his bright idea, then he reaps the rewards or penalties. If you think the Germans are going to steamroll you anyway, pick a plan you know Stalin will hate and let him look like a loser. And then you turn the war around with your genius. Right?
This is where the game gets even messier. If you take the role of your general seriously, there are two other variables to consider. First, do you support the party or not – doing so will add to your glory, failing to do so will subtract but each of these will also have an impact on the other variable, the verdict of history which is laid out at the bottom of the screen in each turn. If you take your “character” seriously, winning the war might not be enough or even what you want to happen. Because the war carries on around you.
Failing to win the war could lead to an honorable retirement. Or you could be hanged for war crimes. If you win the war, your politics might lead to you getting purged or exiled. Or maybe you become the heir to a brutal dictatorship responsible for genocide – the game never fails to remind you that Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars and millions of Jews and Poles and other Slavs are being killed. There are tallies for civilian casualties as well as military ones. A quick victory is in everyone’s interest, of course, but a gamble that fails will probably lead to your own head on the block.
Rod is one of those guys who loves the question of ethics in wargames. Be clear – there are no ethical choices to make here. If you try to waffle and try to avoid calling attention to yourself, you will avoid the hangman’s noose and the sword of Damocles, but you will also prolong the war leading to tens of millions of more deaths. If you fight well, but lose, you might be seen as a Rommel, I suppose – a general who avoided politics, but then Rommel didn’t survive the war, did he?
So we play a general, who ultimately has only the power of suggestion, being judged on the success or failure of plans he did not choose to begin with or approve in the end. And all around him is murder and savagery and criminality. But the war must be fought and the war must be won, or at least lost with energy.
STAVKA-OKH is not a game that I will come back to a lot. It’s an interesting experiment, and it’s cool to see the optional futures change as I gamble with my full throated support for the madman in power. And, like a lot of wargamers, I like to see how quickly I can get to Berlin or Moscow. It’s not a difficult game to win, and I think it’s easier to win if you just keep supporting the party, but that may just be my own luck.
But I felt a little dirty when Hitler said I could take over when he was gone.