Back and Forth on Kandahar

My last post about the cancellation of Kandahar and Green Beret started a bit of conversation in the comments section with Tom Grant, aka Kingdaddy8, someone with whom I’ve discussed matters COINy before, at great length. ( I thought I would post some of the comments and replies here, else it might get buried.

(Also not least because WordPress has this annoying feature where if your reply exceeds the size of the small window allotted for it, the image of what you’ve typed keeps flicking back to the centre of your message, making review and revision of what you’ve typed before you hit “Post” quite difficult. I suppose this is some subtle reinforcement about how we should restrict our thoughts to six lines or less.)

  • brtrain says: (In reply to a comment by Mike Dale)
    • Thanks for your support Mike – I fear what I am running up against is that the closer I try to get to the essence of population-centric COIN, the more boring, slow and non-linear it becomes to your more impatient and shall we say “kinetically inclined” gamer. I read a very good blog post about this the other day, on why there are almost no video games about COIN:

      • kingdaddy8 says:

        And yet people will spend hours playing a game about the gradual construction of railroads, or the incremental gains in trading goods across the Mediterranean…I’m not sure that you need to make the game more kinetic to make it interesting. Andean Abyss, for instance, is a slow, non-linear game, but it’s anything but boring. (As I expect A Distant Plain to be, too.) You have a lot of important short-term decisions (do I pass, which action do I take, where do I build a base, etc.), plus the color commentary that the cards provide.

        You also have a legitimate fear that, if you’re not careful, someone else might win abruptly, even if you see only a long slog ahead for yourself. The other players probably feel the same way, but they’re also worried that you might blitz your way suddenly. I finally got to play Angola, and I feel the same way about that game. It’s going to take a long time to finish, but the action in a single turn is pretty fierce. Even the more static parts of the map were interesting for me, since they provoked me into thinking how to break the stasis.

        So, I don’t think that COIN games must be boring and slow…Or at least, feel that way. Maybe at the grand strategic plane, they always will be. But at the tactical and operational levels, it could be anything but boring and slow.

  • brtrain says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. I think what I am having trouble doing is reconciling the long-term, network and society-building part of COIN (which is the strategic part, which I have covered in games like Algeria where the time scale can be stretched out, so it’s not boring or slow) with the short-term, more kinetic cut-and-thrust at the tactical level (which is where games like Boots on the Ground and Phantom Fury get their energy; problem is, they are not connected to anything bigger).

    With Green Beret and Kandahar, I have been trying to work this dialectic out at the operational level, which is the most difficult one to design wargames at, period. The point to be made is that tactical decisions (“we had to call in that airstrike to get the insurgents”) have long-term effects (“too bad it wrecked the well, and there’s no government money to drill a new one”). A common method of conducting an insurgency is to have “a strategy of tactics”: the government dies or goes berserk from a thousand pinpricks and small cuts, none significant in themselves.

    I’ve been exploring this in other games by doing things like introducing menus of kinetic and non-kinetic actions, only some of which can be reacted to

    • kingdaddy8 says:

      My suggestion: At the theater or operational level, generate suspense, not excitement. (Which is why I strongly disagree with that “COIN Is Boring” post.) If you don’t know what the exact implications of bombing the well are going to be, you have the ability to generate suspense. Maybe we’ll be OK, and survive our mistake…Or maybe we just triggered a local uprising, or journalists captured the cock-up on film, or something else dreadful will happen.

      The mechanic for measuring the operational or theater effects could be as simple as a track, like Mark Herman’s national will track in For The People. Or, it could be something else,like putting random event counters into a draw pile. Whatever it is, it would benefit from something that For The People lacked: political opacity. People fighting COIN wars don’t know that today, they’re winning by a comfortable margin of 5 points. They’re often as surprised at signs of their success as the sure indicators of failure.

brtrain says:

That’s a very good suggestion and I will implement something like that. One feature of Kandahar is that it is diceless; randomness is produced by playing your choice from a supply of chits obtained randomly at the beginning of the turn, chits are rated differently for Intelligence, Troop and CIMIC abilities – so you have to do a bit of choosing. This is distorting play a bit but not more than I am comfortable with – but you can still work suspense into it.


Another point about Kandahar is that there are variable “strategies” players follow to get VP during the game, that change (randomly or by request) during the game. These, and VP levels, are kept secret from the other player but to reflect your final statement I would hide the “real” strategy from the player himself as well! I discussed this with Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke on a Guns Dice Butter podcast a while back when we were discussing Vietnam – some in the US Army may have realized that “counterinsurgency” might have been the way to make headway against the guerrillas, and said so years before commitment of troops in 1965, but doctrine and the senior leadership was thinking of big battalions and large sweeps, so that’s how it was done in 1965-67… later there were changes, but not necessarily because they knew they were doing it wrong; the point was they were playing the game but didn’t know, couldn’t have known, the victory conditions.

So certainly I should not be discouraged. This is a difficult task at the operational level, the interface between slow strategic and rapid tactical but is still in my view the all-important one: this is the level where you plan your campaign, and while your time bound is the “fighting season”, you know there will be another one after that, hopefully with you still in the driver’s seat. Kandahar has gone through at least four major revisions since i started work on it two years ago, and has run the gamut of multi-player, intricate and finely-detailed to the rather less ambitious but less “involved” current version, which still looks good to adapt to other conflicts (working on an Algeria one right now, and I would like to do Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam adaptations too).

Tom mentioned A Distant Plain above; it will be out in a matter of weeks, and certainly the game has suspense for all four players – but it’s a strategic game for four players, so it’s possible to abstract a lot of processes and most importantly, having four human brains at the table is as purposefully random and therefore suspenseful as you could want to get!

One of my comments above got cut off by that comment-box feature I mentioned; I was starting to talk about menus of kinetic and non-kinetic events. This was one approach I was taking to the notion of how some tasks take a very long time but not a lot of resources to accomplish, in this case building an Auxiliary, Base or some other kind of social infrastructure unit, while others like raids ambushes and reactions were much shorter term but took more planning and effort. Layered onto this was the idea of “nested” turns or turns of different types or other ways of telescoping time and action appropriately. This is another difficulty of operational level games.

Anyway, I’m going to keep plugging away at this. Perhaps in time it will all prove irredeemably unprofitable and therefore unpublishable, and the dozen or two of you out there who want it could get it through PDFs or something like that. As the Army retreats in almost indecent haste from its forced dalliance with counterinsurgency, gamers’ attention may yet turn to these conflicts as they fade into the past… always room for smart second-guessers at the table.