On Honor In Warfare

This short treatise was inspired by a public thread in the Aries War newsfeed. Two Emperors, at least one likely prospective Emperor, and several current and former championship contestants participated in a lively discussion on the subject, but in the end I felt that as many questions were raised as were answered. Here, then, I have attempted to organize many of the thoughts expressed on the subject and to set them down in an ordered fashion. I am not the ultimate arbiter of ethics, but it seems apparent that the lack of a common written code on the subject demands an effort be made.


We often see accusations in the Forums. They’re usually about how this person cheated, how that one behaved dishonorably, how those two connived against a third, how this one broke an agreement and that one kept to the letter of a treaty but violated the sense of it. Usually, the accused will respond with some sort of justification, that someone else had violated the border first, or that the situation was quite different when the trade was first agreed to. It’s as though there’s a general acceptance that there must exist, underlying all this talk, a general code of behavior to which we all try to adhere.

In a broad sense, so there is; there must be. We often see justifications and arguments, but only very rarely does someone say, “To Hell with your standard.”* But what is this unspoken code of right and wrong, ethical and unethical, honorable and base? For it is unspoken, and unwritten too: with players from most countries on Earth, it would be absurd folly to presume that we all were raised with the same holy books. Not all of us thrilled to tales of Arthur’s knights nor even the voyages of Sindbad, and yet if one were to view us all from the outside, one would be struck not by the differences but rather by the similarities in our individual and personal codes of conduct.

But of these several codes — or rather, of the single ideal, that underlying and unified code which exists unwritten — what aspects are we required to observe? Prospective Emperors may well add this further question: Which moral and ethical rules should I follow in order to win, and win consistently? For it must not be forgotten that, for us, our overarching goal is to achieve victory.  We betray not only ourselves but our fellow players who have invested so much time by giving less than our best.

The Rules:  (taken from the Planets.Nu website, “How To Play” section)
– Be considerate of other players. Refrain from name calling, swearing and other abusive behavior.
– Do not, under any circumstances, join the same game with two accounts. You should only ever have one view of the game from one player position. Joining with two accounts is considered cheating.
– Do not use any technical means to fool, post to, or modify the system data.

These are what we know for certain. It is also implied that any documented game process is a feature unless otherwise stated, that any feature that is publicly (and on the official website) determined to be a bug by the Development Team becomes an exploit if used, that knowingly using exploits is cheating, and that cheating is not only against site rules but against our proposed code of ethics.

All other behavior is technically legal, regardless of what anyone may say to the contrary from a moral or ethical** standpoint. Those that would suggest that backstabbing or dealbreaking hardly qualify as “considerate” to other players would do well to consider that, all things being equal, having one’s ships engage in a program of destruction and conquest is hardly considerate either, but it does seem rather fundamental to the prosecution of a war. “Considerate”, therefore, must be taken to mean something rather different in-game than it does in normal conversation.

“Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.”***

Machiavelli published those words in an era when duties were simple: one owed service to one’s family, one’s church, and one’s feudal lord. If any man was fortunate enough to achieve a title and lands, he then owed protection to his vassals in exchange for their service — and a comparatively greater duty to his own lord. Any who failed in his duty lost his position (and likely his life) soon after.

No internet game is much like life. In this case, any loyalty we have to our computerized followers is virtual and largely imaginary. Our ethical questions are of honesty and faithfulness between neighbors and rivals. These generally fall beyond the range of the official rules; it would be a peculiarly odious betrayal that manages to qualify as “abusive” to another player.

It can be said, then, that any deal can be broken by act of will, that there is no rule or law compelling a player to abide by his stated word, and that deception is a recognized component of war. However, mere self-interest will inveigh against abuse of this principle, in that any player that gains a reputation for flagrant dishonesty and double-dealing will soon find himself unable to trade for the time of day. There are also more human and personal objections to such a course; they are manifold and various, but most can be boiled down to variations on “I don’t want to be (or be thought of as) the sort of person that would betray a friend.”

In order to maintain a reputation for reasonable trustworthiness, one must even surpass that which is agreed to. Not merely the letter but the spirit must be observed — though, indeed, respect must be paid to observing the minutest letter of every agreement. Moreover, courtesy and reason should be employed when declaring the end to any deal. Courtesy, in point of fact, is required under the rules. (For the more cynical among our readers, I’d also like to point out that it can be a very useful tool.)

