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The Economist: To understand war, American officials are playing board games

Tomorrow’s Economist has a short article on boardgames and strategic policy, featuring more than a few names that will be familiar to many PAXsims readers:

economistMilitary strategy

War games

To understand war, American officials are playing board games

Mar 15th 2014 | From the print edition

TWO evenings a month, four dozen defence and intelligence officials gather in an undisclosed building in Virginia. They chat informally about “what if” scenarios. For example: what if Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites? Recent chats on this topic have been fruitful for a surprising reason, says John Patch, a member of the Strategic Discussion Group, as it is called. Nearly a quarter of those who regularly attend play a board game called Persian Incursion”, which deals with the aftermath of just such an attack. For half the players, such games are part of their job.

You don’t need a security clearance to play Persian Incursion. Anyone can order it from Clash of Arms, a Pennsylvania firm that makes all kinds of games, from Epic of the Peloponnesian War to Pigs in Space. Yet playing a war game is like receiving an intelligence briefing, Mr Patch says. It forces players to grapple with myriad cascading events, revealing causal chains they might not imagine. How might local support for Iran’s regime be sapped if successful Israeli raids strengthen claims that its anti-aircraft batteries were incompetently sited? Might a photo purportedly showing Iran’s president with a prostitute help the Saudi monarchy contain anti-Jewish riots? Might those efforts be doomed if the photo were revealed as a fake?

Paul Vebber, a gameplay instructor in the navy, says that in the past decade the government has started using strategy board games much more often. They do not help predict outcomes. For that, the Pentagon has forecasting software, which it feeds with data on thousands of variables such as weather and weaponry, supply lines, training and morale. The software is pretty accurate for “tight, sterile” battles, such as those involving tanks in deserts, says an intelligence official. Board games are useful in a different way. They foster the critical but creative thinking needed to win (or avoid) a complex battle or campaign, he says.

Some games are for official use only. The Centre for Naval Analyses (CNA), a federally funded defence outfit, has created half a dozen new ones in the past two years. Most were designed by CNA analysts, but commercial designers occasionally lend a hand, as they did for Sand Wars, a game set in north-west Africa.

CNA games address trouble in all kinds of places. In Transition and Tumult, designed for the marine corps, players representing groups in Sudan and South Sudan try to whip up or quell local unrest that might lead American forces to intervene. In The Operational Wraparound, made for the army, players struggle to stoke or defeat a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Avian Influenza Exercise Tool, a game designed for the Department of Agriculture, shows health officials how not to mishandle a bird-flu epidemic.

Board games designed for the government typically begin as unclassified. Their “system”, however, becomes classified once players with security clearances begin to incorporate sensitive intelligence into it, says Peter Perla, a game expert at CNA. If an air-force player knows that, say, a secret bunker-busting bomb is now operational, he can improve the dice-roll odds that a sortie will destroy an underground weapons lab. During official gaming sessions, analysts peer over players’ shoulders and challenge their reasoning. Afterwards, they incorporate the insights gleaned into briefings for superiors.

One reason why board games are useful is that you can constantly tweak the rules to take account of new insights, says Timothy Wilkie of the National Defence University in Washington, DC. With computer games, this is much harder. Board games can also illuminate the most complex conflicts. Volko Ruhnke, a CIA analyst, has designed a series of games about counterinsurgency. For example, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? (sold by GMT Games of California) models “parallel wars of bombs and ideas”, as one reviewer puts it, on a board depicting much of Eurasia and Africa.

Even training for combat itself can be helped with dice and cards. Harpoon, a game about naval warfare, has proved so accurate in the past that hundreds of Pentagon officials will play it when the next version comes out in a couple of years, says Mr Patch. One of its designers, Chris Carlson, is also responsible for the “kinetic” aspects of Persian Incursion (ie, the bits that involve shooting). Mr Carlson is a former Defence Intelligence Agency analyst; Persian Incursion’s data on the nuts and bolts of assembling and commanding bomber, escort, and refuelling aircraft “strike packages” for destroying Iran’s nuclear sites is so precise that on at least two occasions intelligence officials have suggested that he is breaking the law by publishing it.

Volko Ruhnke profile in Washington Post

Well, here’s a first (so far as I know)—a commercial wargame designer treated to a full-length profile article in the Washington Post:

In the world of war games, Volko Ruhnke has become a hero

War game designer Volko Ruhnke plays the board game Angola at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pa., in August.War game designer Volko Ruhnke plays the board game Angola at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pa., in August. (Al Tielemans/For The Washington Post)

WRITTEN BY Jason Albert

FRIDAY, JANUARY 10,11:20 AM

At the last stop on a wooded cul-de-sac 15 miles outside of Washington, four middle-age men huddle around a table to decide the fate of Afghanistan. A map is spread before them. Colored wooden cubes and discs denote military installations, troops and insurgents. A subtle movement — pieces slid from Nuristan province to Kabul — is met with tensed shoulders and exhaled expletives. In the north, the Warlords prep an opium harvest while threatening a terrorist attack. Elsewhere, everywhere, the Taliban is filthy with car bombs, roadside IEDs and suicide bombers.

The fifth man in the room, a CIA national security analyst named Volko Ruhnke, called us here. The palpable discomfort among us brings him joy. It means he has done his job.

