by Hevach; Originally posted on The 12th Fleet
The Kobayashi Maru is an iconic part of Starfleet Academy. Really, it’s almost the only part of Starfleet Academy, because canon does not offer us much about the Academy. We see the Kobayashi Maru, the woefully inadequate disciplinary process (I mean, really, they knew Nova Squadron was lying, they should have known what they really did, but they were THIS CLOSE to letting them off because nobody would admit to it), and then another (decidedly dumber) look at the Kobayashi Maru.
The Kobayashi Maru is a command training scenario with no possible solution. The titular target is a civilian ship on the wrong side of the neutral zone that has struck a mine. It sent a distress call but now communications are jammed. Victory condition is to rescue the ship’s crew and return safely. Upon initiating rescue a vastly superior force ambushes the cadets.
Retreat is failure, destruction of your ship or the Maru is failure, loss of either crew is failure. With communications jammed and cloaking enemies, you are stripped of many options. Ultimately, the test is one of character – what will you risk, what will you sacrifice, and how will you deal with the consequences.
Fans and novel authors have come up with some inventive ways of winning the scenario. Frequently they forget actual, key parts of the test, but more often they’re missing an even more crucial aspect of the no-win scenario in general.
No-win scenarios are common in all kinds of training. Police, military, astronauts, even pilots train to deal with events far worse than likely events, because preparing for the most likely scenario is useless the second things go sideways, so preparing for something even worse is safest. As unlikely as such events are, they are possible, and even a no win scenario has varying degrees of failure, and the people in them should be trained to at least find the least severe outcome.
Unlike the Kobayashi Maru, these are rarely tests of character. They’re usually tests of endurance, meant to push the breaking point of subjects and prepare them for real prolonged crises.
Probably the best known example of a no win scenario is Abel Archer 83, a 1983 NATO military exercise simulating a Soviet invasion of West Berlin. At each step in the exercise, both sides are assumed to misread every action of the enemy, overreacting and provoking an ever increasing response ending in total nuclear war: Events start when the USSR storms West Berlin, an attack that NATO is unable to protect against. NATO prepares for a full invasion of West Germany to follow. USSR sees the buildup and believes an invasion of East Germany is imminent and attacks preemptively. NATO is unable to hold back the Soviet army and uses a tactical nuclear weapon to halt the attack. USSR uses a larger tactical deployment to stop what they now believe is an unopposed invasion force. NATO uses limited strategic nuclear weapons to cover what now appears to be an undefended border, leading the USSR to believe a first strike is in progress. And so on, each action misread and met with an ever larger reaction, until the inevitable happens.
It was, perhaps, not the most likely outcome of a real Soviet invasion of West Berlin – the nuclear taboo proved strong enough to hold up to other crises experts had predicted could lead to nothing but nuclear war. But as imagined for the exercise, the scenario was truly unwinnable. The exercise and everyone’s decisions in it were scripted, but it’s not difficult to see that the only way to stop the escalation may be for one side to accept a lesser defeat – let their half of Berlin or even Germany fall to the other side, or allow a nuclear strike to go unanswered.
This is the Nash Equilibrium (the fancy shmancy mathematician term for mutually assured destruction) – you can’t win, but you can quit playing, which as we’ll discuss is an option on the Kobayashi Maru. Also, as with the Kobayashi Maru, Abel Archer 83 deals with the problem of escalation, where a small problem can rapidly become a larger problem.
Abel Archer is a large scale war, and not a single confrontation, but its entire theme of escalation applies to the Kobayashi Maru. It’s rarely acknowledged in discussions of the scenario, but it cannot be assumed to exist in a vacuum, two military powers with a history of conflict and an ongoing cold war are involved. Any attempted solution that involves crossing borders or firing on ships raises the spectre of escalation, potentially to the point of a full scale war with the Klingons.
However, because Abel Archer 83 was scripted, it’s not a true simulation. For that we have to look elsewhere.
In his book Moon Shot, Alan Shepard writes about several such simulations. Long chains of improbable malfunctions and great deals of profanity ending in inevitable failure, a familiar thing to most early astronauts since they had been military test pilots and faced the same kinds of testing with aircraft simulators. Some of these sessions lasted hours, just one problem after another forever and then no matter how well you do you burn up on reentry anyway.