Of course, the degree of notice to be given when announcing the upcoming nullity of an agreement is relative to the situation and the individual. Despite the bad press, sneak attacks truly are a time-honored tradition in warfare; they would hardly be effective if one’s opponent were required to be notified in advance. And sometimes they are quite justified by any reasonable code of ethics, as when they are undertaken to preempt an opposing player’s betrayal, or when an evident and reasonable interest is being deliberately undermined by a nominal friend and ally — for example, when they violate the spirit of an agreement while maintaining its letter.

The key words here are “flagrant” and “courtesy”, reason being entirely subjective by nature****. We are required under the rules to avoid discourtesy; second to this, we ought to avoid flagrant abuses of the trust of others. But at which times can we legitimately break faith?

The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.” 
– Yossarrian

Here, one higher law must guide us:
It is the duty of each of us to play this game to win.

This is an unspoken law, but it is axiomatic; it is a fundamental obligation of any such game. It is the soul of the social contract into which we enter by the act of joining; it is a commitment to the other players that we will each participate to the best of our abilities for the duration of what could be a multi-year contest. The others that come to the table spend large amounts of time not merely moving ships and building bases but creating strategies, compiling logistic procedures and composing complex diplomacy. It is therefore incumbent on each of us by implied obligation to return to our fellow players that which they give to us: commitment, drive, ability, and a will to win. We owe one another no less.

When any of us fails in that regard, it is tantamount to an implied violation of any treaty or agreement that person has made.

Don’t misunderstand me here; the game is not the acme of existence. Every one of us should place Real Life — jobs, relationships, health and happiness — far in front of these games in terms of priority. It would be unreasonable to expect anything else and foolish to try for such a goal oneself. Equally, though, each of us has made the commitment to continue playing — and playing well — through all of life’s hurdles for an indefinite period. When these two priorities conflict, it is the game that ought to suffer, but it is also true that when the game falls short, we are letting down those therein that rely on us; our very adversaries deserve better of us.

But the right course remains; we must live our lives first and play our games second. This is axiomatic; in my mind, it isn’t even subject to debate. In some cases Vacation settings and multi-turn movement plans are sufficient; in others, I have known players to have friends take turns for them during holidays or enforced absences. In more extreme instances the honorable course is to resign and request help from a relief player (despite what this will do to one’s tenacity rating).

But that’s personal. What’s more, it’s Real Life, which (strictly speaking) is outside the scope of this article.

In-game, you’ve just created an opportunity, a zone of weakness, an avenue for legitimate personal advantage. And your ally ignores it at his peril; in point of fact, it is often his duty to betray you completely and as near to instantly as is practicable, lest the forces of darkness and evil (your other neighbor) seize upon your undefended assets and use them to catapult them to victory — and your faithful friends to ruin. And this is not limited to vacations or abandonment; even incompetence can be justification enough.****

“This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years!”
Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch, 11 Nov 1918, referring to the Treaty of Versailles

The opportunity often exists to compose a bargain with another player, to permit him to own, say, these planets without contest so you may own those. Border treaties are often drawn up and sometimes even long-term peace is agreed to, in order that each party may have a border free from conflict. It is axiomatic that a two-front war is a recipe for defeat, so at least one trusted neighbor is essential.

These bargains should be undertaken honestly and kept whenever practicable, but it must be noted that any agreement which later, through changed circumstance, prevents either party from winning contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. One cannot expect another to agree to his own demise and then march to it willingly; there are limits, and we should not ask others to exceed them — or be at all surprised when they fail us. Indeed, this is in a very real sense no true betrayal at all, because every deal contains the unspoken caveat: If you betray me, I will not honor this.

Nevertheless, we should try to keep our word when we can.

For there is another aspect to consider: ethics is a thing apart from humanity, and without heart, any code of ethics is meaningless, a dry wind whispering across a barren plain. We who play these games are real people; we are flesh and blood, soul and wit and heart. If we triumph in a game, we are rightly pleased with ourselves in real life; if we fail, we are downhearted — though not too much, as there are ten losers to each winner. And if we betray — if we lie, cheat, kill and steal — then does not the real person, the man behind the screen, does that man not bear the real burden for his virtual acts? And are our opponents not wounded by the breach of their faith?