When not ensconced at HQ in Langley, Ruhnke, 51, designs commercial wargames. He has invited us to his home in Vienna to playtest his most recent, A Distant Plain. Along with Cuba Libre, they’ll be his fourth and fifth published board games, and the latest in his series simulating insurgencies throughout history: Colombia, Afghanistan and Cuba, with Vietnam, Ireland and the Philippines to follow.

“Jason, you’re letting our country go to s—,” comes a voice from my left, a Virginia drawl. One of my rivals, a 20-year Marine, now retired, and veteran of three Afghanistan deployments, is manning the Afghan government. He’s peeved because I, as the Coalition, am unconcerned with the Warlord threat. He’s right: I don’t care. I find his policies equally irksome, as he spent all of our shared aid securing popular support — support I know he’ll soon undo and dole out as political patronage.

In the game as in real life, the Afghan government and Coalition are ostensibly allies. And in the game as in real life, “ally” has loose meaning. I ignore him and drag his troops to the south to make a move against the Taliban. He scowls as Ruhnke beams. Ruhnke wants us to undermine each other. This is how he designed the game. This is how we learn.

Ruhnke is obviously enjoying his roles as party host, rules expert and teacher. He leans in. He speaks only when needed or pressed, and his explanations arrive with cheerful excitement but also a hint of gravitas, like that of a father patiently conveying hard facts to his children.

“So you’re telling me terror is always effective for the Taliban?” the Afghanistan vet squawks. “It shouldn’t always work; it has to have the possibility to backfire.”

Ruhnke answers without hesitation: “It always works. But remember, I’m not going for a high-fidelity model of district-level counterinsurgency operations.” He adjusts his frameless glasses. “That particular instance of terror is what happened in Nuristan over months of time … I’m most concerned about delivering the inter-factional pressures and politics.”

Later, when I need the long-gone aid money, I fire back at the vet. “What are you doing over there, Karzai? Remember, this is our cash. Share.”

Ruhnke jumps in again, building bridges. “Tell Jason it’s not corruption. It’s just your traditional way of running things. You have to live here; he’ll eventually leave.” The Taliban leader across the table makes no attempt to stifle a giggle as he reaches for pretzels.

Ruhnke thinks of a day, however remote, when his games might sit on store shelves next to the classics. He sees people just like us having epiphanies through gamed agitation, quick bonds such as ours forged within an intense, inhabitable narrative. But mostly his goal is as unique as it is stark: to educate by providing tabletop insurgencies for any board gamer who would like one.

Although wargames always have been a niche within the board gaming market, there was a time when they held a level of pop culture legitimacy. According to James Dunnigan in “Wargames Handbook” — Dunnigan being one of wargaming’s founding fathers at the now-defunct Simulations Publications Inc. — more than 2 million were sold in 1980.

Wargamers have nearly as many definitions for what qualifies as a wargame as there are conflicts throughout history to simulate. Some say highly abstracted games such as chess fit; others include big sellers such as Axis & Allies and Risk. But, on the whole, hobby wargames are the literary fiction of the gaming universe: dense and respected but often existing in the margins.

Between the release of what most consider the first commercial wargame in 1954, Tactics, and the hobby’s high-water mark in early ’80s, wargames became increasingly complex, often packaged with byzantine rule books and playtimes measured in days, not hours. Fewer than 20 years after the peak, both of the largest wargame publishers ceased to exist for factors including business missteps and the rise of electronic and computer gaming. But there’s been a renaissance, in large part because of the Internet’s ability to facilitate global democratic conversations among like-minded wargame zealots.

Beginning as a 10-year-old more than three decades ago, I spent innumerable hours hunched over wargames playing commander. My parents didn’t understand. My friends who saw the sun regularly didn’t either. But I wasn’t alone. Even though I left wargaming behind, I never forgot the games’ ability to evoke a sense of time, place and history. After stumbling on them again a few years ago, I found a rabid subculture both familiar and unknown. There were hundreds of new games holding echoes of the era I’d cut my teeth on, but with new mechanics and streamlined gameplay that created stories more nuanced than I’d ever experienced.

Ruhnke’s games stood out. He was tackling recent and still-raging conflicts, such as the amorphous war against terrorism in his game Labyrinth. It seemed as if he was attempting to span the divide between the kitchen-table gamer and the grizzled hard cases from wargaming’s first golden age….

It is an excellent piece, both on the designer and the modern evolution of the hobby. You’ll find PAXsims reviews of some of Volko’s games here, here, here, and here.

Review: Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre. GMT Games, 2013. Game designers: Jeff Grossman and Volko Ruhnke. $69.00.

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Recently there was yet another insurgency in the office, as a group of us got together to refight the Cuban revolution—but with rather less violence, and better pizza, than the real thing. Cuba Libre is another title in the GMT Games series which has also given us Andean Abyss (Colombia) and A Distant Plain (Afghanistan). All games in the series use the same basic game system, but with modifications to adapt each to the era and struggle being represented.

