The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Money Talks, BS walks

A few weeks ago Ta-Nehisi Coates had a guest blogger (Ayelet Waldman) talking about her experiences at a summer conference of the Army War College’s National Security seminar. This was an interesting read (and Ta-Nehisi’s blog is wide ranging, well written, and erudite). I remember hearing about (not playing) the National Security Games at Origins, and I started mentally thinking — if the National Security Seminar asked me to offer them a game to teach national security, what game would I offer?

Not a war game. I’d never be so brash as to assume that I could teach them about tactics, logistics, operations, strategy, fog of war. And my target audience probably doesn’t need this, but I think a broad swath of America (some of whom would be at the Army War College) could use a (good game of) Bang!

In Bang! (he wrote, on the off chance that non-gamers read this), you have a hand of cards, the most basic are “Bang!” and “Missed.” You can shoot whoever is in range (sitting next to you at the table if you have a pistol, longer range if you have a rifle. Some cards give you stuff, beer let’s you heal (this is a spaghetti western, after all).

The real trick of the game is you have a role. There’s the Sheriff. He wins if the outlaws and renegade are dead. The deputies win if the sheriff does. The outlaws win if the sheriff dies, and the renegade wins if he’s the last man standing (which means that he has to kill the sheriff last. The renegade is in a tough spot).

Everybody knows who the Sheriff is, but the other roles are hidden (revealed on death).

And here’s the thing — Accusations fly “Oh, he’s so-and-so.”  “He could be the renegade.” “I’m just shooting him to keep him honest.” And people pay attention to this crap. Most of the time it’s completely easy to tell someone’s motivations (with the exception of the renegade), but the information you gain from someone’s words (as compared to their action) is — nothing.

Words don’t win (or lose) the game. Actions do. A good player makes actions count. A clever player will also try to confuse things (to his benefit) with whatever words he deems most helpful, but actions have a cost (you 0nly get one “Bang!” card a turn, you only draw so many cards). Sure, sometimes a player mis-plays, but there you go. (Bang isn’t, of course, the best game to teach words versus actions. BSG is excellent, because actions are less easily interpreted. Poker is good. You can win with table presence, but great players can play without it. But poker’s too well known to make a good teaching game).

But even though there are better games for teaching this, Bang’s an excellent example, because it roughly simulates the US position at the beginning of every recent war. We’re the sheriff. Everyone knows who we are.  We have initiative (first turn) and resources. And we’re sitting a table with 4-6 others claiming to be our friends, most of whom want us dead. Some of them are in a position to do something about it, some aren’t. Your turn.

In my last game of Bang I knew everyone’s role after the first turn. By my first turn, I explained things to the Sheriff (I was deputy). But I had one huge advantage that a real world commander doesn’t. I know the exact breakdown of roles (so many deputies, so many outlaws, one renegade). The “US Army War College” version of Bang would have one sheriff (picked randomly) and then a deck of cards that includes deputies, outlaws and renegades (plural). In the real world, you don’t know exactly how many enemies you have.

(That’s the main flaw of BSG as well, two cylons in a 5 player game. If it could be 2 or maybe sometimes 3, imagine the tension when two are revealed. Of course, it would be a bitch to balance).

Anyway, once you grok Bang, then the basics of BSG, Shadow Hunters and other games become easy — follow the money, ignore the chatter. Sure, it may be helpful, but it may be intended to deceive, and until you’ve seen someone expend resources, you’ve no idea which team they are on.

Actually, I suspect most soldier’s know this lesson pretty well. I really just want to get this across to voters, who seem to be taken in regularly (about once per election).


Written by taogaming

August 15, 2010 at 7:05 pm

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