A Political Strategy Game
When it appeared The Game of Nations was rather different to the usual Waddington game of the time. I remember them for family games with most having themes suitable for those with children under 12. But then, just as we faced petrol rationing, The Game of Nations appeared, a game set in a fictional middle eastern world full of oil rich states. It came with an accompanying leaflet, written by a CIA agent, that discussed strategy for the game.
Not only was the theme unexpected it was also unusual as there was nothing in the rules that clearly defined a winner. What follows is a little background on my relationship with the game in the period between its publication, in 1973, and the point when I had an article published about it in 1982. The article appears here with the text as published in the magazine and copies of the diagrams I submitted.
Incidentally, for those who enjoyed the music of The Police, I learned much more recently that the author of that strategist's guide, was the drummer's father.
Back in the 1970s I became a regular buyer of the magazine "Games and Puzzles" after a colleague had passed me a copy of Issue #51 in 1976.
At the time I was a full time youth worker in Norfolk. Before that I had worked for the old Northampton Borough Council as a youth worker. (The Borough Council merged with the County Council, while I was there, in the local government reorganisation of 1974.) While in Northampton I had bought a copy of Waddington's "The Game of Nations" for members to play in the youth club that I managed.
By the late 1970s role playing games were becoming the great new thing in gaming, not to mention the birth of video games. But I kept returning to The Game of Nations as it seemed a little different from the conventional family board game for which Waddingtons were famous.
Then, in the early 1980s, I thought it was time to share my thoughts about the game and I submitted an article that analysed play to Games and Puzzles, hoping it to would appear in the magazine. However, I didn't know it was about to morph into separate magazines, "The Gamer" and "Top Puzzles". My submission ended up as a featured four page article in the new "The Gamer" magazine.
THE GAME OF NATIONS
Power Struggles - Oil - Secret Agents - GREG CHAPMAN presents a detailed analysis of the game of odd objectives
THE Game of Nations board, shown in figure 1, has eight countries marked on it on the continent of Kark. These each have varying numbers of oil wells. Each country has a circle drawn within it and eight points marked on it which represent the spaces that the pieces move round. The small circles on certain points represent the countries‘ capitals. Question marks are the chance card spaces, called 'International Incidents', and the arrow heads are where pieces may cross from one country to another. Each player has seven pieces; two kings, two politicians, a guerrilla, a dictator and a secret agent. There are four sets of these in red, white, blue and green. There is a stock of tankers, pipelines and money, and apart from the rules the box also contains 'An Armchair Strategists Introduction to the Game of Nations'.
Play starts with an issue of money and a tanker to the players and a round of turns in which players place one of their ‘leaders’ and their secret agent on the board. Alter this play proceeds with each player's turn having four phases. In the first, revenue is claimed. For each oil well and tanker a player can pair up he can claim money, providing the tanker is on the coast of the country where the oil well is and the player has his own leader on the capital. If the oil is coming from an inland country, he must occupy the capitals of both countries and have a pipeline joining them. The amount he gets depends on the leader on the capital space of the country where the well is. ll‘ it is a king or politician, which l call high value leaders, he gets £2m, though he only gets £1m if a guerrilla or dictator controls the country. The second phase is that of secret agent movement. The piece must be moved four spaces. The agent's role is one of disrupting leader piece movement, as a leader may not move past an enemy agent. Leader piece movement comes next. This costs money, £2m to place or move a high value leader one space, Elm for the other two leaders, and it is why it is so important to ensure an adequate income in the revenue phase. In every turn a player must place a leader on a vacant capital or move one of his already on the board; if he cannot afford to, he is out of the game. As already explained, leaders may not pass enemy agents and may not pass, or even move onto the same space, as another leader, unless it is on a capital space when it is captured and removed from the board. Finally there is the transaction phase when a player can buy or sell or move one tanker and buy and place one pipeline. Tankers cost £5m and pipelines £3m. Tankers can be sold back to the International Monetary Fund, (the bank) tor £3m, but pipelines once placed are never removed from the board, regardless of who controls the countries they join.
