Errata and Commentary on Debord's Published Rules

Compiled by Alexander Galloway and Stephen Kelly
If you have contributions to this discussion, please post them in the forum.

In 1977, Guy Debord and Gérard Lebovici formed a company, the Société des Jeux Stratégiques et Historiques. Thereafter, they had two booklets printed, in French and in English, containing the rules Debord had written for his game:

  • Le Jeu de la guerre: Règle / The Game of War: Rules (Paris: Société des Jeux Stratégiques et Historiques, 1977).

These booklets carry copyright dates of 1977, but they cannot have been actually printed in that year; from Debord's published correspondence, we can see that he only finished composing the French text in June 1978, and that he was writing to Lebovici about the proofs of the English version in May 1980.

This first English version of the rules contained one serious translation error (concerning the cavalry charge), which has unfortunately been carried over into the 2007 Atlas Press translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith (for details, see below).

Debord's account of the rules was later republished in French as an appendix to his 1987 book, which also features a complete record of a particular game played by Debord and his wife:

  • Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord, Le «Jeu de la Guerre»: Relevé des positions successives de toutes les forces au cours d’une partie (Paris: Editions Gérard Lebovici 1987).

This book was republished by Gallimard in 2006, with some corrections and short additional documents.

It was then translated into English in 2007 by Donald Nicholson-Smith:

  • Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord, A Game of War (London: Atlas Press, 2007).

There is one additional source for the rules in English, published as an appendix to the following biography of Debord:

  • Len Bracken, Guy Debord: Revolutionary (Venice, CA: Feral House, 1997), 240-249.

None of these different versions, French or English, has been entirely free of errors. After the publication of the book in 1987, alert readers informed Debord of several mistakes in the diagrams. As a result, at least six of these diagrams were corrected in the Gallimard edition of 2006 (those for Positions 7', 9, 17, 24, 34' and 49). Unfortunately, the correction for Position 7' was badly botched (for details, see below). However, this diagram has been put right in the 2007 Atlas Press edition, so the English reader now has all six of these diagrams in their correct form.

Format and Title—Comparison of French and English Editions

The Atlas Press English edition of 2007 takes liberties with the format and presentation of the book. In the French editions, the rules appear at the end of the book. In the English edition they are given more prominence by being moved to the beginning. The English edition also omits the sub-title of the book (which one might translate most naturally into English as "A record of all the movements made by the forces in the course of one game") from the cover and the title page, although a version of it does appear as a section heading within the book ("Record of a Game: The Successive Movements of All Forces").

The change from "The Game..." to "A Game..." might be thought to go against Debord's stated desire that the most "generalizing and glorious" title should be chosen for the English translation (see his letter of May 9, 1980 to Lebovici, in Guy Debord, Correspondance, volume VI: janvier 1979 - décembre 1987 [Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2006], p. 55-56). In that letter, written after he had reviewed the English proofs, Debord states that (given his ignorance of English) "the only question accessible to me is that of the title: The Game of the war or The Game of war? We must choose whichever is the more generalizing and glorious title. Even if kriegspiel = wargame is correct 'linguistically,' it isn't so historically, because Kriegspiel has connotations of 'a serious exercise by commanders,' while wargame suggests 'an infantile little game for cadres.'" (Note: Cadres is a very difficult to translate French term meaning roughly "white-collar employees"; it's always used disparagingly by Debord.)

The final tangible difference is that the English edition of the book is in fact a box set that includes a fully playable cardboard edition of the game.

Details of 2006 French Edition

Although, as mentioned above, several corrections were made to the diagrams for this second French edition, it still contains a number of errors.

Firstly, as already mentioned, the correction made to the diagram for Position 7' has been botched, with the result that this diagram contains the following three errors in the 2006 edition:

  • One of North's infantry units, whose correct position is J6, has ended up at J7.
  • Another of North's infantry units, whose correct position is H5, has completely disappeared.
  • An extra, non-existent foot artillery unit has appeared in North's army at F12. This square should actually be occupied by North's horse artillery unit, which appears incorrectly in the adjacent square at F13.

As already mentioned, all of this has been put right in the English edition of the book.

Another error can be found in the diagram for Position 28'. The South's mounted "transmission" unit ("Tc") ("relay" unit, on this site) appears at M8 instead of the correct position, M9. On the page that follows, it is back in the correct position again. This is a purely graphical error: the unit can't have been moved by the player, as five other units have been moved, and that is the maximum allowed for each turn. This error has unfortunately not been corrected in the English edition of the book.