In the case of Cuba Libre, up to four players are involved: the Cuban government, the leftist July 26 Movement revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, the anti-communist Revolutionary Directorate, and the criminal syndicate. The map is significantly smaller than others in the COIN series. Moreover, the geography of Cuba means that essentially all strategic movement is along an east-west axis, with most provinces bordering only two others. By contrast, in  Andean Abyss or A Distant Plain, most provinces border at least four, and players usually have myriad movement options. The effect of this is to render the geography of insurgency and counterinsurgency far more important in Cuba Libre, where players may seek to develop blocking positions to slow the expansion of rivals. Somewhat against my initial expectation, I soon found that I rather enjoyed this aspect of the game.

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In general, pretty much all of the positive things we’ve said about other games in this series apply to Cuba Libre. One of our playtest group (who, as the communist opposition, eventually won the game) commented:

It was interesting to watch how lower numbers of possible guerrillas and bases changed strategies and how the geography really affected game play. It was challenging but to try to work with limited reinforcements and attempt to find a feasible way to increase government opposition without additional bases (for my victory condition). Without a speedy way to move my guerillas to opposite sides of the island, I found myself trapped deep in the mountains and unable to reinforce my western front. As a result, we struggled to spread the virtues of communism in many areas. In the end, we often had to quickly give the local population a terrifying reminder of the dangers of capitalism before we were attacked. The cards were great and especially painted a vivid picture of the terrible Batista government and their inability to keep our race car drivers safe! Each time we have played the COIN series, I am struck by how well the mechanics work. Despite a misunderstanding regarding how one card worked, the faction order system, ended up preventing me from dominating the game.… In the end however, the immortal words rang true. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!”

 

Review: A Distant Plain

A Distant Plain: Insurgency in Afghanistan. GMT Games, 2013. Game designers: Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke. $78.00.

416Earlier this year PAXsims reviewed Andean Abyss (2012), a game of Colombian insurgency and counterinsurgency—and we liked it very much. Two other games using the same general  system have since been since been published as part GMT Games’ COIN series: Cuba Libre (the Cuban revolution), and A Distant Plain (insurgency and counterinsurgency in contemporary Afghanistan). A fourth game, Fire in the Lake (the Vietnam War), is currently in development.

A Distant Plain was codesigned by Volko Ruhnke (architect of the COIN series, and designer of the Charles S. Roberts Award-winning games Andean Abyss and Labyrinth) and Brian Train (well-known among both hobbyists and professional wargamers for his counterinsurgency games, notably Algeria). Expectations were thus high. Our expert playtest group at McGill University included an academic who works on fragile and conflicted-affected countries (me), a professional game designer who works on simulations for anti-corruption and financial intelligence analysts (Tom), and three graduate students (June, Alejandra, and Sean) interested in complex humanitarian operations, war crimes, insurgency/counterinsurgency, and related issues.

As you’ll see below, we certainly weren’t disappointed. A Distant Plain is a highly enjoyable and engaging game that gives a real sense of the strategic challenges and trade-offs of the Afghan conflict.

Playing the Game

As noted above, the core game system in A Distant Plain is similar to that of its predecessors. Once again there are up to four players, in this case the Afghan Government, the Coalition, the Taliban, and the Warlords. Extensive rules for 1-, 2- and 3- player versions are also included. Each turn, players can choose to either play event cards or undertake one of a series of possible operations, with the sequencing of initiative determined both by the event card and by who acted in the previous turn. Most of the primary operations are similar to Andean Abyss: counterinsurgents can train, patrol, sweep, or assault, while the insurgents can rally, march, attack, or terrorize. Some of the special activities allowed to each faction have been customized to the Afghan setting, however. The Coalition may thus “surge” its troops in or out of the country, the Government may “govern” (or misgovern, since this often involves converting aid into patronage), the Taliban may “infiltrate” and subvert non-Coalition forces, and the Warlords may “suborn” enemy units, using resources to buy off government or Taliban troops.

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Indeed, despite a similar core game system, A Distant Plain should not be seen as Andean Abyss in the Hindu Kush—it plays and feels rather different. Perhaps most notable of all is the subtle relationship between the Afghan government and the Coalition. Neither side can win without considerable help from the other, but in the end only one player can win. Neither side can attack the other. Their interests and victory conditions overlap but differ: while the government cares about establishing patronage and bringing the country under COIN (Government + Coalition) control, the Coalition is, in a reflection of population-centric COIN doctrine, more anxious to establish positive legitimacy (“support”) for the Afghan political system, avoid casualties, and eventually go home. The Coalition has unlimited resources, but joint operations draw upon the scarce resources of the Afghan player, who can quickly grow resentful at the having his/her priorities determined by a bunch of foreigners.

For the Taliban, on the other hand, Pakistan looms large in their strategic calculations. Its stance is determined both by player actions (such as Coalition drone strikes) and the play of event cards. When supportive, the Taliban are able to use Pakistani border areas as a sanctuary in which to build up and move their forces.

Game play is also very  shaped by the quite different, Afghanistan-specific event cards, and the options they present. The COIN game system creates both interesting trade-offs (do I conduct operations, or invest time and resources in building longer-term capabilities?) and it tends to generate an interesting sort of path dependency, whereby acquiring a capability often leads a player to reshape their strategy to make best use of it—a point I’ll return to later.

The game now includes an optional  “deception” rule whereby players start the game with hidden assets, possibly augmenting their actions or scores. I strongly recommend using this, since it makes it much more difficult to know exactly what a player might do next turn, or exactly how close each is to winning.

