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After writing about the startling mention of a Cuban Missile Crisis board game in the Wall St. Journal, I decided I’d go ahead and pick up 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis.

First, however, to get into the mood, I found the book Back Channel by Stephen L. Carter. (For what it’s worth, the hard cover is considerably cheaper than the paperback and actual 30 cents less than the e-book right now). This is a book about the Cuban Missile Crisis, fictionalizing the details of the secret deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev that staved off a shooting war.

As I was trying to decide whether or not to read this book, I was put off by the marketing pitch. Without naming my source, I’ll just say that I got the recommendation for this title from a list which seems to have a considerable political bias. While the books listed should be for a general readership, I notice an emphasis toward progressive-leaning books (and, oddly, Romance Novels) while the list deemphasizes the kind of books in which I’d actually be interested. Before jumping on board, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being sold a pig in a poke.

Some further searching only confirmed my initials concerns. Blurbs for Back Channel mentioned how Carter was the recipient of awards from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the NAACP. Reviewers on Amazon praised the book for its insights about black America. Now that may be all well and good, but what I want to read right now is a book about the Cuban Missile Crisis (involving black characters is fine), not a book about being African-American in American in 1962. It turns out my suspicions were misplaced. From all the misdirection, I can only assume that there is a segment of the reading public (a bigger segment than that to which I belong) that would prefer the latter to the former.

Carter is a Law Professor at Yale and, from what I can tell from his bio and from reading Back Channel, has no obvious dedication to one side or the other of our current political wars. Back Channel is the seventh novel that he’s written and he seems to specialize in historical fiction associated with government and politics, in particular included significant historical figures. Right from the beginning, we are introduced to the story with President Kennedy himself involved in a secret meeting with the (fictional) teen-aged main character of the novel.

The mixing of the historical, the plausible, and the fictional is very well done, making it difficult to know where one ends and the other picks up (although, at the end of the book, the author tries to explain where the boundaries lie). The combination of real history, historic drama, and spy thriller works well. So well that I’ve added some of his other works to my list of books to read.

Also, to my amusement as I read through, I keep encountering the Strategy Cards from 13 Days. It’s an interesting reflection from the chrome of the game. Not only that, I’ve started to see words, phrases, and themes from the book popping up in the news (North Korean summit) and in fiction (The Expanse).

Twilight Tussle

With even just a glance at the game, there can be little doubt that this design is based on Twilight Struggle. The board looks like a reduced version of Twilight Struggle‘s global map and the timeframe is compressed from decades into the titular 13 days. Even where components do not translate from Twilight Struggle into 13 Days, the functions are similar. For example, China does not play a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, the China Card mechanic from Twilight Struggle is very similar to the Personal Letter card mechanic in 13 Days.

One of the twists of 13 Days is that there is are two separate decks of cards. The Strategy Cards in 13 Days correspond to the deck in Twilight Struggle. Each card has an operational value (command, in the 13 Days lingo) and an event, which is usable by one side, the other, or both. 13 Days has a second deck. This deck is played in a separate phase. In many ways, these cards are analogous to the scoring cards in Twilight Struggle, but the use is simplified. At the beginning of each round, each player is dealt three cards from the Agenda deck and chooses one. These two cards are now the map locations that will be scored that turn, but each player only knows the identity of the one they, themselves, have selected. Similarly to the way cards are restricted in Twilight Struggle (in that game, by early/middle/late war designation) though, each player is informed as to the three cards the other player was dealt, so they can make educated guesses about what their opponent’s agenda might be.

Within the strategy phase, play is similar to Twilight Struggle, but simpler. Players take turns playing one card from their (hidden) hand, each playing all but one. In 13 Days, the last card in your hand is placed in an Aftermath pile, which is analogous to the Space Race mechanic of Twilight Struggle. The four active cards can be played for points or, if the event is neutral or your own, for the event action. Like Twilight Struggle, if the card you play for points is an enemy event, the enemy gets to play that event (in this case, the enemy always plays their event before you play your points).

So the game is compressed in scope and scale, and that simplicity is reflected in the game play itself. The box says it is a 45 minute game (as opposed to several hours for Twilight Struggle) and, as I said in the previous article, many players say it is more like a 30 minute game once you learn the rules. As one review points out, the game consists of twelve cards played per side and that is it.