A further error can be found in the text of the "Explanatory Diagrams" section (p.156, on the fourth line of the second paragraph): "la case-col E10" ("the mountain pass at E10"). This should be "F10." The mistake has been corrected in the English edition edition of the book.

Apart from these purely graphical errors, there are a number of examples of what appear to be illegal moves, all committed by South, and which apparently passed unnoticed, both during the game and while the book was being prepared. (And in any case, these couldn't have been "corrected" subsequently without falsifying the record of the game as it was actually played).

The first illegal move concerns Position 9'. A southern infantry unit moves to square I17. However, this would require one of the infantry units to have moved two squares; infantry can only move one square at a time. (Thanks to Jeff Geib for pointing this out).

Then we have five examples of a more subtle kind of breach of the rules. Now, a combat unit can only move when it remains "in communication" with one of its arsenals, either directly or indirectly (see the rules). In the five instances listed below, a unit which has been put "out of communication" by the movement of another unit, in the course of South's five moves, is then used for another of these five moves, in spite of the fact that it is now "stranded" (no longer on a square adjacent to those occupied by other units which are still "in communication").

  • Position 14' — infantry unit at K15 must have been out of communication when moved
  • Position 17' — cavalry unit at L12 must have been out of communication when moved
  • Position 35' — infantry unit at I9 must have been out of communication when moved
  • Position 36' — infantry unit at J10 must have been out of communication when moved
  • Position 46' — infantry unit at J14 must have been out of communication when moved

For these moves to be regarded as legal, one would have to accept the existence of an "unwritten rule" that Debord somehow forgot to mention: that a player need only concern himself with whether his units are in or out of communication at the start and at the end of each set of five moves; that he is not bound by the rules on communication as he makes each of these five moves in sequence.

But such an interpretation is hardly plausible. Firstly, it seems unlikely that Debord would not have specified such a rule if it had existed. And why would only one of the two players (South) take advantage of this supposed rule, in the game recorded in the 1987 book? Even more importantly, it seems to us that such an idea runs counter to the very essence of how the system of communications operates in Debord's game. We feel sure that, just as the units move in "real space" (i.e., only through empty squares, and with no swapping over of two adjacent units which are boxed in by other units occupying all the squares around them), so they also move in "real time" (i.e., in a real sequence of five moves, for each of which the player must take account of the consequences of the preceding ones).

Thus it is reasonable to conclude that these five cases were indeed accidental breaches of the rules.

Finally, Debord himself has made a small mistake in his commentary to Position 47, where he states that "two infantry units" are involved in North's successful attack on a southern unit. As the diagram shows, three infantry units are in positions which allow them to participate in this attack. (Thanks to Jeff Geib for pointing this out.)

Details of Donald Nicholson-Smith's English translation for Atlas Press

The six accidental breaches of the rules, and Debord's mistake in the commentary to Position 47, are of course present in the English edition, too. But as regards the purely graphical errors listed above, the only one left uncorrected in the English book is that in the diagram for Position 28'.

Nicholson-Smith's translation is respectable but not without mistakes. The most serious one concerns the rules on the cavalry charge. Debord indicated that a charge consists of any number of cavalry in a contiguous, straight line, with the foremost cavalry unit on a square adjacent to that occupied by the enemy unit being attacked. Nicholson-Smith states that "all four" cavalry units must be involved in a charge. Since his wording in this passage is almost identical to that in the first English version of the rules (see above), it's clear that Nicholson-Smith has inherited this mistake from that source.

For this and other problems in his translation, please refer to the commentary provided by Stephen Kelly.

Details of Len Bracken's English translation contained in his book Guy Debord: Revolutionary

Len Bracken's translation is stylistically inferior to that of Nicholson-Smith and contains more specific errors.

He mistakenly permits non-continuous lines of units in the cavalry charge.

Bracken also mischaracterizes the mechanics of combat when he states that, after the successful destruction of an enemy unit, "the destroyer must occupy the empty square." In fact Debord stipulated the opposite, that it is not obligatory to occupy the empty square; nor could it be, given how movement and attack function more generally in the game.

Bracken inverts another rule when he states that communication units ("relay" units, on this site) can destroy arsenals by occupying them. They cannot.