In our game, Alejandra and I jointly played the Coalition. Our strategy looked much like that of the US since 2001: initially we tried to maintain a light footprint, but when this failed we undertook a major surge of troops in the hopes of shifting the momentum of the war against the Taliban. While our cooperation with the government was good at first, relations soon frayed as they grew to resent our heavy-handed tendency to expect them to meekly follow our campaign and state-building plans. For much of the game (and unlike real life) we had the Taliban struggling under pressure, and we also managed to avoid any significant casualties. However, this came at the cost of letting the Warlords establish militias and criminal networks in much of the country. Ultimately they would narrowly win the game.

Player Reactions

In keeping with the importance of patronage in A Distant Plain, in this playtest I used my control over the supply of Angela’s pizza to force the other players to agree to send in some post-game thoughts for inclusion in this review.

The Afghan Government (Tom) confirmed the problematic nature of its relations with the Coalition:

I was afforded the opportunity to represent the Afghan government in A Distant Plain.  Following my first, utterly enjoyable, GMT COIN experience with Andean Abyss, I was very eager for this game.  It did not disappoint. The game mechanics, much like Andean Abyss, are smooth and simple to understand, but very complex in their effect.

As the government I quite quickly discovered I was tied too closely to the Coalition forces.  I wanted to accrue patronage  and bring the Afghan population under control—whether they supported the government or not.  This differed from the Coalition somewhat, in that they wanted enough government support that there was no longer any need for Coalition forces to remain in Afghanistan.  While these goals are parallel, government  patronage often comes at the cost of legitimacy and good governance.  The Coalition could also determine much of my spending.  While coalition forces are extremely effective at eliminating insurgents, my own ability to attract more aid was partly dependent on doing it by myself. However, my initial strategy of single-handedly assaulting Taliban bases to increase aid was thrown out the window when the Coalition decided it was their solemn duty to eliminate the Taliban with drones.  So I had to play along, and try to build up police strength in outlying provinces to eradicate Warlord bases which, unfortunately for the Coalition, eroded support while providing me with a small boost in aid. Eventually I also started to redeploying (or withholding) my police in such a way as to limit the Coalition’s ability to use “civic action” to build support. This led, of course, to some very interesting negotiations when the Coalition realized what I was doing. If this game set out to illustrate the frustrations and complications of the Afghan government – Coalition alliance, it certainly succeeded!

The government was further hindered by the warlords’ ability to suborn troops and police and the Taliban’s ability to infiltrate (and hence “turn” government units).

The game also captures, in exceptional fashion, the consequences of certain actions or events on the course of the conflict through the event cards.  The cards provide such a fluid, unpredictable dynamic that necessitate rethinking one’s plan.

The Taliban player (June) commented:

I had enjoyed the game mechanics present in Andean Abyss and was especially excited to see them applied in a historical and geographical context that I was more familiar with. A Distant Plain absolutely did not disappoint. All of my favorite aspects from Andean Abyss were present in the new installment along with some new dynamics that arose as a consequence of the actors involved.

During our game of A Distant Plain, I played the Taliban. Immediately, it was clear from the victory conditions that I would need not only to build popular support in provinces with significant populations, but I would also have to get some insurgent bases on the board. Unfortunately, for a great deal of the first quarter of the game, I had to spend my turns “burying” event cards to keep them away from the Coalition. Nevertheless the Coalition soon obtained the Predator drones card, and their inclination to use them led me to spend my available ops rallying in my safe havens across the border in Pakistan instead of marching or rallying a small numbers of guerrillas into a province. I feared that spreading my forces out wouldn’t have much strategic purpose if they would be met with barrage of Hellfire missiles.  The Coalition also snagged several other capabilities over the course of the game, some of them directly limited my actions while others changed how I thought I should play. In the end, I had a huge insurgent build-up in Pakistan but hadn’t managed to do enough terror in populated areas.

One of the most interesting aspects of this series of games is the depiction, through the event cards, of actual historical events. These certainly appeal to history buffs and political science geeks. Many of the events depicted were major junctures in the conflict and the real effects of these changes can demonstrated in the game as well. For me, maintaining my relationship with Pakistan was critical to my ability to rally guerrillas without a high resource cost. Cards like “US-Pakistan talks” thus had the potential to help or hurt the Taliban a great deal.

The only aspect that we did not utilize to its full extent were the Lines of Communication. Although the Government, Taliban, and Warlords could all benefit from using or sabotaging them, it wasn’t clear to us initially how important they could be. I think the next time I play A Distant Plain I will have to be more aware how LoCs affect gameplay. Certainly the Taliban could have interdicted government movement and resources to a much greater extent through sabotage.

Overall, A Distant Plain managed to be fun for everyone while simulating the power dynamics and strategies of the different parties involved in the war in Afghanistan. I think it is a strong installment to the series and a great contribution to the genre of modern warfare board games.

