Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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 

3 responses to “Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 2

  1. Rex Brynen 11/10/2014 at 2:11 pm

    Brian: On design ideas, using a zonal rather than hex system was likely inspired from Liberia and Iraq RISK (but was an obvious choice anyway for the level of complexity he is aiming for); the LoCs from the COIN series (although they’ll be within province, not on borders); cities-within-provinces from Iraq RISK; leaders stacks from Liberia; blocks vs chits from Alex’s concern about chits slowing things down, especially given 4 players + neutrals; event/op points from Labyrinth and others; hidden/instant play capability cards from nowhere in particular (gives a nice fog-of-war component); diplomatic influence from Liberia (which adapted it from your Spanish civil war game, if I remember), although the stickiness and differential points cost is new-ish; the double CRT system (harassment vs assault) is found in several games systems, but none that he’s played so that’s a case of parallel/convergent evolution; etc., etc. The process of building forces by recruiting from a pool of neutral loosely-allied rebels is new–it remains to be worked out how unaffiliated rebels will affect combat (although this could be a hidden “local alliances” capability card).

  2. Rex Brynen 10/10/2014 at 5:39 pm

    That will be up to Alex. We’ve still got Cori Goldberger’s excellent Arab Spring game from last term to refine too, and I want to have the humanitarian crisis game available next year via Gamecrafter (unless some company out there wants to develop/publish it!).

    So many game ideas, so little time.

  3. Brian Train 10/10/2014 at 5:35 pm

    As I was reading Alex’s descriptions of the different game mechanics, I found myself nodding when I recognized the likely source of each one – but there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing at all! The Great Dunnigan’s Two Rules of Game Design are:
    1. Keep it simple.
    2. Use available techniques (sometimes rendered as, “Plagiarize.”).
    I think Alex has chosen well, and gone a long way towards designing the sort of game I would like to have designed, or more importantly would like to play.
    Well done!
    Plans to make this available to people when it’s finished?

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