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Syria on my Mind: The Subjugation of Pomerania

One of the things I have tried to show via this blog is how modern video games, like a good book or a good movie, can shed light on geopolitical events.  This is not that startling: military and political scientists have been using "games theory" for a very long time to simulate the world of real politik.   Games are very good at this because they can smartly abstract the salient military and political principles that are operative in our world, thereby making them easier to digest.  So, for example, in my last post I showed how DICE's first person shooter Battlefield 3 captures an essentially correct vision of high intensity warfare in the Persian Gulf, making it a game I believe every politician should play at least once before glibly voting for another Gulf war (especially in light of the fact that a mere 21.8% of congress have actual military experience).  In the specifics it might not come close to real combat, but it does capture the fundamentals of it, and that can be as effective a teaching tool as any multimillion dollar military simulator, something most people will never have access to in their life.

People who don't game and/or are ignorant of games theory would probably be surprised at how often, and how well, most modern video games succeed as teachers.  Heck, sometimes I am surprised at the lessons unexpectedly imparted to me by video games.  Take, for example, what happened to me last night in a session of Paradox's superlative Crusader Kings 2 (you might want to hit play on this vid before you start reading)....

If you don't know, Crusader Kings 2 is a grand strategy game that masterfully captures the dynastic politics of the medieval era.  Basically, Crusader Kings 2 is to gaming what Game of Thrones is to television (if you like one, you are sure to like the other!).  In my current campaign, I was playing the part of the fictional Viking warlord Geirr Saar of Aland.  As you can see in this family tree, he was a fourth generation Nordic crime lord:

Unfortunately for Geirr, he was not very good at one important aspect of being a viking warlord: enlarging his domain.  You see, the Saar family has been suffering through some hard times for the past 150 odd years.  The founder of the clan, Warlord Orni (top right), was the only successful family member in this regard.  During his lifetime, he managed to expand his territory's domain from his home on the island of Aland to parts of Finland.  Unfortunately for Orni, he would also lose much of that land due to the machinations of his liege, as well as to the scheming of his son, Sappo.  As such, Geirr, like the previous two generations, found himself trapped on the rustic island of his birth (very similar to Game of Thrones' Ironborn, no?)

Now, Geirr was good in two other areas of being a warlord: pillaging Christian lands, and using the resultant loot to improve his holding on Aland (he would build a village for the peasants around his castle, a better keep, and even some stables) .  As a result, he was popular with his kinsmen and earned much prestige, even to the point of getting appointed Marshal and given the Law Speaker honorific by his powerful king.

But it continued to irk him that he never could get the one thing all Saars wanted: more land.  In this vital area, he was an embarrassing failure.

So, one day while Geirr was out sailing along the cost of Europe, looking for another land to pillage, he noticed an opportunity to rectify this failing.  It turns out that the Pomeranian county (did you know 'Pomerania' literally means "Land at the Sea"?) of Slupsk had recently suffered some sort of calamity (as if their name wasn't enough), leaving its defenses much degraded.  Geirr saw a golden opportunity for conquest and personal gain.  Rushing home, Geirr immediately assembled 700 of his finest warriors, hired 1000 Burgundian mercenaries (using some of the loot from his recent raiding), and prepared for an invasion.  But what should be his casus belli?   He needed one, after all.  Since there were no chemical weapons back then (ahem), he decided to use his viking right for the Subjugation of Pomerania.  It seemed as good a reason as any other when it comes to these things. 

Now all was set.  With Slupsk being a small, poor county, what could possibly go wrong?  This was a chance for glory!  For redemption!  Unfortunately for Geirr, he forgot that it is often said that "God laughs at the plans of men"....

In June of 983 AD, Geirr arrived and began the siege of Slupsk.  The defenders were outnumbered and outmatched, and it certainly looked quite hopeless for them...but very good for Geirr!  Then trouble arrived from an unexpected direction....

The first setback occurred when a powerful county to the west of Slupsk assembled a large, 3000 man army and decided to reinforce a hold to the east of Slupsk.  Regrettably, their path led right through Slupsk...and Geirr's forces.  A battle broke out, and Geirr's forces got the worst of it.  When it was all over, Geirr's 1700 men were reduced to a mere 650.  The chances of conducting a successful siege of Slupsk fell to nil. 

What could Geirr do but sound the horn of retreat?  But moments before he and his men boarded their long boats to return home in defeat, word reached him that his liege had successfully completed his latest campaign to subject yet another part of Scandinavia to his rule.  What a stroke of fortune!  Now Geirr could summon allies who had been tied down by his liege's latest war.  He immediately sent messengers out to his three brother-in-laws:  Prince Klas, Prince Alfr, and Prince Haljmar (the Saars were very good at marrying off their children to royalty!).  All three responded that, yes!, they would aid Geirr in his quagmire.  

These three additional armies now assembled in Scandinavia, enlarging what was supposed to be a quick "smash and land grab" into a much larger war of conquest.  >cough<Syria>cough<  He didn't know it yet, but Geirr had just lost control of the situation.

