PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Algeria

Algeria. Fiery Dragon Games, 2005. Designer: Brian Train. $22.95

The French general reviewed the operations plans with satisfaction. Despite constant complaints from the leftist press in Paris, he had conducted the war against the FLN with grim determination. The first insurgent attacks on his forces in Bône had been crushed. When the nationalists had mounted strikes and protests in Oran, they had been dispersed with police clubs and the bayonets of his paratroopers. FLN cadres had been mercilessly hunted down and destroyed, even as support for the war effort weakened back in metropolitan France. Now, with the exception of a few armed bandits in the east, the very last political cadres of the Algerian liberation movement had been encircled in the Atlas mountains near the Moroccan border. Intelligence had revealed their location, and the pride of the French Army—a full division of regulars, several regiments of local Algerian troops, and two elite paratrooper battalions—had been sent in to flush them out. With this, the insurgency would be finished.

It was then that radio operator handed him the fateful message. Somehow, something had gone wrong–very, very wrong. Although outnumbered more than seven to one, the FLN units had escaped the dragnet. What’s more, they had inflicted heavy casualties on several French units. It was a disaster.

Back in Paris, the scandal made front-page news, and provoked angry questions in the National Assembly. In the political recriminations that followed, several French officers blamed the civilian politicians for the failure, and mounted a coup attempt. That too went badly wrong, destroying what little faith French citizens had in their army. Within weeks, the government announced its willingness to sit down with the FLN and negotiate independence.

The war was over. Although on the verge of military defeat, the FLN had won.

And so went—well, with some embellishment in the interests of a good story—the final turn of our playtest game of Algeria, the second wargame of the Algerian liberation war to be reviewed here on PaxSims. As the French commander I pursued a risky strategy that crushed much of the rebellion, but at high political cost. As victory seemed within my grasp, some very bad combat die rolls and a terribly failed coup attempt finally brought this simulated chapter of France outre-mer to an end—a result not all that dissimilar to the real thing.

Game Contents and Play

Algeria is a much smaller (and cheaper) game than Ici, c’est la France, which we reviewed here last month. The rules are somewhat simpler, military units are more abstracted (with no particular regimental or division identifications on the counters), the time period represented by each move more indeterminate, and the random historical events are rather more general. The map is highly stylized—and, to be frank, rather ugly. The various boxes in each district are necessary for the insurgency and counterinsurgency operations, indicating forces that are underground (UG), on patrol (PTL), available for operations (OPS), or have completed operations (OC). As with other games in this series it is a (10″ x 15″) small map. Still, the graphics could have been more evocative of Algeria.

This is a minor quibble, however. What is really important here is the simulation system for the insurgency, and that certainly works very well. The FLN player has the option each turn of undertaking harassment missions (to damage opposing military units), propaganda missions (to raise FLN political support or lower that of France), organizing strikes (a more expensive and substantial way of affecting political support in urban areas), moving to other districts, or intimidating and attacking local government structures. The French player can patrol, use intelligence to locate underground units, conduct flush operations against identified insurgents, or react to FLN moves. S/he can also undertake civil affairs missions (to reduce FLN political support), undertake extensive “neutralization” missions (but at the cost of terror and political damage due to atrocities), and even resettle the rural population into controlled and defended villages. Air and helicopter units, naval interdiction, and border fortifications (following the independence of Tunisia and Morocco by random event) also make an appearance.

The really key things here—as in most insurgencies—are the political support levels of the two sides. When these decline various adverse consequences kick in, and if they reach zero a player loses. This is a particular challenge for France, since even maintaining military units in Algeria involves a political cost, and once expended these points are hard to recover.

In general we found play very fluid once we had mastered the rules. The rulebook is clear enough in most places, but it does leave some of the most important rules to the various separate summary cards and tables—so be sure to read these in detail before you play. In particular, the Prefect of Oran was especially surprised to find that the effects of strikes are multiplied by the roll of a d6, something that’s not directly mentioned in rule 9.1.3. Ah well, les paras soon dealt with them!

Instructional Potential

Algeria does not give quite the same rich feel of Algerian history as does Ici, c’est la France. On the other hand, it is simpler and faster to play, and is therefore probably more easily used as a student assignment. Moreover, the degree of abstraction in Algeria is pitched just right. The game isn’t excessively tied to one conflict, yet (unlike Battle for Baghdad) it really does give a sense of the political and asymmetric nature of insurgency, with realistic operational choices available to both sides. If being used to teach about contemporary insurgency and COIN operations—something it has been used for in the US government—it would be important to familiarize students with some of the peculiarities of the colonial setting. France’s efforts in Algeria, after all, were essentially doomed to failure in the long term by the inexorable tide of post-WWII decolonization. Still, there’s much potential for this game in the classroom, in both academic and professional settings.

Game Mechanics and Adaptation Potential

The game system in Algeria is easily modified and easily adapted to other conflicts. Designer Brian Train used a somewhat similar system in his earlier wargame of the Sendero Luminoso rebellion in Peru, and the Algeria game itself has itself been modified—in part, by being set in a fictitious country, and with computer-assist added—in the Algernon wargame. Indeed, no sooner had we finished our playtest game than we launched into a discussion of rules modifications, and how the game could be adapted to Afghanistan. In the latter case it is easy to imagine a version with additional players (such as the Afghan government, and the UN/NGO community), differential costs and missions across players,  multiple political tracks, NATO caveats, ethno-tribal differences… and much more. Now if we only had the time to design it! (Update: if you read Brian’s comments on this post, it looks like he’s already done it.)

Concluding Thoughts

I very much enjoyed this game. As Brian Train and Kim Kanger have both previously commented on PaxSims, there are both some similarities between Algeria and  Ici, ce’st la France, and some significant differences. For gamers and teachers alike, however, this translates into the good fortune of having available to us not one but two very good boardgames on this conflict.

3 responses to “Review: Algeria

  1. Brian Train 04/07/2010 at 6:00 am

    Thank you for your kind words Rex, and I am glad you both enjoyed the game and found it potentially useful in the classroom (where indeed it has been used in the past).

    The game system in Algeria is a development of other games – the first was a game on the Tupamaro urban guerrillas of Uruguay, 1968-72 (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/7448/tupamaro), the second was Shining Path, the third was Algeria (though I have also designed a game on Somalia that uses some of the aspects of the system (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/10583/somalia)), and most recently I have used the system for a game on the Greek Civil War 1947-49 (due out this year or next from Fiery Dragon Productions).

    I have completed a game using this system (more accurately, it’s an expansion of the Tupamaro system that started it all) for Afghanistan, called “Kandahar”. It concerns itself with the situation in that province. It can employ multiple players (up to five or six) and features full menus of kinetic and non-kinetic mission options. I am working on converting its manual form to a VASSAL module, which will allow multiple player, blind, real-time play over the Internet.

    My good friend and supporter Michel Boucher has not only translated the rules for Algeria into French (available at http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/11293/algeria-the-war-of-independence-1954-1962), he has also recently created VASSAL modules for Tupamaro, Algeria and Shining Path (http://www.vassalengine.org).

  2. Rex Brynen 04/07/2010 at 11:59 am

    Thanks for the additional details, Brian. Is it possible to get a look at Kandahar (or, at least, the rules)?

  3. Brian Train 05/07/2010 at 2:14 am

    Sure, I can send you the Kandahar material. e-mail me separately and I’ll get it to you.

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