Finally, the Warlords (Sean) enjoyed themselves too, and not just because they won:

I had a great time with A Distant Plain and am glad the game mechanics and card system are being employed in multiple settings. Having studied and lived in Colombia, I had really enjoyed Andean AbyssA Distant Plain really effectively translated that game system into the Afghani context. As the Warlords, it was fascinating to try to contest control of provinces without garnering too much attention from the other players. I initially pushed too hard by building many bases, but quickly learned I had to be more subtle. The game’s balance worked really well. It successfully demonstrated the complexity and difficulty of successful coordination between the Afghani Government and Coalition in the face of constant pressure from the insurgents. Once I discovered the power of the “suborn” special activity, I became a much more effective threat. It allowed me to buy off the opposition in order to relieve military pressure or remove an opponent’s control in a province. It ended up being vital in stopping a wave of government forces from attacking my Northern strongholds. I also thought the cards worked well in terms of pushing strategy in certain directions (e.g. Predator or Reaper drones) while not being overpowered. Overall, I really enjoyed the game and it was great to see firsthand the power-dynamics in that context. I am looking forward to playing Cuba Libre sometime soon.

Final Thoughts

There are a number of minor quibbles I could raise about A Distant Plain. Although I was pleased to see patronage built into the game,  I’m not entirely sure the system fully captures its complex effects. I might have designed the operations and special activities slightly different. It might also be interesting to tweak the win conditions in many of the COIN series games to allow narrow conditions under which two players might win.

These, however, are rather trivial objections, and are really testimony to the degree of interest the game generates than criticisms of how it plays. Let’s face it, this game is fun. I have no idea what play time for the COIN series is supposed to be, but our games (pizza included) easily go on for six hours or more—largely because of the political banter and negotiation the game generates. In the playtest, for example, we Coalition players developed the annoying habit (annoying to the insurgents that is—not to us) of making constant droning noises during periods of critical insurgent decision-making just to remind them of the death circling above. The Taliban seemed to get genuinely Talibanesque in its growing hatred for the foreign presence in Afghanistan (the drone noises didn’t help win any hearts and minds either), and both the Afghan Government and Warlords were even more duplicitous and cunning than usual.

As I noted with Andean Abyss, this isn’t a game well-suited to classroom use, in part because of the length of game play. However it could be used as a facilitated optional activity.

reapersAt the end of the game, I think two things most stood out. One was the difficulty of maintaining a consistent strategy in a dynamic, multi-actor environment. No matter how much one tried to plan several turns out, things would simply happen that altered your calculations. When they did, one was forced with an often difficult decision whether it would be better to stay the course (despite changed circumstances), or revise one’s approach (thereby having possibly wasted a turn or two of preparation). This is a useful antidote to those who see political-military strategy, whether in wargames or real wars, as something akin to a cake recipe. It is far more uncertain than that, at times as much Kenny Rogers as Clausewitz.

The second real take-away from the game was the path-dependency noted earlier, and the ways in which capabilities influenced strategy and tactics. Both of the insurgent players clearly feared the Coalition’s growing ability to use drones and airstrikes, a capability into which we had invested considerable effort through acquiring the relevant event cards. However, in retrospect, I am painfully aware of the ways in which our low-risk counter-insurgency-by-remote-control tactics came at the expense of other actions. We had been slow to push a Coalition presence out into the countryside. We had been slow to train the Afghan military. We had depended too much, perhaps, on UAVs in the sky rather than boots on the ground. We had done too much on behalf of our allies, instead of building their capacity to do more themselves. Cognitively, we had somewhat fallen prey to the “law of the tool”: “if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”— or, in this remotely-piloted case, “if you have a Reaper, every problem looks like a target”. True, we had done well in the game—had we been able to pull our troops out quickly, we might have even won. But could we have done even better if we had been less seduced by new gadgets?

I suppose answering that question will have to await our next game of A Distant Plain.

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Want this review in Russian? Here’s a translation, courtesy of StairsGames.

Review: Andean Abyss

Andean Abyss: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Colombia. GMT Games, 2012. Game designer: Volko Ruhnke. $75.00.

pic1381149_mdAndean Abyss was released last year to much acclaim, and indeed is currently ranked as one of the top forty wargames of all time by members of BoardGameGeek. I recently played a game with a group that included three political science graduate students, one of whom is Colombian, another of whom taught in Colombia on a Fulbright Fellowship, and all of whom specialize in the study of intra-state conflict. Joining us was a professional game designer who develops simulations on money laundering, terrorism, and corruption for financial intelligence and anti-corruption agencies. It was as tough a bunch of critics as I could possibly assemble, given the topic.

The bottom-line verdict up front: everyone loved it. But before we get to that, let’s first look at the game design, and then move on to explore its possible use in an educational setting.

Game Contents and Play

Andean Abyss is a four player game of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Colombia, in which players assume the role of the government, the leftist guerillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), right-wing paramilitaries of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), or the drug cartels. The game can also be played with less than four, and even has a fully-developed solitaire version. In our case there were actually five of us, with two forming a sort of collective revolutionary leadership of the FARC. Since much of the game revolves around plotting, fleeting alliances, and political expediency, the more the merrier.

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The game includes a 22″ x 34″ mounted game board, 170 wooden markers, a set of cardboard markers, a deck of 76 cards, player aids, and dice. You can find the rules online at the GMT website, and videos describing game play can be found both there and at BoardGameGeek.

