Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

The Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game

Today a group of volunteer students from my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course at McGill University helped me playtest the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game produced by LEC Management. The game was designed by Roger Mason (LECMgt) and Joe Miranda, with input from Eric Patterson at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and COL Eric Wester at National Defense University.

A full description of the game by Mason and Patterson will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of Simulation and Gaming, but the basics are fairly straightforward. The 12 players each in the game belong to three different groups: the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRA), NATO, and the fictional “World Church Union.” While the WCU is meant to represent faith-based humanitarian NGOs—the game originally grew out of a symposium on religion and military affairs—in practice they pretty much function in the game as a generic NGO or collection of NGOs.

The game is played in front of four display maps. Three of these represent Afghan provinces, while one represents the national situation. One player each from GIRA, NATO, and the WCU sit at the national map, receiving resources at the start of each turn and allocating these and other assets to their counterparts in the provinces. Each provincial map, in turn, will also have a player each from the GIRA, NATO, and the WCU. The players utilize the resources the receive to try to complete various development projects.

The objective of the game is to stabilize Afghanistan by gaining influence and completing projects. If Afghanistan’s “National Stability Index” rises above a certain point, everyone wins. However, group players can also win if their group completes all their assigned projects (for example, all WCU projects are completed), while provincial players can win if all GIRA, NATO, and WCU projects in a particular province are completed.

Sound simple? Well, there are complications. The allocation of resources by the national players to the provinces can be the subject of considerable bargaining, especially as players try to allocate scarce resources in ways that create synergies and optimize effects. The provincial players need to build influence with local powerbrokers before projects can go ahead—in the game this is represented by a triad of a local government official (malik), a local religious leader (mullah), and a local council of elders (shura). There are random event cards at both the national and provincial level that can create all manner of complications for the various players’ plans, ranging from suicide bombings to religious backlash to cholera outbreaks. The Taliban and hostile warlords make an appearance, damaging reconstruction efforts. al-Qa’ida might even take hostages. The various bad guys can be dealt with, but that usually requires a combination of local influence and military assets provided by the national-level decision-makers. Of course there are never enough resources to go around. Intelligence matters too, sometimes giving players an opportunity to look ahead to the next event, and prepare accordingly.

As is evident from the summary, the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game is not meant to be a detailed simulation of actual Afghan combat and development operations. Indeed the province “maps” aren’t really maps at all, but rather identical displays with different names on them. The possible random events and game dynamics and project costs are the same for each province too. Anthropologists could endlessly quibble about the abstract model of local power dynamics. However, this isn’t what the game is about. Rather, it is trying to capture some of the difficulties of stabilization and development efforts in nonpermissive environments, with a particular focus on the challenges of resource allocation and coordination. So how does it fare in this?

Judging from student reaction, it was a considerable success. Resource allocation discussions soon became noisy, even heated. In some provinces actors worked together well, while in others there was a little more tension and a little less sharing of information and resources. Successful programs were rapidly undone by adverse events, and the tension was quite palpable when it came time to flip the event cards each turn. In one notable case, some miscommunication resulted in a failed SAS hostage rescue mission in Khost, creating a crisis of confidence among local power-brokers. In Kandahar, an aid convoy was ambushed. All manner of things complicated the lives of the Kunar provincial team, with the increasingly stressed NATO official there suffering from what seemed to be a simulation-induced case of PTSD.

In the end, however, the players manage to achieve an impressive “Total Victory,” pushing the National Stabilization Index up over 100 for two successive turns. Hurrah! Whether this was due to innate skill, good luck, the insights generated by my POLI 450 lectures, or the security-and-development facilitating powers of Angela’s Pizza we were unable to determine.

Although the facilitator manual suggests that a game can be played in two hours, ours ran significantly longer than this even though we didn’t need to play through the full eight turns. This included some time for briefing the rules at the outset, however, as well as pizza distribution. I’m not sure I would have wanted to hurry it along any faster, however, since the player discussion and strategizing were the most important part of the process.

We also ran into a few cases where the rules seemed unclear, or where the rules seem to say one thing but the event cards suggested another. This was quickly resolved by divine intervention, however.

Finally, the game also generated a number of ideas for tweaks and add-ons. Far from being a weakness,  I view this very much as a strength: unlike a digital game, a “cardboard” boardgame is easily modified. Next year, therefore, we are likely to roll out our own version 2.0 with an active Taliban player, rather than having all opposition activity generated by the event cards. Doing this will allow us to explore adaptive-counteradaptive cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency. It will also generate even more tension into the classroom setting, thereby further encouraging student engagement.

I’ve invited student participants to add comments below, which some may choose to do. I certainly would like to thank them for all participating—I was impressed at the turn-out on a slushy, wet Saturday morning! Thanks are due as well to my co-facilitator Tommy Fisher, who took a break from designing anti-corruption and financial intelligence simulations (and surviving our gaming group’s ongoing zombie apocalypse) to help us out.

