Risk board game

Strategy Games & Geopolitics

In this unusual piece, Eamon Driscoll takes a break from the gritty real-world side of international relations and examines a number of popular strategy games and their connections to the world of Geopolitics, and the world leaders that each game corresponds to the most.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Geopolitics often seems the realm of great political thinkers and actors from Clausewitz and Bismarck to Albright and Reagan. And where in the past it was something distinct from the ordinary person’s mind, something that took place in smoke-filled windowless rooms deep in the bureaucratic heart, more recently the twenty-four hour news cycle and the internet have brought international affairs right into people’s homes and workplaces. Still, geopolitics remains a largely theoretical exercise for the vast majority who are interested in it — except in the realm of games. Geopolitics has played a role in certain board games for decades, and more recently in certain computer games as well. Below are discussed four games which embody geopolitics in a way that is accessible to the burgeoning geopolitical analyst, and two more which are worth mentioning.

There are a few criteria which determine how geopolitics is used in a game. The first is the geo-, which takes the form of terrain and resources on a map. The second is -politics, concerning how participants in the games interact and work with or against each other. Beyond the plainly obvious, how the game deals with symmetry and scarcity is also a key factor in its value as a geopolitical instructor. Symmetry, or to be precise, asymmetry, is a measure of how the participants’ starting positions vary, for good or for ill. Scarcity deals with limited resources and a player’s efficient use of them. In this regard, space is also a resource, and a player that can exploit their land better than a neighbour or rival will likely end up on top. Most crucial, however, is the consequences of the player’s actions, and the consequences of other players’ actions. Everything is interconnected, and often the plans and intentions of players will overlap, causing tension and conflict.

The vast majority of people playing these games, however, are drawn to them not because they are interested in geopolitics and want to act it out, but rather because they enjoy the strategic and tactical aspects of these games. Whether knowingly or not, players are acting out geopolitics in the context of their simulated world. The ability to react to different situations and respond to changing environments is key to a successful game, in much the same way that it is key to a successful world leader, diplomat, or politician.

It also is worth mentioning, however, that there are a myriad of games which can be considered geopolitical, and this list is in no way intended to exclude any games which I might not be aware of.

  1. Civilization VI (Firaxis Games, 2016)
The Roman mission to the moon launches from a spaceport near Ravenna as part of Emperor Trajan’s eventual scientific victory.

Perhaps the most well-known strategy game on this list, Civilization was first released in 1992, with its sixth incarnation released in 2016. A turn-based game, players guide their chosen civilisation from 5000 BC through the present year, constructing a civilisation to stand the test of time. In addition to victory by conquest, players can attain victory through cultural, scientific, or religious means, but all of them require efficient use of space and resources. Civilization VI goes one step further than previous iterations of the series by introducing “districts” which expand the city out into specialised suburbs at the cost of the previously-productive tile.

While the starting units of each civilisation are identical, the starting positions are not. Fertile terrain such as grasslands can help support a growing population, while more productive terrain such as hills will benefit production of goods and equipment. A race for the best city sites can cause tensions if a neighbour settles too close to the player or secures important resources such as iron, important for producing classical and medieval military units, or later in the game uranium; critical for the production of armoured battlegroups or thermonuclear weapons. This is only a brief explanation of how the extremely deep and complex game functions; for a more detailed description, this 2009 article details the depth of Civilization III.

Most likely to be played by: Angela Merkel

With a strong understanding of the minutae of the player’s civilisation, economy and diplomatic posture, it would be unsurprising to see Merkel excel at this game.

2. Europa Universalis IV (Paradox Interactive, 2013)

The Battle of Rethel, a decisive contest in the Second Irish-Colombian War, in which outnumbered French defenders succumbed to the combined forces of Ireland, Austria, and Brandenburg.

A grand strategy game published in 2013 by Paradox Interactive, Europa Universalis IV takes players one day at a time from 1444 to 1821. Covering the periods from the end of feudalism through the emergence of industrialization, geopolitical factors have a greater impact on gameplay as rivals emerge, coalitions can form against particularly aggressive states, disasters such as civil wars and revolutions can strike, dynasties can die out and a foreign ruler can take the throne. Manpower is introduced as a resource, limiting the size of the armies a nation can field, with soft rather than hard limits that can be crossed with mercenaries.

In Europa Universalis IV, having room to expand will often come at the expense of a neighbour. The Old World has very few areas which are not controlled at the game’s start, so a nation like the Ottomans must conquer in order to grow. Colonisation comes into play for nations like Portugal, which can expand their reach into the New World, but must keep their colonies happy, lest they decide independence is a more worthwhile venture, à la 1776. The game is extremely asymmetrical; France is often a powerhouse nation, leading to a more forgiving experience for new players, while smaller and weaker nations such as Norway must work hard and struggle for every gain at the expense of its more powerful neighbours. This asymmetry is based in history and is tailored to the unique development of each nation: Russia, for example, has benefits to the quantity of its military, while Brandenburg/Prussia has benefits to the quality.

Most likely to be played by: Elizabeth Windsor

Dynasty grooming is key in this game, and who better to play than a European monarch?

3. Settlers of Catan (Kosmos, 1995)

Both the blue and white players share the forest tile; blue has two settlements connected by a road and a third still unconnected.