The cards are the central mechanism of the game (see below). Each may be played for its event (which often comes in two versions, either helping or harming a player), or to enable an operation to be played. Each card has a symbol for each of the four players across the top. The first player indicated gets to decide first whether they will play the card for its event value, perform an operation (or operations), or pass. Up to two players can act on a given card, and if a player acts in one turn they usually lose their ability to act on the next card. Since two cards are face-up at any one time (the current card, and the next card), it is vital to plan ahead. You won’t win this war by making it up as you go along.

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Each actor has a slightly different mix of actions they can perform. The government may train forces, patrol, conduct sweep operations, or undertake assaults against previously-identified guerrilla units. The various non-state actors can rally support, march, attack, or terrorize. Each actor also has special activities that they might be able to conduct as well: air lift operations, airstrikes, or drug eradication in the case of the government, and ambush, extortion, kidnapping, assassination, drug cultivation, and drug processing depending on the particular insurgent. One can quibble about the way some of these choices are structured. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the logic of separating the government’s “sweep” operation (which identifies underground insurgents but doesn’t eliminate them) from the “assault” operation (which kills them), since in practice both things generally occur together. Political hearts-and-minds activity by the government (“civic action”) occurs in conjunction with the “train” operation, while it might have been better separated out as a separate operation type. While the FARC can use “terror” to mobilize opposition to the government, it has fewer opportunities to build support through the more positive “agitation” (equivalent to the government’s civic action). However, these quibbles are minor. Overall, the game system works very well.

Operations generally cost resources, so players also need to pay attention to their financing. The government must keep the major highways and oil pipelines free from sabotage, or their income will drop. They may also benefit from US and other aid—especially if they seek to eradicate drug cultivation. The insurgents can variously generate resources from extortion, kidnapping, and drugs.

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Pinky-promising with a drug lord. Not that either of us trusted the other in the slightest!

The victory conditions for each player are very different. The government and FARC each need to maximize their degree of popular support. The AUC needs to weaken the FARC. The cartels need to establish bases and earn money. While the players can wheel and deal as much as they want (and trade resources and drug shipments as they do), in the end only one player wins. The game is scored and reset, government troops return to cities and bases, and a new Colombian administration with slightly different policies might be elected, each time a “propaganda” card comes up in the deck. At this point, a player can win. Otherwise,  the game is ends when the last propaganda card comes up, and the player closest to their victory conditions wins. The cartels might have something of an advantage if the game goes this long—after all, they benefit from keeping the country in chaos.

In our game, the FARC spurned an early deal with the drug cartels, which cost them heavily. Every other player was briefly in a winning position at some point. In the latter part of the game, the government and drug cartel agreed not to target each other, allowing the former to concentrate efforts on regaining control of, and political support in, former FARC-held areas while the latter grew rich on drug proceeds. They planned to double-cross each other, of course–but the final propaganda card came up before the drug lords could be cut down to size, and they ultimately won the game.

Instructional Potential

Our playtest group ran the gamut from a boardgaming neophyte to those with considerable experience. I, however, was the only one who had played Andean Abyss before. Everyone picked it up quickly. The game lasted closer to six hours than the four suggested on the box, although that was in part a function of new players, a two-person team, and the obligatory break for Angela’s pizza. The rules are clearly written, and the playbook does a very good job of walking a player through a few sample turns, summarizing player capabilities and priorities, and explaining the design choices made in the game, That being said, I don’t think this is a game that non-gamer students could simply be told to play as a course assignment. Instead, one would need to either directly facilitate games (which is difficult in all but the smallest classes), use a “train-the-trainer” strategy of recruiting students to help other students play the game, or make it an optional assignment or project for the most highly motivated. Game time is obviously too long for in-classroom use. One could, however, have a single ongoing game through a multiweek course, with multi-student teams representing each actor, and a few moves each day.

The key question, however, is not how easily game play can be adapted to the instructional constraints of audience and available time, but whether the game actually offers useful insight into modern Colombian political history, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and similar topics. Here I think that it is a little less self-explanatory than a previous Volko Ruhnke-designed game, Labyrinth, which focused on the post-9/11 “global war on terror.” Most audiences—outside Colombia, at least—would be unfamiliar with many of the events summarized on the event cards, whether it be “limpieza social” (“social cleansing”) killings, the assassination of special prosecutors María del Rosario Silva Ríos and Carlos Arturo Pinto Bohórquez, or Policía Nacional chief General Rosso José Serrano Caden. I also found that the very clever card mechanism—which I liked a lot—drew so much attention that the insurgency itself was a little overshadowed at times. For that reason, this is a game that would require a lot of briefing and debriefing in an educational setting.

It should be noted that, during our playtest, none of the players had any objection to the general depiction of the Colombian conflict. On the contrary, my money laundering expert was pleased to find he could use narco subs and cross-border drug-processing labs, while the players with the most expertise on Colombia were impressed at the appearance of historical events (“We get FARC zones? Cool!”), even if—as with most card-based games—not all events occurred in historical order or with similar effect.

Concluding Thoughts

Andean Abyss wasn’t designed as an instructional tool to explore counterinsurgency, but rather as a boardgame for conflict simulation hobbyists. As a game, it rocks. It is well-balanced, enjoyable, and features a very elegant card-based system at its heart. The replay value is high too, since the card system guarantees that each game is quite different. I strongly recommend it. Indeed, it is probably my favourite insurgency-themed boardgame of all time, with the possible exception of Freedom in the Galaxy (SPI, 1979).