Several on-line reviewers agreed that 13 Days lacks the “bite” of Twilight Struggle, without going into detail as to what they meant by that. Based on my initial experience, I would say this. 13 Days does not have the the kind of complex traps that one player can set for another. In Twilight Struggle this may be exemplified by the “DEFCON suicide card,” where you win by forcing the enemy to allow a game ending move on their turn. 13 Days does not allow the game to end prematurely, except in the 3 scoring phases at the end of the round. There is no surprise event that a player can produce that would result an immediate victory. Furthermore, the events are less complex. As far as I can tell, they are mostly slight trade-ups from the operational value of the cards themselves. You get to do just a little more, but may be limited in where you can do it. Also, as far as I can tell, 13 Days doesn’t have the opportunity for a complex series of card plays to achieve a multiplier effect. In Twilight Struggle, playing card X as a headline can be very valuable if you can follow up with card Y and maybe card Z.  I’ve yet to see a clear “one-two punch” in the 13 Days cards.

In addition, the design of 13 Days is far more a “game” with Cuban Missile Crisis accoutrements, versus a game that simulates the Cuban Missile Crisis – even in comparison with the design of Twilight Struggle. I talked before about how the designer explained that Twilight Struggle is not meant to be a simulation – it is first and foremost a game. Nevertheless, the mechanics are very much tied to the the historical situations and outcomes that they portray. Take, for example, Cuban Missile Crisis event in Twilight Struggle. Until deescalated, the game is put on the edge of a nuclear-war-induced end. It may not be a simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis in any meaningful way, but it clear that the event represents the situation that occurred in 1962.

Contrast that with almost any event in 13 Days. It takes quite a bit more imagination to see the events described as “simulated” by the adding an removing of influence blocks. Yes, playing the game may put you in the mood to think about what happened and what might have happened surrounding Cuba, but the game in no way allows one to explore those what-ifs. I would imagine that any number of settings could have worked just as well for playing similar cards and placing blocks. Practically speaking, the purpose of the setting may be to focus the minds of the players, allowing them to mentally sort the card events. As to portraying the conflict itself? Probably not.

All that said, the opinions from players of 13 Days are generally positive. On Board Game Geek, it currently has a rating of 7.6. This isn’t Twilight Struggle‘s 8.3, but it ranks it among the better games, especially if you are looking in the war/historical genre. While simple, the interactions are complex enough to keep it interesting. The simplicity has another advantage. The game, even at full price, runs half or less of what most “serious” board games go for.

The game also removes the dice that are a key factor in Twilight Struggle. Randomness is only through the shuffles of the two decks. Nobody can predict what cards they will be dealt nor the 5-10 cards that may remain unused at the end of the game. This means that the key differentiator between players is the knowledge that each player has about their own cards. What cards they have in hand that have yet to be played and which card has been selected as the agenda for that round. In this way, the key competitive factor in the game is the bluffing involved in making one’s moves. Did that play I just made tip off what agenda I selected? Or am I deliberately trying to make it look like I have one particular agenda, when it is really something else?

One funny aside I noticed about my own gameplay, when I was doing a solitaire run-through of the tutorial. When I set out blocks, I tend to like them in symmetrical patterns. The fully-influenced battlefield would either have a square, such as the typical five-side on a die, or be in a pentagonal arrangement. However, if I know I have no intention of completing the full five, I don’t start making one of my two “five” patterns. Instead, I’m apt to make a triangle or diagonal shape suited to the total number I intend to eventually leave there. If I did that in a real game, I’d be telegraphing my moves.

I’ll Have Us a War with Those Sons of Bitches and I’ll Make it Look Like Their Fault!

Going back to those DEFCON suicide cards, there is something I wrote about a little bit in my Twilight Struggle article and its philosophy on a nuclear end-game. In this respect, 13 Days sees and raises Twilight Struggle‘s treatment of nuclear war. Twilight Struggle uses the concept of a single DEFCON track to represent how close the world is coming to nuclear war. The concept has been adopted and reused in other games so that for a game player, DEFCON is apt to associate with its Twilight Struggle meaning rather than its historical meaning. DEFCON was, of course, an internal indication of the US military alert level, meaning that the Soviets would have had an equivalent but (not necessarily) equal level. Furthermore, DEFCON 1, rather than being the onset of a nuclear attack, was merely the maximum alert status in preparation for an imminent nuclear war. While the U.S. has never entered DEFCON 1, it is not a forgone conclusion that doing so would mean a missile launch.

The other meaning of DEFCON, championed by Twilight Struggle, is that entering a “hot” war meant a loss. As my previous article discussed, the Twilight Struggle designers credited Balance of Power with the inspiration for this mechanic. I also discussed, though,the curious feature of this in that if you can force the other player to start that war, you don’t lose – you win.

