War is a continuation of politics by other means. Carl Von Clausewitz’s quote is known to most people with any basic exposure to philosophy or military theory; however, the application of the political model of war tends to be over simplified to anything that contains “War” and “Politics”. In order to truly embody what Clausewitz was saying war must be a rational and effective means of enacting policy. This idea is something that doesn’t penetrate properly into games very often. Scythe is a game that come to my mind when thinking of examples where war is done differently.
To the gamer, war does not have the same real-world threats and most games don’t insert meaningful costs in their systems. War is most often the central concept and something that ought to be done throughout game play. The result more closely resembles the Eschatological model of warfare, where war is necessary to achieve a goal to trigger the “End Game” at the end of which war would no longer be necessary. Player One must control every territory and eliminate ever opponent because, well, that’s just what players in games do. This idea is often accepted as self evident in the pursuit of keeping things “fun”.
Scythe is a game that looks like a wargame but plays like a Euro engine builder. War in scythe has so many costs to it that engaging in violence against an opponent is not guaranteed to be a beneficial act. Similarly, players in scythe can never be “Eliminated” and therefore there has to be something clear that the player being attacked can offer up. War is an act to compel others to submit to our will, we must therefore have a clear understanding of what our will is. Players must ask “What am I trying to gain” and the answer must serve their engine. This might be resources, or territory or glory in the form of a victory condition. When two combat stars have already been acquired and no resources are on a territory, moving into a territory that drives off workers might cost more victory points than are gained. The opportunity cost of other actions, the chance of loosing, the decrease in popularity and the social capital expended when attacking a player are all major factors.
In my first game of Scythe I came across a scenario where I had to analyze many variables to decide if an act of war was beneficial. I had the board where “Moving” and “Building” were on the same action space and I was short on wood to use both parts of the action. A player had a worker with wood within range of my forces. I did not want to be on this player’s negative side as we were both beside a very experienced gamer and I felt cooperation might be needed to avoid a runaway leader. However, I needed that wood. The benefits of a building and more importantly “Time” as action efficiency were too great. After the engagement I offered the player a few dollars to ease tensions.
The act of considering war so closely as a “Means” not an “End” was a fantastic departure from what I was used to. The politics I was trying to engage in was the acquisition of resources from another state. Were there mechanisms that allowed me to just buy the resources from that player I probably would have used them, but in their absence, I resorted to the military branch of my state to force my opponent to submit to my will. War was not serving its own interest, it was a continuation of politics in that situation. It was a completely rational and effective way of getting what I wanted from another state. As other situations came up throughout the game, I usually did not use my military. After rational consideration the conclusion was that it wasn’t very effective.
This departure from standard models of combat in gaming is something that players often criticize about Scythe. Regardless of whether it made the game more “Fun” or not, it was different and that made it interesting to me. I hope that more games come out that include war but not as something that ought to be done to serve its own sake, but rather something that is only done after rational consideration.