Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 10/10/2014

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 2

Alex Langer is a McGill University political science undergraduate student who designing a wargame of the current Syrian civil war as a course project. He’ll be posting his ideas on PAXsims from time to time as a sort of “developer diary.” You can access all of the parts of the series here.

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maxresdefaultFollowing up on my first post, defining the actors, time period and general purpose of the game, Professor Brynen and I moved on to discussions about the combat system. At the core of the game, combat in the Syrian Civil War need to be modeled with enough complexity to be realistic, while also maintaining a level of simplicity to prevent the game from becoming unplayable. This post will cover basic game mechanics, with a particular focus on combat and the dynamics of domestic and foreign support.

Basic Game Mechanics

Un-syriaThe Syrian Civil War’s map covers the whole of the country, broken down approximately into Syria’s 13 provinces. Major disputed cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs will be represented with their own game-regions; particularly during the beginning of the game period (mid-2012), the Syrian regime often held control over key urban areas, with the countryside under the effective control of rebel forces. In addition, Lines of Communication (LoCs, major arterial roads and highways) will be represented as their own special regions, with particular rules governing their control and bonuses for control over contiguous regions

Each region will be coded for two primary characteristics: terrain type and dominant ethno-sectarian identity. Rough terrain, like mountains or dense forest, give rebel fighters advantages in certain types of combat. Ethno-sectarian identity plays a greater role, governing who can recruit there, providing shelter to friendly rebels, giving combat bonuses to factions favoured by the ethno-sectarian group, and restricting what cards can be played where. The game’s identities will be elaborated on in the Domestic and Foreign Actors section.

After defining the players and the board, what tools each player has to work with was the next challenge. Players in the game perform actions mostly through the use of Operations Points (OPs). OPs allow the player to perform a wide variety of actions. These include: diplomacy, recruitment, training and equipment, movement between regions, covert operations and attacks.

OPs are accrued by playing cards. I decided that a largely card-driven game was the best way to move forward. Cards allow a higher degree of detail and nuance without needing a long, complicated rulebook, and will add flavor and fun to gameplay. Each player will hold a hand of five cards at a time, and are allow to play up to two per turn. Each card has both a special action and a numeric value: by playing a card, the player is either given that number of OPs to spend on that turn (OPs do not carry over from turn to turn), or may instead use the special action on the card. More powerful special actions will have a higher number of points, to incentivize use of both features.

The game will include three types of card: single-play, hidden-play, and permanent play. Single-play cards allow the player to perform a particular action, for example recruiting foreign fighters or launching a diplomatic offensive to change another player’s foreign relations, rather than their own. Hidden-play cards may be played “in reserve”, slipped under the side of the board for instant play later on, including as an instant-interrupt. For example, a rebel player may place a “MANPADS” card on one turn, then reveal it during a government air attack in order to cause casualties among air units. Some of these cards will counter one another. This introduces ‘the fog of war’ and deeper strategic play into the game without major complication. Finally, permanent-play cards, once played, remain active unless another card or special rule reverses their effects. These cards will be rare, powerful and require a set of pre-conditions to use. For example, a jihadist player will have the option, if they control a certain number of contiguous provinces, to play the ‘Declare the Caliphate Restored’, severely damaging their relations with foreign actors while providing a major buff to their troops.


Finding a balance between realism and complexity for the game’s military system took much discussion and the exploration of a variety of options. The first major choice was between counters and blocks. While counters would allow a greater degree of complexity, a game including multitude of troop types on each side and lifelike combat formations was too complex for the educational purposes or casual gamers. With blocks, each side has a highly limited number of troop types, with complexity depending on other factors and rules.

4736350-3x4-700x933The government player has three main types of military unit: elite, regular, and irregular. Elite units represent regime-protection forces such as the Republican Guard and 4th Armoured Division; regulars represent the mainstay units of the Syrian military; and irregulars represent police, pro-government militias and remnant cadres of other units used by the Syrian regime for defense and patrol but not offensive operations. In addition, the government player controls Division HQ units, representing Syrian military bases and the command structure. These immobile units allow recruitment and reinforcement of government forces, but if destroyed are a major loss. Finally, the government player also has air units. Operating in provinces with HQs only, air units provide (usually) untouchable firepower to government attacks with the tradeoff of being expensive to move around and irreplaceable if destroyed.

