PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Ici, c’est la France!

Ici, c’est la France! The Algerian War of Independence, 1954-1962. Legion Wargames, 2009. Designer: Kim Kanger. $50.00

The Algerian war of independence was, in many ways, an apparent paradox that highlighted the political fundamentals of colonial counterinsurgency. On the one hand, from a narrow military standpoint, France achieved something of a bloody victory over the forces of the Front de Libération Nationale. On the other hand, they did so at a such political cost (among both the native Algerian population and French citizens back home) that Paris was ultimately forced to end its control over the territory and grant independence. Today, there are many parallels (as well as quite a few differences) with contemporary COIN and stabilization operations, which makes Ici, c’est la France an obvious choice for our review series here in PaxSims.

My playtest partner this time around, appropriately enough, was a doctoral student specializing in French-Algerian relations, about to leave for several months of fieldwork in Algeria. While she certainly can claim to be a subject matter expert on the topic, she’s not a regular hobby gamer, which provided an opportunity to see whether the complexity of a standard wargame might prove too much for a very knowledgeable novice.

Game Contents and Play

The game covers the entire period of the Algerian war, with each turn corresponding to three months. The attractive mapboard depicts all of the major towns, cities, and administrative regions of Algeria. Do be warned, however, that the population track (used to display the political leanings of each region) does get rather overcrowded with counters, which can slow gameplay and result in pile-toppling mishaps. The publishers provide an alternative off-map sheet on their website, and we’ve also designed one here.

Players receive a certain number of operations points each turn, influenced in part by political conditions (such as the degree of government crisis in France, or the number of regions under FLN control). These are then used to recruit or upgrade FLN units, deploy French reinforcements, engage in various guerilla activities (attacking the structures of French governance and intimidating the locals, propagandizing, organizing covert cells, assassinating pro-French figures) or  counterinsurgency operations (purging FLN cells, promoting pro-French elements, infiltrating and engaging in disinformation, even forcibly resettling the local population). French units may also search for FLN guerillas, and attack them if they can be located. The combat system is straight-forward, as are most other procedures.

Many of these actions have effects on the political leanings of the local population, which are tracked for each region. The game also measures the attitudes of European settlers in Algeria (the pieds-noir), the attitude of the French population, and the degree of government crisis in Paris. Historical events are generated by event chits, with a variety of political and military effects. France wins the game if it can win military control over all of Algeria or by winning a final referendum on independence. The FLN can also win via referendum, or by spurring complete  political collapse in France.

Overall, the game works very well indeed. The rules are clear (although in a few cases I might have renamed certain categories for clarity), and the map and graphics are very good. The combat system is straight forward, and enhanced by a system of tactical choices that while little more than a rock-paper-scissors process that modifies basic combat die-rolls, nonetheless adds to the sense of immersion. I loved the system the designer adopted for breaking up the FLN’s political cells, which uses a little pyramidal display of the cell in question and a series of die-roll interrogations. While this could have been reduced to a single die roll, we found that the sequence used in the game gave a much better feel for the real-world process. My opponent, I must say, was very General Massu in her routine use of torture during interrogations!

One aspect of the game I wasn’t completely satisfied with was the use of events chits. Chits are partly pre-chosen by players, and partly random. This has the effect of making your initial “choice” of future events an important part of your game strategy—even though some of the events (such as the discovery of oil) were historically generated by forces outside the actors’ immediate strategic control. I would have preferred if most of these events had been fully randomized, perhaps reduced somewhat in effect, and possibly had some counter-factuals thrown into the potential counter mix too. Alternatively, an international dimension could be introduced whereby the orientation of external actors are affected by the diplomatic and political actions of the competing sides. This, however, is a minor quibble.

Another quibble was the treatment of towns in the game. While the major cities (which acted like regions in and of themselves) were straight-forward enough, the found the smaller urban areas seemed rather an after-thought. Again, however, this was only a minor issue,

Instructional Potential

Ici, c’est la France is a rich, detailed, and accurate portrayal of the events in Algeria between 1958 and 1962. It gives a good sense of the dynamics of insurgency, and especially of its anti-colonial variety where opinion in the colonial métropole was always an important determinant of colonial staying-power.

It is also a lengthy game (if you play the full version), and much more complex than the average non-wargamer usually experiences. While my opponent mastered it quickly, she’s a rather fast learner and I’m not at all confident the average group of students, or most professionals, could match that. Sadly, this sharply limits the potential value of the game in an educational or training setting. In full term courses with bright students one could, perhaps, assign it as a fairly major assignment, much as one would a book review—or even require that students play through it in conjunction with reading a book like Alistair Horne’s classic Savage War of Peace. Be prepared for a lot of confused rules questions from gaming newbies, however. It is also an open question whether, for the time and effort put in, they would necessarily learn more than from a regular research paper assignment.

