Eight Days of Stress / by Jefferson Geiger

A lot can happen in eight days. For instance, I’ve experienced a full spectrum of emotions: fear, elation, paranoia, isolation, excitement and relief. I didn’t feel that way because of my job or current events. It was all because of a game called “Subterfuge.”

The mobile game plays similarly to the board game “Risk.” Each player has an army of submarines and they win by becoming the richest, capturing the most outposts or surviving the longest. A player is eliminated when their queen, a source of special units like sentries or engineers, dies.

A key feature to the game is diplomacy, or lack thereof. Alliances and deals will be made and broken. The app’s chat allows for secret communication to one or many. A single player can rarely see the status of the entire map so they must believe the intel received from others.

Once the tenth participant joined, a timer informs us that the action would start in four hours. This translated to ‪2 a.m. last Saturday. In the meantime I fret over opening actions and schedule subs to launch when I’m asleep. The subs crawl slowly in real time, with most moves usually taking at least 12 hours. A game is rarely over in less than a week.

Rather than name the other players, I’ll refer to them by the color of their units. On the first day I form pacts with Brown and Green. Purple agrees to help me if Red does anything fishy. Red helps by spying on Teal for me. 

I research strategies but none are really helpful because I can't assume other’s playing styles. How can I tell what is dumb luck or intentional? I know I’m against some veterans but who else is a beginner like me? There are too many variables.

Day 2: I spy on Brown for an alliance made with Sky Blue, Pink and Navy Blue. Nothing in our pact mentions that I can’t. I think of myself as the spymaster Varys from George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones.” Sky sees right through me and interrogates me on my alliance with Brown. I tell him I’ll do what I can. 

That night I take a break from one stressor with another by watching the presidential debate. So do the others, even those not living in America, and the chat room explodes into jokes. Not a single sub launches. Purple points out that it was our own Christmas truce.

Day 3: I wake up regretting constructing a mine the night before. It launched me to the top of the leaderboard, painting a target on my back, even though I have one of the smallest fleets. Someone has hired a martyr, the game’s sacrificial nukes. The stakes are raised and hairs stand on the back of my neck. Red waves the white flag and resigns. 

Day 4: I spy on Brown’s specialists and positioning. He is hit by the nuke and focuses on defense. I lay low too. Everything is quiet. I'm worried that I have no allies. 

I can stare at my screen forever waiting anxiously for action but it’s not how the game works. Everything happens when you're not looking—when you’re least expecting. Each time my phone vibrates I tense up. Am I under attack? Did I receive a communiqué from an ally or opponent? Or is it just an unimportant email or text? 

Day 6: My preview told me I would win the skirmish but Brown came out on top overnight. Teal is steamrolling me from the other side. I fund Sky so he’ll have extra troops to assist me when Brown is gone. I see no reason to play politics anymore. If I don't have a strong ally I'll be toast. 

Teal makes his move and I take a stand to defend my outposts instead of fleeing. By the next morning I’ll have either survived or been eliminated. I go to sleep having crossed the Rubicon. 

Day 7: I wake up to 13 notifications and panic. I'm alive. Green has been eliminated. Various mines have been built across the seafloor. My plan worked and I see Teal retreat. However, he was just weakening me for Purple to swoop in and finish me off. 

Brown is somehow still alive and managing to grow his army again. I noticed that Navy betrayed both Sky and I by funding Brown. Even with my slight victory morale is low.

Day 8: As I predicted, Purple and Brown have boxed me in. I start funding everyone who isn't my enemy. Hopefully they can help me out, but part of me worries that I’m making my future enemy stronger.

My retreating princess and queen walk right into Brown’s lieutenant, which used to be mine, and assassin. His subs are faster and there’s no escape. I'll be dead in nine hours and all I can do is watch. I shouldn't have switched my alliances so early on. I thought I was joining the winning side, but I realize I am just a pawn between Sky and Brown. 

I may not have won, but I didn't lose. For one, I wasn't the first eliminated even though it was my first match against humans and not the computer. I played against Brown, who was an alpha tester for the game, and Purple, who specializes in writing about strategy games. I’m proud to have lasted as long as I did against them. I can't wait to play again. After my nerves take a six-month sabbatical to rehabilitate, that is.

This column was originally published in the October 19, 2016 edition of the Valley Courier.