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Date: (May 2007)

What do Harvard kids do for fun? Play meaningless trivia drinking games? Watch marathon sessions of extremely nerdy television shows? Discuss the finer points of random philosophers? Yes, yes, and yes (all personal experience).

But, what better way to spend the month leading up to finals in a school full of nerdy people, than to play a massive online multiplayer game of the classic world-conquest board game, Risk?

The game was put on by the (Harvard) College Events Board using a platform by Gabe Smedresman. While in traditional Risk, players face other players for control of the world, this game of Risk pit Houses against Houses in a bid for control of all of Harvard, with students joining a particular House team and being allocated units. Each player could move these units according to standard Risk rules (they can move to adjoining territories, they can attack neighboring territories, etc.) but there were a few twists (such as territories were allowed to be unoccupied, the game was turn-based to the point were units could only be issued one order — one could conquer territory after territory with the same batch of soldiers as in the board game, combat is issued by randomly pairing attacking and defending soldiers, increase in unit count was given to each student equally and contingent on territorial conquest and control, etc.). Each House thus had a message board which allowed a House war council to issue commands to the students.

What started as a very nerdy game quickly became something which sweeped the Houses, as more and more students in each House participated. Soon, allegations of cheating (there were apparently hacks which allowed some houses to vastly increase their unit count) and espionage (students looking at other War Council orders).

The precise war history is recorded in very precise detail. Early on Lowell, through superior coordination and luck, steamrolled its neighbors and quickly gained control of a vast empire in the South, seizing two continents in short time. It aligned itself with Mather who also quickly seized control of a continent — leaving the two most powerful armies allied to one another and with a territorially contiguous empire. In the north, Pforzheimer House and Quincy House established an alliance to cyclically control a continent. Towards the middle of the board, however, the unluckier houses, including, sadly, mine of Leverett faced an endless battle for survival. Much like the middle of a chessboard where the fighting is fiercest, over the next couple of turns, Leverett saw its ancestral territory (Leverett House proper) become conquered by enemy forces, as Leverett units retreated.

This is around the time when I entered the game — and to my dismay, for the next almost 10 turns, we did nothing but retreat and consolidate. It was a big blow to our morale, being forced to retreat constantly in the face of superior military force as we fled battle after battle. All the while, the battle was being split into three zones — a Mather/Lowell alliance dominated in the South, eventually crushing the armies of Eliot, Adams, and Dunster. In the North, the Pforzheimer/Quincy alliance expanded form their sole continent into the regions dominated by Kirkland and Cabot. And in the middle, little Leverett constantly ran, surrounded by hostile forces and with insufficient political and military capital to execute any offensive strategy.

Over time, however, it became clearer what the War Council was doing — essentially the only (and quite possibly the best) strategy: it was impossible to destroy us if all of our forces were concentrated over a small area. While the vast “evil empire” of Lowell was difficult to defend due to its accessibility on multiple levels, our small area made it very easy to defend, and also very difficult to attack in mass force through coordination. There were certainly moments when the general populace of Leverett demanded a more aggressive strategy, the war council held firm and while our neighbors fel, Leverett survived and even re-established its own military presence in the dangerous middle of the map — the so-called “Gold Coast.”

However, time was not on our side. Lowell’s evil empire sought our destruction once again and with a massive army, besieged the center of our forces. And with a single blow, they massacred the vast majority of our armies. The consolation, however, was that our line held against their massive assault — and we retreated so that we could live to fight another day. Yet, our trials were not over. During our retreat, we were again assaulted by the forces of Kirkland, once a if not friendly, then neutral “we stand against Lowell” neighbor, in a vicious backstab as we retreated — again decimating our lines.

Yet, in our darkest hour, we still prevailed. Beaten, but not yet broken, we forged a new alliance — with Quincy and Pforzheimer who had witnessed Leverett survive two frontal assaults, one by the supposedly invincible and unbeatable Lowell. With this new alliance in place, we quickly rebuilt our forces and, through coordination, our three forces launched a new offensive. Within a few turns, Kirkland’s treacherous forces retreated into the protection of Lowell’s territorial domain. Mather’s forces were beaten down by Pforzheimer’s. Quincy pushed against Lowell. And within several more turns, the Quincy armies decimated Lowell’s remaining armies, and our armies entered their territories.

On the 45th turn, the alliance of Leverett, Quincy, and Pforzheimer declared victory.

And this is why I failed my stochastic processes final! 🙂

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