The War Game

For one hundred summers, Pine Island Camp has engaged in a complex battle of deception and strategy.

By Robert Moor
Photograph courtesy Pine Island Collection Archives
From our July 2012 issue

Last summer I took a stroll around Pine Island, a small camp in the middle of a lake outside of Belgrade, Maine, where I spent five idyllic summers. It wasn’t a long walk — the narrow island is only about five hundred feet from tip to tip. From afar, the isle looks like a bathing stegosaurus, its hunched spine and curled tail bladed with tall conifers and a smattering of gabled roofs. The camp that occupies the island has been in continuous operation since 1902, and over that time remarkably little has changed: the campers still live in canvas tents without electricity, running water, and electronic or motorized playthings.1 Normally at this time of day the boys could be seen diving off the floating dock out in the cove, whittling, skimming faded back-issues of National Geographic in the library, or pelting one another in a form of dodge ball they call “dust ball.” But that day the island was strangely quiet. I peered into a tent or two and found clusters of campers huddled in secrecy, like smugglers. I spotted rolls of gray duct tape, blue bandanas, piles of camouflage. Here and there, like the flittings of a bird through dappled shade, I heard a single word: “War.”

The War Game, now in its one-hundredth year, is a two-day-long game of military strategy Pine Islanders play in the woods on the mainland at the end of every camp season. Despite its bellicose name, the game involves no physical contact or mock violence. It does, however, involve running, scheming, manipulation, and intense focus as well as more old-fashioned skills like laying in wait, getting bitten by mosquitoes, and following orders. Something so grueling and slow shouldn’t enthrall today’s digitized youth, and yet it does.

Pine Island is among the oldest summer camps in the United States — and by extension, the world. When the War Game was created in 1912 — having evolved, depending on who you ask, out of either an impromptu apple fight, a game played on the White House lawn by the children of Teddy Roosevelt,2 or an old game called the Besieged City — the camp director decided to name the armies after the war still freshest in the public imagination: he split the boys into Blues and Grays. At the time, the reference would have been all-too-clear to the grandsons of Civil War veterans. Although the historical allusion has faded in the intervening years, it still exists, sometimes to a discomfiting degree: the boys of the Gray Army marched under the Confederate flag and whistled Dixie until as recently as 1993, when the camp director finally put an end to that.

Given its era of origin, it is fitting that the game continues to inspire intense rancor among its participants. Ask a Blue, and you might learn that Grays are “foul illiterate bandits” who “try to hide their total incompetence behind a weird, demented, berserker-out-of-hell persona,” while the Blues (according to Grays) are “clean cut,” “wimps,” “momma’s boys,” “blue bloods,” and “Storm Troopers.” (“Grays,” according to Grays, “are Han Solo.”) Blues, it is said, have won more games; the Grays, it is argued, have more fun. “The most clear memory I have of my first War Game was just how much everyone cared,” one camper, Ben Hitchcock,3 recalled. “I was shocked by the sudden change from regular Pine Island, which is so peaceful, to this . . . war zone.”

Ben Swan, the camp’s director, and fourth-generation owner, agrees. “It seems an odd way to end a summer, in which we’ve studiously avoided competition of any serious sort, that the last thing we do is one of the most competitive games known to man,” admits Swan. “The stated object of each summer at Pine Island is to build a successful community. This is a test of the community. But ultimately, I think, it pulls the camp together, because everyone’s been through a difficult, intense experience.”

“Somehow, in the end,” Swan adds, with a wink, “Pine Island always wins.”

At the trill of a whistle, eighty-six boys from ages nine to fifteen slipped from their tents and scampered to the dining hall. Roughly half of the boys were dressed in blue — blue T-shirts, blue bandanas, blue face paint, and blue duct tape — while the other half were dressed in gray. Many of the Grays adorned their shirts in skulls and anarchy symbols. One older French boy wore a pith helmet.

