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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Notes on the Game in Progress, Played Almost to a Draw

Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. He's had over 60 short stories published in places like Nature, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy's Edge, Buzzy Magazine, and others. This is his ninth appearance at Daily Science Fiction. Alex is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology series of humorous SF/F. His fiction is linked at alexshvartsman.com.
Dedicated to the memory of Roger Zelazny
It was a great match, until the other side cheated.
The planet was perfect for the championship game--lush with biomass, dominated by a single intelligent species spread far and wide across its surface.
Both teams gleefully studied the natives' history in preparation.
We opened in Mesopotamia. At Babel, various peoples were conditioned to speak different tongues. Unable to understand one another, the natives steeled their hearts against the other tribes. As ever, war drove progress.
The Arcturians had conserved their points and let things develop all the way through to the middle ages. Then they had introduced the bubonic plague into the yurts of the Mongols. Genghis Khan died in obscurity as a young man.
It was a subtle but effective move. Without the rise of the Golden Horde there was also no Renaissance, and Europe remained in darkness.
It would cost too many points to counter effectively, so we chose another play. With their new gunpowder weapons and no threat from the Mongols, the Sultanate of Rum had easily defeated the Crusaders and ushered in a thousand-year Caliphate.
The Arcturians tried a few other tricks, but our strategy was solid and it cost few points to stave them off. Under the generous patronage of the Caliphate, mathematics and other sciences flourished as never before. By the 1500s they had colonized the Americas. By the 1800s they had developed nuclear fission. In 1915 the desperate leaders of a failed uprising in Australia found that they had nothing left to lose. With Caliphate troops on the verge of retaking Canberra, they unleashed the hydrogen missiles.
The planet looked even prettier in black-and-red than it did in blue-and-white. We won the first round. The Arcturians admitted defeat, and hit reset.
They adopted a completely different strategy in the second round, spending the bulk of their points on the opening move to go back a million years and introduce bacteria into the ground that slowly and systematically destroyed the planet's oil reserves.
It was a brilliant move. We did what we could, but without the fuel for the combustion engine, human technology did not advance quickly enough. Wars were still fought, great steam airships clashing in the sky and raining poisonous gas on the cities below, but in this round the atom wasn't split nearly soon enough. By the time they had the technology, humans were already too mature to use it toward destruction.
The round ended when their first nuclear-powered spaceship landed on another planet.
The score was tied and the match down to the final game.
With few points left to spend, each side made small, surgical plays after the reset. The Arcturians poisoned Alexander the Great in his early thirties, collapsing his empire too soon. We countered by arming the Roman senators with sharp blades on the Ides of March.
We burned the Library of Alexandria to dampen the human spirit, and they convinced Leopold Mozart to teach his children music, in order to uplift it.
It was a great game, with us slowly gaining the advantage. In the 20th century we instigated a pair of World Wars and even managed a handful of nuclear detonations. Victory within decades was almost assured.
And that's when the Arcturians cheated. Outplayed and almost out of points, they used the military networks we helped create and turned them into something called the Internet.
It was pretty much the opposite of the Babel play. Humans from all cultures could now communicate, collaborate, understand each other. How are we to compete with that?
We did what we could to forestall their space program and temporarily deny the Arcturians victory. But now we're almost out of points, too, and have to contemplate our next action very, very carefully.
It will need to be a phenomenal final move.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, June 12th, 2014


As a game designer it's natural for me to "gameify" various things, so why should the entirety of human history be any different?

Shortly after I wrote this story, a friend who beta-read it pointed out that the setup is almost exactly the same as in "The Game of Blood and Dust" by Roger Zelazny. I rushed to read his story and learned that I inadvertently wrote an homage. The resolution and the takeaway is hugely different, and I could only aspire to one day write prose half as beautiful and lyrical as Zelazny's, but I wanted to acknowledge the similarities and to dedicate this story to the memory of Zelazny, whose novels and especially short stories I greatly admire.

I'm sure many readers will disagree with the story's conclusion that the Internet is a major force for good, but I stand by that philosophy. I feel that, while not perfect, a global information network allows people to understand one another better, makes the world smaller, so to speak, and yes, possibly might even prevent some future wars. Whether or not you agree with this optimistic view, I feel that the story will have done it's job if it sparks a debate or makes you think about the topic.

- Alex Shvartsman

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