PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 1

Last term one of my political science undergraduate students, Cori Goldberger, tried her hand at designing a game about the “Arab Spring.” The result was very successful, capturing the domino effect of regime overthrow, the uneasy relations between Islamist and secularist forces, the use of patronage and repression, and the possibilities of both counterrevolution and descent into civil war.

This term, another McGill University student is working on a game design project with me. Alex Langer hopes to design a game that examines the current Syrian civil war. He’ll be posting his ideas on PAXsims from time to time as a sort of “developer diary.” You can access the other parts in the series here.

GNSYRIAMARKET

Introduction and Initial Thoughts

Over the past three years, I have been introduced to the world of gaming and simulation in political science through courses taught by Professor Brynen, from an hour-long colonization game to the infamous Brynanian civil war. While my own personal interest in wargaming goes back to my adolescent Warhammer 40K career playing as the faceless hordes of the Imperial Guard, classes at McGill have shown me how engaging, fun and useful games can be in teaching and modeling complex concepts and systems. After my friend and colleague Corinne Goldberger successfully produced a game of the Arab Spring last year, I approached Professor Brynen to see if I could do something similar.

My name is Alexander Langer, and I am a fourth-year student at McGill University. I am in my last year in a Joint Honours Political Science and History program, with a focus on the sociopolitical dynamics of nationalism, ethno-sectarian conflict and civil war in the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. My academic interests and love of gaming intersect nicely in the subject of the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Purpose

The board game will attempt to simulate the Syrian civil war from mid-2012 onwards, with the resumption of combat following the collapse of an UN-brokered ceasefire in May of that year. The conflict in Syria is complicated and constantly shifting, particularly with the emergence of a new front in Iraq and the swift rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so I anticipate that many of my current thoughts will shift. I hope to create a game that is entertaining and educational, appropriate for both hobby gamers looking for a realistic depiction of the civil war and students looking to learn about the dynamics of the conflict in a fun, unconventional way. The game should be playable in the span of an evening, and accessible to people without a huge amount of knowledge of the Syrian conflict.

Players

The first major necessary choice in designing this game is how many players to have and how to successfully model both the ‘regime vs. opposition’ and intra-opposition conflict dynamics of the Syrian civil war. In conversations with Professor Brynen, we quickly ruled out a two-player game with opposition and the regime on each side. We discussed a number of other options, from a three-player game (regime, opposition and ISIS) to a five-player game including a discrete Kurdish player.

We finally decided on a four-player game, with one regime player and three general opposition players, each following a discrete ‘ideology’. These factions will definitely include secular democrats, Islamists (‘moderate Islamists’ such as the Muslim Brotherhood) and jihadists (Jahbat al-Nusra and ISIS). Additional ideological factions may include Kurdish nationalists, military defectors, non-ideological regional warlords or even Arab nationalists. Opposition players will select their ideology at the start of the game, with the potential to change their ideological track mid-game, albeit at a real cost.

With this formulation, I hope to be able to show the shifting ideologies and internal conflicts of the opposition without overwhelming the players with unnecessary complexity. The ways that these differences will be represented is not fully developed, but will involve different characteristics and victory conditions for the regime and each rebel faction; for example, the secular democrats may have an easier time of working with Western actors, but may struggle to gain the absolute loyalty of its fighters. The game could be easily expanded to include additional players on each team.

Rebel Brigades

A key feature of the Syrian civil war thus far has been the fragmentation of the opposition’s military forces into thousands of individual rebel ‘brigades’, often based on ideological, communal or regional loyalties. Brigades have fluidly traded allegiances between umbrella organizations, and are rarely willing to sign on to large-scale campaigns that take them far away from their homes. Simulating this is key to developing a realistic depiction of the Syrian civil war. Professor Brynen and I discussed this in detail, eventually settling on a creative way of representing this pattern.

In the game, rebel units are divided into two types: loyalist and independent. Loyalist units are flexible: they can be moved at will, require some maintenance and often fight better than their counterparts. Conversely, independent rebel units begin the game under the control of no single rebel faction, with each region containing a number of rebel units already in place. The loyalty of these units can be purchased with money, weapons, or diplomatic maneuvering, which must be continually paid or else they will revert to their unaligned status or switch allegiance to another faction. Doing so, or recruiting new units, requires the presence of a faction ‘commander’, something that will be discussed further in a post about the combat system. Independent rebel forces also might incur additional costs to move outside their home province. However, independent rebel units will fight with rebel factions under attack by government troops, and can be ‘converted’ into loyalist forces by some ideological factions through further expenditures.

Aspects of the Game

Thus far, few of the game mechanics have been fully developed. However, there are a number of important aspects of the Syrian civil war that I hope to model and simulate in the game. These include:

  • The involvement of foreign actors
  • Ideology, particularly Islamism
  • Regime repression and overstretched forces
  • The Kurdish question
  • Asymmetric Warfare
  • IDP and refugee movement
  • Assassination, terrorism and covert operations
  • The political economy of the Syrian civil war
  • Internal regime dynamics

Future Plans

The next step is figuring out exactly how to simulate the brutal, grinding conflict of the Syrian civil war, while including as many of the above issues in the game without making it overly complicated.

Alex Langer 

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