Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

COIN in Afghanistan: A Distant Plain

Dudes, this is a major happening! For those interested in wargaming insurgency and counterinsurgency, the coming together of game designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train to produce a new board game on contemporary Afghanistan is great news—something akin to the Rolling Stones and Green Day touring together. Many thanks to Brian for providing the information below—we’ve already volunteered to help with the play-testing!

* * *

Now it can be told: Volko Ruhnke, designer of Andean Abyss, Labyrinth – The War on Terror, and Wilderness War, has teamed up with Brian Train, perpetrator of numerous designs on irregular warfare, to produce what could be the Grail of modern COIN games: a workable design on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

The game is called “A Distant Plain – Insurgency in Afghanistan” and it comprises another entry in the COIN series of games by GMT Games, following the just-released Andean Abyss and Cuba Libre! (still in
playtesting). The basic system draws heavily from Andean Abyss, but features some important differences due to the changed dynamics of the situation: there are four player factions, but they actually form two pairs of antagonists, each in a very uneasy alliance of alternating convenience and necessity. With each turn cards are drawn from a deck of 72, forcing difficult decisions among shaping the larger
battlefield, exploiting short-term opportunities and pursuing local operations.

Just as in the actual conflict, the four player factions have dissimilar abilities, vulnerabilities and war aims. They include:

  • The Coalition – representing the Western interventionist forces of NATO. Their troops are highly capable and mobile, but few in number and their sponsoring governments are sensitive to casualties. The Coalition forces cannot do all the fighting; the Afghan government’s security forces must be trained to assume ever-increasing degrees of responsibility in order to keep the country stable once they leave. Meanwhile, how to build popular support for a central government that often seems more interested in enriching its patrons and friends?
  • The Government – Acutely aware of its own limitations, both in force capability and legitimacy, the Government must try to stabilize itself and extend its power outward from Kabul – the Taliban insurgency is only one of an impressive array of obstacles blocking its progress. The Government is simultaneously dependent on and frustrated by the  actions of the Coalition, which means well but has no understanding of how things need to be done in Afghanistan.
  • The Taliban – driven into its sanctuaries in Pakistan in 2002, the insurgency began to build and make inroads on Afghan society. The Taliban brought stability, order and righteousness to Afghanistan once; they can do it again.They have numerous tactical advantages, but their main task of solidifying opposition to the government while establishing a “shadow government” throughout the country is a difficult one.
  • The Warlords – this faction represents the many and varied tribal powers, local authorities, and criminal gangs in Afghanistan. As such, they represent the traditional atomized political structure of Afghanistan and their objective is to resist the efforts of the other three factions to bring the population under their respective centralizing authorities, all while securing wealth and power for themselves.

Features of the game include:

  • the difficult nature of joint Coalition-Government operations
  •  Pakistan’s variable position towards support of the Taliban
  • evolution of both side’s tactics and technology through “capabilities” cards
  • multiple scenarios to depict different phases of the conflict
  • graft, desertion, foreign aid, Coalition casualties, returning
  • refugees, drug trafficking and eradication, highway robbery, drone
  • strikes, bribery
  • and many more!

Finally, the game will feature a set of flow charts to handle the operations of the various factions, so the game is equally playable by one, two, three or four players.

The game has entered playtesting – the above shot was taken at the recent Consimworld Expo in Tempe AZ – and this will continue throughout 2012 as pre-orders accumulate (hopefully quickly) towards the magic P500 point. If all goes well, the game could come out well in advance of NATO’s final withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.

* * *

UPDATE: Frankly, it is spooky how fast Rodger MacGowan/GMT Games/C3i News turns these things into graphics…

UPDATE 2: A Distant Plain is now available for preorder on the GMT Games P500 list. Click the image below.


UPDATE: The game has now been published–see the PAXsims review here.

20 responses to “COIN in Afghanistan: A Distant Plain

  1. Lou Coatney 03/03/2019 at 11:28 am

    My comment – minus the obvious, political-strategic conclusion – beneath the article:

    Allied forces in Afghanistan are now increasingly surrounded on all sides by hostiles and are instant hostages to any Asia-Pacific superpower confrontation.

    Former CIA analyst Volko Ruhnke designed the very popular COIN (counterinsurgency) recreational boardgame A Distant Plain about Afghanistan. Some years ago, I suggested to players here in Oslo and msged to Volko himself that there should be a MOUNTAIN of red (Chinese) pieces in the northeast corner of the board.

    There should be red mountains of pieces in Pakistan and Tajikistan as well now.

