Solitary Confinement

On the U.S.S. Missouri before Japan’s formal surrender, September 1945

The only winning move for some war games, it turns out, is to play alone

“There is no more dreary and deadening outlook than that for which the world and our life are the effect of pure chance, absolutely deprived of inner meaning,” —S.N. Bulgakov, Basic Problems in the Theory of Progress (1902)

At the dawn of the 20th century, Sergei Bulgakov was one of many Russian writers and thinkers who decried the unabashed positivism gaining popularity among elites and intellectuals. Stoked by the rapid advancements in chemistry and medicine, this positivism fuelled not only a naïve faith in scientific progress to bring a better society, but also the rise of a pitiless Social Darwinism. It gave people reason to believe that chance phenomena were not a spiritual matter left to providence but were a challenge to be conquered and placed under control of rational inquiries and procedures.

Positivism worked to diminish the role of chance, the feeling of being at fortune’s mercy, but it did little to provide inner meaning for many who lamented the ascendancy of rationalism over metaphysical or spiritual explanations. For Bulgakov, the “theory of progress” was a dangerous abstraction that gave “the whole solution to the mystery of being in mechanical causation.” His goal in articulating “basic problems in the theory of progress,” as one of his essays from 1902 was titled, was to find a middle ground between the rational and the metaphysical, between Enlightenment and religious ideals. To this end, Bulgakov proposed a system he called the “Metaphysics of History,” which gave rationality and metaphysics each their own sphere of influence and offered historians the ability to discover the “absolute in the relative” in the way these spheres interacted.

Bulgakov’s metaphysical history, with its syncopated cacophony of perspectives, can be seen in operation in a somewhat surprising and rather unassuming artifact: the solitaire war board game.

Solitaire play is nothing new to the war-gaming field. Aficionados of complex recreations of battles or entire wars frequently have trouble finding other players with both the time and dedication to see such games through to completion. Since most war games use an open or transparent design model for their execution — how rules and procedures lead to various game outcomes are not hidden from the player but openly displayed — a solitary player can play both sides of the conflict in a “schizophrenic” manner.  You wouldn’t enjoy playing Monopoly alone, but many war games, like Axis and Allies, feature a dynamic range of possible outcomes not solely based on chance but also a mix of strategy and tactics.

While the open information and open revelation of cause and effect found in many designs lends itself to oracle-like statistical prediction — a German Panzer tank often holds an advantage over the American Sherman in one-on-one combat — playing the war game yields enough variation that masterminding both sides can still be satisfying for those looking to explore counterfactual scenarios (what if Lee’s forces secured Cemetery Hill on the first day of Gettysburg?), as well as the more casual gamer looking to recreate famous battles from history.

But some war games are designed to be played as a true solitaire experience. One example is We Must Tell the Emperor: The Great Pacific War: 1941 to 1945, from Victory Point Game’s “States of Siege” series. In this game, the player controls the Japanese Imperial Armed forces against the algorithmically controlled Allies, who mount a relentless card-driven assault on the Japanese home islands. If, through fortunate dice rolling and careful marshaling of actions and resources, the player survives every card that turns up, he wins. More often than not, as with most solitaire war games, he loses.

We Must Tell the Emperor’s card deck represents key battles or decisions made on both sides during the conflict. The player can construct the deck by the war’s actual chronology, or he can opt to shuffle each deck and create a novel historical timeline. Once the cards are seeded, the player turns over a card that reveals how Allied fronts have progressed, what resources (oil, military, and prestige) the player has gained or lost, and how many actions and die-roll modifiers the player can use. If the player survives, they turn another card and repeat.

These basic design mechanics embody the rational, positivistic outlook. Cause and effect are completely visible to the player, who can master them through repeated play, which, if the player opts for chronological seeding of the card deck, yields a predictable rhythm. Each new game is a fresh opportunity to discover “the best of all possible worlds” where the Allies are either forced into inglorious defeat or have their will to fight sapped through bloody attrition. The player and card deck become cogs in a simple machine that grinds out the historical events in an altogether predictable manner.

The strict determinism of this seems to clash with the freedom of choice a player expects to enjoy. Instead of free will, the player finds only limited choice tightly bound by rational design.  Pure chance, in this view, is robbed of all inner meaning. But it would be a mistake to define the solitaire aesthetic in such rational hues. Looking deeper, there is more to the operation of the solitaire war game that demands attention.

While this sort of chance-driven 30-minute distraction would appear to embody the rationalistic attitude Bulgakov scorned —after all, isn’t prediction of cause and effect just another demonstration of rationalism’s supremacy? — it actually synthesizes the metaphysical and rational. We Must Tell the Emperor blends its game play’s machine-like rationality with metaphysical narratives about the Pacific war to provide a “bridge experience,” connecting historical understanding with the possibility of alternative outcomes. The game’s historically accurate chronology combines with player agency to produce an effect that is neither purely rational nor purely metaphysical.

In part, this is how all solitaire games work. The solitaire aesthetic in general is about taking rational content and form — apparent in the effort to model the range of a T-37 turret gun in the game’s structure — and giving it metaphysical expression and feeling in a game-play design. It is a constructed channel of experience, with clearly defined player operations, yet completely undefined in terms of how the player experiences it. Even though you are rolling a die and consulting a results table, you see the battle in terms beyond paper and dice; your mind creates a narrative in which the enemy is repulsed or surges forth, where a battle-scarred unit makes the break-through or where defeat is quickly assured when a leader is cut down in the opening hellfire of bullets. A string of successful rolls translates into cosmic kismet, failed rolls into a series of punches putting you on the ropes.