At one point, during the family-style dinner, all of the counselors in the room vanished. Moments later, they returned having self-divided, like paramecia. Half of them came in wearing preppy navy-blue blazers and clanging a giant brass bell. The other half, cranking an old air raid siren, were dressed like the mythic savages from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: shirtless and smeared with campfire ashes, they carried machetes, axes, scythes, a baseball bat studded with nails, and a large kitchen whisk. The boys erupted into cheers of “Blue Victory!” and “Gray Victory!” The generals traded harsh insults, as well as speeches bastardized from Patton4 and Pulp Fiction.5 The boys pounded on the tables and yelled until their jugulars bulged. War had officially been declared.

Over the past century, the War Game has been held in a number of different sites, many of them real towns. The game was originally played in the towns of Starks and Mercer, which were divided by a wide river — to cross it, armies had to bribe a ferryman with bottles of whiskey. In other sites, both armies would have to stop every time a car or wagon rolled through. This inconvenience occurred increasingly as the decades wore on, so the camp purchased a two-hundred-acre tract of uninhabited woods near the town of Norridgewock so they could play the game in perpetuity. The place has remained obstinately rustic: the drinking water must be pumped from a well, and the jerry-rigged showers are a series of perforated rain gutters fed by icy creek water. Concessions to modernity stand out: the toilets are just wooden benches over an open ditch, but nailed to a nearby tree is a dispenser of Purell.

The boys rose early on the morning of the first day of war, lined up for rations of biscuits and gravy, and then sat under canvas tarps to hide from the drizzle. After breakfast, they fell into ranks within their armies. The boy at the head of each column of campers held a flag: one of the Blue flags bore a family crest; one of the Gray flags, a pirate skull-and-crossbones. Without breaking formation, the boys marched down a path carpeted with rust-red pine needles to a clearing. All around loomed the big, quiet Maine woods. The sun burned through the mists and made the meadow grass steam. The Grays general, Josh Treat, dressed in tiger-stripe camouflage pants and a gray baseball cap, wandered between the ranks of his child soldiers.

“I’ll tell ya, boys, I’m so excited, I didn’t even remember to brush my teeth this morning.”

“Me, too!” said one of the campers.

“How many of us didn’t brush our teeth this morning?”

Three quarters of the army raised their hands. Some of their arms had been stamped with a big black temporary tattoo: the letters “PGA” (Property of the Gray Army) engraved between the eyes of a grinning skull.6

“All right!” said Treat. “We’re going to stink those Blues into the woods!”

Treat, a twenty-two-year-old Lincolnville resident, who teaches riflery each summer, is one of the camp’s most loyal devotees, having attended nearly every year since he was ten years old. He’s a big, friendly guy — the smaller campers climb around on him like one of those giant teddy bears at FAO Schwartz — and, yet, he takes the War Game deadly seriously. The customized license plate on his truck, a gray Ford pickup the Grays use as their “war wagon,” reads: “WARWGN.”

The Blue general, meanwhile, is none other than Harry Swan, the son of the camp’s director, Ben Swan, whose great-grandfather, Dr. Eugene Swan, bought the camp in 1906 and ran it for almost forty years. Both Harry’s father and grandfather served as Blue generals, but neither ever won a War Game; it’s a streak Harry desperately hopes to break.

That Harry and his forebears were all Blues is no coincidence; all of the Swans are Blues. The same goes for all once and future Treats — they will all be Grays. At Pine Island, one’s army is dictated by ancestry: if your great-uncle or third cousin was a Blue, so, too, will you.7 This isn’t your average summer camp Color War. Blue and Gray are not just arbitrary hues; the allegiances are all bound up in blood and history.

A whistle: the counselors gathered and synchronized their watches. Another whistle: the Blue attackers dispersed into the woods. A few minutes later, another whistle: the Grays manned their defenses. Two teams: one defending a territory, the other prepared to infiltrate it.