  2. Brian Train 18/09/2013 at 3:23 pm

    A Distant Plain made its P500 point within 100 days of being announced, and was finally shipped to almost 1,000 expectant buyers at the end of August 2013.
    Work and playtesting on the next volume, “Fire in the Lake”, is well underway with Volko Ruhnke in harness with Mark Herman. This time it’s Vietnam, and the game made its P500 point within THREE DAYS of its announcement.
    And I’ve made two more versions of Kandahar since the last post.

  3. brtrain 02/08/2012 at 7:00 pm

    Sorry for the delay in reply Bob; as you saw from subsequent posts, I was at the Connections conference in Washington.

    No, A Distant Plain is is not a development of my Kandahar game, it uses the COIN system developed by Volko in Andean Abyss (which was originally inspired by my Algeria game), with research, card, rule, scenario and map development by me.

    Though I did show at the “board game demo” event at the conference a game (once called Kandalite, but now also called Kandahar to confuse things) that is a development of it.

    It is an area-movement COIN game inspired by situation in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, 2009-10

    Players take roles of mid-level Afghan Security Forces and Taliban commanders, who are often caught between what they think they need to do to win the battle and what they are told to do by higher echelons.

    Additional factions and forces: organized crime; ISAF; tribal militias; NGOs
    Three levels of increasingly detailed play – each version adds more options and greater depth
    full menus of kinetic and non-kinetic operations;
    intelligence and deception;
    troop cohesion; staff and troop training;
    the lasting effects of violence;
    economic development; etc.

  4. BobH 19/07/2012 at 8:50 am

    Brian, You were kind enough to send me a preview a year ago of your Kandahar game. Apologies that life got in the way of me investigating it too much and getting back to you. I’ve just learnt about this game via a random route. Is it the development of the model you were employing in Kandahar? The solitaire flowchart option looks interesting
    (I’ve just added myself to the P500 list)

  5. brtrain 12/07/2012 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks James, and thank you for your order! Up to 235 now, after less than five days on offer.

    It’s a truism that we are the products of our personal ideologies, which are formed from our personal experiences and inculcated beliefs, and any intellectual item we create – magazine article, board game, thesis, interpretive dance – will be informed by that ideology.

    These days I think we are seeing quite a few games where the emphasis is less on straight-out zero-sum competition, and more towards winning based on alliances of convenience (which are usually created though building, in the mind of the person you want for an ally, the idea that you will both benefit) or necessity (where you can force a partnership or compliance on someone through your position of local strength). I think this is what they were trying to get at with Battle for Baghdad, and it’s definitely an aspect of the current design we are working on.

  6. James 11/07/2012 at 3:18 pm

    I have placed my order, and am looking forward to this.

    A long time ago I did the War Studies BA and MA at King’s College, but am tempted to pick up the MA in Consim design. Partly because there is a growth in simulations to offset the cost of exercises, and some of those I’ve taken part in the reserves have been very illuminating – but also because what fascinates me is how your ‘world veiw’ determines the game conditions, from what a player needs to do to win, to how the combat mechanics work.

    I.e. a unilateralist might design a very different game from a multilateralist, by having zero-sum scoring system and no facility for joint wins or vice versa. I also like how you can have several Normandy landing games which emphasise different things depending on the viewpoint of the designer. Then there is the balance between realism and playability – I don’t think it’s ever a trade-off between realism and fun!

    One game I did enjoy was the ‘Battle of Baghdad’ – although disapointing as a tatical simulation of the situation, the 6 player dynamics and mutually inclusive and mututally exclusive win conditions for the various factions made for some interesting comrpomise and alliances of conveience.

    This is all a long way of saying; looking forward to this one, and some, hopefully, good solid games modelling the difficulty of COIN operations.

  7. brtrain 10/07/2012 at 6:09 pm

    Well, as this project progresses, I am certain there will just as many people standing there telling us we were wrong, immoral, misguided and Just Plain Evil as there will be people expressing duly cautious optimism and support for trying out something new and unusual! We stand ready to explain our reasoning, assumptions and mechanics to anyone prepared to listen, but as James points out that’s what good designer’s notes are for.

  8. Charles F 10/07/2012 at 5:36 am

    I’ve long dreamed of an Afghanistan COIN game. Glad to see the two leading COIN game designers teaming up for such a project.

    I see the designers have chosen to pair down complexity by not making it an AfPak game, but one about Afghanistan (and Pakistan only figuring into it in regards to its posture towards the various players over in Afghanistan). Arguably a wise decision as grappling with Afghanistan’s complexity is quite enough to take on!

    Reading the above, I have to say I especially wonder how “graft” figures into the game. Hopefully the game doesn’t crudely portray matters by making “graft” an end in itself for “Kabul”. I hope rather that the government faces a trade-off decision between centralisation/improved governance and co-opting/cooperating with the “Warlords” and indeed these being part of the Kabul government, at the expense of degraded governance, less effective counter-narcotics.