Opposition factions have only two unit types: rebels and veterans. Rebels represent the wide variety of rebel brigades operating in Syria, while veterans represent more experienced forces and those brigades that have captured or purchased heavier equipment such as anti-tank missiles and MANPADS. Weapons can be purchased on the international market, captured from the battlefield or overrunning government bases, or supplied by international partners. Rebel players also have Commanders, who do not fight on their own but are necessary for most rebel operations, from recruitment to assaults to the movement of non-aligned units.


The combat system itself works as follows. Each province and city may have units from multiple players contesting it. The player with the most units in the province controls that province. Players may only move through provinces they control, although they may move units in and out. Movement of troops from one province to another requires the expenditure of an OP, and, in the case of rebel forces, a Commander. Movement along a LoC is much faster, but requires the expenditure of more points. The government may use Strategic Airlift from any province with a Division HQ to another other with the same, but may only move one unit at a time.


In these contested provinces, with the expenditure of an OP, players may launch one of two types of attack: Harassment and Assault. Harassment represents the frequent low-level attacks and raids by rebel forces against government positions and checkpoints, as well as government sorties and artillery strikes against rebel positions. Harassment causes no risk of damage to your own forces, although it requires the roll of 6 to score a hit. Assaults are more risky, with the chance of damage to your forces, but are more likely to cause damage to the enemy. The dice rolls required to do damage during an assault are dependent on the ratio between attacking and defending forces, with bonuses for heavily outnumbering your opponent and severe penalties for foolhardy assaults against superior numbers. Assaults require an elite or veteran unit among the troops in the attack, as well as a Commander in the case of rebel factions.

When attacking, players must choose their target. Rebel players may come to another player’s defense, contributing both their own and unaligned rebel units to that combat; this can stiffen up an otherwise weak player, but allows the defender to remove another player’s forces from the board.

Unlike normal provinces, only one player at a time may occupy a LoC. This means that Harassment of troops on a LoC is impossible, requiring a risky Assault to push them off. This means that the government player, who starts with control over the LoCs at the beginning of the game, will likely continue to control them well into the game, even as provinces around the roads fall. However, as control over LoCs allows for rapid movement, reinforcement and economic strength, control over these vital roads will be hotly contested.

When hit, government forces and rebel factions react differently. Rebel forces are simply destroyed when hit, going back into the available recruitment pool. If the government side sustains hits, the player has one of three choices. The player may destroy an irregular, downgrade an elite or regular unit to the next step down, or, in the presence of an HQ, remove them from the board temporarily. Downgrading units (i.e., replacing an elite unit with a regular) represents the steady degradation and fragmentation of Syria’s armed forces, particularly among elite units. Removal from the board represents placing these units in bunkers or in reserve, awaiting reinforcement, and costs OPs to bring them back into the game. This allows the government player to replenish their scarce elite forces. However, if the Division HQ is captured while the forces are off-board, they are automatically destroyed, making this a risky proposition.

Domestic and Foreign Support

Fought in a vacuum without ideology, identity or foreign influence, the Syrian civil war would likely have ended in the victory of one side or another by this point. However, international intervention and the complex ethno-sectarian web of Syria’s population have had major effects on the dynamics of the war. While discussions about this issue were extensive, including talk of whether or not to include a discrete domestic opinion tracker at all, we finally settled on the following, reasonably simple, system.

