Chess, Vikings and Asymmetric Warfare

Chess, Vikings and Asymmetric Warfare

Sep 2, 2013, 7:33 AM |

Is chess a model for (a)symmetric warfare? Well, the two sides have the same fighting power at the onset of a chess war. And they both rely on tactical weapons that are similar, differing only in details and execution.

So what is the main distinguishing factor that helps one side prevail over the other. Strategy! The art of how to see through, frustrate and forestall the adversary’s strategy. Like the rudder on a ship, it steers your team through high seas and toward winning waters.

In fact, all warfare is asymmetrical. In any conflict, the opposing sides will differ in some important aspect: manpower, civilizational and technological level, training, intelligence (in both senses of the word). Even when both sides are pretty much “equal” in this regard, there are differences of culture, doctrine and strategy that is going to affect the way each side in conflict fights the war.

Even with a significant power asymmetry, the weaker side may design and use the right strategy to win the war. Strategic interaction, the battle of strategies during a conflict best predicts conflict outcomes.

In general, asymmetric systems tend to produce more complex, unpredictable and otherwise interesting behavior.

For example, in chess, the most common material imbalance is that of bishop versus knight. Superiority in the middlegame is usually decided by who has the better minor pieces. Think other forms of asymmetry: exchange sacrifice (rook for bishop or knight), and two or three minors versus the queen. They all bring unusual positions full of interesting possibilities.

“[Asymmetry] is the way the world works today,” says Kris Wheaton, a Mercyhurst University professor of intelligence studies who designed a game with the aim of teaching valuable lessons of strategic thinking, cultural intelligence and asymmetric warfare to today’s intelligence students and professionals. ”We’re not facing the Soviet Union. It’s not force on force. It’s the Taliban and terrorists like the Boston bomber.”

“It’s a really useful exercise in forcing you to think like the other guy who has different goals and resources than you do. … It’s one of those games intelligence professionals should play because we’re tasked by and large with thinking like the enemy. … We have to be able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and this game forces that.”[1]

Wheaton has modeled his strategy game after Hnefatafl, or King’s Table, the board game played by Vikings in the fourth century AD. And that is the game of asymmetric warfare in a very real sense.

Originally, Hnefatafl (pronounced Nev-eh-TAH-full) simulated a Viking raid. It is played by pieces that move like rooks on an 13×13 board. There are twice as many attackers as defenders, White has 13 pieces, Black has 24. White has a king, Black doesn’t. The attackers are situated along the four sides, each side representing a Viking ship. The king and the defenders are located in the middle of the board.

The game starts with White outnumbered and surrounded, like this:


Pieces capture by surrounding, sort of like Go. The goals of opposing sides are different: Black’s goal is to surround and trap the enemy king so he can’t move, White’s goal is to move the king to one of corner “refuge” squares, called burgs.

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So you want to play better chess, become a stronger competitor in the business arena, or gather more meaningful intelligence?

Then think like your adversaries do. Every strategy has an ideal counterstrategy, especially against an opposition of different skills and strength. You should be able to predict their plans and intentions which will dramatically improve your chances of success by choosing and implementing that counterstrategy.


1. Mercyhurst professor develops strategy game, Erica Erwin, Erie Times-News