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.


About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

19 Responses to Back and Forth on Kandahar

  1. Neal Durando says:

    The essential problem with COIN is getting people to pay attention long enough to win it. Our attentions are short – circuited by horror at any moment. So-called kinetic conflicts are sufficiently complex without own forces having to put themselves into an existential quandary before each and every action.

    From a design standpoint, the problem is mimesis–are you asking your audience to perform boredom because the conflict has been characterized as such?

  2. brtrain says:

    Oh yes! Getting people to pay attention long enough, to at least appreciate that COIN takes a long time, without abstracting things to the point of ridicule would be an achievement in itself.
    There’s so much I’d like to do to players in the name of mimesis: frustration over loss of control over units; extremely limited intelligence to the point where you’re barely aware of where your own units are, let alone the enemy; the fact that everything takes longer and doesn’t get done as well; even to the point that I alluded to above, the player may not even know how to win the game…. but not many people would play a game like that, even though it barely touches the experience of command.

    • Mike Dale says:


      Can I just say that anytime you want to make Kandahar available I’ll pony up the cash for it. I was facinated by the review of it posted on Paxsims (I get that it’s maybe not recognisable as the same game, due to development, but still …). COIN as ‘boring’ astounds me – I mean, surely, if we like complexity (let’s see, if I flank him here thus, it creates an opportunity to exploit to here, which enables met to subseqently do this …. ) then COIN is the epitome thereof. I suspect what gamers like is linear complexity, where you can plan ahead based off immediate outcomes. The non-linear interactions at the political level (be it regional, or state-wide) are what a) I think need to be captured within the simulation, and b) are what matter in the end. I used to play VG’s Vietnam 1965-1975 a lot and loved the coupling of operational level activity with strategic outcome … operational decisions had strategic consequences. Now, as you say, inputting as much chaos (…friction, anyone?) into these relationships would a) better represent reality but b) turn off anyone who is a linear planner / thinker. Hell, Brian, you’re in a niche market (COIN game design) – may as well go the whole hog …

      Mike D

      • brtrain says:

        Thanks Mike, I appreciate your supportive comments (and possible purchase!). I’m guessing that, in the end, something like Kandahar is just not meant for a magazine game, at least not in the way Decision Games thinks its magazine games should roll out. And as I’ve written, it’s their privilege to serve their customers with the kind of games they want to play; it’s a relationship that serves both parties well and has kept them in business for 25 years. I tried to bend Kandahar into that kind of shape and it didn’t work, or at least hasn’t worked so far. No real losses, except the time and effort on everyone’s part to do that (because I want to underline the support and advice I got from Eric Harvey, DG’s developer-in-chief, while this was going on: he is a fine man). The game remains, in one form or another, and I will make it available when I’m happy with it, in one form or another.

        As you say, I am in a niche (COIN) of a niche (wargames) of a niche (manual games), so I can be as experimental as I want. What’s giving me pause is building genuine suspense and player immersion into the game, and the lineal/nonlinear relationships that you mentioned. These are the hardest things to get right, and you don’t ring the bell every time.

  3. Mike Dale says:

    Hi Brian

    I’m not sure if your current iteration of Kandahar still has kinetic ops leaving traces (via kinetic/violence markers) that negatively influence population support, but if it does, one idea that could feed into the ‘suspense’ concept would be randomising this effect via, say a card draw per chit at the end of the turn. In this way, some kinetic traces could be far more virulently negative than others, with no way of the operating / responsible player knowing beforehand. If the opposition had some mechanism (Infowar) or capability to exacerbate the problem that was concelaed to the player, all of a sudden, operating kinetically becomes an almost randomly risky business and this should drive economy of force and firepower decisions in a ‘realistic’ way. Just thinking out loud, I’ll shut up now ….

    Mike D

    • brtrain says:

      Thanks Mike,
      The “Violence Chits” (I resisted calling them V-chips in commemoration of those things you were supposed to put in the TV so the kiddies couldn’t see any violent programming) are not in the current version, but they were at one time.

      During the game, all factions except White will engage in “kinetic operations” (the modern term for bombing, shooting, and otherwise violently subduing opposing forces) on the map. These will leave traces in the form of “Violence chits” in the Area where the operations occurred. The total number of Violence chits in an Area will reduce itself over time, but in general, the people living in that Area will be less favourably disposed towards the factions that caused the largest amount of violence.

      This was reflected in the following parts in the Sequence of Play.

      Orange (Non-State Miliita) units no longer automatically appear in Terrorized Areas. Instead, players take the total of Red and Black Violence chits on the map and divide by 4, rounding all fractions down. So you see people taking the law into their own hands in response to insurgent violence, when the government appears impotent to stop it.

      When a player or “automatic” faction conducts a kinetic mission, one Violence Chit in the colour of the unit that conducted the mission is placed in the Area. Exceptions:
      The Bombing Campaign mission (another thing that got removed), where the number of Violence Chits placed is equal to the number of Civic Chits removed;

      Orange and Green (ISAF) units place two Violence Chits when they conduct Attack Unit missions, and if a Green unit is the target of an Attack Unit mission, place one green Violence Chit in addition to one in the colour of the attacker (represents heavy return fire).

      In the Turn End Phase – Friction Segment: Areas no longer become Terrorized directly due to missions. AN area was more likely to become Terrorised the more Violence Chits it had in it, and the player who was responsible for most of the violence got docked Victory Points, and Orange chits count towards Government player’s total.

      Given time, peace and quiet, Violence chits woudl go away, but that was a gamey gimmick to stop the map from being overrun by hundreds of little red, black, orange, blue and green squares. But it would have made an interesting picture at the end of a game.

