The game is on

Think of a game. Now, it’s likely that the game you’ve thought of has these three characteristics:

  1. a winner
  2. a loser
  3. an end

A critical point seems to be that until the end of the game there is neither a winner or loser. For example, it makes sense to say “who won the 1997 boat race?”; yet it makes no sense yet to ask “who won the 2097 boat race?”.

Now, imagine a game with the following characteristics:

  1. it only ends when the last player leaves
  2. players can play individually and in any number of teams at the same time, and can change teams at any point
  3. players time in the game is finite
  4. players can be actively removed from the game
  5. most teams take the removal of a member very seriously
  6. losing team always gets another move, even if a proxy carries it out. 

It’s very difficult to see how one could ever win such a game, or in fact what winning would even mean in such a context.

Now, lets take a specific example of a specific game that most people would characterise with the fist list: a World War I. It seams to fit, there was a winner, a loser, and an end (11 November 1918). Except it didn’t, the loser’s kept on living and got another move: World War II. All real life conflicts like war, terrorism, gang warfare, or a dispute with your neighbour, are actually of the second type of game, not the first.

Which is unfortunate really; just when the winner basks in glory the loser makes another move. Pity the winner.


Interesting, although perhaps there’s not as much difference between the two types as you’re implying. If Oxford lose the boat race in 2096, there’ll always be another one in 2097, for them to play again - you can consider the game as a single event, in which case you should apply the same logic to war, or you can consider a game as a possibly infinite series of single events, in which case you should apply the same logic to boat races.

Though WWII grew out of the ending conditions of WWI, the people running it were completely different people, with different goals and motivations. Most of the people behind WWI did not keep on living and get another move.

I suppose though, that what makes these musings topical is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started as wars against a state, and were swiftly and successfully prosecuted, and then quickly became wars against diverse guerilla groups, which are always challenging, and of all countries, the USA is particularly ill suited to them.

To win a game against guerillas, you have to make sure that every single one of your actions reduces the guerillas more than it’s future effects increase them. It is possible to win, just very difficult, and not a short term proposition.


It seems clear to me that the best strategy is to always aim to minimise the amount of loss by any and all players.

One might think that this can be simply bypassed by removing the player, however, other players not removed from the game usually see that as a personal loss.