We Must Tell the Emperor embodies the solitaire aesthetic in a particularly fascinating way. Chance encounters, bound by tables and charts explaining outcomes, become imbued with meaning that goes beyond damage results or spending of resources and encroaches an information potential similar to that found in the operation of a quantum computer.

In the essay “Quantum Drift,” Miranda Trimmier writes: “When I look at the quantum computer, I see a logic that, directed carefully, could do more for us than crunch bigger numbers. It is an information processor with an associative imagination, an operating system whose modus operandi is delicate quirks and unpredictability, a machine that performs its best secrets away from the prying eyes of experts.”

Is there any more apt description of the solitaire war game than “an information processor with an associative imagination”? The player takes the boundaries of rationality and bends them toward an inner meaning. If a player is an expert seeking validated knowledge — if the player is a historian or philosopher searching for objective truth, or otherwise comes at the game seeking to pierce its veil — the solitaire aesthetic is compromised, just as a quantum qubit betrays its informational prospect if observed. But for less determined players, the solitaire aesthetic produces a crypto-schizophrenic, masked self and allows associative imagination full reign.

The Newtonian meets the Platonic at a threshold that only solitaire play can provide, with old, dualist concerns over the mind and body blurred into a sensorium where the rational and metaphysical can interact as equal partners. A results modifier manifests as battlefield heroism, your hand tossing the die indistinguishable from a grenade lobbed at oncoming infantry. The solitaire aesthetic leads us to believe in an oppositional, shadowy other, a projection of self onto the design in free the associative imagination. The chronology of the card deck may impose a deterministic flow, but the mind freely creates a narrative in which you are pitted against the other in a contest of wills. The solitaire aesthetic both constrains and frees the player; determinism of models leads to freedom of interpretations.

Bulgakov addressed the antagonism between determinism and free will by proposing a metaphysical synthesis: “Determinism must respectfully step aside in order to make way for the moral deed, but it must also constantly sustain a closed order of causation, for any break in causation annihilates experience. Directed toward the future, free will sees only ‘ought,’ but experience sees only causes and effects.”

The key to the solitaire aesthetic lies in understanding how it manifests this sense of “ought” in a system that appears to be a closed order of causation. We Must Tell the Emperor’s mechanistic card deck creates tension between deterministic outcomes and the limited responses afforded the player threatens the reign of associative imagination brought about through play. The “U.S. Carrier Raids” card gives the player three options to assuage the blow it deals, allowing some freedom of response. However, the player never escapes determinism; they can only keep it at bay through the mental assimilation of the solitaire aesthetic.

Though the player rationally knows they are pitting their intelligence against a low-complexity, repeating algorithmic system, the metaphysical feeling of being challenged by a shadowy other is part of what makes the solitaire design of We Must Tell the Emperor so successful. Constant pressure applied by Allied armies and the sense that you might reverse history lets you feel that you are not playing by yourself but against a constantly adaptive opponent — though that opponent is nothing more than an extension of yourself, of your metaphysical meaning projected onto a rational design.

This feeling is prompted not merely by the card deck but by the game’s artistic design. Its use of the Chop Suey-esque Bushido font for its cover design and for game-play materials helps buoy the sense of a shadowy other, which in turn fuels the associative imagination that blends deterministic operation with metaphysical interpretation.

In “Stereo Types,” an August 2008 Print magazine article, Paul Shaw discussed the evolution and impact of so-called ethnic fonts like Bushido. While ethnic fonts may seem inherently foreign or exotic, Shaw asserts that this perception “relies upon a viewers inchoate expectations of what a given culture’s type should look like,” built over time as the font is used on menus and posters and the like. The ethnic font is “a visual mnemonic device” that projects our own ethnocentrism.

In We Must Tell the Emperor, the use of Bushido serves similarly as a design shortcut that helps the player readily, even subconsciously, summon the presence of a shadowy other, even when the only place that other could come from is ourselves. The different fonts, so clearly aligned to opposing viewpoints in the mind’s eye of the player, eases one into projecting a conflict between themselves and the other. The stark contrast between Bushido and the stenciled Allied font immediately allows players to demarcate their actions from the algorithmic other, who is really the illusory extension of the player’s own ethnocentric viewpoint. This is a metaphysical response, much like the quantum computing experience. You’re playing by yourself, but the ease with which associative imagination is summoned helps your mind construct an experience in which you are pitting your will against a clearly identifiable ‘other’.

Your Imperial army pressures Nimitz to retreat, but his ‘Carrier Raids’ has him roaring back and putting you on the defensive.  In the last, desperate days of the war, the Allies mercilessly launch B-29 raids, but your Kamikaze attacks force them to reconsider the cost of an island invasion. With the solitaire aesthetic in full effect, associative imagination transcends boundaries of the rational and integrates metaphysical narrative perspective. Without this associative imagination, there is no longer the imposition of ought or moral wanting, merely the experience of cause and effect leading to what Bulgakov qualified as “pure chance, absolutely deprived of inner meaning.”