Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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Game Review: Enter the Spudnet, or How Potatoes Taught me Cyber

Sometimes a light touch, and a bit of humour can make complex topics very accessible.

Enter the Spudnet is an innovative, and fun, learning game from the studio that brought the coding card game, Potato Pirates, to life. Despite its comical approach, Enter the Spudnet truly is a serious game in a brilliantly accessible disguise.

Played across a network of shipping ports, players must fulfill their 5 potato orders while playing ability cards to benefit themselves or harm others’ shipment or structures. Further complicating the potato fulfillment process are bot “ships” who collide with player shipments and destroy them, overload warehouses, and generally cause mischief.

The analogies to cyber are clear from the moment you open the game board. Each map is organized into interconnected, coloured networks (shipping lanes) of nodes (ports) each with its own IP address. The map is immediately recognizable as a network diagram with a wink to its pirating theme.

Players can place firewalls, blocking travel to others, and play cards like Trojans, Ransomeware, 301 Rediects and so many more. There are 40 of these ability cards, with a cyber explanation for each in the clear and concise manual.

Play can be competitive or cooperative, with each game style giving rise to its own strategies and approaches.

As players move their potatoes (think data packets) across the shipping network they will be faced with all the network hinderances (502 bad gateways, static routes…), navigating inconvenient firewalls, and frustrating connection slowdowns when warehouse nodes get overloaded.

While this teaches cyber security at a higher level – no one will become an instant cyber expert playing this game – it brilliantly illustrates concepts, and introduces the player to those hacks, workarounds, problems and possibilities of the cyber realm. As discussion and emphasis is placed more and more on multi-domain operations this fun, approachable game provides a gateway to understanding a piece of the sometimes arcane concepts of cyber security.

Playable by 2-6 players in 30-60 minutes, with high-quality components, I can think of no more approachable introduction to a very serious topic.

Tom Fisher
I can be reached at if you want a more detailed account.

Review: Hearts and Minds (Vietnam, 1965-75)

Hearts and Minds. Worthington Games, 2010. Game designer: John Poniske. Game developer: Stan Hilinski. $49.95

As with all game evaluations on PaxSims, this review will examine both game play as well as the question of potential adaptability for educational purposes.

Game Contents and Play

Hearts and Minds is a card-driven, map-based strategy game that covers up to ten years of the Vietnam War, from the growth of US involvement in the mid-1960s through to the “Vietnamization” of the conflict and withdrawal of US troops in the early 1970s. Movement is zonal, with the (25.5″ x 11″) map board showing most of the provinces of South Vietnam, plus the border areas of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Military forces from South Vietnam (ARVN), the US, Korea, other allies, the Viet Cong (VC), North Vietnam (NVA), Cambodia (royalist and Khmer Rouge) and Laos (royalist and Pathet Lao) are represented. All units are abstracted, with most representing generic (untried or veteran) regular infantry, plus some additional artillery, armour, helicopters, and naval support units. (Click images below to enlarge.)

The “Red” (communist) and “Blue” (allied) players alternately play a card out of their hand, with four rounds of such card play representing a year in the conflict. As with several card-driven games, each card indicates both a resource point value and a possible event. Resource points are used to “buy” the event on the card (ranging from the Paris Peace Talks to a visit by Jane Fonda) and/or to enable movement, combat, and shifts in the political control of provinces. Combat is straight-forward, undertaken by totalling combat factors, adding a die-roll, and consulting a combat results table. VC units may also ambush allied players entering their zones.

Each year, South Vietnam is at risk of a military coup if its combat losses are high (and exceed the number of pacified provinces), although this risk can be offset through the expenditure of resource points to prop up the shaky Saigon government. A coup has effects on combat units (all ARVN units become “untried” again) and on ARVN deployment. As in the real war, the Ho Chi Minh trail plays a key role, allowing NVA units to slip into South Vietnam from border areas of Laos and Cambodia. After 1969, cards on both sides give players the option of escalating the war in these neighbouring countries.

Victory in the Hearts and Minds is achieved either by securing control of a certain number of provinces, or by achieving a certain number of hawk/dove points. Some of the cards are “campaign cards” that facilitate combat operations in one or more regions of the country and also yield bonus hawk/dove points for control of the area. More generally, the allied player also loses points for taking US casualties, as well as when the Red player gains control of too many South Vietnamese provinces, or when a South Vietnamese coup occurs.

Casualties therefore have political as well as military consequences. Although both sides receive replacements from year to year, high US losses will rapidly bleed political support for the war, while heavy ARVN losses will destabilize the South. The North gets quite high numbers of replacements, making it difficult to secure a military victory through attrition alone. Famously, military analyst Col. Harry Summers is said to have remarked in 1974 to a NVA officer “You never defeated us in the field” —to which the latter is said to have responded, “That may be true. It is also irrelevant.” In Hearts and Minds too, the Red player can lose battle after battle yet still win the war.

