martedì 22 febbraio 2011

Playing the Strategic Board Game of the Century

Risk is one of the most famous strategic board games. It was invented by French film director Albert Lamorisse and originally released in 1957 as La Conquête du Monde ("The Conquest of the World") in France.  At first, the game didn’t attract many fans in Europe, but Parker Brothers, a U.S. toy and game manufacturer and brand, decided to invest in its potential.

So, after Parker Brothers bought the property rights, the Americans started to commercialize it at the end of the Fifties. At that time, the board game had very different rules and it was complicated and slow. Parker Brothers decided to change some rules and the looks of the game, starting with its name, which was changed from "The Conquest of the World" to “Risk.”

RisiKo! (the official, Italian version)
Risk “landed” in Italy at the end of the Fifties. Magically transformed by the Italians into “RisiKo!”, the board game quickly became one of the best-selling games in the country.  Although there are some differences between the north American and the Italian version, RisiKo! is a turn-based game for two to six players. The standard version is played on a board depicting a political map of the Earth divided into forty-two territories, which are grouped into six continents. Each of these territories is occupied by one or more “units” of a specific player.

The final goal of RisiKo! is to conquer a particular territory (or a certain number of territories) or to destroy all armies of a named opponent.  Tactics, strategy, negotiation and, of course, pure fortune, are the skills that made this game so famous all over the world. 

The rules are very simple: each player has a specific mission to complete and the first player to do so wins the game. Players do not reveal their missions to each other until the end of the game.  In order to win, players attempt to capture territories from other players, with the results determined by dice rolls. Each territory taken from an enemy is granted a card that, if combined with others, results in new “reinforcements” necessary to continue the military campaign.

I have to say that this simple hobby was something like a constant in my life. I don’t  exaggerate if I say that, after I learned to walk and write, one of the first things that I remember was being in front of that board game. I played  RisiKo! everywhere, anytime, and with anybody. I remember I was playing  RisiKo! with friends when the Twin Towers fell.

My friends and I spent enormous amounts of time with this board game, eager to conquer the world. Because of them I’ve learned to appreciate the many implications of this game.  It went from a simple hobby into something far more meaningful..  Although one of my friends usually said that “RisiKo! is driven 70% of the time by fortune,” still, this board game can’t possibly be won without tactics.

Starting from a situation of balance of power my friends and I (and the players all over the world) are forced to use all of our skills in order to complete our objectives. Someone simply manoeuvres his armies in order to reinforce his presence in some territories; someone else decides to attack without hesitation his enemies in order to gain cards that could grant him reinforcements; others use their resources to conquer more territories and enlarge their dominion; and so on.

Just like us, every single one of RisiKo!’s players keeps in mind a few “unwritten rules” that are a very important part of the experience that every true fan of this game is supposed to treasure. First of all, never ever allow other players to know your objective. Remember this, or you can be sure the consequences could be catastrophic. 

Second, RisiKo! is a game that can last for a very, very long time, so it’s very important to stay calm and never allow your emotions to drive your game. 

Third. You should watch your borders for build-ups of armies that could imply an upcoming attack. Reinforce your territory, if necessary, and attack when you think it’s time, but remember that it’s useless to continue to attack if it’s not your “lucky turn.”

Last, but not least, making or breaking alliances with other players can be one of the most important elements of RisiKo! So, if someone is growing too strong, don’t hesitate to  remind him that there are other players eager to win.

Now that I have described the rules and some strategies of the game, I would like to discuss the “stages of the game” that give RisiKo! a very particular, paradigmatic meaning.

An example of "hostile equilibrium"
In the first stage, which could last for hours, players coexist in a sort of balance of power: every single one of them receives the same number of units per turn and nobody has ever turned in a set of three RisiKo! cards  and broken the “equilibrium.” Each player uses his or her resources in order to take territories from other players, or to conquer a card or new units to draft every turn. I like to call this preliminary and open-ended stage of the game, “hostile equilibrium.