The War Game is a notoriously difficult thing to explain; one alumni compared it to the game of Eschaton from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest — a game so complex it required a computer to calculate the winner. After a century of people trying to bend them, the rules are now sclerotic with technicalities. But it’s exactly this quality, says Josh Treat, which keeps someone like him agonizing over strategies all winter. “It’s the infinite puzzle,” he says. “How can you beat a puzzle that’s constantly changing itself?”

The simplest way to understand the War Game is to picture an invisible town, surrounded by acres of wilderness. The attacking army can score points by entering through one of the city’s six gates.8 To stop the attackers from scoring, the defenders can either outnumber the attackers at the gate, or “plug” those gates with ten or more people,9 at which point the gate is sealed shut.

The game would be a simple one, no more tactical than Whack-a-Mole — spot the attackers, obstruct — except for one glitch: each defending army only has enough people to plug five out of the six gates at any one time. So as the attackers sneak around in the woods, trying to find undermanned gates, the defenders tactically shift their forces around through an elaborate system of squadrons — small groups of the fastest campers running back and forth between two or three gates. It becomes a game of misdirection and stealth. The attackers’ goal is to fool the defenders into shifting their manpower to the wrong gate, and then pounce on their mistake. After three hours, the two sides switch off, and the attackers become the defenders. The next day, they do it again. The fastest, most organized army typically wins.10

Another whistle blew, and the game began. Then, for what seemed like a long time, nothing happened. The game is not designed for spectators, after all — for the most part the attackers are skulking around in the woods, often camouflaged. To make matters worse, attacking armies often deploy an older camper (a “caller”), the more obnoxious the better, to distract the defenders at each gate. They beat on old oil drums, scream insults, clang a big brass bell, and crank an old World War II air raid siren. This year, the Blues, in a stroke of wicked genius, handed out blue plastic vuvuzela horns (those of South African World Cup infamy) to each of their callers. All around: the sound of a dying symphony. Sitting in wait, coiled with anticipation, the defenders’ nerves slowly frayed.

Then, amid the clamor, a Gray scout called out “Party sighted! One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Seven! Eight people!” Treat released his squadron signal (a Day-Glo orange flag), and a squadron of shirtless Gray defenders came racing up, gulping air. Sometimes the squadron beat the attackers to the gate in larger numbers, and the attackers retreated into the woods. Sometimes the attackers beat the squadron, step into the gate, and score.

Blue general Harry Swan was defending North Gate when a group of eleven Grays approached from the east. Swan called his squadron, but only two of the four squadroneers showed up — something had gotten bungled. “Where are they?” Swan shouted at the other two squadroneers, whipping his head around to see what had gone wrong. The boys shrugged. The Grays lined up, held hands, and the Gray counselor, his nerves twitching under his skin, chanted out: “Ready, Ready, One Two, Step!” They stepped into the road in neat synchronicity, swung around, and prepared to step into the gate.11

There was a moment of gravid, pulsing silence. The Grays seemed to score but Harry Swan of the Blues challenged the attack. The umpires huddled to deliberate, then delivered the ruling: seven challenge points to the Blues. The Grays were shocked. A young red-haired boy had stepped into the gate too early. He reddened and began to cry. His counselor assured him it wasn’t his fault, and then gave him a railroad spike and encouraged him to beat out his frustration on an old rusty oil drum. A few raucous moments later, the boy was smiling, and the Grays disappeared back into the woods.

Why do boys hunger for war? The answer is not, I would argue, just that they are inherently violent. It’s something else — perhaps something twined to the appeal of camping itself. After all, America’s first summer camp, the Gunnery, was founded in 1861 in large part to show boys what their older brothers were experiencing in the battles of the Civil War. Much of the summer camp tradition — especially the Boy Scouts and the YMCA summer camps — can be traced back to a desire among the very young to mature through tests of valor, unite in the snug knit of tribalism, and experience in the shivery thrill of marching through dangerous woods, without actually having to shoot or get shot at. Many team sports, from football to paintball, are also simulacra of regimented combat. But Pine Island’s antique War Game, more than any other sport or camp activity I’ve seen, manages to evoke the thrill of battle without the violence — it scratches the itch without breaking the skin.