These endurance tests ultimately played a key role in saving the crew of Apollo 13, because as bad as things got, they’d practiced for worse.
My personal favorite was a simulated moon landing during which, after nearly burning out fuel reserves dealing with an impossible chain of malfunctions and eventually attempting to land without half their instruments working, and after what appeared to be a successful landing the crew is informed they died anyway because their remaining instruments were giving incorrect readings anyway.
See, the most important part of these stories is that they had a real live bad guy. These tests weren’t automated or randomized, they were administered. To ensure pilots weren’t just learning how to beat the simulator (which was inexact and had exploitable flaws), there were real people on the other side. And when it was decided that a test should be unwinnable, it was the green light for these guys to be dicks, triggering any and every feature at their disposal until eventually the astronauts lost, and if they didn’t lose they lost anyway just because.
The Kobayashi Maru is much like these tests. It’s unscripted, and (in theory) the testee goes into it not knowing what’s about to go wrong or what will happen later and is given no instructions on how to react. We also know it’s a proctored test. In Wrath of Khan we see Saavik taking the test, administered by Kirk and with most of the bridge crew being senior officers, all of whom were in on it. In the reboot, the bridge crew was other cadets and were not in on it, but we see a separate room overlooking the simulator bridge with an instructor and other cadets operating terminals.
We’re told the Koyabashi Maru was a surprise to the cadets involved – they don’t know what to expect, and afterwards are told they were supposed to lose, and critiqued entirely on other factors – what they risked, what they lost, how they reacted under pressure, and what their reasons were.
This brings us to one of the most absurd points about it: It’s not just iconic to fans, it’s iconic within the universe. From Wrath of Khan through Voyager, it’s slang for “it’s really hit the fan now.” Cadets know about it, talk about it, share their brilliant (or stupid) ideas for beating it, and come up with hilariously implausible ways to try to outsmart it. Everybody except Saavik anyway, she was genuinely blindsided.
All of this, of course, destroys its value as a teaching tool. Realistically, such a test would come in many varieties, free of identifiable features (like repeated names or locations), and probably share an opening or other features with different, winnable scenarios to prevent excessive note sharing between cadets.
But we’ll ignore that, and look in detail at exactly what happened in the test.
The cadets are patrolling the Klingon Neutral Zone when a distress call is received from a disabled civilian Freighter in Gamma Hydra, which has struck a gravitic mine in the Neutral Zone and suffered a hull breach.
The cadets can chose to ignore the distress call and violate Starfleet rules regarding distress calls, thus dooming the Maru’s crew to death or capture, or to respond and violate the Neutral Zone, thus committing an act of war. If they chose to respond, immediately upon crossing the border they are met by a vastly superior force which jams communications and opens fire, destroying them within moments.
The Canon Solutions
Note I do use the term canon loosely here – Star Trek does not have a unified extended universe, leading to the soft canon/hard canon distinctions and various sub-branches like STO canon, JJ canon, Destiny canon and so forth. That’s a different article that I just don’t want to write this month, so I’m just using an open anything-goes canon.
In the Enterprise novel Kobayashi Maru, we see Archer facing the scenario for real, exactly as seen in Wrath of Khan: The Kobayashi Maru is stuck on the wrong side of the Klingon border, in a minefield, communications are jammed, and the Klingons are serious about taking her and destroying Enterprise. Archer’s orders are to defend the Kobayashi Maru at all costs, even the loss of his own ship. Faced with reality, however, unable to save the Maru and with his own ship falling apart, Archer retreats, failing the “test.” Now, I’m always one to hate on TV Archer, but EU Archer is generally a pretty competent captain, and I consider his solution the archetype for successful failure. The Maru is lost with all hands, (in this case, also various military secrets), but the responding starship is not. The battle did cause Enterprise to sustain losses and creates the risk of escalation, however Archer did not have the option to not respond, it was his direct orders – an option open to cadets to avoid this outcome.
In Julia Ecklar’s TOS novel by the same title, we get a rundown of many solutions by prominent members of the TOS cast. None of them succeed, except of course Kirk, who cheated by programming the first wave of Klingons to offer assistance rather than attack.
