Jim Kahan Oral History Transcript

James Kahan, 1964

November 20 and December 8, 2006
Donna Sinclair, Interviewer
Location: Portland, Oregon

© The Reed Institute. Electronic Oral History project materials and transcripts are intended for use by trained project participants and representatives of Reed College. Do not distribute or display without permission.

[This interview excerpt was contributed by Jim Kahan, and is used with his express permission.]

Kahan: They did away with Davis, because they didn’t like what was happening. Anna Mann was my social room junior and senior years. Freshman and sophomore years I mainly hung out in Winch. The Winch social room was the card room. A lot of people played bridge there. It was also where the Empires game was. The Empires game was started by J.D. Eveland, who was the ringleader and Alan Arey, Class of ’65. I remember them as being instrumental. It started out by people playing Monopoly and because these were creative people, they went beyond just having individuals to starting having holding companies for properties, and they could collaborate and have holding companies and other kinds of deals. So, you could create a monopoly by having the holding company without you, physically, personally having to have all three properties.

And it sort of got out of hand, where if you could do this successfully, it would be to your advantage to just remain in jail all the time, because then you weren’t moving and everybody passing through had to pay your share of the holding company and they’d go broke. And you’d be happily in jail, earning lots and lots of money, sort of pre-figuring the current political situation, I guess. That merged with a couple of other games that were being played, one was a game called Risk, which was all about diplomacy and things like that. And another game was called Tactics II, which was a battlefield game. In Tactics II, there were all the pieces of armor, infantry, and things like that, and it was a military strategic game. And so what happened is, somebody got the bright idea, I think it was J.D., I’m not a hundred percent sure—of combining the best features of Monopoly, Tactics, Risk, diplomacy and other things, and basically playing this game. And they started off with a flat map of the world and people would pick a capital, and they would have a certain number of the population and they would have to have a certain percentage of their population engaged in agriculture, to feed people. Then they would have to create factories and industry, and if you wanted a battleship, you had to build a battleship factory and then you had to put the raw materials for this battleship in this factory, and two moves after, you got a battleship, unless somebody bombed your factory, or—

Sinclair: And why was this called Empires?

Kahan: It was called Empires, because each of the players was trying to build an empire and the object was to conquer the world. And in the early versions of this game, the resources were based on the real world, so coal was where coal was, iron was where iron was, and power was where big rivers were, and aluminum was where aluminum was, et cetera. In the first early games, it turns out that the person who started with a capital in North America won, because the resources of North America are so huge compared to the rest of the world. This just happened, and then this led me to decide about politics that—a lot of Americans think it’s about manifest destiny and because our political system is superior, America is a world power. (laughing) It’s because we’re in the right place. It has nothing to do with our political system. We’ve got all the resources.

Sinclair: So, through the games, you—

Kahan: We learned that! So, then the next version of it was, okay, you can’t have your capital in North America. So, everybody’s capitals were in other places, and then the game was a race to colonize North America. So, that wasn’t really what we were after. Then J.D. had the brilliant idea of creating an artificial world. And the artificial world was originally in squares, but became hexagons on a table that was six-by-twelve feet, and half-inch hexagons. So, that was our world, in which continents were drawn strategically, and resources were sort of randomly spread out so that there was no North America effect. And J.D. built little icons, oil cans and ships and things like that. It had about ten thousand pieces. I’m given to understand that the box that J.D. built with all those pieces exists some place on campus. I haven’t found it yet, but I haven’t looked hard. But it’s still supposed to be there. And the game evolved to being played in the Winch social room, so I had come full circle to Winch.

Sinclair: So, this was your senior year?