For that is, after all, the ultimate truth: that on the other side of the computer screen are ten other living breathing thinking feeling human beings, each one living a life that is (approximately) as rich as our own. I myself would not care to be a person that is unworthy of trust; I would not want to be the sort of man who would casually betray another for some mere fleeting advantage. But neither would I want to be the man who failed in his duty to his other players, that one duty which is our chief obligation: We must play to the best of our abilities, which means at the least that we must aim to win. And sometimes, in order to meet this obligation, we must act in a fashion that, personally, we might find distasteful or even odious.

This is not an easy thing to consider; in point of fact, it is counted by some philosophers as the major paradox of human existence (simplified a bit). All we can do here is consider the two conflicting truths: We must each be the person that we want to be; and, We must play to win. It is incumbent on each of us to weigh our options, judge them fully and then act – confidently, deliberately, perhaps even ruthlessly, but always in the full knowledge of our actions. To do otherwise is make ourselves unworthy of the power of choice, and that power is the crux of intelligence and the apogee of free will.

Now, go play your game.



*Much of these first two paragraphs was strongly influenced by the introduction to “Mere Christianity”, by C.S. Lewis, and this bit is a direct quotation. It is curious how well basic philosophy can be applied to the art of war.

**For the sake of this discussion, we shall consider that morals and ethics differ in that morals are cultural beliefs concerning how people should behave both in society and in personal relationships whereas ethics refers to a logical system of principles and the philosophy or theory underlying them. Neither is considered any more or less valid than the other; however, morality depends largely on cultural mores whereas ethics can be systematically defined across cultural and societal boundaries.

***This quotation is from the Marriott translation of “The Prince”, by Nicolo Machiavelli.

**** This point cannot be made too strongly: that reason is entirely subjective. Anyone unfamiliar with the Merlin-sacrifice PBP dominance tactic would consider the necessary opening builds of such to be dangerously incompetent and perhaps only marginally sane. Likewise, a skilled Fascist player would always eye askance the moves of an advanced Colonies player, and neither would go far trying to understand the Borg on first glance.  And these are just the obvious examples; I could go on for hours. (But I won’t.)

tl;dr:  Don’t cheat; be polite. You can sometimes break a deal in self-defense or when your partner is too weak to keep it. Otherwise, keep your word or it’s possible nobody will ever trust you again.

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14 thoughts on “On Honor In Warfare

  1. A good article. I like the Machiavelli quote.
    I’d like to write an article on a similar but tangential topic soon myself.
    My personal opinion is that honor should be the paramount goal for the player.
    To win honorably in the eyes of your opposition leads to a crushing, fatalistic mindset.
    Winning through a calculated backstab more often than not produces a difficult to squelch desire for revenge.


  2. DM: I can’t wait for your next submission. The first Emperor of Nu has such sublime wisdom to share!

    Incidentally, I’m presently working on a respectful rebuttal to this article. I agree that it’s a good article and I like the quotes and the basis in philosophy. But I have concerns about the thesis primarily from a pragmatic standpoint.


  3. Meh, well written speech. There are several problems though. Ethics and Morals are both culturally defined. I’ll steal a quote from NCIS, “The ethical man knows he shouldn’t cheat on his wife whereas the moral man actually wouldn’t.” Ethics and Morals are both based in culture. Here are the ethics in Planets and I am taking them from your column:

    The Rules: (taken from the Planets.Nu website, “How To Play” section)
    – Be considerate of other players. Refrain from name calling, swearing and other abusive behavior.
    – Do not, under any circumstances, join the same game with two accounts. You should only ever have one view of the game from one player position. Joining with two accounts is considered cheating.
    – Do not use any technical means to fool, post to, or modify the system data.

    These are the ethical and moral boundaries of Planets. The first one, was clarified by the statement afterwards. In this case for Planets, there are no ethics, or morals for that matter, that relate to treaties, border relations, trades,…. There is only one goal in vga planets, win.

    Now with that being said, is it always the best move to backstab at every opportunity? No. Here is why, while each game is a new and separate game themselves, your actions in previous games will most definitely affect future games. If you are in a tough spot in a game, and the other person knows that they will backstab you at any given moment, that will most likely consider to not help you.

