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Twilight Imperium and the 21st Century View of Warfare

Just this past weekend I had the privilege of playing one of the world’s biggest, best boardgames, the monstrous Twilight Imperium (4th Edition). For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is a massive game involving the founding of a new Galactic Empire and the political, military, and economic machinations of the numerous aliens species vying for hegemony. It costs $150 to buy, weighs as much as one of my kids, and takes about 8 hours to play.

We’re talking *big,* here.

But OH MY GOD is it good. So, so engrossing. Just the exact right amount of complexity – at no point was the game tedious or pointlessly fiddly – and even after playing for about 9 hours straight, we all looked around the table at each other and realized we were not actually tired of the game itself. We were tired because it was late, but I, for one, could have sat down happily the next game and played it all over again. I think a lot of my friends felt the same way.

I will decline to summarize the blow-by-blow of the game (though I probably could), but what struck me most about playing it was how the game treated warfare. Now, it just so happens that we drew objectives that weren’t *explicitly* martial – they were mostly technological and political type things – but even with all the more militaristic objectives being drawn, fighting wars in Twilight Imperium (while tons of fun) doesn’t seem to be a great way to win the game. Fleets are expensive to build, both in resources and opportunity cost, and can get destroyed rather quickly. Going to war often doesn’t secure the strategic goals it seems to and, in any case, there are often ways to secure those goals without blowing up your neighbors. This struck me as an immensely curious thing for an ostensible wargame (all those little plastic ships? Yeah, those are for waging interstellar wars.) to include.

But, is it? Twilight Imperium was first published in 1997, but three of its four incarnations have their roots firmly in the 21st century. This is interesting because, well, the history of warfare in the 21st century (and even the late 20th) has not been one of glorious conquest or territorial expansion or even real victory, exactly. War in our era is long, almost interminable. It never seems to achieve what it was meant to (and we wonder whether it actually can or even ever did). When wars happen, we don’t expect a clean resolution. There will be no surrender and not even any declaration – one minute we’re bombing somebody for (reasons) and the next…we aren’t. Did anything change? Not that we can tell.

This is distinct from the military victories of the early 20th century – World Wars that came to thunderous (and bloody and exhausting) conclusions in which the USA was victorious and filled with the optimism and self-righteousness that such victories can cause. From this comes an ocean of games where battle is the inevitable consequence and victory at war the goal. Axis and Allies, Risk, even Diplomacy ask the player to marshal their forces, outwit the enemy, and secure power by naked force and deadly cunning alone. Scorched earth tactics and untrammeled war-mongering are the hallmark of so many games, and I might suggest the appeal of such games is firmly rooted in that 20th century outlook – if we have the brains, the will, and the technology, our armies will secure out goals and benefit our civlization (at the expense of others).

But TI isn’t like that. Indeed, there are lots of games running around these days that reject that principle. Warfare is a regrettable end in Twilight Imperium that may seem like a good plan at first, but then later on, when nothing has improved and nobody has really “won,” you realize how foolish you were. That is, in the end, how I won the game. I didn’t go to war very much at all (only once, when the opportunity was there and my opponent was building Death Stars with abandon) and, while my forces were not the most powerful by far, they were more than sufficient to defend myself and enable me to win a diplomatic and economic victory. Second place came very close using scientific research alone.

If only the real world used such means over and above violence. Then maybe we’d all be better off, yes?

Anyway, this is the stuff I was thinking about while my collectively intelligent tree-aliens slowly gained control of the galaxy.

Digging Holes

George S. Patton once said “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.” He was, at the time, referring to how the advent of combined arms, mechanized infantry, and mobile warfare had, more or less, rendered fixed defenses worthless in modern warfare. History has proven him right over and over again; hiding behind your wall or huddling in your fort not only fails to win wars, it can actually lose them.


And yet, we still love them so. Fantasy is awash in invulnerable castle after invulnerable castle; science fiction provides us with a stunning array of ridiculous space fortresses. Our hearts sing at the image of unassailable battlements flying the snow-white pennants of our allies. We look up and Minas Tirith and say ‘ooooooo!’

There’s just something about a really cool fortress, isn’t there? It hearkens back to childhood, where the tree forts with the retractable ladders kept away our little sisters and the right sign posted on a bedroom door would ward away any unsavory individuals from infiltrating our inner sanctum. We revel in that kind of invulnerability, that capacity to protect ourselves from the potentially harmful outsider. It’s basic, infantile obsessions with stability and security writ large.

It’s also complete bunk.

Think about the number of super-castles and space-bastions you’ve encountered. Now, ask yourself a follow up question: how many of them have really proven themselves as safe as advertised? Let’s face it, guys – anytime somebody wants to sneak in or out of a castle, they’ve done it. Sam and Frodo simply walked into Mordor, right? Minas Tirith was toast if it weren’t for Rohan and Aragorn’s army of ghosts. Both Death Stars were blown to smithereens by guys in tiny fighters. Wildlings jump over the Wall like it’s a sport. Andy Dufresne swam through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. These impenetrable citadels are pretty much never unassailable. There is always a way in, and often all it takes is brute force.  So, what does that say?

I think, perhaps, what’s going on here is the other side of that childish wish for security – the equally childish desire for power. For every kid that loves building sand castles, there’s another kid that loves to see the ocean wash them away. Often, they’re the same kid. Putting them together is great, but tearing them down is just as good. Why? Well, we gain the satisfaction of knowing we can protect ourselves (at least symbolically) and the added satisfaction that no one can be protected from us. Hell, isn’t that the basic ethos of the US Marine Corps?

When we see a fortress in science fiction or fantasy (or anywhere else, for that matter) we are observing humanity’s desire for order and stability. When we see one torn down, we witness humanity’s desire for chaos and change. This is a duality at the soul of what humanity struggles with all the time, everywhere. It’s in the news virtually ever single day. It controls our political spectrum, colors our dreams and fears, and determines where we build our homes and the kind of locks we put on our doors.

Remember how well this worked for the French?

So, when Patton says those pretty castles and super-cool space fortresses are monuments to our own stupidity, he’s still 100% right. The thing is, though, that there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it. We still expect ambassadors in Libya to be safe when they hide inside particularly strong rooms. We still put our trust in our walls and our guns and our barbed wire, even though there’s a guy out there outmaneuvering us before we’ve finished laying the foundation.

Now, does this mean we stop trying to protect ourselves? Of course not. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. What it does mean, though, is that we should remember the lessons of those ancient (and currently unoccupied) fortresses of old and the ruins of those imagined fortresses of the supposed future – Change is coming. You can’t fight the Change, man. Learn to adapt.