For further information on the game, contact LECMgt at

5 responses to “The Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game

  1. Daria 09/03/2012 at 12:15 am

    Going into the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game, I had very little idea of what to expect (though the pretzels and the carrot sticks were a nice welcoming touch). By the end of the simulation, I found myself disappointed we had “won” so quickly and achieved “reconstruction” in merely a few hours – I was looking forward to the full eight rounds of the game, despite the volatility one feels as a player and participant. Alas, whether it was luck or the generally cooperative environment we had created for the duration of the game, the country of Afghanistan was stable once again and we learned a few valuable lessons along the way.

    First, the obvious: as everyone mentioned, coordination is extremely difficult. Yet it’s equally important to remember that it is not impossible, so somehow we managed to muddle through the various crises that came up. I thought it was very realistic of the game to force the players (whether NGO, government, or NATO) to go back to the national leader and beg for as many resources as they could give us each round. By having an uneven number of “chips”, we knew that the resources could not be split evenly every round and had to use our bartering skills to convince our boss that our province really needed that police force or the development project. At the end of the day, it really was up to the leader to make the final decision. I found myself having to make do with very few resources one round and seeing my colleagues in the other provinces accomplish twice the number of projects I was, yet other rounds I was the one getting a favorable share of resources and could play catch up.

    The various provincial and national crises did their job in making us constantly frustrated and feeling like our entire effort was in the hands of some volatile force that could be benevolent or destructive on whim. At first, I felt crushed as I saw my hard-bargained-for resources taken away by the Taliban, a warlord, or corruption reports, but as each round went on I began to expect that the most I could hope for was a “two steps forward, one step back” and pray it wasn’t “one step forward, two steps back”. In the later rounds, as I began building more projects, I was expecting that bad things would happen and learned to be somewhat at peace with it. I imagine in the real world, even the most idealistic NGO worker, diplomat, or NATO delegate gets used to knowing that what you build today might get torn down tomorrow. It’s honestly extremely frustrating, but it was obvious everyone was in the same situation, which made things a little bit easier to handle.

    I also think an important factor was that our provincial team actually got along very well, and even in the span of a few short rounds we had created a kind of mutual trust relationship between us, so that both times NATO had intelligence about what the next provincial crisis would be, she shared it with us and we were able to plan ahead as a group. When the NGO had one extra chip one round she couldn’t use, she gave it to the government to build one more project instead of stocking it up for the next round (which might have been a more favorable plan from her perspective). Each round we interacted, we were “brought together” a little more, and cooperation was a little bit easier. I’ve also heard this to be true of the diplomatic/development world, that sometimes knowing or having a good relationship with ambassador “x” or the head of NGO “y” enables you to get things done faster and that personal relationships, not just official ones between institutional figures, do matter. At the same time, if a relationship gets off to a bad start, that can impede many projects on the ground as well.

    The point Professor Brynen made about the Taliban was also important: if the Taliban were to be an actual player in the game who would be constantly trying to erode our influence or destroy our projects, it would make the experience much more realistic. During the game, when our province had a Taliban crisis, I felt more like it was just another “external force” (i.e. another random card drawn from the deck) we had to deal with by throwing resources and security cards at it, but having an actual Taliban player who is more versatile in his actions and is an occurring force throughout the game would probably be a better simulator of what the Afghanistan environment is actually like.

    Finally, another suggestion (though I do not know how feasible it would be to incorporate) would be to have some way for the national government leader to channel some of the money into his own pockets when he so wished. Corruption played a part in the game only when the “UN Corruption report” came out (or so the card said), and thus the government was given less resources that particular round. Again, that felt like as if it was something entirely external and as if our government didn’t really have anything to do with it – it was just something that happened to us. Everyone knows, however, what a huge part corruption plays in politics in Afghanistan (start typing “Karzai” into google, and one of the first suggestions that comes up is “karzai corruption”, after which you will get five million hits….). I felt like in the game, my boss (the president) was far too caring and concerned, and I could see that each round he was really trying to be fair to all three provinces. I did not experience any frustration whatsoever that he might be keeping some of the resources for himself, or that he had a special relationship with a particular province and was favoring them heavily for whatever reason. Since corruption and patronage/favoritism are common frustrations in developing countries, this mechanism would be a neat addition to the game, and would definitely change the dynamic between the players. (Especially if the national NATO leader heard rumours of the president stealing resources… then they might not have been as helpful or generous as they ended up being!).

    Overall, an amazingly fun and instructive experience. Thank you so much for the opportunity!

  2. Kateryna Sherysheva 07/03/2012 at 6:33 pm

    In the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game, I was the World Church United/NGO actor in one of the provinces. Here are my reflections:

    1. I was surprised that I felt more attached to my province than other NGO actors. Initially, I expected to coordinate with my NGO group by taking turns completing our projects. However, as the game progressed, it felt as though I was competing with other NGO actors for resources and I foremost wanted to improve the conditions in my province. The government, NATO, and I were strategic in completing our projects. For example, when I had one small green chip left, instead of starting a new project, I gave it to the government because it needed one more chip to complete a project.

