Gaming the Revolution

The Battle of Lexington, credit Wikimedia

Gaming the Revolution

Mark Wegierski recalls Minuteman: The Second American Revolution

Minuteman: The Second American Revolution is a conflict simulation or board wargame of relatively moderate complexity published in 1976 (the U.S. Bicentennial Year) by Simulations Publications Incorporated (SPI), then the premiere company in the field. The legendary James F. Dunnigan (Jim Dunnigan), one of the founders of SPI, was the main designer. It is today a collectors’ item, although Decision Games, which has acquired rights to most of the SPI game-line, might bring out a revamped edition at some point. Although certain game-mechanics are discussed here, the focus will be on the conceptual framework animating the game, especially in terms of its possible predictive aspects.

The game is played on a map which represents most of North America, on which terrain is regularized into small hexagons (hexes). The main terrain and hex types are “clear”, “rough brush”, “south winter cover”, “north winter cover”, and Major and Minor Population areas. These are meant to represent the main types of terrain significant to conducting insurgency and counterinsurgency in North America. For example, units in severe terrain types during a Winter turn are sometimes eliminated because of lack of supply.

There are 400 counters of various types in this game, though fortunately not all of them are on the map at the same time. Most of the counters represent “units”, which include army divisions and brigades; counterintelligence groups (CIGs); government agents; government informers; rebel minutemen (small, select revolutionary leadership teams); rebel networks; and rebel militia. There are also about 130 other types of counters. These include 40 “special events” markers, which are randomly picked throughout the game and can be used to enhance one’s efforts. “Special events” include enhanced movement for one of your units; increased mobilization efforts; betrayals; and assassination attempts. Other markers represent “riots”, which is one of the main ways for the Rebel Player to augment their forces; “unrest”, which has weaker effects than a riot; “pins”, which is one of the main effects of rebel activity on government military forces); and markers denoting rebel units which “go underground”, meaning they are doubled in defense strength when attacked by government forces, but cannot move or carry out attacks themselves.

The units have several notable characteristics. First of all, unlike in many wargames, the movement allowances do not appear on the units, as they are standardized for different types of formations. For the high-intensity-combat units, which include U.S. army divisions, Canadian army brigades, Mexican army brigades, and Rebel Militia, the two printed values represent attack and defense strength. For government agents, CIGs, rebel minutemen, and rebel networks, the three printed values represent attack strength, defense strength, and build strength, the third value being a quantification of that units’ ability to place new friendly units on the map. Finally, informers have only one value printed on their counter, which can only be used in one defined way against rebels.

The second notable feature of the units is that they are printed on both sides. For high-intensity-combat units, this means that they are initially selected as “untried”, that is, neither player knows their actual strength until they are committed to combat. For the political units it means they have a weaker (unaugmented) and stronger (augmented) side, which economizes on the number of counters needed, and also affords an improved build and conflict-outcome procedure, i.e., flipping the unit up or down as the case may be. Informers are blank on the reverse side.

A third feature is the rather curious use of some well-known names of individuals and organizations for the informers, agents, minutemen, rebel nets, and for rebel militia unit designations. The designer somewhat disingenuously claims that this “simulates the employment of these names as code-names i.e., the units do not actually represent the named organizations and individuals.” While the pseudo-appearance of various famous fictional, and even contemporary figures, as well as of the names of well-known (and currently-existing!) organizations such as the “K of C” (Knights of Columbus) might have some novelty value, it is also often in exceedingly poor taste. Apart from the use of the names of many actually-existing organizations and living persons, four famous Star Trek names are used for informers, while government agents include the names of a number of comic-book heroes. Fortunately for the designer, the product was probably considered too marginal to bring lawsuits from any of the concerned fictional properties, or from actual individuals and actually-existing organizations.

Looking at this mish-mash carefully, one finds that the 1st Rebel faction is mostly led by American Revolutionary War names; its nets are either American patriotic or far-left organizations; and its militia units use WASP names. The 2nd Rebel faction is led mostly by names associated with African-American history; its nets consist mostly of well-known union organization names (e.g., AFL); and its militia units are designated by common American names, two of which are non-WASP. The 3rd Rebel faction consists mostly of names of American labor leaders; while most of the nets are named after African-American organizations; and its militia designations are all WASP, with the curious exception of “Nagy” (referring, of course, to one of the leaders of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising). The Canadian rebel militia is named, if one can believe it, after Trudeau, Pearson, and four prominent hockey players, as well as “Loup Gru”, and “Dieppe”! It is too bad that the game-designer did not attempt to put some method in this madness: eliminating some rather offensive “borrowings”, and perhaps identifying three main Rebel factions: “American patriots”; “American labor”; and “the Rainbow Coalition”.