Perhaps a unique game among this list, the geopolitics that comes into play in Settlers of Catan is primarily a result of the way the game begins. While combat is limited, players are forced to adjust to a game board which is different each time the game is played, and use their positions to the best possible advantage while engaging in trade with other players over resources whose value and scarcity can vary greatly from game to game. As one of the most popular games in the non-competitive “Eurogame” category, it involves no direct conflict between players besides competition over scarce resources. In this regard, making good trades and securing a reputation as a cooperative player can help secure victory, making this game a shining example of geopolitics that does not depend on military conflict, though the “robber” introduces an element of suspense.

Having become a mainstream hit in the world of board games, the Washington Post called it the “the board game of our time”, as the model for solving problems through cooperation.  Though there will ultimately be a winner, victory will come as a result of mutual cooperation rather than conquest or subterfuge, as points are earned for achievements like making the longest road. Mark Zuckerburg is among the game’s many fans, and those players prepared to sit for a few hours in front of a board rather than a screen are more likely than not able to sit down at a table and cooperate in a broader environment.

Most likely to be played by: Theresa May

While the “art of the deal” may be more in the realm of Trump, Brexit has left the May administration scrambling for trade deals. May’s ability to gain cooperation in a traditionally competitive environment will potentially shape the future of the UK faction.

4. Diplomacy (Hasbro, 1959)

This game, played online at diplomaticcorp.com, ended in a three-way draw between England, Germany, & Italy in 1910.

Attracting a unique sort of board-gamer, which Grantland calls the “alpha nerd”, Diplomacy is aptly named. (Disclaimer: this is the author’s favorite game.) Created in 1954, Diplomacy never attained the widespread fame of Risk, but has nevertheless attracted an avid collection of players. Though war is how the game is played, Diplomacy is not a war game with ever more numerous and powerful units. Where Settlers of Catan encourages cooperation for mutual gain, Diplomacy does the same, but with the added feature of paranoia that your friend and ally might secretly be plotting your demise. A game in which treachery and betrayal are part and parcel, if not encouraged, it is not for everyone. Ultimately, lying to an opponent’s face is not as widespread a practice as it seems at first glance (the best lie comes after trust has been built up) but the game acts out the rougher side of international diplomacy, unlike the peaceful development of “Settlers of Catan”.

Whether dealing with rogue nations or reliable partners, the ultimate goal of owning half of Europe is impossible without cutting some deals and then scheming to break them when the time is right. Moreover, this means that every player still active in the game plays an active role in events, and it is not beyond the reach of a skilled negotiator to recover from a near-fatal assault. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that Games & Puzzles magazine reported in 1973 that Diplomacy was a favourite of Henry Kissinger, and that the game was played at least once in the Kennedy White House. The geopolitical aspect comes into play because of human nature; psychology is a key aspect of the game, just as it is in genuine negotiations between states.

Most likely to be played by: Vladmir Putin

Despite being a Kissinger favourite, it is Putin who would likely win at “Diplomacy”. His mastering of subterfuge, hybrid diplomacy and manipulation would set him far ahead of other players.

Honorable Mention: Risk (Hasbro, 1957)

Once upon a time this used to be everyone’s first strategy game. Played on a simple map of the world with forty-two territories divided by continent, Risk depends on dice and the element of chance to determine outcomes. With only land provinces, crossing oceans and seas can take place only between specific territories, such as from Alaska to Kamchatka or Siam to Indonesia. These chokepoints can enable a player to build up a power base in the North American continent, for example, and expand from a secure home to slowly overcome the opponent. Using dice to simulate battles makes the game fully random, though depending on the starting provinces, one player may have an easier time of consolidating a power base. Immediately a zero-sum game, Risk is often the first practical introduction people have to the famous classic blunder: never get involved in a land war in Asia, though given the ultimate goal of world domination, the victorious player will inevitably outperform Napoleon.

Most likely to be played by: Donald Trump

A game of geopolitical dice-rolling and chance, nobody exemplifies this game better than Donald Trump. Long-established world orders can be shaken up overnight by a wild-card move, as demonstrated both by “Risk” and by the Trump administration.

Honorable mention: Age of Empires II (Ensemble Studios, 1999)

Aspects of geopolitics also come into play in games which do not have large-scale maps. While the primary focus of RTS games such as medieval Age of Empires II is military, they also have a secondary focus on building an economy to sustain said military victory. To some extent, this does require the adept use of land to find the right position to press an advantage, but also important is identifying which units an enemy is deploying and then deploying that unit’s counter, such as pikeman against knights. What sets Age of Empires II apart from other RTS games such as “Starcraft” is the market building. Where the economies of most games are entirely based on extraction of resources, the market provides an additional source of resources through two types of trading, first by buying and selling resources according to a global price, and second by establishing trade routes with other players to collect gold when gold mines have been exhausted. What’s more, Jens Stoltenberg, the current Secretary General of NATO and former Norwegian Prime Minister, is known to be a fan of the game, as well as a few other notable computer strategy games.

Most likely to be played by: Xi Jinping

Xi’s key strategy of “One Belt, One Road” is a combination of trade route management and state-level “wololo”; the ability of players in “Age of Empires” to convert rival units to their team.

Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Mats Alkmaar


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