Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Gaming the Syrian Civil War

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 4

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.

* * *

What a ride it’s been! I started this semester knowing almost nothing about game design, and now I think about games –other peoples’ games, Road to Damascus, and ideas for new political science problems to simulate– all the time. Making Road to Damascus has been an amazing experience, in many ways the highlight of my four years at McGill. I’d like to thank Professor Brynen for the opportunity to work on this project, as well as endless guidance and enthusiasm. I’d also like to thank all of the playtesters (Tom, June, Eric, Ecem, Jason, Vanessa, and others) who volunteered their time and energy to work through this game with me.

With term coming to an end this will be my final post about my game. I will go through our second playtest, discussing some of the tweaked game mechanics and what still needs to be perfected. Then, I will talk about how my game ‘fits’ the Syrian conflict as a simulation and possibly as a learning tool.

The Second Playtest

We held another playtest last Friday, which went well. The rule changes from last time had been implemented, and a new map made things much easier to see. While due to my own errors the player aid cards were distinctly unhelpful, the game still ran fairly smoothly.

Early in the game. Kurdish nationalist (white) are building up in strength al-Hasakah, the nucleus of what they hope will be their future autonomous area or independent state. The FSA and Islamic Front focus on Aleppo and Hama.

Early in the game. Kurdish nationalists (white) are building up in strength al-Hasakah, the nucleus of what they hope will be their future autonomous area or independent state. Later they will forge very close relations with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, allowing them to recruit from among refugees there. The FSA and Islamic Front initially focus on Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama.

The game started with a regime offensive, supported by airstrikes, which cleared out the city of Aleppo and degraded rebel capacity in the surrounding province. In the face of a major government buildup, rebel players withdrew or were wiped out. Heavy fighting there and in Idlib province, combined with harsh winter weather, cause immense damage and forced tens of thousands of Syrians across the border into Turkey. This was represented by Refugee counters, which now appear in neighbouring countries when Death and Destruction occurs are placed in border provinces. These countries become ‘playable’ spaces for Rebel factions with Supporting relations, enabling rebel commanders to slip across the border and recruit an army among the refugees, as each Refugee counter counts as an independent rebel unit.

Unlike in our first playtest, the rebel players –particularly the Kurdish Nationalists- made an effort to court international and domestic actors for support; this was made easier by the reduced threshold necessary to change opinion. Mobilization of Syria’s Kurds against the regime caused the quiet emergence of a large rebel force in Aleppo, which had major impacts later in the game. By contrast, repeated regime attempts to court Sunnis failed; had they succeeded, the opposition would have rapidly begun to run out of forces.

Initially, it appeared as though the regime was headed for victory: rebel forces controlled a number of provinces, particularly in the northeast, but remained weak in the most populated and important areas near Damascus and Aleppo. A new Revolution! card, “Geneva Conference”, allowed the government to manipulate peace talks (which prevented fighting without paying a price in international support) to steady itself, then mount an air campaign to reduce rebel forces in Hama.

Eventually though, as an alliance between the FSA and Islamic Front was struck, the tide began to turn. Syrian forces lost control over Idlib, then Homs province. Indoctrinated and heavily armed FSA forces advanced south into Rif Damascus, while Islamist guerrillas cut the main highway in Homs province. This prevented the capital from being reinforced by troops from Aleppo, leaving Damascus to fend for itself. As the regime lost control over the capital city itself, the desperate Government player unleashed chemical weapons, slaughtering rebel forces but depopulating the country’s most valuable city. Islamist forces soon arrived in Rif Damascus, reinforcing the rebel offensive.

The Syrian Army (red) and National Defence Force militias (orange, yellow) have regained control of Damascus—but at the cost of considerable collateral damage (grey rubble).

The Syrian Army (red), led by the elite Presidential Guard (star) and supported by National Defence Force militias (orange, yellow) have regained control of Damascus—but at the cost of considerable collateral damage (grey rubble).

As the game drew to a close though, the most dramatic events were about to occur. The FSA and Islamic Front, quiet in the country’s south until now, marched in and seized control, recruiting independent rebel forces to consolidate their power. Rebel forces marched over the mountains into the Alawi-dominated coastal strip, taking advantage of weak government preparation. In the north, Kurdish forces, planning for months and recruiting Kurdish refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan, mounted a lighting assault into the city of Aleppo. There, they recruited independent rebel brigades and seized control of the country’s now-largest city, raising the Kurdish Rising Sun banner from the captured city hall. With this final move, the Kurdish Nationalists –due to their bonuses for controlling territories with Kurdish populations and a victory points card for ‘Kurdish Self-Rule’, won the game.

Famed Kurdish commander Vanessa Sunahara leads her forces into Aleppo to challenge the regime garrison there. A growing number of refugees can be seen over the border in Turkey.

Famed commander Vanessa leads Kurdish forces and local allies in Aleppo to challenge the regime garrison there. A growing number of refugees can be seen over the border in Turkey.

Conclusions: Modeling the Syrian Civil War

I believe that Road to Damascus, while stylized and simplified, fits the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War quite well. It captures the messiness, grinding attrition and sudden bursts of activity that characterize the war. Combat tends to take the form of harassment and ambushes from rebels, with the government relying on airstrikes and shifting their capable combat units from province to province to mop up rebel fighters. Combat also realistically produces immense destruction: multiple players over both playtests referenced the much-mocked Vietnam War saying, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” The tragic nature of the Syrian Civil War, with regime and rebel forces fighting over a devastated, broken and partially depopulated land, was sadly (but accurately) reproduced by the game.

Road to Damascus also effectively simulates the struggles that both sides in the war face. Diplomacy, both with the Syrian people and the international community, is difficult. In both playtests, rebel players struggled to mobilize the population against the regime, while the regime struggled to convince Sunnis to side with the Ba’ath Party and Assad family. The FSA twice gained the momentary support of the Western Powers in the second playtest, before the West lost interest in its cause due to atrocities by rebel fighters or the beginning of a crisis in Ukraine. The frustration with these events was palpable from the FSA player. All rebel players grew to fear airstrikes, dreading the government turn. Meanwhile, the government player appeared beleaguered and complained of feeling under siege. While putting someone in the place of Bashar al-Assad or Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi may have ethical consequences, the psychological dynamics of the game, with its grinding warfare and constant shortage of military resources on all sides, seemed to work well.

While Road to Damascus works well as a simulation of the conflict, there are likely some issues of its use as a learning tool. First are the ethical ramifications of simulating an ongoing conflict. While I have enjoyed this project, I recognize that playing a ‘game’ of a war people are currently dying in and suffering through may be seen as in poor taste or unethical. Additionally, while the game simulates the war well, it is built as a simulation and fun wargame first and a learning tool second: there is not a ton of informational content in the game. While it might be useful for people already learning about the war, it is probably not ideal as a tool on its own.

In conclusion, Road to Damascus has been a great learning experience, and something I plan to continue working on and perfecting. I hope you have all enjoyed following my journey in gaming the Syrian Civil War.

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 3

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.

The Board

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.

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.

Provinces/zones and lines of communication on the new map.

The Setup

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).

The Gameplay

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.

Victory Conditions

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!

Alex Langer

* * *

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.

Aleppo. There’s a serious educational purpose to this game design–but it is worth also remembering the real death and destruction in Syria.


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.

* * *

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 

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.


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.


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.


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 

%d bloggers like this: