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When I'm tired and can't work (I have sleep apnea that's not fully treated so that's a lot of the time) I play such old games as Starcraft to keep my brain turning over. Lately, I've been playing a variant or UMS ("use map settings") game within Starcraft called "Toad's Turret Defense 1.4". (These UMSes are mini game designs attached to a Starcraft map you can play on.) In this particular game players build air defense turrets and buy heros to shoot down passing aircraft with. It's simple but requires some decisions, and things blow up. Great for thirteen year olds, and for nomentatus when half-zonked with fatigue.

There are six players, four on the sides, and two center players.

I have a (so far) unique defense when I'm center and it gets me a lot of flak. "OMFG there's a newb in the center" and "red, stop doing that you *#$^#" being fairly typical. So I thought I'd write down the reasons and then they could look it up on the web. Not that they will, necessarily. They're mostly thirteen, and they want to play not research.

Now, by the time the game's over and they see my score, there's a lot less flak, yet no-one ever seems to copy this setup, either. They just can't believe it works. The human love of symmetry that helps us choose our mates is too strong. Symmetry must be right. Right?

But no, it isn't. Not in everything, and not in Toad's Turret Defense. Here's why.

Symmetry would work as well, even perhaps slightly (slightly) better than asymmetry if enemy aircraft only flew up and down in the game. But they don't. When you're in the center, aircraft also come from both sides, simultaneously. If your defenses are dead centered, then both groups will be over you at once, dividing the fire of your overwhelmed turrets and heroes. However if you build only on the right or left of your area (becoming literally an eccentric) you'll deal with one group (mostly) and then the other group (mostly). Your units will fire nearly twice as much at side-to-side-traveling aircraft and destroy nearly twice as many. You can accentuate this asymmetrical effect, particularly for fast-flying groups of enemy aircraft by placing a "rotten peach" hero at the far left if you've built turrets on the right, and further delaying groups coming in from the left, using her ensnare (she fires goop that slows things down, as one would expect in a highly intellectual game).

(Further tips while I'm at it - get "baby marios" (marines) quick, buying them in the central hero market, and maybe a hydra or two but buy at least one "rotten peach" with ensnare very early. Then buy corsairs - the "dragoon" next to the "rotten peach" hero is actually a corsair).

You may also want to leave a "rotten peach" hero up the line towards the other center player, so that if by some mischance a bunch of aircraft that have "leaked" through his or her defenses look like they'll arrive at the same time as other aircraft, you can delay the leakers and avoid a simultaneous arrival forming a large herd or convoy over your guns.

Now what's so interesting about all this is that it relates not just to our at times irrational love of symmetry, but also to WW II convoys, and the biological problem of herding. It also shows that we don't learn very quickly, us humans. (But you knew that, from personal experience, of course.)

In WW I the British learned after devastating losses of merchant ships to U-boats, that herding their ships together into convoys that traveled more slowly than nearly every ship in the convoy saved ships, lives, and material. The convoy was more likely to encounter a U-boat, but the U-boat would be overwhelmed with targets and would not sink the whole convoy or anything like it. Contrary to what you'll read in many good history books, this herding, or convoying, worked with or without armed escort ships in the convoy. The Brits had reinvented the herd. After all, a pride of lions can't kill all the antelopes in a herd, either. (Actually lions are scavengers and hyenas kill the game, but that's another stereotype-breaking story).

But biologists apparently don't read military history, and vice versa, so biologists were vigorously arguing the Darwinian reasons for herding twenty years ago without much luck and may still find this puzzling for all I know. I don't read much biology, now.

And just so, those who play Toad's Turret Defense now continue to recapitulate one of the United States greatest errors in World War II (perhaps their greatest blunder), namely, refusing to see the power of convoys at the outset of their entry into WW II. Only after enormous losses did they take British advice and introduce convoys - although poor blackout discipline along the Eastern coast of the U.S. was also part of their debacle. Convoys work, and work very well, that's why they're found throughout nature.

So Turret Defense players, don't let the enemy form bloody great convoys right over your guns. Use asymmetry and then deal with two half-size herds of enemy aircraft, one herd or convoy at a time. Prove that we humans can learn something fairly simple, even if it takes us very nearly a century to do so.

First posted June 25, 2004

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