SPQRWallp-FORUM(RBM)ssThe design is also the first of several in what GMT Games bills as its “COIN Series.” A Distant Plain (an Afghanistan conflict simulation codesigned by PAXsims contributor Brian Train) is currently in production and will be shipping soon, as is Cuba Libre (a game of the 1957-58 Cuban revolution, codesigned by Jeff Grossman). A fourth game in the series focusing on the Vietnam war, Fire in the Lake, is currently in development, codesigned by Mark Herman.

* * *

Update—The Quick Play Version

Volko Rohnke has kindly passed on the quick play scenario for Andean Abyss, previously published in C3I Magazine #26 (2012).

Quick-Play Scenario

by Volko Ruhnke

This setup allows for completion of a game of Andean Abyss in less than half the usual time and is well suited to introduce new players to the COIN Series system. It depicts, roughly, the Pastrana and early Uribe eras, the middle portion of the period of Colombian history covered in the full game.

Deck Preparation: Shuffle the 72 Event cards and deal face down 4 piles of 6 cards each (24 Event cards total). Set the rest aside—they may not be inspected and will not be used. Shuffle a Propaganda card each into the 2nd and 4th piles, then stack the piles into a draw deck, 1st pile on top, 4th pile on the bottom. The remaining 2 Propaganda cards are not used.

Game Board: Set up forces and markers per rule 2.1 (see Rules of Play page 14 and the images on the map). Then modify the set up as follows—

  • Medellín: Add 4 Cartels Guerrillas and 1 Cartels Base.
  • Cali: Place Active Support. Remove the Cartels Guerrilla and Base. Add 4 Police.
  • Bogotá: Add 6 Troops.
  • Santander-Boyacá: Add 1 AUC Base.
  • Arauca-Casanare: Remove Opposition (the space starts Neutral). Add 1 AUC Guerrilla.
  • Meta West: Place a FARC Zone. Add 4 FARC Guerrillas.
  • Huila-Tolima: Place Active Opposition. Add 3 FARC Guerrillas, 2 AUC Guerrillas, and 1 Cartels Base.
  • Vaupés: Add 2 FARC Guerrillas.
  • Edge Track: Adjust Resources to AUC 5, FARC 10, Cartels 20, Government 30; Opposition+Bases to 22; and Total Support to 56. (Leave Aid at 9.)
  • El Presidente: Advance to Pastrana.
  • Propaganda: Skip the Victory Phase (6.1) of the first Propaganda Round—Factions cannot win until the second (last) Propaganda card.

Flip the first card and have at it! Be aware that, with far less time for development of board position than in the full game, different strategies may be needed! – vfr 

simulations miscellany, 19 February 2013

miscellany

Some recent items of possible interest to PAXsims readers:

dicedivider

 

Tom Grant interviews wargame designer Volko Ruhnke in the latest instalment of his I’ve been Diced podcast. Much of the discussion focusses on game modelling of insurgency and counterinsurgency, an issue that sustained a lively discussion when the the game Labyrinth first came out. Volko teaches intelligence analysis and Tom wrote his PhD thesis on counter-insurgency, so it is a particularly well-informed discussion.

dicedivider

According to Defense News, a proposed training simulation for US military chaplains may provoke a lawsuit:

A U.S. Army computer game to train military chaplains may bring down judicial rather than divine intervention. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is vowing to stop the project, including possibly filing a lawsuit in federal court.

The simulation, tentatively named “Spiritual Triage,” is being created for the Army’s Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C., — but the school doesn’t want it.

“The school still hasn’t made any requests for the simulation, nor does it intend to at this point,” said spokeswoman Julia Simpkins.

Spiritual Triage is just beginning development at the Army’s Simulation and Training Technology Center (STTC), which awarded the contract to Orlando-based Engineering and Computer Simulations. Scheduled to be completed by September, Spiritual Triage is intended to expose chaplains and chaplain assistants to stressful situations such as ministering to dying soldiers.

“Non-player characters are used to elicit feelings and conditions that one may encounter, such as fear of death and dying, faith, guilt, separation, despair, grief, as well as physical trauma such as pain, burns, amputations, and disfigurement, to name only a few,” according to the ECS Web site.

Bill Pike, STTC’s science and technology manager for medical simulation research, said the idea came from various chaplains at the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), which oversees STTC. The chaplains saw an existing ECS computer game called “vMedic” (formerly known as “Tactical Combat Casualty Care”), which trains Army combat medics, and told Pike that a game like that would be useful for training chaplains during mass casualty exercises….

dicedividerAlso in Defense News is a story on how “the Pentagon’s mandatory human trafficking course will be a testbed for an experimental virtual world.”

The Combating Traffic in Persons course was chosen first because it is high-volume: all Department of Defense military and civilian personnel must take the training, which takes about an hour to complete. There were 36,000 course completions last year.

The virtual world test will be conducted in the spring, before final evaluation by the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness. Users will take the normal CTIP course online, but when they come to the last of the eight training modules they will be unknowingly and seamlessly transferred to a virtual world.

CTIP is a mixture of multiple-choice questions, audio, and Flash video, including “some pretty graphic pictures” of what happens to women and children who are victims of human trafficking, Vozzo said. It is designed to acquaint users with Department of Defense regulations and policy regarding human trafficking. While the basic content of the course won’t change, how it is delivered and how the student will access it will be.