Let us now turn to the main scenarios of the game. The basic scenario is entitled, “The Enemy Within”. It has some fairly interesting speculation about a period of diminished and diminishing expectations, to take place in the U.S. after about 2015. It sounds in some respects like the period of “Nineties’ retrenchment” in Canada (although not apparently in the United States), e.g., “Some 50% [of people] were either unemployed or vastly underemployed.” Actually, in fact, the U.S. was in a more severe financial and economic crisis in 2008-2009 than was Canada.

At the same time, the idea of the military practically becoming the most important and most prestigious social sector in American society seems strained, and certainly has no applicability to Canada. The designer’s conceptualization ignored the possibility that tyranny in the U.S. is far more likely to emerge from managerial-therapeutic agendas of big-government and big-business, or perhaps from the pronounced trend towards “political correctness”, which might well create “the tyranny of ‘the just’”. Potential lines of conflict along ethnic lines, as well as of the rural hinterland/periphery vs. the urban nodes, are also ignored. The U.S. today is arguably moving in a left-liberal, rather than rightwing direction. Political conflict in the former situation would be highly unlikely to emerge into outright and massive armed struggle. One additional notable element of this game scenario is the possibility of either player calling in up to six foreign intervention divisions, which are provided in the countermix.

There are three main “Alternative Scenarios”. The first of these is the “Partisan” Scenario, which is based on the now-laughable premise of the invasion of America by a “European Socialist Coalition” (shades of that famous movie, Red Dawn!). The scenario is played on the east side of the map, which is considered “under occupation”, after a successful amphibious and airborne ESC invasion of the East Coast. For the purposes of this scenario, the 24 U.S. army divisions in the countermix are used to represent the occupation forces divisions. The ESC gets to use four security divisions as well. As sixteen ESC divisions are tied to garrisoning “the Front Line” along the Mississippi, one suspects the American Partisans are rather likely to achieve their objective of cutting these divisions’ Lines of Communication to the East Coast ports.

The second “Occupation” scenario portrays “North American” resistance to a “European” occupation. There is certainly some kind of American phobia expressed in explicitly referring to “the Europeans” as villains, as, for example, in the following phrase, “most Americans seemed willing to submit their continent to the satellite that Europe wished to make of her.” Not only is there a nonchalant presumption of the co-identity of American, Canadian, and Mexican interests; in actuality, many people in Europe today feel that it is precisely the U.S. that is imposing its will and way of life on Europe (and on the planet as a whole) albeit through cultural rather than military means.

The final scenario, “Civil War”, is the endpoint of this rather curious future-history. Who can make sense of this: “The…partisan leaders…began to exert strong pressure on the President for an isolationist foreign policy and a dramatically reduced Defense budget. The new Progressive Party — formed by the former Partisan leaders — expressed strong Socialist ideals [which they had supposedly just fought against — see above] that were entirely rejected by most Army officers. Many of these officers (and government officials) formed the Constitutionalist Party, which called for the reinstitution of the Constitution of 1787 along traditionalist lines [in the 21st century?].” The curious figure of a “General Albert Sanchez” who launches a coup on October 1 is introduced. About the best thing that can be said about the scenario is that it points to the growing influence of Hispanics in America.

The main feature of the scenario as a game is that initially deployed units can change allegiance, with army divisions possibly converting to rebel militia, rebel networks possibly converting to weak CIGs, and minutemen possibly converting to weak government agents. In other words, the situation is highly chaotic.

The fourth scenario, which has been alluded to above in discussing the three Rebel factions, concerns three or four-player games. In the four-player game, there is an interesting option for a player to become “federalized” for one or more turns, i.e., to collaborate with the government player in attacking other rebels. Also, if the Government player is eliminated, the Rebel player with the most nets becomes the Government player: every Militia unit becomes an army division; every minuteman becomes an agent (to the corresponding strength); and every Net becomes a CIG (to the corresponding strength). The permutations of achieving victory in this kind of multi-cornered struggle become interesting indeed.