In the second stage, the game becomes more interesting and unpredictable because of a particular combination of factors (wise use of resources, better disposition of the units, or simple “luck”). One or more players start to draft turn by turn an increased number of units. Some players see their resources (armies, territories and cards) rise, others simply, see them fall. I call this stage “broken equilibrium.

At this stage the game it could continue in two different ways: the stronger player might become “unlucky,” lose units and territories, and see the game come back to the stage of “hostile equilibrium.” On the other hand, if this doesn't happen, RisiKo! enters the third stage.

Now, things are very different. One player successfully accumulates a number of units and territories far bigger than the other opponent's. This player has an unchallenged power and influence, and owns more resources and controls a vast number of territories. Often, depending on his objective, he can grant favors to some players who are useful to his purposes and at the same time he can seriously damage some others who endanger him.

When we enter this particular stage of the game, my friends and I usually call it the “dictator stage.

Hostile Equilibrium

The president of the People’s Republic of China is preparing for a date with destiny. It is the 18th of January 2011 and for the following three days he will be the special guest of President Barack Obama in the USA. The Chinese president's plane has just landed and there to “salute” him is none other than Vice-President Joseph Biden. Hu Jintao smiles at the army of photographers busy to catch him while the cameramen show the event to the entire world.

Bush and Hu in 2006
His last visit to the United States was five years ago. Hu remembers it very well. At that time there was much less “pomp,” fewer photographers and cameramen. George W. Bush was too busy for the “guest from the east” and Hu Jintao was humiliated with a simple and poor “business breakfast.” No high-profile State dinner for him. Moreover, that visit was full of outrageous “protocol gaffes,” the most notorious one occurring at an official ceremony where Hu Jintao was called “president of the Republic of China,” which is the name of Taiwan, not of the so called “unique mainland,” the People’s Republic of China.

Five years have passed since then, and in this turbulent period five years are no shorter than a lifetime. A lot of things are changed, and Hu Jintao knows that. 

The financial crisis of the late 2000s has shaken the U.S. Obama is facing so many problems that it's reasonable to wonder how he ever sleeps. Obama himself, while Hu shakes hands and enjoy the “party” at the airport, is cleaning the White House and checking the menu. The American president is organizing a high profile State dinner for his Chinese counterpart. Yep. No bacon or scrambled eggs this time. Obama has decided to acknowledge the clear economic weakness of his country by raising the political profile of the visit.

Hu and Obama in 2011
The United States of America is facing a couple of “unlucky turns” and the political decisions taken by the Bush administration haven’t made this unfortunate period much easier for the western country. According to many scholars, the Twin Towers attack has unleashed an emotional and poorly planned response from the Americans, like a RisiKo!’s player after he has been attacked, loses his temper and acts without thinking about the possible consequences. As a matter of fact, for these scholars the two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) were exactly this: loss of “units” without taking any “cards.”

While the Americans were busy chasing Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, something else was moving unnoticed on the rest of the “board.” Take China, for example, the fact that Afghanistan was so near to the Chinese board didn’t concern the Chinese politburo. On the contrary, let the “Yankees” have their fun was their thought. The Chinese usually think of the long term and, quietly and unnoticed, looked at their “cards” and smiled.

Also, the Chinese like to keep a low profile, but in recent years their influence in the world stage has clearly risen. Now they are more confident and sure of their capabilities. Much more. 

So, while the Americans were “exporting” democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, for the Chinese, Osama Bin Laden was the best thing that could have happened.

The ancient Chinese military general, strategist, and philosopher, Sun Tzu, once said: “A  military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.” Taking time and letting the enemy believe that you are not a menace are two of the greatest abilities in a game like RisiKo! when a player wants to move from the stage of “hostile equilibrium” to the next stage of “broken equilibrium.”

Broken Equilibrium

The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have, respectively, the first and the second GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the world. To be more precise, according to the Italian economist Giovanni Somogyi, the USA's GDP was 14 trillion dollars in 2008, while China's was almost 8 trillion.

A developed country like Italy in the same period had a GDP around one and a half trillion dollars. Countries like the United Kingdom, Spain and France had a GDP similar to Italy.

