»  The Straggler, No. 17

March 8, 2004

  War Games

Sunday afternoon, the eight-year-old knocking around the house. No-one to play with: his pals have relatives over, or are themselves away on family visits. Sister has a play date in the next town, Mom is out shopping. The weather is nice and cold, but the snow is "tired," dirty and icy. He is not in the mood for reading, has exceeded his ration of TV for the week, and is bored with the limited supply of computer games we permit him. "Dad, will you play Stratego with me?"

Dad pulls himself reluctantly away from some on-line exchanges about the President's morning TV appearance on Meet the Press. The Stratego board comes out; a screen is erected across the middle; much careful placement of pieces goes on — the concentration is intense here — then we are ready. The screen is discarded, battle commences.

Stratego, for those who do not know it, is a board game for two. Each player has forty pieces of various military ranks— sergeants, colonels, and so on — which he deploys on his side of the board. I can see the ranks of my pieces, but my opponent can see only the identical featureless backs of them; and vice versa. (Hence the screen. Seeing your opponent make his starting deployment would give vital clues as to the position of key pieces.) One piece on each side is a flag, which of course the other side must locate and capture. I advance pieces into the enemy's territory, and he into mine. On encountering one of his pieces, I may attack it, and we must both reveal ranks. If his piece's rank is less than that of my attacking piece, his piece is taken … and so on. There are clever wrinkles in the game. The cleverest concerns a spy piece, so low-ranked he can be taken by any piece that attacks him; but he alone possesses the power to take a marshal, the highest-ranked piece. Of course, the spy must first locate the marshal, then sneak up on him, or lure him into position, for the "assassination."

The game box and pieces are decorated with pictures of Napoleonic-era soldiers, dressed in shakos, plumes, braid, cloaks, and spurs. This adds charm to the game. I know, of course, that actual wars of Napoleon's time were very grisly affairs — there is a stomach-turning account of Waterloo in John Keegan's The Face of Battle. It was all a long time ago, though. Winston Churchill noted, following his experiences in WW1, that: "War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid." Validated by such an authority, nostalgia towards the color and dash of Dragoon, Lancer, and Hussar can be indulged without guilt, I think. Most of these strategy games (I am not sure about Go) were originally spin-offs from the military arts. You can, in fact, graduate from them to full-scale war games. I have an acquaintance whose hobby is the re-fighting of great naval engagements on a large table in his basement. However, he has a great deal more spare time than I have. Stratego will do for me.

The essence of Stratego is, of course, strategy. As an introduction to those aspects of life that involve the weighing of strategies, the game is excellent. I have always thought chess unsatisfactory in this regard, being devoid of the element of chance. Meritocracy is a very fine thing, but not much of the world is meritocratic, and a child may as well get acquainted with the Fickle Finger of Fate early on in life. In any case, I am a duffer at chess, being too lazy-minded and insufficiently competitive. For a while, in my teens, I gave the game some serious attention, working through championship contests that I found in books or newspapers. Time and again, though, I would have the very disconcerting experience of following the logic of the moves quite happily until, right in the middle of what seemed to me like a promising development — "White resigns." Why had he resigned? I had no clue. White had been looking just fine to me.

I left chess for other people to play. I had grasped, in any case, that skill at playing chess correlates with nothing else at all — certainly not with geniality, as is illustrated by the personalities of numerous great chess champions. (Nor even with the ability to design chess-playing computers. Taiwanese genius Feng-hsiung Hsu, co-designer of the "Deep Blue" machine that defeated Gary Kasparov in 1997, confesses wryly in his book Behind Deep Blue that he is himself a mediocre chess player, and that Kasparov gave up trying to talk chess with him after a few minutes "sensing that I was not seeing the game on the same level as he and Deep Blue …")

Perhaps someone has written a computer program to play Stratego. If so, they have broken a butterfly on the wheel. Board games of this kind are, and are meant to be, trivial amusements. Many people find them irksome for just that reason. Researching the life of Calvin Coolidge, I came across a rather staged-looking picture of him playing Parcheesi with Grace and the two boys. I asked John Coolidge whether this had been a thing his father took pleasure in. "Good Lord, no!" was the reply.

I part tastes with the 30th president here. I quite like playing Stratego with my son, watching his developing understanding. He began his Stratego career by being much too cautious, shuffling his pieces back and forth ineffectually while I probed his defenses. Now he has switched to a more reckless style of play, hurling his men against my own ranks like the Light Brigade at Balaclava. This is sometimes successful. (Lord Cardigan, let it be remembered, actually made it to the enemy's guns, and committed mayhem among the Russian artillerymen, and lived to tell the tale.) I suppose that with time my boy will find the correct calibration, the point of balance between prudence and aggression. I hope he will then be wiser in some way, some way that he can apply to his life in the world. It is of course possible that he will merely be better at Stratego.