Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

Twilight Struggle and Go

For the past few years, I have been playing two boardgames online quite regularly: Twilight Struggle and Go. I usually play them asynchronously—Go in the Dragon Go Server, and Twilight Struggle through Steam (there is also an iPad app linking to the same server). I love making a move or two when I need a break, and though games tend to last weeks or months in both cases, I like how their arcs intersect with my daily life.

Frankly, I am still quite bad at Go, but it has been on my mind a lot recently due to the AlphaGo Zero developments. To beat Go masters, previous versions of AlphaGo (Google's AI Go player) used a combination of machine learning techniques, recorded historical games, and human expert input. But AlphaGo Zero started from scratch, with no reliance on recorded games. It reached a level high enough to beat the previous champions a few weeks after starting training.

It is by all accounts both the most advanced Go player we've seen, and the most foreign; not merely a better execution of known strategies, but a new and (in my case, impossibly) hard to understand approach to the game.

Now, I don't care so much that we've found a way to program computers to beat us at it (though that is very cool), and I don't care for the silly singularity fears and ecstasies that Artificial Intelligence triggers in some folks (except to the extent that this distracts their efforts from more important issues). But I do care about the idea that a boardgame that has perhaps been with us for four millenia has had this infusion of freshness and creativity in our lifetimes. It's as if aliens had independently discovered the game, too, and played it better than us, and, though we can't understand each other, they are letting us watch over their shoulders and learn.

Twilight Struggle, on the other hand, is not likely to continue being played four millenia from now: it is too historically specific, and its ruleset too fiddly to travel easily across generations. But these qualities do not affect the game in the here and now. It's a great game, complex and knotty, and since it's less well known than Go, I'd like to describe it briefly.

Twilight Struggle is an asymmetrical game about the Cold War, for two players. One plays the United States, the other, the Soviet Union. The Cold War in the game is driven by three main factors: first, the Domino Theory of ideological contagion and regime change, second, the inevitability of world events, and third, the spectre of nuclear annihilation.

Both powers attempt to maintain their presence around the globe, blocking their opponent from achieving an overwhelming dominance in any region. They have a glimpse at some of the events bubbling up (revolts in Vietnam, charismatic Communist or Capitalist regional leaders angling for power, the Cuban Missile Crisis), and must position themselves to take advantage of these events, kick them down the road, or at least try to mitigate them. And though, by the sick logic of Great Empires, they must assert their authority everywhere, sponsoring coups, meddling in local governments, and so on (if they don't, their opponent will), the more aggressively they act, the closer they bring the world to a nuclear holocaust.

This morbid dynamic of whether to push things right to the brink of destruction in an already chaotic world, just to deny your opponent any room to maneuver, is the stroke of genius of the game. Novice or reckless players end blowing up the world a lot—a gloomy realization these days—, and though with experience (and a good guide) one improves humanity's chances of survival, the spectre of annihilation gives the game a long-running tension.

There is randomness in Twilight Struggle, and between players with similar skill a couple of bad hands or a string of unlucky dice rolls may doom the less fortunate player's chances. But provided one knows this coming in, this randomness colours, rather than spoils, the game, as it adds to its sense of certain but limited power. Rather than luck, and just like Go, Twilight Struggle rewards study, patience, and prudence. I find it amazing that, given the asymmetry, the large amount of events in the game, and the complexity of the board and rules, the game remains well-balanced, tight, and engaging.

Both of these are "just games," of course, but a good game captures our imagination. There is a joy in discovering this kind of strong, sharp, robust design, in exploring it, grasping it, however imperfectly, and slowly making it part of our lives.