Excerpt from Storytelling, [Reed College] Reunions
June 5, 2004 with Cricket Parmalee facilitating
Eveland: I shall identify myself. I’m J.D. [John] Eveland, Class of ’64.
I wanted to talk very briefly about the history and nature of the game of Empire. Some of you may remember [it], played sometime in the ‘60s in particular. And I have no idea what happened to it later on; perhaps somebody can enlighten me later on. The game of Empire had an interesting incarnation. It began in the fall of 1960 as a simple board game provided to us by my then roommate Dan [Daniel L.] Drake [’64], who’s around here somewhere, maybe. And it was something his father had done apparently back in the 1930s. It was a political/military strategy game of various kinds. We found this entertaining and it got played fairly regularly over the course of the next couple of years. It didn’t become thoroughly institutionalized until, I would think, the fall of 1963, when a number of us who played the game were living in the dormitory, the five person dormitory whose name I am now [forgetting].
[Unidentified speaker, Jim Kahan?]: Davis!
Eveland: Davis, that was it. Thank you very much. Next door to here, which had a rather interesting nature in its own right. There being only five of us in the dorm, we had occasion to organize ourselves in some fashion. We decided to proclaim ourselves to be an idiosyncrasy. (laughter) Under the absolute rule, of course, of an idiosyncrat, (laughter) who was selected on a monthly basis by the turn of the cards. (laughter) Low man winning. (laughter)
The game of Empire took on an increasingly sophisticated process at this point. And moved in nature from the fairly occasionally set up in various and sundry places to a more or less permanent location right in this room. And it was a big table, a long table, fifteen or twenty feet long, something like that, five feet ten inches, six feet wide. The game got set up on that table and it got left there all term. We played two games a year. One in the fall and one in the spring. And this went on for at least four or five years.
The most interesting part about it was that it was left, obviously, all the time, sitting there. And any given player’s move took somewhere around anywhere between an hour, and two-and-a-half hours, to complete, by the time you got through. And the player whose turn it was to take a turn was indicated by having a little creature sitting on their country. It was a little Chinese dragon, about yea long [gestures]. And it had a little baldy head. And they just got moved around, according to wherever—if you found the dragon sitting in the middle of your country, it was your turn to make a move. And you could sit down and do this.
The most interesting thing was, interesting Reed sort of thing, it didn’t get damaged. It did not get destroyed. It didn’t get moved. Except with one very interesting thing, and that was, there developed a norm—I remember talking about this—that if you did something to somebody else’s country clever enough, it was okay. (laughter) But it had to have some degree of, and I don’t exactly know what the criteria were by which this was determined. But I don’t recall there ever being any dispute about this. The relatively few things that got done creatively by interesting people outside were all perfectly reasonable and acceptable within the norms of the game.
It took on an interesting quality somewhere during the course of the [fall] when we created some new economic rules for this. And I’m almost done with the story here. I was taking a course in economics that fall and like many people who took courses in economics, I didn’t always happen to attend the class. (laughter) In fact, I rarely ever attended class.
Somewhere during the course of the fall, the professor, whose name I’m blocking at the moment, called me in and said, “You haven’t been to class lately much, have you?”
“No, I really haven’t. I guess not.”
“What have you been doing?”
I said, “Well, I’ve been working on these economic rules for this game we’re playing.”
And he said, “Oh, tell me a little bit about them.”
So I sketched out what we were doing with this, and he opened the textbook. There was a flowchart of the international economy laid out there, and it bore a remarkable resemblance to what it was I had generated in game content. He said, “Have you seen this?” I said, “No, that’s amazing.” (laughter) And he said, “Well, if you can sort of make this up by yourself, maybe you don’t need to come to class.” (laughter) Did reasonably well in the class, too.
But I guess the thing I found fascinating about this is the kind of continuity that existed. I know the game went on for a few years after I left in 1964. I built this rather elaborate set of playing pieces for it. It was like a little chest that had 20,000 playing pieces in it. (laughter) And I left it behind and it got used. I have no idea where it went. It’s probably in a flea market somewhere.
[Editor’s note: Jim Kahan found it five years later, in the Association of Reed Gamers room in the basement of Kerr in 2009, holding a few remaining pieces. The cabinet and pieces were then donated by Eveland to the Reed College archives, where they remain: see pictures.]
But I think the enduring quality of this for me was the degree of respect, the degree of encouragement and the degree of, I don’t know the proper word for this, the degree of participation, in a sense, by all the people who were involved. And the degree of encouragement of this by the rest of the campus. In the sense of it being an odd and acceptable subculture within the process. What passes for revolution in 1964 is rather different from what passes for revolution today, I suppose. But we found it to be an interesting way to pass the time. A key part of my educational experience, I guess. And that’s basically the story. (applause)
[tape 1, side A ends, tape 1, side B begins]
Ione C. Walker ’84: [as tape begins] …I remember it specifically because they talk about this game that had been going on for eight years at that point. And when I got here, son of a gun if it wasn’t in the basement of where I lived. I said, “God, this is cool. I want to play it!”
“Not on your life.” (laughter)
Eveland: The legacy endureth.
Parmalee: Since you made it onto the tape, can you identify yourself?
Walker: Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Ione Walker, and I graduated in ’84 in chemistry.
Parmalee: J.D., after listening to your story, I do encourage people at least to stand up, if not to come up here, because I just feel sorry for the people who were behind you who didn’t get to [see you]. There’s a whole lot in storytelling that’s watching you tell it. I’m sure your back is very expressive (laughter) but, so if people will either come up or stand up, I think coming up is better because then everyone can see you.
So, then, Jim, would you like to [add something]?
Kahan: Jim [James P.] Kahan ’64. And I was one of the people who played with J.D. and very much appreciated his creativity in starting the game. A couple of things I’d like to add to what he said. We had the reputation for being flakes, but nobody every dropped out of school while playing the game. (laughter) Some people dropped out later, and some people dropped out and then played the game. (laughter) But if you were a student, you stayed a student while you were playing.
Second is what I think is very true to the Reed tradition. You were playing this game but you didn’t have to interact with the rest of the world too much. He and I both balkanized our countries. We had a country and we split it up into little countries that played against each other within our own side. And the rest of the players would leave us alone to do it. Encouraged it.
And the third thing, J.D., I hope you can verify this for me. The game started out on the real world, Earth. Later it graduated to someplace long ago and far away. But what we found was, if your capital started in North America, you won! (laughter) Because it represented what the resources of this globe are like. And so [in] the next version, where you weren’t allowed to start your game in North America, the game became a race to see who could colonize North America first.
Eveland: Usually Sweden.
Kahan: Right. (laughter) And that led to the decision to make a more equitable global and a kind of artificial world. But that lesson has come down to me to this day. Because a lot of Americans think they’re great because of their philosophy or anything else—we just live in a
place where all the resources are. (Truck noise outside)
Parmalee: I think we’re going to take a moment for acoustical adjustment here. Reality has just inserted itself into our tape. (window shutting) Also I was just thinking of a fund-raising project for the Alumni Office. They probably could [charge] a dollar [for] sending out to all the alumni who want to know, who’ve wanted to know for forty years, what were those guys doing in here? (laughter) But were too shy to ask. So. Who would like to speak next?
 See also Jim Kahan’s interview with Donna Sinclair, November 20 and December 8, 2006.