Chekov orders his crew to abandon ship and then takes out the Klingon ships with a self destruct, and is then informed the crew was still killed by the self destruct. A solid effort, but a big failure, and pretty embarrassing for him to boot.
Scotty exploited a bug in how the simulation applied damage to shields to to improve his chances in combat. His tactics never would have worked in real life, and for that matter, weren’t enough in the simulation, either, because he still lost.
Sulu’s cooler head prevailed, having reasoned that entering the neutral zone would precipitate a battle and possibly a war, he retreated, making no attempt to rescue the Maru. This constitutes failure, but represents the smallest possible loss – the cadet ship and crew is preserved and there is no risk of escalation.
In the New Frontier novels, Mackenzie Calhoun just blows the Kobayashi Maru up himself, because… Well, why not? He then defends his action by stating that the entire event is obviously a trap and the crew is most likely dead already. I’m tempted to give him a win for sheer balls. His justification is sound, but retreat is probably the recommended solution rather than firing on a civilian ship, “just in case.”
In A. C. Crispin’s novel Sarek, Peter Kirk wins against a Romulan-themed scenario by using a little known Romulan custom of challenging the opposing captain to single combat, which calls for all ships to stand down until after the duel. While clever, this overlooks one of the key challenges in the scenario: Communications are jammed and the enemy fires on sight. Also, while I’ll accept that some obscure part of Romulan custom would allow the usual suspicion and subterfuge to be suspended for ritual combat, I don’t accept that they would continue to abide by the conditions of the duel after Kirk’s ship flagrantly violated them by completing their objectives.
Two novels mention that Riker successfully beat the scenario without cheating. Only one actually references his tactic, which involved using an EVA suit and fighting the enemy ship hand to hand. I’m not exactly sure how that was supposed to work, so I can only assume Riker just hacked into the teacher’s computer afterward and changed his grades.
In Voyager, we see Tuvok’s version of the test, more period specific with a Ferengi freighter and Romulan warbirds. The Maquis washouts he puts in this test go down in a blaze of ineffective glory. In this test Tuvok advocates the Sulu solution, recognizing that the freighter cannot be saved and instead retreating to preserve one’s own ship and crew and avoid escalating a conflict by antagonizing the Romulans.
And, most recently, in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, Kirk apparently types IDDQD for god mode and nonchalantly blows away all resistance while eating an apple and acting like a douche. I far prefer the Ecklar solution to this, because arguably, this Kirk still failed the scenario. Wholesale destruction of Klingon military forces inside the Neutral Zone is a flagrant act of war, and the defenseless nature of the Klingon ships makes what he did a propaganda bonanza. Not only might it escalate to a war, but even if it doesn’t the Federation will lose face for what appears to be an unprovoked attack on ships not at alert. I mean, he literally stabbed them like an assassin in the night. Like a Romulan. How do you think that’ll play with the Klingon public? Romulans weren’t polling too high in those days.
The Other Games
The game Starfleet Academy probably has the best representation of the KM scenario. You can cheat (using the solution from Ecklar’s novel of reprogramming all hostile ships to render assistance), or go at it legitimately. If you do it legitimately, several things happen:
If you evade the Klingons and reach the Maru, more Klingons arrive and destroy the Maru in one hit.
If you destroy the Klingons, more show up.
If you destroy those, more show up, on and on until you’re overrun.
If you try to beam the crew off the Maru, a scattering field prevents it.
If you try to use any communications, they’re jammed.
If you try to tow the Maru with a tractor beam, all Klingons fire on it and it goes down in one hit.
Basically, the game adapts to anything it lets you do so that you can only change how you lose, you can’t actually win. It knows what you’re doing, and won’t let you. The novelization of Wrath of Khan is quite similar to this – it will take several minutes to get to the Maru, but the second you cross the neutral zone you are instantly under attack from nowhere, for every ship you destroy two reinforcements arrive (Hail HYDRA), and the computer perfectly counters every tactic you employ. Short version: The rules change with your actions to make sure everything you do only makes things worse.
