Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Design Philosophy Behind “The Great Game”

Quite a few of the folks with us in Nairobi this week work or have worked in Afghanistan, so there was something historically appropriate about getting an email today from John Gorkowski regarding the design philosophy behind his forthcoming 19th century political-military boardgame, The Great Game:

The Great Game (TGG), available for preorder from Legion Games, recreates the Anglo-Russian power struggle for control of Central Asia in the 1800s.  That conflict simmered on low for fifty years only occasionally boiling over into open warfare, usually by proxy.  Telescoping all of that intrigue and sporadic fighting into a manageable game required some interesting mechanics.  The map, time scale, diplomatic and military systems all work together to simulate the First Cold War in a memorable way.

19th Century Central Asia cried out for a point to point map.  The region’s dozen countries disputed nearly every border.  Islands of civilization spotted the otherwise vast wilderness of towering mountains, vast steppes, and dry deserts.  So, borders didn’t really matter.  And terrain, such as the Khyber Pass, often dictated avenues of approach.  This meant that boxes and connecting lines well illustrated the strategic situation with the right balance between complexity and playability.

Great Game time passes in years, but each has three impulses.  So, in those years when you chose to act a lot can happen.  At other times, you can let the years roll by in order to replenish your coffers for future action – military or diplomatic.

Diplomacy in TGG hangs on the talents of individual officers but requires a “down payment.”  Frontier diplomats of the period usually traveled with wagon loads of booty for Emirs and Sultans they expected to meet.  So you have to pay to “sway.”  Once you put your money down, a lot rides on the language skills – not so much the personality – of your diplomat.  In the game, officers who spoke more of the local languages have higher diplomacy scores.  Players use diplomacy to convert nations to their cause without fighting – which is very expensive.  But sometimes, war is the only way.

Combat and attrition are bound together inversely in a death spiral.  You need tall stacks to win battles but short stacks to survive attrition.  In combat, you inflict damage upon the enemy equal to the difference between your die roll and the number of points in your own stack.  Imperial powers Britain and Russia roll only one die in battle – so it’s easy for them to get a lower number.  Vassal states such as Afghanistan and Bokhara roll three dice putting them at a distinct disadvantage. Taken together these mechanics make imperial powers more expeditionary since they can move across the map in stacks small enough to survive attrition and large enough to win battles.  On the other hand, vassal state armies usually stay in their capital, where they are immune to attrition, to avoid withering.  But once in a while, a towering vassal stack can make a brief foray to strike a nearby target.  And, sometimes the vassals can roll low enough to surprise the imperials such as when the Turcomans fended off a Russian assault on Geok Teppe in the 1880s.

Rebels are a different breed altogether.  They pop up unexpectedly and strike with a single die in combat.  So the Afghans can overwhelm British cantonments and the Russians need to guard their rear areas against Kyrgyz raiders.  However, these rebellions lack legs.  Once they gain momentum, internal feuding cripples them with the usual three dice roll attack.

So that’s TGG in one page.  It’s not about blitzkrieg.  But, if you’re interested in old fashioned balance of power politics and frontier fighting you should try it, perhaps with a cup of tea from the samovar.

John Gorkowski

Thanks for that, John!

While we can’t post material on all recent and forthcoming games here on PAXsims, we’re always interested in both serious and hobby games that address political-military and economic/development issues, as well as those that deal with insurgency, civil war, peace and stabilization operations, international cooperation, hybrid threats, and contemporary asymmetric violence. Email us if you have something you might wish to contribute, and also see our game review policy.

2 responses to “Design Philosophy Behind “The Great Game”

  1. Brian Train 20/06/2011 at 5:11 pm

    I’d be interested to compare this game with Asia Crossroads, a “Great Game” game Joe Miranda designed and I developed, back in 2002/03. It has 5 year turns (or rather a turn has five one-year impulses), and Joe’s decison was to use a squared map instead of hexes.

  2. Rex Brynen 21/06/2011 at 1:05 am

    BoardGameGeek has a rather useful list of Britain’s Wars of Colonisation in the 19th Century and their wargames with some 37 games currently listed (including some of the miniature rules available for the era).

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