After all, even I — a fiercely non-competitive kid who would later (albeit, briefly) ordain as a Buddhist monk — fought proudly for the Grays for five summers at Pine Island. What always surprised me as a camp counselor was how efficiently kids make myths, and this is never truer than in the War Game. Still to this day, campers tell the story of my good friend Andy Spiel, who, though vomiting from a severe case of dehydration, managed to gain a point for the Grays by collapsing headfirst into a gate; shortly after, he was carted away in an ambulance. My secret, unfulfilled wish back then as a counselor — and to some degree it remains so now — was always to similarly graffiti my name onto the neatly inscribed history of Pine Island.

On some level, the sense of microcosmic glory is what draws people back to summer camps year after year. At a certain point — around three or four consecutive summers— a kid has learned just about all there is to do at a given camp. What keeps them coming back is not just a love of place, but the promise of posterity. The walls of Pine Island’s dining hall are hung with a timeline of the camp’s history, which includes moments from the War Game both ignominious (a boy who fell into the privy; another, nicknamed “Gizz Gizz,” who poisoned the well with a rotten fish), and glorious (such as Blue General Whit Fisher, who devised a series of giant, eight-foot-long megaphones to communicate between gates). Throughout the years, counselors have devised many bizarre inventions and subterfuges in an attempt to bend the game’s rules, including hiding a camper in a baby carriage and rolling him into the gate, using military radio telephones, secreting campers in “tanks” made of black plastic bags, using department store mannequins, and constructing a forty-foot scaffolding in the center of town to better survey the woods.12

In my first year as a counselor, I played under a general named Niel Kasper, who holds the less-than-enviable distinction of having been the only counselor to serve as general four times without winning a single War Game. Kasper — with a head shaved into a wild rooster’s crest mohawk, the impulsive energy of a jackrabbit, and a congenital aversion to prudence of any sort  — was a quintessential Gray.13 In the final moments of the game, Kasper dispatched me to lead an audacious ruse that would have scored a whopping twenty-seven points on a single play. When the final whistle blew, the loss stung worse than I’d anticipated, because I knew that that evanescent thing — a place in Pine Island lore — had slipped my grasp.

At the end of the second day, Josh Treat knew that he, too, was in trouble. His army was getting sloppy, losing unnecessary challenge points, and was unraveling: at one point, in an effort to stay alert, he drank so many energy drinks that he threw up in the woods. At another point, walking back to the campsite at the end of the first day, he somehow managed to get struck by his own war wagon. He valiantly tried to spin this as a rallying cry for his troops — “I got hit by a truck, and I’m still standing!” — to little avail.

This late in the game, Treat knew he could only give up thirty more points before he had officially lost. He decided to employ a defense strategy called “Lockdown,” where the defenders block all six gates with eight or nine people each, so that every gate has people in it, but none is completely defended. It’s an effective strategy for limiting one’s losses, but also a profoundly boring one. For an hour and a half, the boys at Treat’s gate sat with their knees in the gate, little crosshatchings of pine-needle-shaped welts forming on their skin. When they became too restless, Treat mollified them with sour watermelon gummies.

Unbeknown to those manning the North Gate, it seemed the Grays could be heading to a historically lopsided loss — a distinction currently held by the Blues, thanks to a crushing defeat in 1998.14 Treat had miscalculated the number of campers needed to plug each gate, so while North Gate was quiet, Blue attackers were streaming unfettered through the South-East Gate. The Blues gathered in a grassy clearing called “the center of town” and congratulated one another. To pass the time until the final whistle, General Swan set his soldiers to organize some crates that held decades of notes saved from former Blue generals. Wearing a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, he studied each item of Blue history splayed out all around him in the grass: old maps adorned with arrows and circles, yellowing pages scribbled with inspiring speeches, outdated rulebooks.15

By the time the final whistle blew, both generals had a pretty accurate sense of who had won. The two armies gathered in the center of town to hear the reading of the final score. The campers, standing in formation by their respective war wagons, were sweaty and mud-stained. One had tucked a giant green fern into his hat as a peacocky piece of camouflage. General Treat, burdened with the knowledge of his certain defeat, got up on the bed of his truck and made one last speech, in which he declared that win or lose, this was the most fun War Game he had ever played, and that each and every Gray soldier should be proud of himself.