Game Mechanics and Adaptation Potential

As noted above, the “mini-game” of purging FLN cells is clever, and almost cries out to be expanded into a much bigger game of counterterrorism/counterintelligence. While not necessarily unique or path-breaking, the systems for  political attitude tracking and most of the insurgent and counter-insurgent actions could also provide inspiration for other insurgency games. The overall game system could easily be mapped on to, say, the war in Afghanistan–indeed, I can already imagine the “General McChrystal speaks to Rolling Stone” event chit!

I would have one caution in adapting this overall game system for other conflicts, however. The Algerian war was characterized by FLN suppression (or forced integration) of most other nationalist forces—in contrast with those cases where there may be multiple semi-cooperative, semi-competitive insurgent actors, possibly vying for the support from the same constituents. This didn’t mean the FLN was always united. On the contrary, there were schisms and purges both before and after independence. Still, it certainly was less complicated in this regard than, say, the Palestinians, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or DR Congo.

Concluding Thoughts

Ici, c’est la France is both an excellent game and a very good simulation. While the level of detail, complexity, and required time commitment it involves will preclude most instructional use, those interested in the dynamics of anti-colonial insurgency will find it well worth playing.

10 responses to “Review: Ici, c’est la France!

  1. Kim Kanger 25/06/2010 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks for a well written review. Let me offer you some thoughts behind the design process of this game.

    After I made the 1st edition of “Tonkin” I decided to move on into the next war that France got embroiled in – Algeria. I quickly saw that the conflict could not be depicted in any conventional matter. FLN lost militarily but won anyway in the end. How can this be depicted in a game?

    The war had to be divided into three wars where you could win by winning one of them but also lose by losing on of them although you might be doing well in the other two. The three wars are the political war, the military war and the social war.

    The political one is a fight to be the one which offers the interpretation of the war. If your version of what the war is all about then the opponent will eventually lose support and faith and finally withdraw. The military one is fight for sufficient control of territory in order to deny your opponent legality and supply. If you don’t control the territory then you are obviously not able to be present. The social one is to win the support of the population. If you don’t get the population along with you then you will never be able to finish the war in your favour.

    A game of this sort has to have balance in everything that occurs. Everything you do will affect, not just the immediate issue you are addressing, but also several other issues and often equally to your advantage as to your disadvantage. For example, the classical problem in any insurgency war: If you apply too much violence then you will deplete your enemy but their support (and recruitment) among the suffering population will increase due your violence. If you apply not enough violence then population will have less hard feeling towards you but the insurgent will stay strong and present among the population which will increase support towards them. In other words, you seem to lose whichever path you choose.

    So, in Ici, c’est la France! this is shown by the interactivity between all aspects in the game. You need to be successful militarily in order to conduct insurgency or counterinsurgency. You need to be successful in your insurgency or counterinsurgency in order to succeed in the social war. You need to be successful winning the social war in order to succeed militarily. In other words, you have to strike a fine balance in all three wars simultaneously to have a chance. If either of them fall behind then the whole “chain” is in danger.

    The main function for towns and cities is to provide extra operation points for FLN (taxes collected at markets), while France might extra operation points by getting regions in support to French rule. Since you have a limited amount of operation points you are forced to prioritize all the time, like “should I recruit and/or attack and/or work on the population, what are my long term plans?”

    Remember, insurgency wars are the most difficult wars to wage and they often go on for at least ten years or so. If you want to know more about this game or wish to discuss it, then you are welcome to Consimworld. (see the link below).

    Best wishes,
    Kim Kanger
    The designer

  2. Kim Kanger 25/06/2010 at 5:09 pm

    Here are some links:

    http://talk.consimworld.com/WebX?50@79.hfLbaEdb7qt.7@.1dd2d9c2

    http://www.legionwargames.com/legion_ici_cest_la_france.html

    Ah yes, while keeping a steady hand on the three aspects in the war, one should also keep an eye on the political development. Historically France suffered a political meltdown and nearly plunged into a civil war.

    Kim Kanger

  3. Brian Train 28/06/2010 at 10:53 pm

    With the publication of Kim’s game in 2009, the total number of operational/strategic games devoted to the Algerian War rose to two. I designed the first, entitled simply “Algeria”, published by Microgame Design Group in 2000. I think Rex is going to review it in a later post of PaxSims, so I will not make a very detailed comparison of the two games here except to say that I think Kim and I had essentially the same understanding of the dynamics of the conflict, but chose different paths to model it – and offer several examples.