Minuteman offers some rather innovative mechanics to simulate unconventional warfare. One obvious omission in the game was airpower, which could have easily been incorporated by the use of air-points augmenting government attack or defense strengths. The helicopter forces for which Americans are so well-known do not explicitly appear. Another obvious omission, naval power, could have been simulated by naval bombardment points available to the government player in hexes adjacent to the sea. Naval-based airpower could also have been easily represented, by having air-points with a limited range of use from sea-hexes. The land-based Government nuclear arsenal, which Rebels would certainly try to sabotage and/or take over, if not actually use, is completely ignored. There are also no provisions for the struggle for U.S. diplomatic and commercial resources abroad that would undoubtedly take place. It was certainly a major oversimplification of the game-design to not take any of these factors into account. Perhaps, however, the whole posited scenario would collapse into complete improbability when taking into consideration the vast preponderance of military force available to the U.S. government. For example, virtually all personnel in the U.S. military, regardless in which branch or support service they serve, probably have sufficient training to fight as land-infantry if necessary, certainly well enough to defeat the average rural “patriot militiaman” or “urban guerilla”. All this suggests a re-design would do well to move the game onto the tracks of social/political/economic, as opposed to military conflict.

The enormous build-up of ponderous military and bureaucratic infrastructures in the late-twentieth century Western societies forever precludes in those societies successful “barricade revolutions” of the nineteenth or early-twentieth century type; or the kinds of military coups typical of Latin American “banana-republics”. Current-day social/political/economic conflict can certainly be very destructive to society, and, while it is accompanied by a degree of what could sardonically be called “street-theatre”, it is not destructive in the obvious way of dissidents being rounded up, people arbitrarily shot by government forces in the streets, etc. The peak of coercive/violent totalitarianism in the “Western world” was probably reached in the regimes of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The dangers of late modernity in current Western societies are of a different nature. Because such dangers are not immediately obvious, they are in some senses even more pernicious. There is certainly more than one way of “skinning the cat”, i.e., of ruining or destroying a society.

One aspect of the game-mechanics that could be debated is the extent to which major urban centers — as opposed to the hinterland — constitute the strongpoints of the revolution. While urban centers are difficult to police and control in the context of late modern liberal democracies (i.e., from the standpoint of legitimate law enforcement), it would seem that an authoritarian, and especially a totalitarian regime, would find control of the cities comparatively far easier to effect. The countryside has always been the natural locale for partisan or guerilla resistance against oppressive or semi-oppressive regimes.

In recent times, in America, there has been a current of speculation about a “second American revolution”. But the American Civil War was itself “a second American Revolution”, both in terms of the South’s attempted secession, and in terms of the subsequent birth of a new America. Michael Lind’s book, The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution addresses these questions. Lind also argues that the New Deal and the Sixties’ could be interpreted as two other profoundly revolutionary periods. In 1994, some might have seen Newt Gingrich and his followers as trying to launch another revolution (or, really, counter-revolution).

However, one of the major characteristics of the more recent “new American revolutions” is that they never devolved into armed struggle on a massive scale, although the social transformations engendered have certainly been no less wrenching and far-reaching notwithstanding their more pacific nature.

Although Minuteman may still function reasonably well as a game, its background concept and its premises are today clearly flawed and outdated. Should Decision Games consider re-issuing the game, major work would be required on reconfiguring a coherent background. How is the game to mirror the authentic lines of division of North America today — or possibly, tomorrow? Should the game attempt to show only purely political — as opposed to military — actions? The kind of massive, large-scale military conflict shown in Minuteman appears too hypothetical. If the situation had really gotten to the point where the Government was authoritarian or semi-authoritarian (which would imply a rather unlikely neutering of media criticism), then no patriot militia in the woods, or urban guerillas in the inner-cities, could constitute much of a challenge to it, given the modern military realities. A line of future development whereby a military invasion of America from Europe (or Asia, or anywhere else) would become possible, also seems somewhat hypothetical.

A re-design of the game Minuteman should therefore focus on social/political/economic struggle, with fewer military aspects, or perhaps be set somewhat further in the future. One way of reducing the preponderant military power of the Government would be to conceive the conflict along a dichotomy other than Government vs. Rebels, and have all of the starting military, police, intelligence, and bureaucratic resources and assets both appropriately weakened and “divvied up” between the two or more different factions. The very idea that an entity called “the U.S. Government” could ever achieve a single-minded unity of purpose, seems remote. The pinnacle structures of formal, political national-level leadership — the Federal Presidency, Cabinet, Congress, and the Supreme Court are in themselves extremely labyrinthine, yet they constitute only a small fraction of the persons and possible interests represented in the U.S. Government. Perhaps a resurgence of interest in the game might prompt Decision Games to consider a re-release.

Sociologist Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and researcher

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