Kahan: No, no, this was my sophomore year it started, with this intensity. And there were two games a year. One game started in the fall and ended at Christmas break. The second game started after Christmas break and ended near graduation at the end of the year. There were about six to eight players and each player had a piece of this world that they were developing, and it was still—in theory, conquer the world—but nobody could ever really do that. You had twenty-four hours to move. And nobody ever dropped out while playing the game. There were some people who played the game and then the next year they didn’t play because they had to study and they wound up dropping out. But nobody ever left Reed while playing the game. J.D. started the phenomena of “balkanization,” which might be a synonym for masturbation, I don’t know. But basically, J.D. took his country and split it up into smaller countries and they played with each other, rather than engaging with the rest of the players. So, J.D. was having fun all by himself. And, to earn [game, not real] money, one of the things he did in one of the countries, was he built a casino. So other players could come visit his casino and gamble and they might earn more money that way.

I played once and I balkanized, too. I had the federation of Stratford. My countries were Hamlet and Othello and Macbeth, and Henry IV, Part I, and Henry IV, Part II, which was sort of an India-Pakistan kind of thing, where Pakistan, before Bangladesh came around, was West Pakistan and East Pakistan. So I had my two Henrys, and Henry IV, Part II, which was ruled by Falstaff, was a country whose sole industry was the brewing of beer. So, people could come buy [game, not real] alcohol at Henry IV, Part II if they wanted.

Sinclair: Well, what constituted winning?

Kahan: Winning would be defeating other countries. If you captured the head of state, you would beat their country, or if you overwhelmed and then occupied a whole new territory. The year I played, a weird thing happened. At one point somebody threw open the door of Winch and it was windy outside. A gust of wind blew in and upset all the pieces on the board, and so we declared this an act of nature and people put the pieces back as best they could. And it just so happened that one of the other player’s pieces wound up in my country, so it was his color. So what I did was I determined that I had brainwashed that piece, turned the marker over and put a stripe on it that would indicate that it was my piece, and I hid it by putting it under my own pieces so that nobody could see it and I put it on a ship. During one of my moves, because you could do this during a single move, I snuck the ship over to his land, unloaded my piece and then got the ship back, because I could move that number of hexagons in one move. And then over the course of the number of moves, my piece gradually wound its way up to his capital, where I assassinated his head of state. And, so there was some discussion as to whether or not this was fair and whether or not if I’d run across any of his military pieces on my version, whether they would have detected him. But we didn’t really care. We had fun.

Sinclair: It’s interesting, because it sounds like it was all competition—were there any efforts toward cooperation?

Kahan: Yes. Just as in Risk, you can form coalitions and team up against people, if somebody is acting as though they are going to really be aggressive, other people will team up against them. And J.D. avoided this by balkanizing. “I’m just playing by myself. Don’t bother me.”

Sinclair: Were the rules written down?

Kahan: No.

Sinclair: No. So, there were just certain—he was in charge?

Kahan: Well, no. The rules were just sort of known. It wasn’t written down, it wasn’t discussed. There was no arbitrator. There was no person. Any contentious decision had to be negotiated. If there was a battle, it had to be publicly witnessed because the tactics, the outcomes of battles were determined by the roll of a douse. So, here you had this piece against this piece and you roll it, and if it’s a one they have to retreat and if it’s a two you have to retreat, and if it’s a three, they’re destroyed. And if it’s a four, equal sides are destroyed and have to be taken off the board, depending. Those were tactics to the rules for battles. But then, because it involved rolling the dice, it had to be publicly witnessed.

Sinclair: So, do you have any idea how long this game was played?

Kahan: You mean in terms of calendar?

Sinclair: No. That went on through graduation?

Kahan: Yes. The Empires game, it was definitely played in Winch my sophomore, junior and senior years.

Sinclair: Mm-hmm.

Kahan: I believe it went on for the next year, and after that I don’t know.

Sinclair: It sounds like it was pretty interesting.

Kahan: It was.

Sinclair: A convergence of having fun and the ideas you learned in school.

Kahan: Yes. It could be viewed as a lesson in political science, because in many ways it was that.

Sinclair: What was his major?

Kahan: J.D., I believe, was a poli sci major, or history.

Sinclair: Either one would work. (laughs)

Kahan: Yes.

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