    We both had the same space constraints (the country of Algeria), and both used an irregular area-movement map (as opposed to a hex map, which after all is a tessellated area-movement map). However, we differed on time constraints – Kim’s game has a set amount of time (one season) per game-turn, while my turns are abstract and represent several weeks to several months. And our unit scales and force compositions are different: he has graded the insurgent units as part-time fighters, full-time fighters, and elite full-time fighters (all at double company or battalion scale), while I have divided them into essentially political/logistical (cadres and Fronts) and military (infantry companies). In both games the French units are usually depicted at regimental level, though I have incorporated paramilitary police forces while he concentrates on regular military units.

    From these first design choices flow other decisions on how the game will play. In both games the fuel for the engines of both sides is “points” that come from various sources, and here we have differed too. For example, for the French I tied it to a finite and normally diminishing pool of political support which covered many things, while Kim broke this out and used a mixture of regular reinforcements, the attitudes of the pieds-noirs, and imminent Government crises.

    Kim also used two other quite different mechanisms: the play of political and historical chits which shape play to a certain extent without completely scripting it, and the “insurgency” part of the conflict has largely been broken out into a separate phase with separate mechanisms. In the first instance I left it as a random events table, and in the second have worked the insurgency end of things in as part of a range of kinetic and non-kinetic missions players can carry out.

    One thing I admit I did leave out of the game was modelling the various factions in the anti-French forces. I could have worked in an entire sub-game on the factions and their wrangling but felt in the end that this was too much gritty detail that got in the way of playing, and I just left them as “FLN”, period (though there is the “Factional Purge” random event). Kim has done much the same.

    I suppose it would also have lent some interest to have put little ID numbers on the French regiments and divisions shown in the game, to have given some approximation of the historical OB for the war. In my original version of the game turned in to Microgame Design Group there was no room on the counters for the little numbers and abbreviations to print nicely. In the end, I decided not to get too stuck on the individual unit ID numbers, since the units were there in response to what happened historically and my game was not going to be strictly historical (no game can be so strictly historical and still be a game), so I just left them off. Such details add nothing to the actual play of the game but many gamers do like to see them, and certainly Kim’s choice of not only unit numbers but small pictorial icons of the troops involved adds nice graphic flavour.

  4. Rex Brynen 28/06/2010 at 11:13 pm

    Brian:

    Thanks for the comments–it’s just the kind of dialogue around design issues that we would like to have on the blog!

    As for your Algeria game, its in the pipeline for a play-test this coming weekend, and a review shortly after that.

  5. Brian Train 29/06/2010 at 6:00 pm

    Thanks Rex! Looking forward to it.

  6. Kim Kanger 29/06/2010 at 9:57 pm

    Hi Brian, thanks for your comment.

    The good things about the two games are not the similarities but the differences. Both games are equally good but since there are only these two in the market it would have been a pity if they were too alike. Insurgency wars are so complex that different designs just makes it more interesting. Both Brian and I share this interest in asymmetrical wars where you basically can’t win through conventional warfare, where there are so many parametres you have to include and where each conflict is unique. It would not be possible for me to use the Ici, c’est la France!’s design as it is for another insurgency wargame. Speaking of this, a conflict that I wish to depict in a game is the Rhodesian war. We shall see how it turns out.

  7. Rex Brynen 30/06/2010 at 1:19 am

    Kim:

    If you’re interested in the Rhodesian war, you may want to check out this current thread at Small Wars Journal: http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=10742

  8. Kim Kanger 30/06/2010 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks, I will look into it.

  9. David Meltzer 02/01/2011 at 4:09 pm

    Kim,
    Please, please, please, DO make a game on the Rhodesian War. One of the interesting points there, is, despite the military and social cultures pointing to the UK, the ‘Malaya’ approach was dropped at the end of the war for one more like that of the final French approach in Algeria (with touches of Vietnam), eg the formation of a PsyOps unit (in which I was a conscripts). The final irony there was that (as in Algeria) the military had at last hit on a winning strategy just when the politicians were making opposite decisions.
    best wishes,
    David Meltzer

  10. Kim Kanger 26/01/2011 at 8:03 pm

    David,
    Sorry for my late reply. Yes, I would definitely like to do something on Rhodesia, but I can’t say yet what it would look like. Where you in the Rhodesian forces?! I have been in Zimbabwe quite a lot and have a strong feeling for the country. If you wish you can mail me at kanger @ post.utfors.se and we can do some Zimmy-talk.

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