The game then seems a fairly simple one, and so it is it only the mechanics are being considered, although the rule book’s brevity fails to cover a number of situations that are constantly arising in play. The rule books says, for instance, that a leader is ‘removed from the board’ when attacked. l have always assumed this meant it should be returned to the stock of the player in question rather than permanently removed from the game. Another point not adequately covered is whether a player is out of the game if his only leader on the board is attacked. The paragraph on ‘surviving’ only says that a player is out of the game it he has no money and so cannot afford to move a leader, and if we do allow a player in this position to continue, because he does have money, what happens it there are no vacant capitals on his following turn? Similarly, what happens, on a player's turn, it there are no vacant capitals and all those leaders he has on the board have other leaders on both sides of him? He cannot move on to their spaces and yet the rules say he must move or place a leader in every turn. I have always interpreted the ‘surviving‘ paragraph to mean that not having the money to pay for movement is the sole criteria for expulsion from the game, and temporary inability to move or place a leader should not lead to expulsion.
The vagueness of the rules for surviving are curious in view oi the message on the box lid: '...there are neither winners nor losers-only survivors.' All the help we get is 'the overriding object is to remain in the game!' There is nothing about any of the other objectives that are implied at all. So what does one do’? Players I have come across have created their own secondary objectives; two of the most popular being to become the richest player or to be the last survivor. Both these present problems, mainly because these players usually insist that they become everyone else‘s secondary objectives too. This is the time to get them to read the ‘Armchair Strategist's Introduction’. From this they will see that players really are intended to pursue their own goals and that there is not intended to be an overall game winner. Each player is supposed to judge his success in his own terms. Many of my not-particularly-games oriented friends find this difficult to cope with.
It is not just the rules and the strategist's introduction that deliberately avoid giving players guidelines on how to determine a winner; there is another aspect which demonstrates it is the designer's intention not to have one. This is the layout of the board. Most players realise quite quickly that the eight countries are not arranged in a symmetrical layout. lt is easy to see that the circles around which the pieces move are in a 3x3 square with one corner missing. Not only this, but also the oil well distribution within the square does not follow a pattern. Then there is the anomalous U.O.R. with a coastline to both north and south, and control of the canal, which forms its eastern border. What is not always realised quite so quickly are the implications of all these features for long term planning. important too, in the shorter term are the positions of Capitals and International Incident markers. Where two players open the game on Rabala and Zulfi and the one that moves first has a low value leader on his capital, he has the ability to reach, and so capture, his opponent, which at this stage would be his only leader on the board. This would not be possible If Zulfi's capital was on even the south-easterly point, and helps convince me that my interpretation of the survival rules is correct. After all, the rules say that 'players represent super powers manipulating the leaders under their control in an effort to acquire oilfields.' So it seems reasonable to assume that although one puppet government may be overthrown you may still have another waiting, in exile, to take over.
Moving on to mid-game objectives, players will invariably want to increase their earning powers, for with revenue comes security, and the ability to counter-strike from another country if one’s main revenue base is attacked. In order to take advantage of the third tanker which players should fairly quickly be able to afford one must build pipelines. The rules do not say that pipelines have to be built across borders where leaders can pass and, as can be seen from figure 2, the pattern of possible pipeline connections is distinctly different from the incomplete square of leader movement. In figure 3 yet another way of looking at the board is given showing pipeline and leader connections with solid lines and pipeline-only connections with dotted lines. Another ambiguity in the rules, worth mentioning at this point, is that of the length of pipelines. The rules only refer to pipelines from an inland country direct to the coast. As can be seen from the diagrams there are only nine such routes, however the game contains twelve pipeline pieces. Clearly intercoastal country connections are intended, and one can assume the two remaining connections, between Bedafa, Kurut and Abu Akar as well. Implicit with this assumption is that oil may be piped for as long a distance as is required by the player trying to pair his well and tanker. However one must also assume that any country that such oil passes through must have its capital occupied by a leader oi that player.
In my view long term objectives should not be decided until all the players have placed their first leaders. The reasoning is that each new set up of the game is a rewriting of Kark's history up to the time of the beginning oi the game. Only when I can see my exact relationship with both neighbouring and distant players can I tell what kind of world l am living in. This assumes that I shall be playing in a game with what the Strategist’s Introduction calls my ‘individual concept of winning‘ kept secret. I feel this reflects the game scenario. In the real world pronouncements by the super powers about their intentions of support for third world countries can rarely be taken at face value. The essential problem in advising on correct strategy for the game is that of the scenario. For if players are meant to represent super powers, then it is reasonable to assume that they would be playing off what happens in Kark against what happens in another part of the world. However there is no mechanism for this in the game. It would even be reasonable, given the scenario, to play towards some ‘Losing‘ objective such as surviving only twenty turns, l.e., making a strategic withdrawal from this area of the world, or surviving on revenue of £1m per turn, thus keeping only a minimum influence on the continent. Whatever the plan, though, It needs an understanding of tactics in order to succeed.
