Honor in Warfare? A Dissent

(written by ECV)

My good friend Gnerphk has eloquently and logically put forth a definition of honorable warfare in VGA Planets, published proudly here on Planets Mag. His justifications are sound, logical, and rhetorically impressive. While it is easy to agree with many of the basic premises of his idea of honorable warfare, his thesis consists of the bold yet troubling statement that “It is the duty of each of us to play this game to win.”

I have two primary arguments against this thesis. My ontological argument questions the nature of winning itself. My pragmatic argument concerns the so-called non-winning players and their role in the game.

The Ontological Argument

What does it mean to win? To hold the most planets at countdown and get your achievement points multiplied? Victory conditions on Nu are pretty clear-cut. But does this mean that each traditional game has two winners and nine losers?

I think not. Just because you are not a member of the winning alliance does not mean that you have lost the game. This isn’t a game of strip poker, wherein the loser’s nakedness is shown to all as a token of defeat. Rather, someone who is not a member of the winning alliance can still gain plenty of leaderboard points from the game. Certainly if one player gets completely eradicated, that person has lost. (It’s really very difficult to annihilate a player who is trying to survive. That’s why the tenacity penalty for non-survival is highly appropriate.) But those who stay in and keep fighting until the very end don’t deserve to be called losers.

Do all players have a duty to play solely to win? Of course not. Rather, everyone has a duty to play for their enjoyment, intellectual stimulation, and interaction with others. Anyone who pays their Nu-dues and spends their hours in the Echo Cluster is entitled to play the game in whatever way they enjoy the most.

Some enjoy playing in alliances. Some enjoy making allies and then backstabbing them. Some enjoy talking out of both sides of their mouth. Some enjoy destroying things.

Moreover, a lot of players — a very significant aggregate of players — never try to win according to Nu’s victory conditions. A quick look at the opponents in your games and at turns of completed games will expose this powerful truth. These players look at the map as a wealth of opportunity, but not as a space to dominate at the expense of others. This group of players includes those who enjoy exploring unknown lands, colonizing planets and watching their little empires grow. They build some ships and defend their people against invaders. When they are contacted by diplomatic message, they respond playing the rôle of their race. These players love the retro feel of the game. These players still have their old VGA monitor in their garage and they plug it in occasionally to look at their old empires in Winplan. And they smile, remembering all the happy times they have had in the Echo Cluster.

These people who play because they want to play, for their own enjoyment and the enjoyment of others — these are the real heroes, and, I would argue, the most honorable commanders.

The Pragmatic Argument

One of my games is presently in the end-of-game countdown. It has lasted well over 100 turns, but there was never any question who was going to win. I had more than 200 ships when the limit hit. No one can beat a Crystalline player who has more than 200 ships. It’s just not possible.

So what about all the non-winners in my sector who have been putting effort in and fighting hard for the last seventy turns? These people have been spending a few hours a week for the majority of 2013 playing a game they cannot win because the Crystals have more than 200 ships. What should they do?

If winning is impossible for anyone else, what are the other players supposed to do? The argument of “it is the duty of each of us to play this game to win” would seem to imply that if the game is not winnable for someone, that person should simply quit.

VGA Planets is not a game like Monopoly where the tide can turn very quickly as soon as your opponent lands on Park Place with four houses. The tides turn very slowly in the Echo Cluster, and more often than not, winners are determined relatively early. When one player or team has a commanding lead, there is often nothing the others can to to change the course of events. If I’m playing the Crystal Confederation, hold more than 200 ships, and have had 50 turns to raise money for webbing, I am undefeatable. I am not a house of cards that falls if the wind blows the wrong direction.

The statement that “it is the duty of each of us to play this game to win” simply falls short on a practical level. As I have established, it’s the nature of the game that not everybody can win from any position.

Also, the “all must play to win” argument entirely discounts the potential of the powerful underdog. The powerful underdog is a player who cannot win because he does not have enough ships; however he holds enough firepower to put a serious dent into whomever he chooses. Often the powerful underdog can decide the game. He can choose to side with whomever he wants the winner to be, collaborating with them against their enemies.

I have taken the rôle of the powerful underdog many times. If I have an opportunity to help someone else win and meanwhile earn some achievement points, learn a few things, make some friends, and enjoy my time, I believe this is worthwhile and honorable behavior. I have also been the recipient of a gracious helping hand from a powerful underdog. To tell any of those unofficial allies that they have behaved dishonorably for not colluding against an apparent winner is a disparaging and discouraging insult. Everyone should have the freedom to help someone else win if they so choose.


