Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 13/06/2010

VS-Games 2011

The 3rd International Conference in Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications will take place at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) in Athens, Greece on 4-6 May 2011. VS-Games 2011 “aims to meet the significant challenges of the cross-disciplinary community that work around these serious application areas by bringing the community together to share case studies of practice, to present virtual world infrastructure developments, as well as new frameworks, methodologies and theories, and to begin the process of developing shared cross-disciplinary outputs.”

We are seeking contributions that advance the state of the art in the technologies available to support sustainability of serious games. The following topics in the areas of environment, military, cultural heritage, health, smart buildings, v-commerce and education are particularly encouraged:

  • Game design
  • AI applications for serious games
  • Serious games methodologies
  • User-modelling in serious games
  • Pervasive gaming
  • Interactivity issues
  • Game design
  • Alternate reality games
  • Virtual environments
  • Augmented reality
  • Visualisation techniques
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Mobile games
  • Education and learning
  • Multimedia gaming
  • Case studies in serious games and virtual worlds

You’ll find the conference website and call for proposals here.

Review: Battle for Baghdad

Battle for Baghdad. MCS Group, 2009. Designer: Joseph Miranda. $79.95.

Battle for Baghdad is a 3-6 player boardgame that explores conflict, cooperation, insurgency, and counterinsurgency in the Iraqi capital c2003-2008. According to MCS Group‘s publicity materials, “The game emphasizes the roles and capabilities of the various factions involved, and demonstrates how asymmetric capabilities can be leveraged to generate favorable outcomes.” Moreover, in addition to its gaming and enjoyment value, Battle for Baghdad is also explicitly intended as an educational tool for seminars and classrooms, “show[ing] how understanding ones own goals in a multi-competitive environment is insufficient to guarantee stability or success. Knowledge of the goals and intent of the other players is crucial to successful coalition building and in-theater success.”

All of this make the game especially appropriate for review at PaxSims, given our primary interest in the simulation of fragile and conflict-affected states. Moreover, Battle for Baghdad is designed by Joseph Miranda, who has been responsible for many excellent historical boardgames—including the very good insurgency game, Nicaragua (published by Strategy and Tactics in 1988). Finally, since I’m a Middle East conflict specialist by profession, I was particularly eager to give it a try.

Game Contents and Play

In Battle for Baghdad, players variously represent the Shi’ite community, the Sunni community, the Iraqi government, the United States, foreign jihadists, and non-governmental organizations.

Each player can win by amassing 120 political points, or by fulfilling their own unique victory conditions (the Shi’ites and Sunnis need to establish infrastructure in certain areas of the city, for example, while the Iraqi government can win by keeping the two communities apart, and the jihadists can win by overrunning US or government districts). The conflict is fought out on a very nice, mounted satellite-imagery map of Baghdad, divided into various zones, each of which is assigned a differing affiliation and political points value. These areas are won and controlled with (mobile) security units, and (immobile) infrastructure, which collect their political point value.  Two sets of cards also drive game play: “Arab Street” cards which shape the ebb and flow of political resources in the city, and “Arms Bazaar” cards which give players certain abilities (such as the ability to conduct IED attacks, use precision munitions, raid opponents, even use WMD or engage in spectacular terrorist attacks, among many others). The combat system is straightforward, with outcomes based on the number of units (and command) assigned to the battle, as well as the impact of particular cards. Since multiple players can win the game in the same turn, various in-game agreements and coalition play is possible.

The full set of rules can be found online at the MCS Group website here (something I wish more game companies would do).

Overall game play is fairly straight-forward. As a game, my fellow players and I found it moderately entertaining. As noted below, however, it fell short as a simulation of either  Iraqi politics or of insurgency and counter-insurgency—drawbacks that, in my view, starkly limits its potential utility in the academic or professional classroom.

Instructional Potential

Almost as soon as I unpacked the box and looked at the various factions, I had concerns about how accurately this game would model the admittedly complex realities of Iraq. For example, the (Sunni) al-Qa’ida terrorist group, the (Shi’ite) al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the Palestinians (who weren’t collectively involved in the Iraq war at all, except as individuals) are conflated into a single “jihadist” side—something analogous to a simulation of the Northern Ireland conflict putting the (Catholic) Irish Republican Army, the (Protestant) Ulster Defence Association, and Massachusetts all on the same team. Conversely, the intra-sectarian splits within the Sunni and Shi’ite communities (such as those that sparked the Sunni “awakening” movements in the former case, or SCIRI/ISCI versus Sadr versus al-Dawa/al-Maliki, with the Shi’ite religious establishment in an umpire role in the latter case)—all of which have been hugely influential in shaping the political trajectory of the country—aren’t present at all. The key events of the 2003-08 period (notably constitution writing and multiple elections, which were absolutely essential in the partial stabilization of an Iraqi polity, as well as the arrest of Saddam, the al-Askari mosque attack, and others) are also missing.

