You Sunk My Strawman

First: I would like to applaud Foreign Policy for recognizing the merit of games as simulations and metaphors for conflict, as I think there are valuable lessons to find in such comparisons.

That said, it’s really important to understand the limitations of the medium. A game like chess can teach you about evolving strategic choice, but because there isn’t chance in it, it can’t tell you about how random events beyond the control of either player can alter the outcome of a conflict. For a more complicated example, last May I took a look at the limits of an empire building game in modeling civil unrest. The game does a great job simulating guns/butter allocation problems & imperial conflict, but it does a much more limited job simulating unrest, and barely covers nonstate actors at all. Worth noting: this was a blockbuster game, the fifth iteration of its engine, and was able to model conflict using about as much computing power as a home PC had in 2009.

John Arquilla’s piece, instead, examines a game much further down on the complexity scale: Battleship. Simple isn’t inherently bad – a simple game can cover one subject very well. Chess  offers perfect information about unit capabilities and position, and forces better thinking in wielding them. Playing “War” with playing cards teaches people how actions entirely beyond the players control can still have a psychological impact (at which point the game often becomes “disgruntled 52 pickup”). Angry Birds is how to use limited firepower and angles of attack to dismantle fortifications that can’t fire back. Stratego and Kriegspiel, which Arquilla discusses favorably, both introduce combat with fog of war, and make imperfect information available to the player as an obstacle to be planned around.*

This brings us back to Battleship. As a game, Battleship is great at teaching people how to use coordinate planes. Aaand that’s about it. But let’s take a look at the lessons Arquilla pulls from it:

“Of course this is ‘Battleship.’ That’s why I want a lot of smaller, but still well-armed vessels for the U.S. Navy, not just a handful of extremely expensive, highly vulnerable aircraft carriers and a few dozen submarines. China has hundreds of lethal missile and torpedo boats. We need more small, swift ships of our own that pack a real punch.”

Before pointing out that this is the wrong when describing for actual naval combat, let me clarify out that this is the wrong point for the game. In the game, if you’re playing normal rules, a carrier is the most durable unit in the game. Sure, it is a big target, but it also take five correct shots to sink. With default one-shot-a-turn rules, that’s at least 5 turns of survival, with the possibility of a near-miss when figuring out its orientation prolonging the ships’ life. If you’re playing the Salvo version, where you get a shot for every ship you still have floating, the longevity of an aircraft carrier is less, but it is still greater than that of any other ship available. Those “small, swift ships with a real punch?” They are dead in one or two hits, tops. Given the rules of the game, they are the easiest firepower to disable once found.**

This is the inherent limitation of the game: Battleship, after all, is not an modern naval combat simulator, but is instead designed for an age in which we used actual battleships. Battleships were always of disputed naval utility and have had a long fall out of favor. The last US battleship was built in 1944 and the last in service were decommissioned in the early 1990s. The vulnerability of battleships to smaller attack craft has been long known: it’s why the United States maintained a fleet of hundreds of PT Boats to harry & disable larger vessels.

It’s not battleships that are the particular object of Arqullia’s attack. Instead, he focuses on aircraft carriers as “the game’s largest and most vulnerable ship — just as it is in the real world today, as the array of smart, high-speed weapons that have emerged in recent years pose mortal threats to these behemoths.” I’ve already addressed their in-game durability, so now I’ll just point out that carriers are significantly more capable than battleship allows them to be. Since battleship is players landing shots on a grid, an aircraft carrier can only serve as target and (if using salvo rules), a single additional shot. While games can have value for abstracting the world, here the rules alter the units nature so much it seems to have obscured the author’s perception of how the ship actually works. In the hider/finder game that Arquilla discusses, modern carriers deploy most of the craft that do the finding, and are capable of launching an attack when well beyond the horizon, leaving them capable of hiding as well. There are limits to this, but if Arquilla’s central argument is that the US should stop deploying carriers in because “China has hundreds of lethal missile and torpedo boats,” then at least note that China is using missile and torpedo boats because they are a reaction to carriers.

A strategy focused on harassment of larger vessels by swarms of cheaper vessels is pursued not because it’s fundamentally better, but because they cannot otherwise contest the open sea. Presently, we use Anti-Access/Area Denial to refer to this approach, but as The Diplomat reminds us, Japan used it in WWII and in antiquity Syracuse considered using it against the Athenian Empire:

Heck, Alfred Thayer Mahan reproached ancient Syracuse for its neglect of anti-access measures. During the Peloponnesian War, classical Athens dispatched its expeditionary fleet and army to Sicily, hoping to wrest away a breadbasket for that decades-long struggle while outflanking rival Sparta. The invasion pitted the Athenian armada against that of Syracuse, a naval power on the rise. Mahan praised Syracusan strategist Hermocrates, whom he deemed a natural genius of strategy, for urging the Syracusan assembly to forward-deploy the city’s capable but inferior fleet to Tarentum—a city in the heel of the Italian boot—to harry the superior Athenian fleet along its journey from Greece to Sicily.

Distant defense would have opened up a wealth of operational and tactical options while imposing strategic dilemmas on the Athenians. Syracusan commanders could have threatened to cut the Athenians off from their source of supplies back home. They could have compelled Athenian commanders to leave behind slow-moving transports and supply vessels that would have made easy pickings for the Syracusan navy in combat.

The tools Arquilla suggests we rebuild our fleet around, the new shiny China has that the United States doesn’t, are not ships one can use to project power. While they pack a punch in ship-to-ship confrontation, they are also vulnerable to aircraft and cannot control the sea so much as contest it. They also, and this goes unmentioned, lack the larger power projection capabilities an aircraft carrier has that a torpedo boat fundamentally cannot match. As true as this is in Battleship, it is doubly so in real life.

A model is only as useful as it’s limitations, and as a model for strategic naval planning and combat, Battleship is able to say very little. Fortunately, there are other models out there. For evolution of naval combat over time (and for use of guns/butter tradeoffs), I recommend Empire Earth. As for a game to evaluate current fleet makeup and combat situations? Put away the box, power up the PC, and dive into Naval Warfare: Arctic Circle.

*For the record: I have very few problems with the non-Battleship games Arquilla uses in his piece. Both Stratego and Kriegspiel favor armed reconnaissance, which used to be a much bigger part of war and should still be taught at least as a concept. Lu Zhan Jun Qi, with which I am unfamiliar, seems to add problems of transport, logistics, and ranged attacks to the Stratego forumla, making it more like a computer strategy game than I imagine many a boardgamer is comfortable with. 

**If it turns out Arquilla has been playing with awesome house rules that let you replace big ships for smaller ships equal to the number of hits they can take (so a 5-hit aircraft carrier could be swapped out for a 3-hit cruiser & a 2-hit destroyer, or 5  1-hit submarines), and he’s using salvo rules, then I retract this statement. Those sound like awesome house rules, and add an element of fleet selection in addition to placement & targeting that ultimately reinforce his point. I don’t think he’s playing it that way, however, and so I’m forced to evaluate it as though it’s the  default.


About kdatherton

Unpaid thoughts
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