    So whereas the counter-narcotic effort might be a victory criterion for NATO (“coalition” strikes me as not as suitable a term, I have to say), Kabul would have a more “pragmatic” outlook on the matter, siding more with NATO or the Warlords on the matter as it sees fit.

    Anyway, while I was one of the more involved playtesters for Lab, I missed the boat on AA and CL. But I hope I’ll jump onto this train. Time to dust off my “Graveyard of Empires” and “Descent into Chaos” copies.

  9. James 09/07/2012 at 3:16 pm

    Makes me wonder if this could work as a Vietnam design – US / ARVN vs VC / NVA – but this systems to capture the dynamics of allies who are not totally joined up in their objectives and strategic aims!

    I think what this game will need is some pretty comprehensive design notes setting out the thoughts and assumptions behind the game design. As this is still a ‘live’ issue, I expect lively debates about the design decisions.

    Some of the comments on the board illustrate the numerous competing naratives about the war, it’s aims, reasons, justifications etc. Even the use of insurgents vs terrorists vs rebels is contentious – and there are PhD papers written on the terminology used to describe the various actors in the conflict.

    Whilst we all have our views, from a design point of view, I’d be interested to see what the game designers view on the situation is – and then – how they have modelled their game based on their real-world assumptions and views.

    Either way I eagerly look forward to this release.

  10. Rex Brynen 09/07/2012 at 3:55 am

    You’ve had another 100 views in the past 4 hours too, Brian. You and Volko had better finalize that game design or there will be lots of disappointed folks!

  11. Rex Brynen 09/07/2012 at 3:53 am

    John: If you can’t keep your comments civil, they’ll be deleted. If you wish to try to score broader political points, please do it elsewhere. And, if you critique a game design you haven’t actually seen–well, you’ll mainly look foolish.

  12. John Kantor 09/07/2012 at 2:09 am

    Everything about COIN is BS. All you are doing is trading lives (unnecessarily) for the time required to get the local military up to speed – because the terrorists know THEY won’t be leaving.

  13. brtrain 09/07/2012 at 2:05 am

    Well, the game has been “live” for P500 on the GMT site for about 12 hours, and already there are 126 pre-orders.
    Rex also reports that this post on Paxsims has set a website record, with over 500 views in a day!

    Michael, as it is the game is balanced for four players with victory conditions determined by the relations between them. Play with fewer than four human players will be made possible by flow charts, as in Andean Abyss. It would certainly be possible to try and play the game with no Coalition present, we haven’t tested that yet though.

  14. John Kantor 09/07/2012 at 2:04 am

    Gee, another game which forces you into acceptting a losing premise in the first place: just take all the pointless things that have been done in the last ten years, put them in a bag, and shake them up.

    There would have been no war in Afghanistan after the liberation if the Terrorists had thought for a moment that we would stay and finish things. They aren’t stupid – or motivated by anything other than personal gain – they are just opportunists. The only reason Nato troops and Afghans have been dying every day for the last ten years is the propaganda of the Liberal News Media and the cowardice and hypocrisy of those whose only mantra is Cut-n-Run.

    And I would never buy a game which calls Terrorists “insurgents.”

  15. Joelist 09/07/2012 at 1:53 am

    Good news! Both Volkho and Brian have major bona fides in this area.

    hipshotau, there’s a lot of inaccuracy in your post. First, AA is not a CDG. Second, it does not have a US centric view. Try speaking to Volkho about his sources; they FAR outstrip yours in accuracy.

  16. hipshotau 08/07/2012 at 2:48 pm

    Reblogged this on The Big Board and commented:
    While in CDG format this conflict sounds more appealing to me than Andean Abyss. Having spent a bit of time in Chile , Argentina and Brasil the US centric view point of AA does not resonate well with folks that follow history down there. These friends are not the be all and end all of Political Military history but the general populace takes a much keener interest in their history than that typical American.
    It will be of interest to see how this game plays.

  17. Michael Peck 08/07/2012 at 2:23 pm

    I hope the game will address the post-US-withdrawal situation. It looks like Afghanistan is going back to the 90’s free-for-all civil war situation.

  18. brtrain 07/07/2012 at 7:57 pm

    Probably next week the notice will be there – Rex got the “scoop” for the blogosphere!

  19. Rex Brynen 07/07/2012 at 6:03 pm

    Robert–No, its not there yet, but should be soon.

  20. Robert 07/07/2012 at 6:01 pm

    Wow, exciting news. I became a fan of Volko and Brian after studying their games for Sabin’s Conflict Simulation course. Am I mistaken, or does the pre-order site you linked not have A Distant Plain listed? In any case, I look forward to learning more about this game.

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