The first thing one needs to consider is the implications of the first leader placement. Not only is there the Rabala/Zulti quick-death syndrome already mentioned, which unless some pre-game treaty has been arranged effectively prevents a later player opening in the other one of the pair if the first player has opened with a low-value leader, but even if the first player places a high value leader he is not safe himself, for it the second player places a low value leader he threatens to take the first player's piece. The only defence is to move it off the capital, when it can risk the loss of the tanker and certainly means loss of revenue in the crucial early stages.
Most players will open with a high-value leader on one of the two well coastal countries. it they do they hope to be able to afford a third tanker and the necessary pipeline by the fourth turn after the start. However even in a two-player game a lot can happen in tour turns. Should a player open with a low value leader then it will take till the eighth turn to afford the third tanker. But these are not the only openings. the U.O.R. although only having one native well has a ready built pipeline connection with Abu Akar at the beginning of the game and so saves a player opening there £3m, but occupying Abu Akar and holding it can be a major problem. Elika has a better chance of holding it in the long term, as I explain later. Zulfi will be looking for a chance too, though Kurut would be no harder for it to hold. it is unclear whether players are only allowed to open on the coastal countries. The rules state 'The starting player must place any one leader on the red capital circle of any country he chooses,' but later say, 'he will then wish (he ls not compelled) to place his tanker at the coast near his capital.' Perhaps the vagueness is because, as the Introduction admits, the game was designed as a four-player game and only later adapted for two or three players as well. It certainly would be exceedingly precarious to open in the centre of the board with four players. With two players the situation is different and it may be wiser to open in the centre and get early control of a particular four- well country.
The pack is of 16 cards, four each of four types:
- Remove a tanker.
- Receive (3-6) million in revenue.
- (Name leader) may move up to 7 spaces without payment free of incident cards and regardless of secret agents. Cannot pass another leader.
- Remove (one of) your (named) leader(s).
A danger throughout the game are the chance cards, though players have the option of not taking them. The actions demanded by the cards, stripped of their descriptive preambles, are shown in the table and although nominally the pack is fairly evenly balanced with two types of 'good' cards and two 'bad', the precise odds are a little more complicated to work out as it depends on what leader types a player has on the board at the time of drawing the card. Points worth noting are that to take a chance card very early in the game, before owning a second tanker, is courting immediate elimination. The 'Remove a tanker' card is the most damaging. The most closely balancing 'good' card, the 'l.M.F. Loan', will probably have cost as much to get as is received from it, and the odds are against the relevant leader being on the board for the other two card types to have any effect. Without the option element the 'Free Leader Movement' card could also be seen as a 'bad' card as it might have forced a leader to move from a vital revenue earning capital. Even with its optional element, the balancing 'Leader Removal' card stands a greater chance of doing damage to a players plans than the ‘Free Leader Movement‘ card of benefiting them.
During the mid-game players will be wanting to consolidate their positions and secure their revenue bases. For some players this will mean seeking to achieve impregnability. in my short-lived postal games magazine l did even at one time suggest that impregnability should be included in the victory conditions, although I did not explain, initially, what l meant by this. In the extreme case it involves the use of four leader pieces, though this is rarely necessary in normal play. One occupies the capital oi a coastal country, two occupy the crossing points to neighbouring countries, and the fourth is available for movement within the country should no other movement be available elsewhere on the board. Usually an individual player is not so hard pressed that he needs the fourth free leader in reserve to be available for movement and most players do not demand expulsion from the game if no placement or legal movement is possible anyway. This means that with six leaders available every player should be able to hold impregnably two countries each. However, seeking impregnability leads to a very defensive game, and while certainly preventing a player from being eliminated also means the player has no spare forces available to take any action elsewhere on the board, and even more frustrating, nothing he can spend his money on.
