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.
* * *
Last Thursday, we held the first playtest of my game, provisionally titled Road To Damascus. While the game needs changes, the core game system seems to work well, and it was a ton of fun to play. Some rules needed major tweaks, and the diplomacy system needs an overhaul. As well, a new map would make gameplay much easier. However, the combat system worked nearly perfectly.
For the board, I used a standard roadmap of Syria, with lines drawn onto it to demarcate provincial boundaries in black and Lines of Communication (LoCs) highlighted in red. Units are placed in ‘stacks’, with the government, each rebel player and the independent rebels each having their own stack. LoCs were separate map spaces, with only one unit total allowed there.
Using a modified commercial map for the initial game board. The large red disks are Syrian airfields and divisional bases; the smaller red risks are regular Syrian army units (elite units denoted by a star); the red aircraft indicate airstrikes; and the orange disks denote shabiha, National Defence Force, and other pro-regime militias. The black, green and white disks denote FSA, Islamist, and Kurdish militias, while the avatars represent key opposition commanders. The remaining disks (yellow, blue) represent unaffiliated guerillas. Each province is a separate zone for movement and combat, with each of the major cities (Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo) also comprising a zone unto itself. The red lines mark key lines of communication, and the Syrian desert is a separate zone with restrictions on movement.
The board made the game somewhat confusing: (LoCs) were sometimes difficult to distinguish from the surrounding provinces, and it was difficult to fit all of the necessary units into the smaller southern provinces of Daraa and As-Suwayda. For future playtests, we will be using a different game board.
Provinces/zones and lines of communication on the new map.
The game was set up to follow a historical scenario beginning in May 2012, with the collapse of a limited ceasefire between the Assad regime and rebels. Government forces are concentrated in Damascus, Aleppo and the cities of southern and central Syria, where they maintain relatively firm control. Meanwhile, rebels increasingly control rural areas and northeastern Syria, with regime forces restricted to protecting their military base infrastructure. The three rebel players represent the FSA (Military Defectors), the Islamic Front (Islamists) and the PYD (Kurdish Nationalists).
Generally, the game went well. While there was some rules confusion on the first turn, people picked up the basic structure –as described in previous posts– pretty quickly. Players’ actions began to mirror the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War: the rebel players consistently failed to cooperate with each other, while the government player rapidly began to abandon eastern Syria to the rebels in favour of holding onto major population centers. After an early rule change drastically increased the effectiveness of airstrike operations, rebel players –particularly the FSA player– openly began to voice dread at the government player’s placement of airstrike markers.
Revolution! Cards, the game’s way of generating new independent rebels and representing historical events, needed some changes. After some discussion, we decided that in future games, the number of rebels generated by each card would be decreased. However, rather than the government player drawing one card per game turn, each player would draw a card at the beginning of their player turn. A lot of card tweaking happened over the course of the game as well. Notably, a reserve-play card meant to simulate rebel fighters hiding among the population was miswritten to allow all players to use its effects, allowing a large regime garrison in Aleppo to hide amongst the city’s Christian population to avoid a rebel assault. When FSA units arrived, they were apparently unable to find the Syrian military among crowds of nuns and ringing church bells.
Another feature that needs work was the diplomacy system. While the Islamists courted foreign actors for income, eventually managing to build a broad coalition of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Salafist donor networks, other players neglected foreign actors and ignored Syria’s domestic communities. The expensive tradeoff (an operations point), uncertainty (a 5+ die roll to shift opinion) and the lack of short-term rewards of diplomatic action were cited as reasons for why the diplomatic track was largely overlooked. The next version of the rules will make Influence operations easier.
However, some recent additions to the game worked out well. IDPs and the steady disintegration of Syria are represented in a simple way, through Death and Destruction markers. These appear both through card play and when triples are rolled during Assault operations, to represent the effects of heavy fighting. Death and Destruction markers reduce the population value of a province, including for recruitment, taxation and victory points. While I am considering adding a Refugee marker, I am worried that this could be a finicky mechanism. Meanwhile, income is now gained through a Tax operation, which proved quite effective.
The win/loss system was the last part of my game I needed to develop. Victory points are calculated based on the population value of the provinces under player Control or Influence, as well as through some reserve-play cards and captured Government Bases. The Government player only wins if their victory point score is greater than the three rebel players combined. Otherwise, the rebel player with the highest score wins the game. There are no overriding conditions for victory, although some players, particularly Kurdish Nationalists, receive substantial bonuses for holding certain territories.
Plans for the Future
I am currently modifying cards and the rules as well as constructing a better game board for the next playtest. After that, testing, testing and more testing will be necessary, something which I’m looking forward to!
* * *
Having played the game as the Kurdish player, let me add a few thoughts of my own.
As a first playtest of a rough design, Road to Damascus was excellent. A similar view expressed by all of the other playtesters too. Indeed, it is shaping up to be my favourite insurgency/counter-insurgency games of all time—no small accomplishment, given how many COIN games I’ve played.
In our own game, a joint rebel offensive succeeded in largely pushing the regime out of city of Aleppo. A sustained fight then erupted for control of the rest of the province, with the opposition seeking to sever north-south lines of communication. My own Kurdish troops were generally active only in the north and east of the country, seizing control of al-Hasakah province. This led to a short-lived conflict with the Islamists, who had lured several unaffiliated guerrilla units there to their jihadist banner. In al-Haskah, Dar-az-Zawr, Raqqa, and Aleppo major government military installations were overrun. From time to time there was also fighting in Hama and Rif Damascus, although the regime was able to keep the capital generally rebel-free. Dar’a was relatively quiet until near the end of the game. The game ended with a narrow regime victory.
The change to the airstrikes rule involved an interesting trade-off. On the one hand, the revised rules make them somewhat ore powerful and predictable than in the real world. On the other hand, it does generate exactly the right sort of psychological tension in the game, with the rebels soon becoming desperate for MANPADS or a no-fly zone. On balance, the latter effect is worth the minor distortion of operational effectiveness.
The game very much captures the fluid nature of rebel cohesion, alliances, and organization. Many of the rebel units in the game are unaffiliated, and effort must be made to bring them under your command–and keep them there. Local commanders are essential to both military and political activities. Guerrilla players only partially cooperate, making a coherent opposition strategy difficult.
Because a rebel player usually only plays one card per turn, and because most opposition units are incapable of anything beyond harassment operations unless stiffened with veteran troops, much of the conflict consists of grinding war of slow attrition. However it is possible to bank certain cards and play them later, leading to episodic (but short-lived) campaigns. This too is very much in keeping with the nature of the fighting.
Aleppo. There’s a serious educational purpose to this game design–but it is worth also remembering the real death and destruction in Syria.