Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Liberia, Descent into Hell

Liberia: Descent into Hell (The Liberian Civil War, 1989-1996). Fiery Dragon Productions, 2008. Designers: R. Ben Madison and Wes Erni. $22.95.

Over the next few months, PaxSims will feature reviews of several commercial boardgames that seek to simulate insurgency, counter-insurgency, and civil war. In doing so, we’ll discuss some of the usual issues of game play that you would find, for example, at BoardGameGeek. However, our primary focus will be on the potential educational value of these games for students of (and practitioners in) fragile and conflict-affected countries. We’ll also try to highlight game approaches, mechanics, and philosophies that might be adapted for other simulations in this field.

The first wargame to be reviewed in this series is Fiery Dragon’s Liberia: Descent into Hell. The game fully highlights many of the more brutal, sordid, and outrageous aspects of the Liberian civil war: players variously recruit child soldiers; intoxicate their troops with drugs; take hostages;  ransom, execute and even cannibalize prisoners; woo external patrons and organized crime; and employ witch doctors. American evangelicals, African peacekeepers, and even transvestite fighters make their appearance. Because of this, some gamers expressed discomfort with the game when it first appeared. Certainly Liberia plays up these dimensions as part of its appeal, which might be seen as rather exploitive of human suffering. Then again, wargaming as a hobby–much like paintball, video games, or Hollywood war movies–simulates death and destruction for entertainment purposes, and far bloodier conflicts (notably WWII) are routinely the subject of games. As a longtime historical wargamer I’m not particularly disturbed by any of that, but anyone thinking of using this conflict simulation for teaching purposes would do well to consider that others might have rather different reactions.

Game Play

Players control “War Parties” (stacks) composed of combat units and leaders. Tribal and factional affiliations matter: combat units have ethnic affiliations, which limit where they can be recruited, and what factions they will fight for. The complexity of the Liberian civil war is simplified by essentially assigning all armed factions to the ultimate control of either the government (Samuel Doe) or rebel (Charles Taylor) player, although it wouldn’t be hard to modify this into a multi-player game. Units deployed on a relatively simple map of the counties of Liberia and major districts of Monrovia. Key economic and other strategic sites are depicted, and some movement between areas is restricted by terrain. (For detailed photos, see here.)

Two key resources drive the simulation: money (largely derived from control and looting of the capital and major economic sites), and “juju”—an amalgam measure of reputation, political prestige and influence, and local magic, derived from controlling districts and won and lost in the outcome of battles. Money is primarily used to recruit units (and purchase drugs and hostages). Juju is used to recruit zoes (magicians, ritualists, or “witch doctors”) and lobby outside actors (ranging from great and regional powers to local economic and criminal groups) who in turn can provide ongoing financing and juju.

The game progresses along a turn track, but the pace of political developments is more random. These mark the intervention of ECOMOG peacekeepers, the formation of new splinter groups, and various peace talks. If any player is reduced to zero juju, they immediately lose (as I did!). Otherwise, the game progresses until it reaches the Abuja peace agreement and subsequent elections, at which point players receive a number of votes depending on their control of districts, money, and juju—with the highest total winning the elections, and the game.

The game also contains a large number of optional rules which add more complexity and historical detail, and is probably best played with all or most of these. While the layout of the rules could be better in a few places, and inexperienced gamers will likely find it much of a challenge, moderate and experienced players will encounter little difficulty. In our review game we did find that the board, movement restrictions, and terrain effects did create some natural choke-points, which may or may not reflect the actual course of fighting in Liberia. Game play can also be highly sensitive to random events and the pace of political developments. Nonetheless, it all makes for a very good game.