Good players, and by this l mean those who tend to make an enjoyable game rather than experts, tend to prefer certain groupings of countries to form their revenue bases. It can be seen from the board for example that while Hashim and Kurut have a common border for a pipeline and so can form an impregnable revenue base using all six of a players leaders, Hashim and Bedafa are much to be preferred. These two countries only require two leaders on the capitals and two more on their crossings with Abu Akar and Kurut, leaving two leaders spare with which to wreak havoc on other players‘ plans. Figure 4 shows the country groupings as they may develop. The most striking part of this analysis is the position of Zulfi and the U.O.R. Zulfi can be seen as the weakest coastal country on the board. It is the only one with three exit points and its nearest four-well neighbour has four exits, more than any other, and so requiring a minimum of three leaders to hold it. Besides which players holding Elika Hashim and the U.O.R. are all potential aggressors. Elika however is the most likely winner in the battle as Hashim, as already explained, will prefer to hold Bedafa, requiring only four leaders. And the U.O.R., like Zulfi, will require six against Elika‘s five. But this analysis to a large extent is a sham as four players are rarely this predictable and their priorities will alter as they watch the rise and fall of the other players, and, as I explained, not all players can be assumed to be working towards a goal of securing the maximum revenue.
Like Diplomacy, The Game of Nations offers a marvellous foundation for devising variants. One idea l have tested is that of each player defining his own objective in writing after the first round of placement turns. The objectives are then not revealed until a majority of the surviving players vote to end the game. The trouble with this idea is that it requires players who are familiar with the game and preferably who know each other quite well.
The next step on is to look for a single objective for all players. As I have indicated, being the last survivor is not a viable objective as it is far too easy to play defensively. Even Zulfi, the most expensive two-well country to defend, can be made impregnable by moving flanking leaders from the U.O.R. and Abu Akar for only £11m. One of my favourite single objective ideas is that of owning at least half the tanker fleet. Although clearly similar to a richest-player objective it does introduce other tactical problems. To tie up all spare money in tankers means that a player cannot move his leaders very far, and it is often cheaper to gain tankers by capture rather than purchase. It then follows that to allow any player to achieve impregnability is dangerous as it will effectively reduce the supply of tankers to the remaining players. As far as possible I prefer to keep changes as slight as possible so that a major redrawing of the board is not necessary and at the moment I am play-testing reducing Bedafa to two wells and increasing Zulfi and the U.O.R. by one each.
I also have played the game with simultaneous movement. This can be done quite easily. Players need to write movement orders and these are then carried out together. It only has to be presumed that the compass printed on the board is slightly out, and the north/south line should be parallel with the shorter side of the board, and board positions can be described as compass points on each country. They each have a different initial letter as do all the playing pieces which makes abbreviation of written orders easy. The system works like this. After establishing the opening positions each player will claim his revenue and then write down the movement he proposes for both his agent and leader. When all players have written their instructions they are revealed to the other players and the movement of agents carried out. Once the agents have been moved each player moves his designated leader one point along its written route. This is repeated until the leader has completed its movement order or until it is being asked to move illegally. The movement as actually made is then paid for. Placement of leaders takes place at the same time as other leaders are moved their first point. Hence a capital can be vacated by one leader and occupied by another in one turn, but where placement was ordered to a capital and another player had a leader on the adjacent point also ordered to the capital then a stand-off would occur and neither would move. Apart from its obvious benefit for postal play, simultaneous movement has two main advantages. It radically increases the power of the agent to block movement of the leader pieces, as their position is not known at the time leader movement is ordered, useful in itself, as many players feel that the agent is so weak in the normal game as to be almost worthless; and it significantly increases the need to negotiate with other players as you are faced with a fluid situation during your turn and not the static situation of sequential movement.
Overall I think it is only the incomplete set of rules that really spoils the game. What they say is clear enough. It is just that they do not cover enough of the situations that are constantly occurring in every game. The lack of defined winner should not be a problem. The idea is familiar enough to role-play gamesters but is almost unheard of in board games. The only other strong feeling l have is that the game mechanics favour defensive play too much. Try playing a game where you are allowed, with the permission of the appropriate player, to pass other leader pieces, to pipe oil through countries you do not control yourself and to convey ships through the canal while not controlling the U.O.R. It should increase the scope tor negotiation and lead to a more aggressive game.