13 Days elaborates on this. Rather than a single DEFCON, there are separate tracks for each side. Furthermore, each side has three different categories (Military, Political, and World Opinion) for which DEFCON is tracked separately. Clearly DEFCON doesn’t mean the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s military readiness rating. Unlike Twilight Struggle, entering DEFCON 1 is not an instant loss. The effect of DEFCON doesn’t occur until the scoring phase at the end of each round. Then, and only then, if you have any one of your three tracks in DEFCON 1, you lose. Furthermore, if you have all three of your DEFCON tracks in DEFCON 2 or higher, you lose.

This serves to model the real “game” during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Neither side wanted a full-on nuclear war. So the question was how to avoid that fate while still maximizing your own side’s position.

However, the flip side of the DEFCON mechanic in 13 Days is that, if you can somehow force your opponent into a DEFCON loss, you win. In other words, launching nuclear Armageddon is fine and dandy as long as you can plausibly blame the other side for starting it. This is even more so than Twilight Struggle, where I speculated about the meaning of forcing a DEFCON suicide on your opponent. In 13 Days, it clearly means starting a war – a war whose outcome probably won’t vary all that much depending on who started it.

Oddly enough, Back Channel actually addresses the subject, although from a slightly different angle. Considering the importance of plausible deniability if the black operation goes wrong, the National Security Advisor explains realpolitik to Bobby Kennedy,

‘If it goes wrong,’ said Bobby, ‘nobody will care about who’s to blame.’

‘I beg to differ, Mr. Attorney General. Nowadays, historians hardly care about anything else.’

I’m not sure it really answers the question, but the book is full of indications that “who started it” is a major consideration for many, if not most, of those involved.

Particularly when I consider this game in concert with a detailed narrative like Back Channel, I tend to interpret all the Strategy Card events as political maneuvering. Placing military blocks is less about actual military action than about appeasing or displeasing certain “hawk” factions within your own government. Most events can be interpreted as internal maneuvers or (e.g. U-2 Downed) an actual escalating event that may either be controlled through other actions or spiral out of control. But the abstractness of the game leaves that, I suppose, as an exercise for each player. Does the “Invasion of Cuba” U.S. event imply an invasion of Cuba, or is it merely Kennedy’s readiness and willingness to exercise it as an option? That is, is Cuba only invaded if card play results in a DEFCON loss?

Opposition Research

Having spent some time (and, to date, not finishing) a computer opponent for Twilight Struggle, I figured it wouldn’t be a huge thing to adapt that computer opponent for 13 Days. Naturally, it has been more of a project than I expected, but it was in fact adaptable.

To date, I have a programmed opponent that can play the tutorial scenario, as printed in the manual, from either side. With only a little bit of fudging, it will make all the same decisions as outlined in the explanatory text, with one exception. I’ll get to that in the next section.

It was actually surprisingly to me how easy it was to reproduce the tutorial’s logic. Most of the logic goes through a pair of algorithms that rank the choice of what card to play and the choice of what battleground (in the 13 Days sense, not the Twilight Struggle sense) to play it on. More surprisingly, I found that the tutorial does not have any dynamic dependency in the decision making.

I’ll explain. The logic that I use looks only at the current state. Going into this exercise, I assumed that it would be necessary to react to enemy placements, altering one’s best guess as to what the enemy agenda is. And while the tutorial text hints at just such a bit of figuring, it turns out that it doesn’t really change the selection over what to play next as compared to static logic. To put it another way, the fact that I just added two blocks to a space doesn’t make contesting that space particularly more appealing than if those blocks had already been there from earlier.

Now, I have no doubt that superior play comes from analyzing combinations of moves and creating plans which are carried out over multiple moves. But at the tutorial level, that isn’t really what’s happening. Similarly, I have a theory based on limited play that the order that cards are played in, in contrast to Twilight Struggle, doesn’t have a big impact on outcome. The biggest reason to chose cards in a particular order is more about what information might be tipped off to the other player as opposed to optimizing card combination. Again, an experience player may know otherwise.

Logic and Argument

I’ll indulge myself by going into the details of a couple of moves as the tutorial plays them. If you don’t play the game, it probably won’t make any sense at all. The rules, which includes the sample play-through, are available on-line, so anyone is free to follow along. If you’d rather not, skip to the next header.

So, as I said, the AI program I adapted is good enough to reproduce the tutorial game from both sides, with two exceptions. There are two moves that the computer considers downright dumb and there is no way I can get it to make them (absent just randomly picking from legal moves). I have to say I agree with the machine here.

The first of the two is a Soviet move, and it comes in the first round of the game. I believe it is meant to illustrate the value of misdirection when playing.

