Adventures in Counterfactual History

I think that well designed computer strategy games should offer ample opportunities for counterfactual ruminations. A counterfactual is a type of thought of experiment where you ask what would have happened if X was the outcome of an event rather than the historic Y. As humans locked inside this apparently multi-dimensional space time membrane we experience reality as a slide show. Even accouting for relativistic effects our best theories posit an arrow of time that runs in one direction and a “past” that is frozen in place. Despite this there are theories of infinite universes that branch of at every quantum decision. Other exotic theories postulate an infinitie number of pocket universes that have been created by “infinite expansion.” They all exist in the same reality but they can no longer communicate with each other and since they are infinite almost every conceivable thing has happened. Somewhere there is a you that didn’t get married, have kids and get fat. If you are a comsomologist please excuse my ham handed approach to the topic. The point is that according to some of our best minds the universe itself may be a huge counterfactual laboratory. Counterfactuals are also a great deal of fun. What if Hitler had been assassinated in 1944? What if Enigma had not been broken? Both these questions open up a line of counterfactual reasoning but there is a key difference. These two counterfactuals run the full spectrum. One questions a specific and highly compact event while the other touches on a much more general and nebulous consideration. Both can lead to huge variations in the time line.

It’s no surprise that counterfactuals are the most fun in military history situations. The systems which govern military conflict are such that wild turning points are possible with just a jitter of the inputs to the system….the concepts from Chaos theory that I talked about last time. i.e. the Butterfly effect, complex behavior from simple structures, etc.

Two of my favorite counterfactuals are the the Battle of Midway and the Battle of Gettysburg. 20th Century carrier warfare and 19th Century musket warfare whose outcomes seem like they could have turned on a dime.

The big question for Midway is what would have happened if the US torpedo planes had not drawn off the Japanese fighter cover and the US dive bombers had not arrived nearly simultaneously over their targets? A great website for some background on the battle is Battle of Midway The short of it is that within a few MINUTES three Japanese carriers were ablaze.

Hiryu Under Attack By USAF B-17s

The Battle of Gettysburg has a multitude of counterfactuals. Like the Midway example where the question centers on a focused and specific event, some of the best Gettysburg counterfactuals also operate in the tiny crucible of fate. What would have happened if Joshua Chamberlain had not ordered his famous bayonet charge from off of Little Round Top on the second day of the battle? This is one of the most asked but there are many others. What if the Iron Brigade had not arrived in the nick of time to halt Archer’s attack in the opening hours of the battle? What would have happened if the 1st Minnesota had broken in the center of the Union line during the apogee of the Confederate attack on day 2? Like 20th Centrury carrier warfare the landscape of the battlefield could and did change drastically because of tiny events. Enfilade fire down the line of a regiment could make even the bravest soldiers break and run. A routing regiment was often the first event in the a very real dominoe theory. Disordered retreat is infectious and snowballs quickly. An entire army could be and often was driven from the field because an enemy manuevered onto a flank or rear. If you have ever wanted to see this in action you should check out the animated battle CD-ROMs that I made when I worked at TravelBrains. Not to ruin the moment here but I have a special appreciation for the visual spectacle that is a civil war army in retreat.

What does any of this have to do with strategy game design? I have two points. My first piece of advice is that when setting out to design a game try and build in mechanics that provide for a rich counterfactual experience. The players should come away with questions not only about what would have happened if I had won that battle but also what would have happened if I had tried that strategy instead.

Secondly and this depends on the designer, the system should be stable but also allow for drastic turning points. This is likely to be a contentious assertion. Many gamers with Euro centric tastes are likely to be annoyed by a game where a tiny seemingly random event ripples through out the game’s trajectory. I like it a great deal. In Armageddon Empires I was always trying to come up with ways to allow the players to change the strategic calculus radically. Nukes do this. So does the Assassination special ability. One of my favorite counterfactuals is what would have happened if my logistics genius had not been assassinated by the enemy assassin? Those 3 extra supply points would have allowed me to …..

Well Tyrion did not appear in this entry. However, I think he would approve of small events that change one’s fortune immensely.

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