This is like the simulations in Moon Shot – if the astronauts overcome one set of problems, more follow. This is easy to create in most Star Trek games that limit how much ship functionality you have, but easy to extrapolate to other solutions. Managed to cut through the jamming? Too bad the universal translator’s on the fritz. The Klingon captain isn’t sure what a brother trucking pizza ship is, but he’s still going to kill you for calling him one.
Both versions of Kirk, in Ecklar’s novel and the 2009 movie, subvert control of the scenario somehow to prevent this. In the former version, reinforcements would just keep giving Kirk more assistance, and in the latter, they would just be fodder for him to blow up. By the time his damage can be undone, he’s already won. Despite all that movie’s problems and even the problems with the Kobayashi Maru scene itself, Pike and Spock freezing in confused disbelief seems pretty right to me.
From the Fans
If there’s one thing true of fans of everything, we always know that we’ll do better than the professionals. Just ask every sports fan: every one of them can give you excruciating details about how they’d be a way better coach than any one of those high paid idiots on the field. Star Trek fans are no stranger to this, the full technology on display is rarely used to its fullest in battles, and I don’t think there’s a single one among us who aren’t pretty sure we could have defeated the Duras sisters in Generations without losing the Enterprise. Riker’s faceplant on that battle was only made worse by the fact that Generations came out in close proximity to The Jem’hadar, in which Captain Keogh faced an identical situation and actually remodulated his shields, which failed against the Jem’hadar but would have stopped the Duras in their tracks. And even if it hadn’t, Keogh then dropped the useless shields entirely and dumped the extra power into weapons. You know, the weapons that he kept firing. The same ones Riker fired once and then tossed up his hands as if to say, “Well, I did a thing, anyone else want to try a thing?”
So, how would fans handle the Kobayashi Maru? The STO forums recently had a discussion of just that, so let’s pick out some of them while I channel my inner professor to administer the test and grade their performance. Because I consider anhedonia a personal hobby, however, I’ll also be applying the Moon Shot rules of testing to explain how they’d probably fail anyway.
Ryan218 says, “I wouldn’t engage the Klingons at all. I’d get in range of the Maru at high warp, drop out of warp just long enough to beam the crew aboard and a photon torpedo into the Maru’s engine room, and jump back into warp, firing a torpedo spread to blind the Klingon sensors while also detonating the torpedo on the Maru.”
Outcome: You’re entering a suspected mine field at high warp. If you’re lucky enough to avoid a hit the scattering field prevents beaming. If you realize all is lost soon enough to retreat, you’re now exiting a mine field at high warp. Either way, the Maru is lost, and the ship is put in mortal danger – whether its actually lost is largely a matter of luck. However, for attempting a nonviolent resolution and avoiding escalation, a passing grade is in order.
Grade: B+ for nonviolence
Starswordc says, “Don’t enter the Neutral Zone at all. Contact the Federation embassy on Qo’noS and have them handle it.”
Outcome: While keeping the “smallest loss” of the do nothing solution, this version is still proactive in trying to still save the freighter and shows diplomatic thinking. Depending on the political climate of the time and whether or not it was actually a trap to begin with, there is a chance (slim but nonzero) that the Kobayashi Maru might actually be saved, just not by you.
Marcusdkane offers, “I’d use the Kobayashi Maru as a shield from the Klingons (or as much as possible) while beaming any survivors over… I expect I’d wind up getting rear-ended by a cloaked squadron as soon as I drop shields for transport, but given the scenario is supposed to be unbeatable, I wouldn’t focus on trying to beat it, and do what I could instead…”
Outcome: Getting rear-ended by a cloaked squadron as soon as you drop shields for transport. Using a civilian ship as a shield against military grade weapons can only end in its destruction, and Starfleet frowns on the use of human shields, to say the least. Even so, engaging multiple hostiles, a disabled ship can only provide reliable cover against one.
Grade: D for using human shields
Grandnaguszek1 and talonxv both suggest the Picard maneuver over and over and over until all the Klingons are gone.
Outcome: The Picard maneuver works on the first use, heavily damaging one Klingon ship. However, it’s a tactic that only works as a surprise, and any tactic becomes progressively easier to counter when used repeatedly. After the first use the ship is immobilized by a tractor beam and destroyed. Bonus for original thinking replaced with a penalty for awful tactical thinking.