    2. I did not expect the government and NATO to be so helpful. NATO basically dealt with the major crises in our province, such as getting rid of the Taliban and the Warlords, and providing additional influence for the Maliks. NATO also shared Intel information with us because misery loves company and then the three of us could come up with a plan to deal with the next major disaster.

    3. The actors in my province were good at exaggerating our problems. At some points I felt that other provinces had worse problems, such as a hostage crisis, but we tried to make our problems sound even graver in order to get more resources from the national level. I think this reflects real life.

    4. Everyone was polite and nice. In reality, I think people would be more competitive and less calm.

    5. The game would be more dramatic if the Taliban and Warlords were real people involved in the game as opposed being represented by chips. They could strategically cause havoc as opposed to it being left to chance. They could also take an actor hostage. It would be interesting to see who buys you back – your group or your province.

    Overall, it was a very fun game!

  3. Rex Brynen 06/03/2012 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Alex! (And you too, Skip.)

  4. Alexandra Hastings 06/03/2012 at 1:41 pm

    I was one of the 12 students who participated in the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game last Saturday and believe that the game was a success! Although I felt that this game might not be completely realistic (in that there was too much transparency than what is found in real life), I believe that it was very useful, because it highlighted some of the key challenges to reconstruction in Afghanistan and the game’s lessons can be carried over to other countries going through reconstructive phases.

    I believe that this game accurately highlighted how difficult coordination is. Not only did you have to coordinate with people within your particular sector (whether it be the World Church Organization, NATO or the Afghanistan Government), but you also had to coordinate with other members within your province. Although there were only 12 players in the game, coordination was still difficult to manage and often deliberation between each round lasted much longer than the time that was allotted. Thus, despite the fact that there were only 12 players, coordination was still a challenge. Now, imagine how hard it is when you have hundreds of actors vying for important resources and have to answer to different constituencies in an area undergoing reconstruction. The more actors that are involved in the coordination effort, the harder coordination actually becomes.

    Although, in an ideal world, it is easy to prescribe a “game plan” allocating where different resources may go and at what time at the beginning of the reconstruction period, the game plan is not so easily followed. As this game highlighted, allocating resources is not as easy as one might expect. This is especially the case, because of events outside of the coordinators’ control (such as the rise of the Taliban or the capturing of civilians by rebel forces), which greatly influence who gets the resources and when. Although at the beginning of the game, my sector tried to have a game plan as to how the resources would be distributed between each province through the different rounds of the game, the plan was not followed, because of unforeseen events. In particular, one province would be particularly hard hit with a crisis and thus, needed more resources than the other provinces in order to get rid of the problem. The crises needed to be addressed immediately, not just to ensure peace within that particular province, but the country as a whole. Therefore, I believe that a good takeaway from this game is that all actors should be prepared for things that are out of their control and to try to create a back-up plan, or set aside specific resources if possible, for events that are not planned.

    As I mentioned earlier, you not only have to coordinate with members within your particular sector, but also with the other members of your province. Personally, I felt that it was sometimes easier to coordinate with the different actors in my province than with the other representatives of my sector in the two other provinces in the game setting (though this was not necessarily the case for the other two provinces). I felt that after a particular round of the game, the different members of my province and I would tell each other which resources we were each going to get from our sector and how they would be used in order to counteract whichever crisis hit our province at a given time. The other members of my province and I also traded resources in order to finish specific tasks to enhance security. We really did work together not just for the benefit of the particular sector that we were representing, but also for the benefit of our province as a whole. I believe that this is particularly important and different sectors should realize that although it is necessary for them to gather individual resources, it is also important to work with other sectors, so that the country can benefit as a whole.

    I do believe that there was maybe too much transparency in the game than what occurs in real life. For example, all of the sectors could see which resources each province had at any given time and therefore, it was easier to try to distribute resources between the three provinces between rounds. I think that it would be interesting to see what would have happened if the players from each province were not able to see what the other provinces had accomplished on their board until after the money had been distributed from the head personnel in each category (WCO, NATO and Afghan Government).

    All in all, I thought that this was a very well-designed and interesting game. Some things that I learned from this game were that: (1) coordination is not as easy as some may assume, (2) it is essential to try to increase communication between different sectors and to work with the different players in your particular province, and (3) the different sectors should be prepared for unforeseen events. I definitely think that more students should play this game, because it was not only informative, but fun!

  5. Skip Cole 05/03/2012 at 9:57 am

    Congratulations on this Run! I do hope some of your students post their comments here. Those can be very insightful.

    I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game run at USIP and NDU, and I’ve always been impressed by it. Very glad to see it is played in Universities. I hope that takes off and more schools incorporate it into their curriculum.

    Thanks for doing the run, especially an Saturday, and thank you more for letting us know about it!

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