If Meltwater has a grandmother, it’s probably Brenda Romero.
Romero is probably best known in our sphere for her board-games-as-art-pieces, most notably the controversial Train, a game which unknowingly casts the installation attendee cum player as a Nazi collaborator and asks them how they would like to continue. The piece has a complex legacy, and quite a few admirers and detractors both. I’m not here to talk about Train, specifically.
Train was part of a larger body of work, titled The Mechanic is the Message. I’m more interested in a different entry in the series: Síochán Leat (“Peace Be With You”), aka The Irish Game. Síochán Leat is a commentary on Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, and the subsequent famines and impressments into forced labor. (Also, an oblique comment on the more modern Troubles, and everything in between). The piece was on display at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY from 2009 to 2014.
I never had the opportunity to see it in person, unfortunately. And the short rules document (written in Romero’s own Irish blood) has never been released online. All I had were secondhand accounts, and a handful of publicly-released photos: An implacable wave of orange English cubes, and little clusters of game piece families—displaced, compressed, split, and ultimately removed from the board, either to distant Barbados or to the soil beneath.
Photographs courtesy of Brenda Romero.
Those photos stick with me. A clear, stark image. A monstrosity you can almost touch.
(Aside: As of this writing, I’ve never spoken to Romero in person. I know Síochán Leat is a very personal work for her—the sole existing board is woven with her mother’s rosary, and her grandfather’s spoons, and more blood than just what made it onto a sheet of paper. Romero has insisted that the game board may only be set up by Irish descendants—I assume this is why the rules have never been made broadly available. I have strong Irish blood from my father’s side, but long bleached through rural American assimilation. I’ve never heard a word of Gaelic. I’ve never set foot in Dublin, let alone Belfast. I can only hope she approves of what I’ve taken from her work here, and how it wove into my own.)
But in looking at Romero’s tragedy, however, I think I saw another. The Irish pieces on the board are divided into green and white. Player colors, I guessed, or some other association. Factions? Families? I saw an empty millimeter of space, and a green piece and a white piece beside it. Is this the *game* part? I wondered. We are both fleeing from armageddon, but there is only one space in the proverbial lifeboat. Is that the choice I must make? Will I slit that throat to save my own?
This was the question on my mind when I first encountered Meltwater’s great-grandfather: General Thomas Power.
General Thomas Sarsfield Power, commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command. Air Force photo taken sometime in the 1950s.
“Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.”
~Gen. Thomas Power, U.S. Strategic Air Command 1957-1964”
Thomas Power was the head of U.S. Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the standoff, he advocated for an aggressive posture towards the Soviets and Cuba. He also went beyond his authority to broadcast SAC’s DEFCON-2 readiness status on unscrambled radio channels. Allegedly, he hoped to intimidate the Kremlin into backing down.
Power’s disregard for Soviet civilians chilled me, of course. (Will you slit that throat to save your own?) But we expect a degree of jingoism from military strongmen. What startled me was Power’s disregard for the lives of his own countrymen, the people he’d sworn to protect, for the sake of an abstract notion of victory. Will you slit your own throat, just to polish your gravestone?
Experienced wargamers may recognize Power’s quote; it also appears in the rulebook for GMT’s Twilight Struggle, another obvious inspiration. In their design notes and in interviews, Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta have stated (and I’m paraphrasing here) that they did not intend to present Domino Theory as an accurate historical or political model of the era. But the superpowers believed in that theory, and so the game models their perspective. The game shows you the world as they saw it, so you can understand the decisions they made.
I like this approach. I chose to adopt it.
So I created a model with Power’s absurd, absolutist victory conditions. To win this game, you must totally subdue or annihilate your foe, down to the last frightened civilian. Cooperation is synonymous with concession. You must win, no matter how many lives you spend in the process. Even if it kills you. Even if it costs everything.
This is where Meltwater started.