Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The board game of Realism

I'm currently studying international relations and presently looking into Realism. Realism is an approach that accounts for international relations particularly in terms of military actions. While there are many theories and divisions within the discipline, they are often grouped together as they share the same main assumptions. Basically put (Randall L. Schweller) they believe the world is a perpetual struggle between groups for security, prestige, power and influence. Most realism, although to a lesser extent in neo-realism, assume that states are the primary actors. A theory within realism that caught my eye was the balance of power theory. It basically says that states will counter balance each others power to prevent the other becoming relatively stronger, perhaps the best example of this is the cold war ware the capitalist block (particularly the USA) and the communist block (particularly USSR) were in an arms race to ensure neither side become more powerful. The interesting thing about this for realists is that it creates a long period of peace. Realists assume that war is inevitable so the cold war is considered by some as 'the long peace' because while there are only two sides in balance the chance of war falls considerably. Now you might be wondering what this has to do with a board game, if I was to tell you the board game I'm thinking of is Risk, if you've played it you might be able to guess.
If you aren't a venerated risk player here is a brief run down of the game. In Risk you play as a nation bent on domination, it's your goal to conquer all the world. There is no room for cooperation and other 'liberalist drivel', suggesting your probably ruling as a oppressive regime, but I digress. As ruler of your nation you raise armies based on how much land you have, the number of provinces owned divided by 3 is the number of units you get per turn but if you control entire contents you get bonus units as follows:
Austria 2, S. America 2, Africa 3, Europe 5, N. America 5, Asia 7
These units are used to fight opponents in battles based on dice but the more dice you have the more chance of winning, so the game is about tactical skill with an element of luck, you could see it as you order your army's around but you trust your generals to do the work on the battle field.
Players of risk don't ally (unless playing house rules) but just like in the real world sometimes temporary deals are stuck unofficially, like if a smaller nation of no threat is fighting your rival it might make sense to let that player weaken your opponent while you sit back and build up. This is why when played well Risk it is by far my favorite game, you have to watch your back, think ahead, read body language, understand tactics and think in terms of production of units. In fact Risk is very similar to the realist assumption of the real world; states all out to better each other, only making short term deals, being relatively better is better than actual gains etc. If we assume Risk is a good model for realism, which I am just to see what happens then I can ask the question: does it prove the balance of power theory that bi-polar systems (like the cold war) are stable?
Well having played risk many times, the answer is no. In fact the game would be rubbish if it was. The problem is if you do get a situation of one vs one then one player will always have slightly more than 50% so players thinking long term know that if your opponent can produce just one more unit than you in the long run you have to act to stop that. In risk that only way to stop that is to invade. Now in reality perhaps this isn't the case, maybe in a bio-polar world getting the edge could be a policy to improve your own economy or maybe attack the infrastructure via espionage. Also as I hinted at earlier in risk you want to conquer what ever the cost and you don't have to persuade your little plastic piece that is a just war or loose the election!
While this is hopefully relatively interesting the point I particularly want to raise is that I did play a game of Risk which resulted in 'peace', a near total power balance! Now if you buy into the idea that Risk is a possible model or at least similar to realism then this power balance is interesting to analyze. It was as follows:
The coloured squares with the numbers note how many troops each side can get per turn, I suppose you could relate this to a countries economy if you wanted. The super powers are the Blacks and the Reds, the Reds at the time of the picture had 6 reinforcements but they took Madagascar (in white) to bump them up to 7 like the blacks. So you had two super powers of equal size and power but if you look at the picture the blacks had slightly more units (the black pieces) so you could theorize that they would engage the reds in a long drawn out war which would be won via luck and perhaps favouring the blacks that had slightly more units, this is what you would expect from risk. In fact what happened was 5 hours of stale mate!
Why? Well we can turn to back to realism to explain this, some realists (K.W. Deutsch and J.D.Singer 1964) differ in opinion from the uni-polar realists and think that multi-polar structures are better for stability. This was the case in this risk game. Both the Reds and the Blacks wanted to destroy each other but the Yellows had both of their backs, if the Blacks invade the Reds they would be at a slight disadvantage and the Yellows would take the opportunity to seize North America which would instantly leave the Blacks with only South America and if the war went well maybe Africa, not enough and they would be wiped out. If the Reds attacked the Blacks the Yellows would attack the Reds from behind against weakening them so they would likely loose the war. In other words Reds can't focus on Blacks as then Yellows will focus on them and the triad keeps peace.
The Greens add another poll to consider, logically both the Reds and the Blacks want Europe but if the Reds attack the Greens they would have a slight disadvantage and the Blacks would take Africa, and visa versa. The Yellows might also be temped to invade the Greens but this would be a disaster for them; as they under produce the Blacks they would loose a war with the Blacks if they moved troops into Europe out of North America. The Reds would then see this happening and intervene most likely by attacking Africa with its full force knowing the Yellows don't have the man power to attack them in Asia or maybe even simply capitalizing on the Yellows weakness to take Asia from them.
What is the situation for the Greens though, is there any hope? Well I was unfortunately the Greens, at one point I held Europe and North Africa but I over stretched and was pushed back. The trick for survival of the Greens is to play off the other players. As the Greens I continually changed sides between the Reds and Blacks to ensure neither were stronger and even pandered to the Yellows at times. So all the powers balanced and it seems 'The Risk' model suggests that a multi-polar system is the best. Its also important to note the situation didn't change for 5 hours
because players never gained relatively to each other, 5 hours later seen bellow is no different to at the start! No relative gain!

I did say earlier on that this power balance was a 5 hour stalemate, I didn't say it ended like this! Another point often highlighted by Realists amoung others is that empires never last forever, peace was not the end story. Despite this stalemate we played on, not because we had any fascination for realism and honestly believed we were proving anything but because we were enjoying the joys of the game; a chance to sit round and chat. There's nothing better than catching up with some friends, talking about university and if all else fails chatting about the horrifying prospects of having to attack Afghanistan.
What you'll see from the above picture is that the Greens had lost one province to the Blacks and one to the Yellows. This happened as the Yellows stuck at Scandinavia then stopped preventing the Blacks wiping them out. Instead the Blacks took 'Ukraine' but instantly moved men out tempting Reds into an attack, they didn't take the bate but the Greens did. Striking out the Green armies took Ukraine then tackled the Red army head on. The Blacks saw their moment to strike and all hell broke loose. The Yellows poured down from the North taking Europe, the Greens migrated east until they were corned in Australia and finally picked off by the Reds. Then the Blacks took North America from the Yellows who didn't have the strength to maintain its frontiers and emerged as the sole super power. Game Over.
So it would seem Risk that taught us that a multi-polar structure is the most stable, so long as actors are willing to switch sides to ensure a balance. I'm not saying I expect a lecture on Risk anytime soon but as a simplistic model its an interesting study of Realism in action without having to actually put it in action... little plastic pieces are preferable test subjects than nations and people!
The Blacks looking pleased while the Yellows flex their muscles, the Reds watching on from a distance!

Its worth considering in the changing world we live in that perhaps Chinese growth is not a bad thing. China could be moving to counter America that could stay strong or decline. Many people talk of the Brics; Brazil, Russia and India are growing so Chinese dominance is not granted, a multi-polar world could occur. Also I've just been light messing around with a bit of Realism in lighthearted manner, their are many other ideas like that Liberalism I called drivel earlier which says war isn't for ever and in fact Liberal Democracies don't go to war with each other. Maybe they have a point, USA vs UK don't seem likely or even EU vs USA (marginally fairer) is a long way off. We can never be sure, which is one of the joys of IR theory and Risk!

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