    Will backstabbing happen in Planets? Of course, it is part of the game. There is no more, or less, ethics and morals in the game than the rules stated. What should, and should not, is irrelevant. Your past does haunt you, and as I have stated in the Planets activity threads, assume that the person you are making a deal with, will and should, backstab you at some point. Balance risks and rewards for any agreement that is made.

    Ohhh… Lay (web) mines to cover your rump! 😛


  4. You can probably count me among the cynical. From where I sit, reality has no inherent rules, only limitations which we must navigate by evaluating a multitude of calculated risks. Many will choose self-imposed rules because adhering to them gives them satisfaction. I think doing otherwise invites destructive and impractical nihilism. This is where morals and ethics come in.

    However, my experience leads me to believe that people are more or less expedient. Because of this, they will put aside the self-imposed rules that give them satisfaction in one area of their lives if it will cost them too much in another area of their lives. In order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes with breaking their own rules, humans are capable of elaborate justifications, and will use them however necessary to remain “faithful” to their beliefs.

    How does this relate to planets? For me, it means I trust others to do what is in their own best interests. Do that and you will rarely be surprised and never be disappointed. Do your best to identify and cultivate mutual self-interest with your “allies” and you will probably enjoy stronger relationships with them. If you have an enemy that you can crush, you probably should. If you cannot, try to find mutual interest and make them into an ally.


  5. Wow. So many cynics!

    Thanks for the kind words. For the rest of you, thanks for your thoughts. If you disagree with me, well… of course you’re wrong, but I still respect you just the same. ;o)


  6. … I like the part where it says “if your neighbour is weaker than you, kill him”. Back to my games to find weak (soon ex-allied) neighbors! 😀


  7. You’re missing a key element there, eCat:
    If your neighbor is weak, you are ethically obligated to defeat him. You’d be letting him down otherwise.

    In a future article, I hope to deal with your subsequent obligations: Don’t kill him utterly or you destroy his tenacity. Once you have conquered him, you are in fact obliged to defend him and then pay to rebuild him so he can ally with you in the future in your war on the deserving.


  8. My opinion is, that if all players try to do their best in game, usually everything goes well! If backstabbing is the way to go for best result, then it is. And that is part of the game.

    I think, I personally have too much Finnish “winter war – spirit” from my ancestors to be a good backstabber, but maybe some day…:) Maybe that is why I like DH games.

    The thing I DON´T LIKE is making off game deals. Like giving all ships to some other player (maybe someone you know from IRL), and then resigning… that is not what the game is meant to be.


  9. Excellent food for thinking about the game and it’s relation to life. I’m also most curious to read Ecv’s announced rebuttal.

    My two cents:

    The most important thing to me is respect for the other players. A skilled player with lousy behaviour means not much to me.
    As part of my respect to other players I fully agree to:

    *** It is the duty of each of us to play this game to win. ***

    It was time that someone said this. Most things that that gave me bad feelings on planets.nu were caused by people who did not understand or follow this simple rule.
    The only exceptions I see are a few superior ethical rules like “never backstab” or “never leave your chosen ally even if it would improve your position”. I accept such individual rules as long as they are basic, planets-related and reasonable (metagame reputation). So “only ally with Germans” would be no such rule. Additionally such rules won’t harm the game as long as these players still fight as hard as they can.
    One important thing here: I don’t regard “maximizing MY fun” as such a rule. I share the opinion of Gnerphk that by joining a serious 11-player game you have an obligation because planets games only work if all races are playing well. The obvious example is a game where all anti-Pirate-races drop because they have more fun with other things. This means much less fun for many of the remaining players and these players wouldn’t have joined if they had known this in advance. So think before you are joining. At least there are game formats where you can drop with less impact like private games, giant melees or beginner games

    I want to add a few details:

    * What “winning” means depends on the game settings.
    * Winning is a process of many little steps and the neccesary strategies / treaties may change in the course of a game.
    * Sometimes winning seems no more possible. But this is only true in a very late stage of a game. Then I think it’s ok to change your goal from winning to surviving – if surving has a benefit for you. Until then you should always do your best to improve your situation as much as you can.
    * You can use all mechanics that are allowed by the game … build techniques, warfare techniques, diplomatic technics (including backstabbing). *1
    * Your decisions should be determined by planets-only factors, e.g. not RL-friendship or so. Trustworthiness, reliablility and friendlyness are meta-game factors that you can consider. This is the point where backstabbing may turn out harmful.