While the differing victory conditions and potential for cooperative play slightly tilt the players to somewhat historically-accurate alliances and confrontations in the game, anomalies abound. US forces, for example, are fully capable of cooperating with the jihadists to attack the fledgling Iraqi central government, while the Sunni and Shi’ite community have similar orientations towards the Iraqi government in-game, despite the fact that actual Iraqi governments have been Shi’ite-dominated. Some card play combinations can make things even stranger: in one of our playtest games, the major US base at Baghdad International Airport was briefly captured by the Sunni player when he used a “defection” card to apparently convert the US troops there to become Sunni fighters (!).

Also, although much of the non-jihadist violence in Iraq has been driven by communal insecurity, the characteristics of that insecurity—the paramount need to defend your sectarian home turf and maintain in-group popular support, the substantial advantages of fighting in friendly neighbourhoods, the sectarian mass expulsions that turned brutally “unmixed” many mixed sectarian districts, and the use of neighbourhood barriers and access controls as a strategy to limit  sectarian conflict—just aren’t present. Overall, other than the fine map and graphics, it just didn’t “feel” like Iraq.

I’m not sure the game works much better as a simulation of contemporary asymmetric war or stabilization operations. For a start, the game isn’t that asymmetric. Certainly, there are differing victory conditions and some differences in capabilities (US forces, for example, fight better and can use airmobile movement once per turn). This, however, is pretty common in historical simulations. The Arms Bazaar cards, on the other hand, aren’t asymmetrical at all, despite their contemporary-sounding titles: any player can use any card—be it “Uprising,” “Precision Munitions” “WMD,” “IED/Artillery,” “Terrorist Attack,” or “Contract Security”—to identical effect. Even the NGO player can use them.

More importantly, there’s not much feel for underlying politics, even though population support and control are essential to insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. In Battle for Baghdad you gain political points by controlling turf and killing things, not by legitimizing government authority, addressing grievances, and building institutions for non-violent conflict resolution. Were the game a realistic depiction of either the conflict or of COIN operations, the US player would “win” by securing the population (thereby reducing insurgent access and breaking the cycle of communal violence), strengthening the Iraqi government, building the Iraqi security forces and handing over security responsibilities, easing tensions, promoting development and capacity-building, and ultimately withdrawing troops as a more stable local order emerges. In Battle for Baghdad, however, the US player can win by swooping out of his garrisoned zones with large airmobile troop insertions, taking over vulnerable areas of the city, killing folks and destroying local infrastructure—all of it rather more Apocalypse Now than FM 3-24. Political support is much better handled in such games as NicaraguaAlgeriaIci, c’est la France! (all of which we’ll review on PaxSims soon), or Liberia (which we’ve already reviewed).

Game Mechanics and Adaptation Potential

There are some elements in Battle for Baghdad that could be modified or adapted. For a start, the rather “Eurogame” look and feel to the game—slick visuals, sturdy game pieces, partially card-driven mechanics, relatively straightforward rules, fluid gameplay, multiplayer interaction—certainly showcases a kind of game presentation that you might want to strive for in classroom and training contexts, where you can’t afford to get bogged down in the complexities of a 40 page rulebook, or have non-gamers turned off by the lack of visual references and aesthetic appeal. Unfortunately, the substantive shortcomings of the game as a simulation would preclude most classroom use.

There is also some modification of the game that could be done to try to make it fit the Iraqi setting more effectively. Indeed, since it is rather easy to play, one possible use of the game in the classroom would be to have students play it through once, then use a discussion of its weaknesses as the centerpiece of a discussion on contemporary COIN operations. More ambitiously, one could even challenge students to redesign it themselves, and justify their design choices with reference to actual conflict and stabilization operations in Iraq.

Concluding Thoughts

In writing this review I’ve had concerns that, as someone who works on this topic, this region (and, at times, even this conflict), I’m at risk of being a nitpicking purist. However, it was clear in the collective debrief at the end of a couple of games that everyone in our group felt much the same. Moreover, given that the game presents itself as a potential training and education resource, I’m being particular sensitive to its pedagogical (as opposed to entertainment) shortcomings.

Battle for Baghdad looks great, and can be fun. In the end, however—as with Saddam’s alleged WMD—something just isn’t there.

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