My colleague claims that this lofty truth “is counted by some philosophers as the major paradox of human existence.” Who, pray tell, are these thinkers? Gorgias? Descartes? Ayn Rand?

For any who would claim “play to win” as “the major paradox of human existence”, there are far more who would claim more lofty priorities. Confucius would counsel his followers to win if they could, but to be a good leader first and foremost. Augustine would discount the idea of one person claiming victory as a sin of pride. Kierkegaard would say that it doesn’t matter whether you win but how you get there that’s important.

I’ll leave it there with my pal Søren and make his philosophy my thesis: the journey is our home. We fly around in our little ships, looking at beautifully colored planets. We spread our people around, and from there on, it’s entirely our choice. We can go to war or we can be at peace. We can behave benevolently or we can practice ruthlessness. It doesn’t matter how we choose to handle our ships and planets. What matters is whether we have fun and behave in a way that is true to ourselves.

5 thoughts on “Honor in Warfare? A Dissent

  1. my goodness, lets all play nice. If players want to team up join a team game. The biggest probelm is the same players helping each other. I look at names before joining a game.


  2. I love this article and I love the quote “the journey our home”. As far as I´m concerned each game is different, the goal is different, the methods and situation are different and those differences are my own stimulant to keep playing after two decades.


  3. Well reasoned, sir; I salute you.

    It is possible that a lengthy response is appropriate, but I think we can reconcile several of our differences if we can agree that the definition of “to win” can change based on the situation.

    And, to answer your question about philosophers:

    “Fully convinced…that there is a common law among nations, which is valid alike for war and in war, I have had many and weighty reasons for undertaking to write upon the subject. Throughout the Christian world I observed a lack of restraint in relation to war, such as even barbarous races should be ashamed of; I observed that men rush to arms for slight causes, or no cause at all, and that when arms have once been taken up there is no longer any respect for law, divine or human; it is as if, in accordance with a general decree, frenzy had openly been let loose for the committing of all crimes.”
    – Hugo Grotius, “De Jure Belli ac Pacis” (Kelsey translation)

    His approach to resolving these issues with a system of ethics was later satirized by Heinlein in “Methuselah’s Children”, thus:
    “‘There is an old, old story about a theologian who was asked to reconcile the doctrine of Divine mercy with the doctrine of infant damnation. “The Almighty,” he explained, “finds it necessary to do things in His official and public capacity which in His private and personal capacity He deplores.”‘”

    It is to this dilemma that I refer. Now, Heinlein and Grotius may not be considered by many to be great philosophers, but on these subjects I’d say they qualify (and there are others). Grotius has fallen rather out of fashion, but I’d recommend this work very highly (though perhaps in a newer translation) for anyone with curiosity on the subject. He makes his points better than I do.

    Some would say that warfare differs from a computer game in that real soldiers don’t die, and I’d have to agree. However, our acts affect one another and ourselves, and so similar care must be taken to explore the principles and consequences.


  4. ECV, in the discussion with J-Zan at planets.nu I found out that “playing competitive” may be the better expression than “tyring to win”. In turn 1 this should make no difference but later it can. But this is not the root of the dissent.

    I think we should distinguish two games of planets – the role playing game and the strategy game. Can these be mixed?
    The role player answers Yes.
    The strategic player answers No.

    Example: I remember a game as Rebel where the Lizard a beginner and dead before he could learn how to answer a message and the Klingon followed a bit later. An alliance of Colonies/Pirates was winning and what did the Fed? Had 30-40 planets throughout the game, didn’t participate at wars and didn’t answer to messages. I mean, ok, everyone is free to do what he wants, but this ruined the game for my now defenseless Rebels. He was the role player (“We are the Federation – if we are not attacked we do not interfere.” or something like that), I was the strategy player. If I had known that I play with one Loki race less I had chosen another game.

    Conclusion: As a big fan of the strategy game VGA Planets I ask for nothing else than playing THIS game with others. And THIS game requires that all players play competitive.
    I don’t mind at all if 99% prefer the role playing game VGA Planets. I just hope there is a way to avoid a mix – at least for the strategy players. Within the strategy game there is also place for a little flavour but to a limited extent.


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