International opinion, influenced by a range of games including Liberia: Descent into Hell, is played out on a tracking card. There are five positions that can be held by each foreign actor: Hostile, Opposed, Neutral, Friendly and Supporting. Moving an actor’s opinion requires the expenditure of one or more OPs and a successful die roll. A player can only attempt to influence a particular actor once per turn, although the player may attempt to influence multiple actors. More points are needed to move support to more extreme positions: for example, moving from Neutral to Friendly costs only one OP to make an attempt, while moving from Friendly to Supporting costs two. As well, the government and each rebel faction will have advantages in gaining support from some actors and disadvantages at gaining support from others: for example, jihadists will suffer a penalty (-1 to their die roll) when engaging with the Western Powers or Russia, while gaining +1 when engaging Salafist Donors in the Gulf


Gaining the support of a foreign actor has major benefits. Friendly actors provide some income every turn, and if they border Syria will allow you to recruit units in their territory. Supporting actors provide more income, may provide arms and more opportunities. As well, the special actions on some cards may only be used with a Supporting foreign actor. The foreign actors represented in the game will likely include: The Western Powers (the United States and NATO allies), Russia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government and Salafist Donors.

Domestic actors use a similar system, with the same degrees of support and same method of moving support. However, domestic support gives different effects. As mentioned above, each region is coded for one of several ethno-sectarian groups: Rural/Poor Sunni, Urban/Wealthy Sunni, Alawi, Druze, Christian, and Kurdish. Rural and Urban Sunnis are coded separately due to their differing allegiances during the war and distinctive political behavior. Players may only recruit troops in regions with a Supporting dominant ethno-sectarian group. Groups may support or be friendly to more than one player at a time, representing communal division. Meanwhile, Opposed or Hostile groups may generate unaffiliated rebel brigades to fight against the dastardly regime, and influence whether or not these groups side with one rebel faction or another in intra-rebel fighting.

Next Steps

My next steps involve firmly defining win conditions for each player, working out the economic system, figuring out a way to represent refugee and IDP movements, and finalizing a system of intelligence, covert operations and terrorism. After that, on the writing a first draft of the rules, writing the myriad cards needed for play, and finally on to play-testing.

Alex Langer 

Review: Fire in the Lake

 Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam. GMT Games, 2014. Game designers: Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke. $85.00.

pic2083738_mdLast night the PAXsims review crew got together to play Fire in the Lake, the fourth and latest in GMT Games’ COIN series. The game covers the Vietnam war from 1964 through to 1972, with players representing the United States (US), North Vietnamese forces (NVA), the Republic of Vietnam forces (ARVN), or the Viet Cong (VC). Rules for play with less than four players (including solitaire play) are included. It plays more easily with two players than others in the series.

The card- and map-based game system is very similar to that used in the previous games in the series, Andean Abyss (insurgency in Colombia), Cuba Libre, and A Distant Plain (contemporary Afghanistan). Given that we’ve already discussed that system extensively in past reviews I won’t say much more about it here, other than to highlight some of the ways in which it has been customized for the Vietnamese case:

  • Some players have access to more troops types. In Andean Abyss there were five (government troops and police, and FARC, AUC, and cartel guerrillas) plus bases, whereas in Fire in the Lake that number increases to eight (ARVN troops, police, and rangers; US troops and irregulars; NVA troops and guerrillas; VC guerrillas), plus two types of bases (regular and tunnelled).
  • The cards are periodized, for more historic play.
  • The Ho Chi Minh Trail and operations in Cambodia and Laos play a key role, especially for the NVA.
  • The player actions differ slightly in this game (as they do for all games in the series). The US “advise” special operation role is quite different from anything in A Distant Plain. US air strikes are powerful, and can degrade the Ho Chi Minh Trail—but also can damage local popular support if used in South Vietnam. Some of the operations seemed to be slightly more complex than in previous games.
  • The US has much less flexibility in adding or removing troops from the theatre compared to A Distant Plain.
  • The map has slightly more areas (30 provinces or cities, plus lines of communication) than does Andean Abyss (27+LOCs) or A Distant Plain (25+LOCs), and significantly more options than Cuba Libre (13).
  • Scoring takes place when a coup card becomes active, similar to the propaganda card in the other games in the series. This may change the current leader of South Vietnam, with ongoing effects, or weaken ARVN forces through infighting.
  • Each player has a special “pivotal event” card that they may play, essentially replacing the current event card. These can be quite powerful.
  • Accurately reflecting its subject matter, this is the first game in which you can’t play criminal cartels or warlords. No more drug smuggling or casinos for you!