“It will be very similar to a MMO [massive multiplayer online] construct,” Vozzo said. “The virtual world does consist of an avatar that the student can maneuver to interact with various scenarios.”

“We are testing the hypothesis that a virtual world framework may be less expensive, may be more efficient, easier to develop and easier to sustain in the long run,” Vozzo said.

dicedivider

Earlier this month at Reddit, the question was asked “how have video games changed new [military] recruits?

COIN in Afghanistan: A Distant Plain

Dudes, this is a major happening! For those interested in wargaming insurgency and counterinsurgency, the coming together of game designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train to produce a new board game on contemporary Afghanistan is great news—something akin to the Rolling Stones and Green Day touring together. Many thanks to Brian for providing the information below—we’ve already volunteered to help with the play-testing!

* * *

Now it can be told: Volko Ruhnke, designer of Andean Abyss, Labyrinth – The War on Terror, and Wilderness War, has teamed up with Brian Train, perpetrator of numerous designs on irregular warfare, to produce what could be the Grail of modern COIN games: a workable design on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

The game is called “A Distant Plain – Insurgency in Afghanistan” and it comprises another entry in the COIN series of games by GMT Games, following the just-released Andean Abyss and Cuba Libre! (still in
playtesting). The basic system draws heavily from Andean Abyss, but features some important differences due to the changed dynamics of the situation: there are four player factions, but they actually form two pairs of antagonists, each in a very uneasy alliance of alternating convenience and necessity. With each turn cards are drawn from a deck of 72, forcing difficult decisions among shaping the larger
battlefield, exploiting short-term opportunities and pursuing local operations.

Just as in the actual conflict, the four player factions have dissimilar abilities, vulnerabilities and war aims. They include:

  • The Coalition – representing the Western interventionist forces of NATO. Their troops are highly capable and mobile, but few in number and their sponsoring governments are sensitive to casualties. The Coalition forces cannot do all the fighting; the Afghan government’s security forces must be trained to assume ever-increasing degrees of responsibility in order to keep the country stable once they leave. Meanwhile, how to build popular support for a central government that often seems more interested in enriching its patrons and friends?
  • The Government – Acutely aware of its own limitations, both in force capability and legitimacy, the Government must try to stabilize itself and extend its power outward from Kabul – the Taliban insurgency is only one of an impressive array of obstacles blocking its progress. The Government is simultaneously dependent on and frustrated by the  actions of the Coalition, which means well but has no understanding of how things need to be done in Afghanistan.
  • The Taliban – driven into its sanctuaries in Pakistan in 2002, the insurgency began to build and make inroads on Afghan society. The Taliban brought stability, order and righteousness to Afghanistan once; they can do it again.They have numerous tactical advantages, but their main task of solidifying opposition to the government while establishing a “shadow government” throughout the country is a difficult one.
  • The Warlords – this faction represents the many and varied tribal powers, local authorities, and criminal gangs in Afghanistan. As such, they represent the traditional atomized political structure of Afghanistan and their objective is to resist the efforts of the other three factions to bring the population under their respective centralizing authorities, all while securing wealth and power for themselves.

Features of the game include:

  • the difficult nature of joint Coalition-Government operations
  •  Pakistan’s variable position towards support of the Taliban
  • evolution of both side’s tactics and technology through “capabilities” cards
  • multiple scenarios to depict different phases of the conflict
  • graft, desertion, foreign aid, Coalition casualties, returning
  • refugees, drug trafficking and eradication, highway robbery, drone
  • strikes, bribery
  • and many more!

Finally, the game will feature a set of flow charts to handle the operations of the various factions, so the game is equally playable by one, two, three or four players.

The game has entered playtesting – the above shot was taken at the recent Consimworld Expo in Tempe AZ – and this will continue throughout 2012 as pre-orders accumulate (hopefully quickly) towards the magic P500 point. If all goes well, the game could come out well in advance of NATO’s final withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.

* * *

UPDATE: Frankly, it is spooky how fast Rodger MacGowan/GMT Games/C3i News turns these things into graphics…

UPDATE 2: A Distant Plain is now available for preorder on the GMT Games P500 list. Click the image below.

 

UPDATE: The game has now been published–see the PAXsims review here.

One step closer to the Abyss…

Well, here’s good news: GMT is now charging pre-orders of its forthcoming boardgame of insurgency/counter-insurgency in Colombia, Andean Abyss:

Dear Rex Brynen,

We’re writing to let you know that game Andean Abyss is one step closer to being completed and shipped out to you! Please note that today we charged your card for your order of 1 copies for a total of $65.00. As with all P500 games, this charge is made when the game in in our final printing process, so it won’t be long now until the process is complete and we can ship your game.

We will update the completion and ship dates for Andean Abyss on our website, www.gmtgames.com, so please check there regularly if you want status updates. We hope you are as excited as we are to receive the finished product!

Thank you,

GMT Games

This is certainly the most anticipated COIN game of the year. Based on both game designer Volko Ruhnke’s past work in this area (Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?) and having played a pre-production version, I predict that Andean Abyss is going to be another success for GMT—and perhaps even another Charles S. Roberts Award winner.

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