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How to Win a War

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The Battle of the English Channel in The Calm & the Storm.  

Reeling from my catastrophic failure to improve on Hitler’s strategy, I called up Dave McCool, the president of Muzzy Lane. Had he ever won as Germany? Yes, he had.

“I was playing as Germany and attacked Poland in the spring of 1939,” he told me in an e-mail debriefing. “The western Allies did not intervene, so I was able to finish off Poland and not have a western front to worry about. I spent some time building up my forces and deploying along the Soviet frontier. When my forces were about two-thirds the size of the Soviets, I attacked in the center and the north along the Polish-Soviet frontier.

“Things quickly turned into a couple of big attrition battles in the center and the north, with both sides feeding troops in to keep from losing. After many turns of this I noticed that they had left things pretty bare in the south, so I diverted my new troops there and pushed through. I was able to send armored divisions into the Caucasus and capture the oil fields, while turning my other forces north and cutting off the big battles we were fighting.

Today’s strategic problems have world War II analogues. Sure, the U.S. Can invade Iraq. But what will the French do? The Russians? What if invading Iraq ends up benefiting Iran?

“With him out of supply and unable to reinforce, the battles tipped in my favor and I was able to destroy most of his forces in the west. From that point on it was a matter of slogging east and hunting down the rest. The USSR surrendered in the summer of 1941.”

Now ask yourself: How many other companies in the world are run by a man who has led Germany to victory in World War II?

Of course, no one at Muzzy Lane pretends that their game precisely replicates the world in 1938 or 1939. Nevertheless, the parallel pasts the game conjures up have an undoubted intellectual value—which is why McCool and his partners have hitherto concentrated their energies in marketing their product to educators.

I too can readily imagine the value The Calm & the Storm would add to an undergraduate course on World War II. Indeed, I can hardly wait to set up a game-based seminar at Harvard, having heard one group of students last term hold an impromptu and high-octane discussion on the historical merits of Axis & Allies.

My sons were in no doubt that The Calm & the Storm was more challenging than their favorite FPS games. However, when I suggested that this should be regarded as an alternative to their usual history homework, rather than as an alternative to Grand Theft Auto, they were filled with enthusiasm. I have no doubt they’d learn more from playing a game like this than from any school-textbook assignment.

Muzzy Lane is already planning games that will be based on other conflicts ranging from the American Revolution through the Cold War to the present war in Iraq. Just imagine: Instead of Monday-morning quarterbacks pontificating vaguely about how they could have cleaned up the Iraq mess with a few thousand extra troops in 2003, we will be able to replay the post-9/11 crisis as a carefully calibrated game of diplomacy, strategy, and counterinsurgency. Those who have found it so easy to heap scorn on the Bush administration may well be vindicated. Or they may discover—as I did when I played the parts of Churchill and then Hitler—that there were worse possible outcomes than the one we know. That’s obviously true in the case of the Cold War. Two players less coolheaded than Kennedy and Khrushchev could easily blow the world apart over Cuba.

Gaming history is not a crass attempt to make the subject relevant to today’s kids. Rather it’s an attempt to revitalize history with the kind of technology that kids have pioneered. And why not? After all, the Game Boy generation is growing up. And, as they seek a deeper understanding of the world we live in, they may not turn first to the bookshelves. They may demand to play—or rather replay—the great game of history for themselves. And who knows? When they come to make real strategic decisions, maybe this strategically savvy generation will do a better job than we did.


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