pic1959464_lgAs with all of the games in the series, I had some relatively minor quibbles with how some of the operations are constructed. Air strikes seemed somewhat overpowered, especially in urban and jungle terrain. Our NVA player was not a fan of how his “infiltrate” operation worked. I’ve never liked the way in which pacification and the building of domestic support is a derivative of the “training” operation, both in this game and other in the series. I did, however, very much like the idea of pivotal events, allowing players to both “bury” an unwanted event card and launch a major, possibly game-changing, initiative.

Game Play

We played the medium-length, 1968-72 scenario. The first coup card came early before many operations had been undertaken, allowing the ARVN to set aside quite a large war-chest of resources and pacify much of the country.

The NVA built up large forces in Cambodia in preparation for a cross-border incursion, but ARVN forces slipped across the border to identify their locations for a series of devastating US air strikes. Given our habit of always playing games to a thematically-appropriate soundtrack, such raids were accompanied by either Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride (1968) or, of course, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

Meanwhile the Viet Cong struggled to expand their underground guerrilla network. They had some success in subverting government troops and police and weakening the local patronage system, although they heavily suffered from periodic ARVN sweeps and raids. ARVN and US pacification made the regime surprisingly popular in large parts of the country. Despite differing victory conditions (and the fact that only one player can ultimately win), NVA-VC and US-ARVN cooperation was very good. This was especially true of the latter, with ARVN sweeps often setting the stage for US air strikes, and some US capabilities enhancing ARVN forces too.

Later in the game the NVA again built up large forces in Cambodia, taking advantage of a US Bombing Pause (event card). When the US then followed a failed coup attempt (coup card) with a substantial draw-down of American forces, the NVA unleashed its Easter Offensive (pivotal event). North Vietnamese troops poured across the border from Cambodia, advancing upon and ultimately capturing Saigon. The Viet Cong followed up with the Tet Offensive (pivotal event). This was rather less successful at inflicting serious damage, although it did augment VC guerrilla strength.

Stretched on the ground and having taken significant casualties, the US unleashed another series of air raids against the NVA, devastating their forces in many areas. ARVN troops and rangers poured into Saigon, attempting to regain control of the capital amid bitter street fighting.

At this point, the game came to an end. Despite the heavy fighting still underway in Saigon, the US managed to secure a narrow victory, largely due it its earlier withdrawal of forces and the significant pro-regime support that still remained in much of the country. The NVA and ARVN were close behind in their points total, however.



This game has a lot to commend it. I very much liked the way in which geography made itself felt in the game, something I felt rather less in Andean Abyss and A Distant Plain. In our game the Mekong Delta was very much its own sub-theatre, compared to the central highlands. The threat of NVA covert and overt intervention from along the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail also has enormous strategic effect on game play.

On the other hand, our game suffered from significantly more “analysis paralysis” than any of our previous experiences with the GMT COIN series. There is no single obvious reason for this—the rules, operations, and events are only a tiny bit more complex, the types of forces available are somewhat more diverse, and the map has only slightly more playable areas. Three of our players had played several games in the COIN series before too.

Nevertheless, things slowed down considerably, to the point that we introduced an informal Stairway to Heaven rule whereby players were asked to finish their turn before the iconic 1971 Led Zepplin song was finished playing.

Perhaps we were tired, or too full of pizza. After all, war is hell.

At the time of writing Fire in the Lake is currently the highest rated of the four games in the COIN series on Board Game Geek, ranked an impressive 74th best wargame of all time. Among our group we all still preferred A Distant Plain, with two ranking Fire in the Lake in the middle of the series and the third ranking it his least favourite of the four. (In fairness it should probably be noted that I was the only person old enough to remember the Vietnam War, whereas the majority of the group work on contemporary conflict issues.)

Although our game ran more slowly than I would have hoped, I am certainly looking forward to a rematch!

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