Because VC units are more effective at gaining political control, and are replaced more slowly, targeting these can be more effective. They are often able to evade contact, however, and slip away to other areas. Key to victory is careful use of the campaign cards, which if used to greatest effect should be preceded by some stockpiling of resource points as well as moving units into appropriate jumping-off positions for the impending military operations. The Tet Offensive card can be particularly devastating if Red uses it well. It is a gamble, however: if things go poorly, Red can find his NVA troops chewed up by superior allied firepower and his VC infrastructure in the south devastated.

The rules are fairly well organized (although some important information is to be found in the playbook or players’ charts), and the game plays quite easily. We weren’t entirely happy with the combat system (which depends on differentials rather than ratios), and it seemed a bit odd that US forces were more mobile but no more effective than ARVN or NVA troops. Also, the lack of any combat steps (units are either alive or dead), together with the replacements and reinforcements system used in the game, results in whole units being eliminated—only to (re)appear in large numbers again at the start of the new year. A smoother and more incremental system of losses and replacements would have added to a more realistic sense of historical flow. Pacification can only be undertaken by US units and yet has more positive effect on regime stability than anything the South Vietnamese can do for themselves, which runs rather counter to most COIN assumptions.  Conversely, we did rather like the “fog of war” built into the way VC units are used: deployed face-down on the map, some of them are not guerillas at all but rather “bad intel” that generates a random event when revealed.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is certainly a very solid, well-designed game. For some reason we couldn’t quite put our finger on (and despite the Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival we had on as soundtrack in the background) our playtest game lacked a certain excitement. Most of that was probably probably personal taste and/or the dynamics of that particular game, however—it certainly has a high rating (8.0/10) on GameBoardGeek, and it is certainly a game I intend to play again.

Instructional Potential

Because the game mechanisms are quite straightforward, Hearts and Minds is likely to be more playable by gaming neophytes than other larger and more complex wargames. (you’ll also find a rules summary and after action report form on BoardGameGeek that could be quite useful in a classroom setting.) The game does highlight the importance of political factors (through the use of hawk/dove points, the process of political control and “pacification” of provinces, and the endemic political weakness of the South Vietnamese government), as well as the pressures that caused a wider regionalization of the war into Cambodia and Laos. All of this would provide openings for discussion in the classroom. The cards depict key events of the era, which could also be explored with students. Unlike Labyrinth, there is no more detailed explanation of these included other than the brief text on the card itself. It would be fairly easy, however, to put a study guide together that offered additional information.

The rules and cards in the game tend to somewhat tilt the play in certain directions, and provide only limited opportunities to explore alternative strategies. There is no lasting way to strength South Vietnamese governance so as to undercut the underlying appeal of the insurgency, for example—while the Blue may “pacify” provinces, this renders Saigon less vulnerable to a coup rather impacting on the ability of the VC to recruit cadres or exert political control. Equally, there is no political cost to the collateral damage that would inevitably accompany Blue military actions. The possibility of implementing a stepped-up CORDS-type civic action programme would have provided an interesting “what if” option, especially viewed through the lens of the contemporary debate between “COINdinistas and “COINtras” over the relative merit of population-centric and enemy-centric counterinsurgency strategies. Diplomatic options in the game are limited to a  few event cards with modest effects—there is little scope to influence regional or other foreign policies, to step-up coercive force against the North (as with the Linebacker raids), or otherwise seek to reshape the broader political context within which the war was fought.

Of course, no game can contain everything, and from an instructional point-of-view it doesn’t need to. Students could be encouraged to propose house rules and game modifications, based on their own research into the dynamics of the conflict. Believe that host country efforts are essential to building legitimacy? Allow ARVN units to engage in pacification. Think that local attitudes matter to COIN operations? Perhaps NVA/VC units should suffer a penalty when fighting in pacified areas. Want to model more substantial US efforts to strengthen South Vietnamese governance? Allow some stability to cumulate over time, rather than resetting the coup marker to zero each new year. Want to reflect the impact of US domestic politics on the war? Have the status hawk/dove marker somehow affect the cost of US replacements or the pace of reinforcements. The possibilities are endless, and each proposed tweak of the game system could be made into a class discussion and learning experience. More broadly, the sorts of choices made by the designer, examined against the history of the conflict, can be used to encourage student reflection on what policy options would have been available to US, Vietnamese, and other decision-makers in this era and with what possible effects.

Concluding Thoughts

While not my favourite insurgency-based game, Hearts and Minds does have good potential in an instructional setting because of its straight-forward game mechanics, relatively clear rules, and appropriate level of abstraction. It is probably best played after students have read some of the major works on the conflict, thus enabling them to compare those portrayals with the one offered by the game. In reflecting on the similarities and divergences, students can thereby be encouraged to develop their own thoughts as to the the key social, political, and military dynamics of the Vietnam conflict, as well as the lessons that might be drawn from this for a broader understanding of guerilla campaigns, insurgency/counterinsurgency, stabilization operations, and regionalized warfare.

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Update: John Poniske, the designer of Hearts and Minds, has contributed some thoughts of his own on the game and the use of games in educational settings. You’ll find them here.

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