Considering the fact that in 2008 world trade was around 70 trillions dollars, and keeping in mind that the GDP measures the global amounts of goods and services one could say that the USA and China in 2008 were the world’s most important contributors to world trade.

Today, in 2011, the USA’s GDP hasn’t changed a lot due to the economic and financial crisis of 2008, and countries like Italy, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom have suffered a similar fate.

According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and CIA World Factbook, on the other hand, China’s GDP skyrocketed to 10 trillion dollars at the end of 2010.  In a matter of two years China, from having a GDP five time bigger than a country like Italy, increased its GDP to six “Italies and a half”. These things happen when a country’s GDP rises 10% per year while other countries’ economies remain stagnant. In 2010 China’s GDP increased by 10,3%: 2010 has been recognized as a year in which the effects of the economic crisis were still strong.

After the second world war, in the middle of the golden age of North American capitalism, the USA’s GDP increased at a pace of 5 to 6% per year. This means that the People’s Republic of China is growing right now, in this period of economic crisis, at a pace double that of the USA in its period of “economic boom.”

This thought helps us understand a very important point and explains the ambivalent behavior of the USA with respect to China. First of all, the North Americans have to adapt to a turn point in the world’s geopolitics. For some Americans the word China elicits fear; recognizing China’s rise means recognizing America’s decline.

Nevertheless, the United States needs China to grow because year by year they depend more on its economy.

To say the truth, in a way I understand the mixed feelings of the Americans. I felt the same way, after some “lucky turns” playing RisiKo! My units increased and I knew I had more “shots” than my opponents, more moves to explore, and a bigger chance to win. But, sooner or later, the time comes when another player catches me and in that very moment I know that I have to watch my back.

To enter into the stage of “broken equilibrium” is a milestone in every RisiKo!’s match. In some way players know that they have just reached a step closer to victory and every single one of them wants to know how the match will proceed.

The Dictator Stage?

At the end of 2010 Beijing confirmed its intention to build a massive aircraft carrier of over 64,000 tons. In 2020 China should have a fleet composed of six aircraft carriers, and two of them nuclear powered.

China's military capability is growing
On January 11th, 2010 the J-20, a stealth, twin-engine fighter aircraft prototype developed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group for the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force, made its first flight. Experts confirmed that the J-20 can easily match the U.S. F-22. All of this while the People’s Liberation Army successfully made a fully operational Dongfeng 21 D, a two-stage, solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range Chinese ballistic missile that should represent the world’s first weapons system capable of targeting a moving aircraft carrier strike group from long-range, land-based mobile launchers.

Now that it has become the world’s second economic power, some western experts show dates like this in order to warn the world against the coming of the “Chinese threat.”

But what is for some westerners a threat to world peace, is for the Chinese the simple, natural consequence of their economic development.

Hu Jintao, core of the fourth generation of Chinese leaders, dreamed not only of a united and stable China, but of one respected all over the world. Nevertheless, while he entered in the car that will take him to the White House, he knew he would face countless un-answered questions.

During the four days he visited the United States, the Chinese president was forced to defend the monetary policy of his country, answer the charge of violation of human rights, and reassure the Americans that trade between the two countries will not create unpleasant imbalances.

The two countries need each other now. Both Hu and Obama know that, but they will possibly face even more problems in the future. It’s up to them to preserve and build up that strange, curious, unstable, and mysterious relationship called “Chimerica.”

One thing remains certain, for over thirty years the Chinese were capable of holding their “cards” close to their chest and avoiding significant economic crises. They have built up “units,” conquered new “territory,” and have successfully projected their influence to that “board game” called the world.

Their strategy was superb, and for some time it remained unnoticed.

But now things have changed. Now, the eyes of the “players” are paying close attention to the Chinese Dragon, and all of them are as sure as they have ever been that the next “turn” will be fundamental in order to understand if all of us are designated to enter the next stage of the “game.” 


(I Would like to thank my friend Ana for her help. She is the reason why you were not forced to "endure" my poor English)

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