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Digital Culture

Humans vs. computers: The ancient pastime of strategy games

A computer called AlphaGo is competing against human South Korean Go champion Lee Sedol this week. Here's how strategy games came about thousands of years ago - and where humans are weakest.

Games of strategy are nearly as old as humanity itself. The game Wei-qi, for example, was a favorite among intellectuals 4,000 years ago in ancient China. It later evolved into Go, which has become a popular pastime in Japan and Korea.

For a long time, this complex strategy game involving 361 black and white tiles was restricted to the realm of human minds. Again and again, software developers failed to develop a computer version that could handle the countless combinations possible in the game - and keep up with people.

But in January, Google subsidiary DeepMind had a breakthrough and its artificially intelligent program AlphaGo beat European Go champion, Fan Hui. Now, from March 9-15, AlphaGo is challenging South Korean Go master Lee Sedol in an event being streamed live on YouTube.

Computers better at strategy than humans

Man against machine - when it comes to strategy games, that's nothing new. The chess supercomputer Deep Blue beat the reigning human champion Garry Kasparov 19 years ago. In strategy, artificial intelligence is frequently superior to humans. The reason is fairly simple: Strategy games have nothing to do with chance.

Instead, success is dependent on long-term planning throughout a game, and not individual moves. Math plays a bigger role than intuition or luck.

Nevertheless, strategy games are deeply ingrained in human cultures. Even thousands of years ago, people challenged each other to prove their tactical skills and strategic prowess - all over the world.

Chess champ Garry Kasparov famously lost to the computer, Copyright: AP Photo /Stuart Ramson

Chess champ Garry Kasparov famously lost to the computer

Some of the world's oldest games

The oldest known strategy game is mancala, which involves redistributing stones or beans in small indents carved out into a board. Played both in Africa and Asia, the game eventually made its way to Western cultures in the form of kalaha, which was developed in the mid-20th century in the US and is also known in Europe.

Kalaha was marketed as the "oldest board game in the world" - even though its exact origins are unclear. Though makers claimed the game was 5,000 years old, that seems to be a myth.

The first written reference to mancala appeared in an Arabic text in the 10th century. The oldest known game boards, dating back to between the sixth and eighth centuries, have been found in Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, among other places.

Just as old - or perhaps even older - is the best known strategy game in the world: chess. For decades, experts debated the true origin of the game, until in 2002 Munich-based cultural historian Renate Syed brought forth convincing evidence that chess was developed in India around the year 450 BC. The game arose from the military simulations of Indian scholars.

At some point, the scholars put their tactical exercise onto a board with 64 squares, known in India as astapada, which is not far from our modern-day chess board.

Simulated war tactics have not only led to chess, but to many other strategy games as well, particularly in the digital age. "Dawn of War," "Command & Conquer," "Age of Empire" - the titles of some of today's popular computer games ring of armed conflict. Since the 1980s, war has been an integral part of the computer game industry. In the meantime, calmer ancient classics like chess and checkers have also welcomed digital cousins.

Soon even the cleverest strategists won't have a chance against computers - at least not when it comes to pure strategy games. But when luck and chance are involved, humans still have the upper hand.

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