Instructional Potential

Liberia: Descent into Hell certainly illustrates the complexity of the Liberian civil war, although it necessarily simplifies much of the politics of the country into order to make it work as a two player game. There is little attention to economic or aid issues, other than as a target for looters. However, “naive Scandinavians,” Médecins sans frontières, US evangelicals, Freemasons, and the Moonies also make an appearance as a possible unwitting source of resources for the combatants. This is nothing if not a cynical game, and it falls very much at the “greed” end of the “greed versus grievance” debate regarding the underlying imperatives in civil wars. Peacemaking efforts in the simulation appear as random external events, and no insight is offered to their causes or dynamics, only their effects.

Because of this, and because the game does rather emphasis the sensational and outrageous, there would be several problems using it in the classroom. Some students would likely be upset or insulted by the stereotypes and casual references to horrific events. Others might fail to appreciate the nuances and complexity of actors and processes depicted in the simulation. The depiction of juju and ritual cannibalism—despite the rather important impact of ritualistic beliefs in the war—would likely prove particularly controversial, both in terms of anthropological accuracy and potential for misunderstanding.

One could, perhaps, assign the simulation as one might a book review—asking students to both play the game and research the conflict, and thereafter offer a critical evaluation of the game as a conflict simulation. However, in such a case one would still need a substantial debrief by the instructor in order to assure that the right lessons, and not the wrong ones, were being learned. I also suspect that many students would struggle with the complexity of the game itself.

Game Mechanics and Adaptation Potential

The simulation’s treatment of the interrelationship between tribal recruitment, political factions, and political leaders is one of the more innovative design features of the game, forcing players to consider issues of ethnic support in their military strategy. The system of lobbying external actors (itself modified from Brian Train’s Spanish Civil War simulation Arriba España) is straightforward and could easily be adapted to other simulations. The random pacing of actual historical events is another quite useful mechanism: it roots the simulation in the actual developments of the time, but does not bind players into reproducing the exact same outcome.

Concluding Thoughts

Unless you’re prepared to put a great deal of effort and sensitivity into teaching about and around it, I wouldn’t use Liberia: Descent into Hell in an instructional setting. If you’re looking for inspiration as you consider designing your own civil war simulation, it is well worth obtaining. If you’re looking for a good game—and especially if you’re interested in issues of insurgency and civil war, have a slightly twisted sense of humour, and aren’t easily offended—it’s well worth the purchase price. I certainly enjoyed it.


Follow-up: Brian Train makes some thoughtful comments on the use of commercial wargames for education purposes in the comments section–be sure to read them.

One response to “Review: Liberia, Descent into Hell

  1. Brian Train 17/05/2010 at 9:01 pm

    Rex, thank you for your review of Liberia, and your balanced assessment of its worth in an instructional setting.

    The problem with many manual simulations that could be used in the classroom is not only that they require a fair amount of physical effort to work through their mechanics, the “fiddlier” the worse, but also that most of the potential players haven’t got a clue about how to play a moderately sophisticated wargame like Liberia in the first place. It lies quite out of their frame of reference; either they have experience playing computer games where the “black box” takes care of all the die roll modifiers etc., or they have some experience of German-style games that derive satisfaction from player interaction, not actual simulation or reflection of what the real-world analogue of their play might be.

    We forget that most people never will go as deeply into these games as we have. A few years ago I met a man from the CIA who used my game on Algeria as a training aid in classes; the challenge was to create a “degritted” version of the game that could be taught quickly, and still teach some of the main lessons in the space of an afternoon, as the students in most cases had never even seen a wargame before. We worked it out successfully.

    I think a possible way around this is to have umpired games where only a couple of people (should be more than one!) know the rules to the game in depth and can handle the fiddly stuff for the players, and inform them “OK, this worked, but this didn’t this time around…” so that the players can
    a) focus on their roles and not on the game mechanics;
    b) still be in a bit of a fog as to what works, to avoid playing to the rules (“OK, I’ve figured I need exactly four of these and a leader to do that – can’t lose!); and
    c) you get some “fog of war” – necessary to playing most games but especially so with these exercises.

    (BTW, thinking of a reply to your earlier post on what Eric Walters and I had to say about game mechanics.)

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