Grade: D for forgetting everything you learned in Starship Tactics 101 freshman year. Make that a C for remembering one thing you learned in ST101.
Hawku001x plans treason against the Federation. His multi-year solution starts with, “offer the klingons my surrender then join them.” It’s quite detailed from there, with a decades-long marketing campaign designed to subtly shift Klingon society into a less martial form.
Outcome: Transmission lost in the jamming field, Klingons fire on sight, cadet ship destroyed. I’m not sure if I heard you correctly over the explosions, cadet, were you attempting to defect to the Klingon Empire?
But, seriously, there’s a rule of war that Klingon Honor should value even higher than humans: Never trust a traitor, especially one you created.
Grade: F for treason
Aeonthehermit tries twice. Plan A: “I wonder how well declaring the Kobayashi Maru to be the targets of my ship’s pursuit to the Klingons would go over.”
Outcome: Poorly, communications are jammed and the Klingons fire on sight.
Plan B: “whatever shuttles I can muster coasting in on minimal power via inertia, then covertly beaming over crew while I kick up a tussle to distract the Klinks.”
Outcome: Against multiple enemies, distraction proves impossible, one Klingon ship breaks off and cuts down the shuttles.
Grade: B- for original but irresponsible thinking
Disposableh3ro lives up to his name with this doozy:
“Upon encountering the Klingon vessels I would first order all escape pods launched and programmed to “land” on the three Klingon ships. I would then fire a full spread of torpedoes ahead of the pods… With any luck some of my pods made contact with their targets, and since escape pods are designed for re-entry I can only hope hey could do some considerable damage upon impact…During the melee if at all possible I would eject a few antimatter storage pods, maybe some unfortunate Klingon will run into one.”
Outcome: Two enemy ships destroyed, cadet ship lost with all hands.
Grade: B- for an impressive display of tactical thinking, with the minus for using every means of survival available into weapons.
Redsnake721 says, “I would use my contacts in Starfleet security and on the high council to have the blue prints for the cloaking device that Kirk stole from the Romulans. I would have my Chief Engeneer build one but hide it and keep it a secret until a situation arose where it would be needed. Then just cloak and wait until the right moment then drop in and beam the crew to safety.”
Outcome: As a cadet one would have no such contacts, and if you did they’re still not going to hand you classified information as a universal B plan. I mean, even as an officer you shouldn’t even know those blueprints even exist unless you were involved in a project involving them. Just talking about this solution will probably get us all on six different Starfleet Security watch lists. Let’s assume the logistics work out somehow, though. The Klingons just take position near the Maru and either destroy it or ambush you when you decloak. Result: KM destroyed, cadet ship destroyed, violation of Treaty of Algeron (period dependent), unauthorized possession of classified information and equipment, possible escalation.
Quite possibly by altering the starting conditions this cadet has found a solution even worse than the default scenario offers.
Grade: A+ for what I can only assume is a conscious attempt to generate the embrace the no-win and find the biggest loss possible.
STO’s No Win Scenario
By now you’ve probably forgotten that I didn’t mention STO’s version of the Kobayashi Maru. I didn’t do this because it’s patently absurd.
STO, like most games in general and almost all RPGs in particular, has a certain degree of ludonarrative dissonance – instances where story canon and gameplay mechanics mismatch in ways that can pull you out of immersion. A more straightforward example is that CPR works on a vaporized body, whereas the storyline seems to suggest that none of the factions capable of this trick actually possess the tier 5 white magic required to reverse such a spectacular form of death.
The NWS is solidly on the tier 5 magic side of the narrative. There is no plausible in character explanation for what happens in it, even the simulation dialog is rather flimsy. It is purely a test of one’s mastery over game mechanics, designed to take the game itself to the breaking point in hopes of doing the same to the players challenging it. While the allusions to the Kobayashi Maru scenario are obvious, it never formalizes those allusions and is ultimately, in form and intent, a completely different thing.
Copyright © 2019 Priority One Podcast.
Star Trek Online ™ & © 2012 CBS Studios Inc. All rights reserved. STAR TREK and related marks are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. This website is not endorsed, sponsored or affiliated with CBS Studios Inc. or the "Star Trek" franchise. The STAR TREK trademarks and logos are owned by CBS Studios Inc.