In selecting the Agenda card, the narrative explains how the U.S. is lucky with the draw and chooses Italy as the easiest path. Italy is worth the most points and the setup has the U.S. one-up in Italian influence. The playthrough has the U.S. making several moves to “misdirect” the Soviets. The problem is, the Soviet has all the same information that the U.S. player has. He too knows the U.S. drew the Italy card and can see the advantages of using it. Nevertheless, the tutorial suggests that the Soviets do not believe that Italy is the agenda – could happen. Several times during the round, the Soviet player forgoes the option of taking control of Italy – which is OK, given the premise.

The problem comes with the last card played in the round. The Soviet uses the event “Intelligence Reports,” allowing him to take an American card (at this point, the only one he has). The pilfered card, “Suez-Hungary,” allows the Soviets to take control of Italy with very little downside. However many cubes are required to take control are played by the event at no DEFCON escalation cost. Furthermore, as the last card of the round, if it happens to be the right move, there is no opportunity for the U.S. to counter it. The only downside is that each player can only have a maximum of 17 cubes in play on the board. Adding two more cubes now means either having to “waste” a card in a later round to remove those cubes or perhaps having to forego the placement of cubes in a future round because you have run out. To me, unless you are 100% sure that Italy is not the U.S. agenda, taking Italy now with 2 cubes is an obvious play. And of course, there is no way to be 100% sure.

Allowing the AI to play this card as it would like would substantially alter the remainder of the game, so to complete the tutorial requires skipping the event. Furthermore, there is no way that I could figure to reprogram the AI to decide to skip the card, at least not in a way that made sense. (Logically, I could have the AI make a guess as to which agenda the opponent picked and bet everything on that guess, but I don’t think I want to do that).

The other mistake is more obviously wrong, although in the context of the tutorial it doesn’t change the end result. The U.S. holds an event card, “Eyeball to Eyeball.” For operations purpose it is worth one cube, but if the U.S. has the lead in Military DEFCON (which he does), three cubes can be spread over the two Cubas. Escalation still applies, however, so placing more than one has its downside. With this in mind, the player uses the event to place just a single cube in the Cuba Military. It is one of the U.S. agenda cards, but not the one selected. The tutorial notes explain that this deception causes the Soviet player to make what seems (particularly in retrospect) like a bad counter move.

Notice, however, that if the event is used to place just a single cube, the command operation value of the card can also place that single cube. So if the card is to be used, it could be used either way with the same result. However, if you’re going to use the card for its operational value only, then it doesn’t matter whether you are using a U.S. event or a neutral event. So it is absolutely foolish to play a U.S. event for its command value and then place a neutral event in the aftermath when you can do the opposite for no change except to pick up (in this case a single point, but in general) points at the end-of-game scoring. As I said, in the tutorial the Soviets are far enough ahead in the aftermath victory point tally that it makes no difference. But in principle, it is entirely the wrong move.

I dwell on this here because, as a player following along with the tutorial, it was not obvious. When trying to get an AI to make the same “mistake,” however, it became impossible and therefore clear that making the “wrong” move should never be selected algorithmically.

Eyeball to Eyeball

While I now have a copy of the game to play with, finding opponents is a little harder.

To the rescue comes a website created by Alexander Rymasheusky. With permission of 13 Days‘s creators, he has made a browser-based online version of the game.

cube2

I open with a heavy hand in Cuba and wait to see how my opponent responds.

It’s really an impressive system. I’m even more impressed having struggled through programming an opponent for the game myself. The program provides a gaming lobby with chat and the ability to create new games or join an already created one. For games that have two players signed on, you can follow on as an observer.

During play, and this is the impressive part, the program enforces all of the rules. As a result, there are no concerns about cheating (or, more likely, just misinterpreting the rules). One can just follow the prompts. Given the way each event can be interpreted as an exception or special case to the rules, this is a pretty deep feature for a free, web game. In fact, I would venture to guess that the combination of a decent UI and rules enforcement may be more than half-way there, if you are talking about programming a full single player mode. Restricting the programmed opponent to playing only legal moves is at least as important to trying to get him to play good moves.

I’ll Return Before the Fire Dies

I was pleasantly surprised to find some good, high-level treatments of the Cuban Missile Crisis in historical fiction and in gaming. As critical as the event was as a piece of history, it doesn’t fit into the mold of your typical wargame. But a little bit of innovation and some stretching of the imagination, and look what we’ve got!

Next up, however, I’ll come at it from the other way. Traditional wargames can explore potential what-ifs. Namely, what if the Cuban Missile Crisis turned the cold war hot.