The three princes arrived and resumed laying siege to Slupsk, and with much success.  However, now it was time for Chief Trifon, the ruler of Slupsk, to react.  As he saw that he now had THREE large armies running amok on his lands, he called in TWO of his allies - making this small land grab cum war of conquest into a major regional conflict involving FIVE armies, a band of mercs, and, of course, Geirr and Trifon's own forces. Now things were really spiraling out of control....

Fortunately for Geir and his princes, the nearest of Trifon's allies could not immediately respond, seeing how they were under siege themselves from forces that were not part of this conflict.  However, his other ally, located far to the East, did muster forces and begin marching westwards.  

Time was briefly on the side of Geirr, and the county of Slupsk soon found itself - finally - under his complete control with the surrender of the last holdfast.  In fact, during the final siege, two noblewomen were captured: Chieftess Verkhoslava Lyubechanin, and the young girl Feodora Oskyldr.   So much the better!

Geirr was on the verge of a major victory!  

But, once again, Fate intervened.... 

This small land grab cum war of conquest cum major regional conflict had now caught the attention of two other powers who wanted in on the action:  Geirr's own liege, King Seemunder, and a second Pomeranian noble (never did get his name), both of whom declared their own wars of Pomeranian subjugation!  There were now over SEVEN armies that marched, fought, and pillaged their way across Pomerania and the surrounding lands! It wasn't exactly a world war, but it certainly seemed like it to poor Geirr, the Dark Ages Obama.

Unfortunately for Geirr, his successful occupation of Slupsk quickly fell apart as his allies had to abandon Slupsk to save themselves from the repeated attacks coming from all the new chess pieces that were placed on this board.  Armies clashed time and again, casualties mounted, holdings changed hands, and weeks passed.   Tragedy even struck  Geirr's personally as his favorite general, the man who was tutoring his son, was captured trying to hold Slupsk.  The entire situation was now a thorough mess with more parties involved than could be tracked, and victory was still no closer now than it was when he suffered his first setback two years ago!  But he still clung to a hope that he could extricate himself from this fiasco.  Perhaps, just perhaps, his allies could prevail, and Geirr would still have his prize?  His allies were holding, if not winning, after all.  Might it work?

Alas, that was not to be.

The end came as swiftly as a lightning bolt for this small land grab cum war of conquest cum major regional conflict cum virtual world war with the sudden announcement of a  peace deal between Geirr's liege, King Seemunder, and the various other parties of the (formerly "Alander" but now "Who isn't in the") War of Pomeranian Subjugation.  After wining what must have been a stunning victory far to the east, King Seemunder had gotten all forces to agree to conceding the disputed territories to him in exchange for a much needed peace ("reset button"?)! In other words, after all his blood, sweat, and tears (or "blood and treasure" in the parlance of Syria), Geirr had his would-be conquest snatched out from under him by his own lord, leaving him with nothing!  NOTHING!

Truth be told it was worse than nothing, really, as his most favored general remained the captive of Chief Trifon, who was now a very bitter man - and who would blame him?  Trifon refused any ransom offer and would continue to refuse offers until, some four or so years later, Geirr's beloved general died, alone, in his dank dungeon.

Of course, Geirr himself was now a very bitter man as well!  In an act of spite, upon learning of his general's death, he had Chieftess Lyubechanin dragged from her cell and beheaded.  He did, however, spare the young girl, eventually moving her out of the dungeon and into house arrest.  It was only some years later, when tempers had a chance to cool, that Geirr finally ransomed her to Trifon.

Geirr was now a broken man.  With nothing to show for his scheming, he succumbed to rage, eventually rising in rebellion, along with a handful of other Norsemen, against King Seemunder's iron-fisted reign.  It was a hopeless rebellion against such a powerful king, of course, but Geirr's desire for revenge knew no rationality at this point.  The rebellion was quickly crushed, and Geirr along with it.  Sadly, Geirr would spend the last few years of his life inside a cell, perhaps pondering the limits of ambition.... 

When this chapter of my CK2 campaign came to an end, I sat back and wondered at what I had just witnessed, nay!, participated in.  I realized what a marvelous cautionary tale had been weaved by Paradox's magnum opus,  a tale that even the President of the United States would be wise to heed.  That wars have a way of slipping the leash; that events often take on a life of their own and before you know it, you are no longer calling the shots but dancing to a tune called by someone else.  And at that point you have two choices:  cut your loses and suffer a loss of face, or double-down and watch things spiral ever more out of control.

This is now the mess in which Obama finds himself.  Will he follow my tragic Norseman into a metaphorical dungeon built by conceit?  Or will he cut his loses and move on from a bad situation of his own making?  I guess only coming days will show us which course he chooses.

One thing is clear, though:  war, while not a game, can certainly be well explained by gaming.


  1. Amazing follow-up: Just as King Seemunder pulled the rug out from under Geir with his backdoor deal with the other powers, Putin has now done the same to Obama:


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