The head umpire peered down through tortoiseshell glasses at his clipboard and read out the final score: Blues 175, Grays 145. The Blues jumped and hollered; General Swan, having finally broken the family curse, performed a flying punch of joy. The Grays stood in silence, shocked and hurting. Some of them graciously applauded their opponents, but not many. Then the two armies turned and joined together. Campers shook hands with their enemies, old friends hugged. The generals slapped one another on the back. The boys churned together until, from afar, you couldn’t tell Blue from Gray.

As we walked back to a fleet of yellow school buses, which would take the boys back to Pine Island, where, two days later, their parents would pick them up and cart them home, an older Gray camper with raven-black hair turned to me and asked what the greatest loss in history was. I told him: sixty-eight points. He did the mental math, and then nodded in relief. In a few days, when he was back home playing World of Warcraft on his computer, taking hot showers, and preparing for the start of school, this piece of trivia would hardly seem worth noting. But for the moment, under those ancient pines, history mattered.

  1. The closest one gets to even water skiing at Pine Island is when the older boys hitch a younger camper to the back of a war canoe and paddle mightily. It may sound impossible, but it works. [go back]
  2. Incidentally, one of the umpires of this year’s War Game, a former counselor named Winthrop Roosevelt, is a direct descendant of the former president. (Yup, Pine Island is that kind of place.) [go back]
  3. Hitchcock, a Gray, reported that he had even developed “a mysterious aversion” to blue-colored pencils, blueberries, and blue Gatorade. [go back]
  4. “When you were younger, you admired the fastest runner, the champion dust-ball player, the mavens of steal the bacon. Grays love a winner! Grays will not tolerate a loser!” [go back]
  5. “And they will know our name are the Blues when we lay our vengeance upon them!” [go back]
  6. Full disclosure: Years ago, I bought the skull tattoos from an old stamp-maker in the East Village and sent them to the Grays. [go back]
  7. Campers will tell you there are other correlations: if you are from the South, you’ll tend to be assigned to the Grays; if you’re very preppy, very blond, or French, to the Blues. But those trends are mostly anecdotal. [go back]
  8. In the War Game, a “gate” is not a real gate; it’s just a rectangular plot of earth delineated by lengths of white string. Leading up to each gate is a “road” (again, more string), which attackers must enter to reach the gate. [go back]
  9. Or rather, ten or more people’s hands: over the years, the defenders have cleverly devised a method of putting all of their hands in the gate in the exact same time—by grabbing a long wooden pole (in the case of the Grays) or aluminum pipe (in the case of the more modernized Blues) and slamming it down onto the ground. [go back]
  10. Points are scored generally by whoever has the most men at the gate at the time of entrance. [go back]
  11. Attacking armies must step in unison. This skill — stepping in perfect synchronicity — is so crucial that before the game begins, a whole day is given over to practicing it. [go back]
  12. Most of these innovations were later outlawed. Today, no modern technology is allowed. [go back]
  13. While the Blues stayed up the night before the War Game to plot out their attack strategy, we Gray counselors gathered down by the old abandoned railroad tracks to drink beer. It should come as no surprise that, over the next two days, we suffered a crushing defeat. [go back]
  14. When the Grays are feeling especially cheeky, they will chant, “B-L-U-E, The Greatest Loss In History!” The Blues, for their part, will remind the Grays that they have won more games overall. These two (more or less meaningless) statistics are repeated often in the ongoing debate of which army is better — a debate that is argued with all the illogical fervor, dubious statistics, and righteous indignation of New England and New York baseball fans. [go back]
  15. Swan declined to comment to this Gray reporter on whether any of it would be of use for future War Games. [go back]