    *1: I changed my mind on backstabbing since my first champ game. I now regard it as a valid strategy. That I don’t like and don’t do it is my private opinion. But as long as it is a non-insulting in-game backstab I will answer in-game and not on player level.


  10. I’ve always had a difficult time with this subject. If the object of the game is to win, than shouldn’t you do whatever it takes? What if you just want to play and don’t care as much about winning but care more about doing consistently well. Is resigning from a game an ethical thing to do?

    When I first started playing the game with a bunch of friends 20 years ago, one would never think about backstabbing an ally. If you know the other player, it might get personal outside the game. But with the internet version, it becomes a bit easier, as you won’t face the personal repercussions from doing so.

    In the end, it’s just a game being played in a virtual environment, on a small planet in a universe so vast, nothing seems for certain. I’ve learned some tough lessons in this game, but each has taught me to not take the game so seriously. Simply put, some will honor agreements, others won’t. But in the end, if you abide by the 3 golden rules as stated on planets.nu and above, you are playing within the rules.



  11. A good article and I think there is an interesting difference between a championship game in which there can be only one winner vs. typical games in which there can be alliances.

    Of course I have not played in a championship game, but as a study of world conflicts and diplomacy there is an over-arching difference on how you approach the two games.

    In the real world (while I know this is a game), to win is to win at all costs. For if there is only one winner, then all others are losers. Thus if opportunity arises in which one can fool, lie, or break alliances to gain advantage in a winner talk all scenario, it is done. For in the real world, the game is played ONCE and the history is written by the victors.

    However this is a game and a game that is played repeatedly and often with the same people. So trust and honor certainly play a crucial role if one needs or expects to ally in typical games.

    So I ponder the following question. Does one play in a no-holds-bar approach in a Championship game, where trustworthiness and loyalty be damned? Since there can only be one Emperor, one may understand that the typical niceties of regular play can certainly be a determent to winning.

    Thanks for the article and I would like to know your thoughts.


  12. Ideally, ethics in a championship game should be identical to ethics outside it. From a practical standpoint, since the championship is watched by so many, one might even think that these ethical rules ought to be followed even more stringently.

    Some people would disagree, believing that becoming Emperor is the highest goal. I respect that, but from a safe distance.

    Speaking for myself… well, I’ve been known to be merciful when, by these precepts, I ought to have been ruthless. Likewise, I’ve done things that were particularly disturbing when viewed in the cold light of hindsight but at the moment seemed appropriate. I can’t even behave reliably, so really, who am I to judge?


  13. i dont like the so called axiom:
    ” It is the duty of each of us to play this game to win”

    like ryder i find it difficult and easyly misleading or used to justify actions i see as bad behaivior. there are so many things i could do but wouldnt. That doesnt mean i dont i fight very hard to win or at least get a very “good” postion in the end.

    let me bring in two analogy:
    everyone is living life, trying to stay alife. its one of our primary goals. but its not THE primary goal. i would kill my sons in order to stay alive.

    in a war every soldier should try to live to see the end of the war. shoudl he then kill his own comrades to do so?

    not everything that is possible is right. we might not have written rules, but we do have a feeling. i heard a saying somewhere once (might have been a book or moive.. come to think of it, it was the movie KPax):
    “every beeing ion the Universe knows the difference of wrong and right”

    maybe some people just dont like to listen to that feeling, when they know they did something bad. i know i dont like to admit i shouldnt have ate that additional peace of chocolade and i might even justify it. might even do it to myself. might even convince myself a bit. but deep down, i know i shouldnt have aten that much chocolate.

    ending on this sweet note.


  14. While I admit that there is justice in some of your objections, Oleg, I feel nevertheless compelled to maintain my position. For one of us to enter a game with no will to win it is wrong. It is the same wrong that would be seen if a player started eight games, planning to quit six of them in order to weed down to the two games with the best positions.

    There’s a lot that could be written on this subject alone; the above article, alas, is only meant to be an introductory statement. Perhaps I’ll be able to expand on it a bit.


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