      I have this goddamn blinkety-blink feature (hah) of the comment window where I can’t see what I am typing! Argh!

      • brtrain says:

        So anyway, interesting concepts you advance and I see I had anticipated only a few of them. I will keep your suggestions in mind, he added darkly….

      • Mike Dale says:


        I really liked the idea of the violence chits – seems like a good way to model the fact that kinetic ops could/will leave traces that would impact negatively on population support. I don’t think that removing them over time is at all gamey – although getting the ‘memory’ of the population right might be tricky, and dependent upon scale and the intensity of operations, the map may well get a little cluttered. Then again, if you’re tracking popular support by region, maybe a reduced, regional map to hold all the violence chits might be useful.
        One of the things I’m most interested in in this design is the number of factions appearing and operating automatically – this is really the first time I’d thought modelling such a fractured political environment was feasible without resorting to some sort of massively multi-player structure. Anyhow, thanks for the insight into the design in your last posts – most interesting.

        Mike D

  4. brtrain says:

    I liked the idea of violence chits too, or rather of tracking amounts and effects of violence more systematically than a random roll every time someone got shot, but as this is a manual game I ran into the Fiddle Factor. Decision Games’ automatic response to something like this would be that few if any players would want to spend their time picking through varicoloured chits on a cluttered map and trying to figure out what one-third of them would be in any given area, even if (or especially if) it was done on a separate reduced map that would need to be updated with chits every time a kinetic mission was conducted. It woudln’t fly for a magazine game, which is what we had in mind at the time. So, dropped it and moved on to other things… but it all came to nothing in the end, as we’ve discussed.
    I first used the idea of Vchits in Virtualia (2008-09) and again in EOKA (2010). If I ever get around to digitizing these things, like for a tablet, perhaps little routines could be run to take care of aspects of the design like this. But I fear I am stuck in the ghetto of shirt cardboard and Hi-Liter markers.
    Glad you liked the “automatic” factions that show up. Virtualia and early versions of Kandahar ALL RIGHT THATS IT THATS IT I’M MAKING ANOTHER REPLY TO HELL WITH THIS FLICKETYFLICK BUSINESS WHERE I CAN’T SEE WHAT I’M TYPING GOD DAMN IT
    had many factions that could show up: Red (insurgent), Blue (government), Green (foreign forces supporting Blue), Orange (non-State Militia)

    • brtrain says:

      Red, Blue, Green, Orange,
      Black (organized crime),
      White (non-government organizaitons that did things like build Blue infrastructure or Civic Chits, another concept for economic foofaraw that didn’t fly for DG),
      Pink (a second faction for Red that could be activated once the populace got upset enough over Green intervention)
      Purple (a faction of foreigners who could arrive to help the Insurgent (like al-Qaeda or Hezbollah, but would make other factions even angrier)
      Ideally these woudl be handled by separate players, and have particular victory conditions but this was getting a bit much to handle, especially considering that most civilian wargames, when they are played at all, are played solitaire or with two.
      It wasn’t difficult to write out some automated rules for the appearance and behaviour of two factions not under control of either of the main players, namely Orange and Black.
      I also wrote some simple solitaire play rules for EOKA where you could be the Cypriot guerrillas playing against a clumsy automated British player, more to allow people to learn how to play the game than any serious attempts at a paper AI.

      • Mike Dale says:

        Hi Brian

        OK, at this point, you know I’m extending this conversation just to see how many times I can watch you lose your mind over the media we’re using – it’s like dinner theatre … :). I know you’re still playing with this design so it’s a plastic kind of thing, still being moulded into its final shape. However, what you’ve done in earlier iterations (i.e. pre DG) sounds great so I’m moved to ask – is there any chance that the earlier iteration of Kandahar will see the light of day – if not as a ‘published’ game, then at least as a DTP – direct download sort of thing? It might make an interesting contrast to MCS Group’s BCT Kandahar, which I’m waiting for right now.

        Mike D

  5. brtrain says:

    Ah geez, I just have to keep my responses short.
    Actually, I was pleased with the version of Kandahar I turned in to DG in late 2012, before I started making all kinds of revised versions. Depending on events, I may just do that sort of thing. Stay tuned.

    Funny you should mention BCT Kandahar – I worked on that game too, back in 2010, and we got it humming nicely. I’m told that many changes were made since then, so no idea what it is like now… I hope they send me a copy, since I didn’t think to pre-order a game I helped develop.

  6. maoutsaou says:

    I’m gonna pop this off real quick and after an admitted skimscan so I could obviously have missed something that moots me but I’m Following now and will return to read in greater detail but it probably won’t be till after I smack the lil’ death wall and then nothings happening till coffee so while I’ve got the thought I’m slapping her down here and gonna ask you… have you checked your framing? Uhhhh I am a self-entitled “designer” uhhhh self promoted “professional” i.e. I’ve done this now a half-dozen years or so as my wake up till knock out task to which I hold my industry to account and most nights I manage to make that pack of ramen but it’s just li’l ol’ me and my terminology is… well, mine. I mean frame as the scale/turns setting I’m using to encompass gameplay and as I work in a RPG foundation with a universal approach rather than genera specific I am pretty much dealing with a meta-game as the RPG form isn’t restricted by frame from encompassing other games. One could play a game of chess say in RPG :”Character”. The RPG form also encompasses the “wargame” both as game and as actual conflict that I look to the wargame form for indications of ways to get the model I need to represent such battle for Players who participate physically as troops and/or leadership, etc. or indirectly as king say on who gave the word the war began on,and who orders the support or Rhet Butler, etc. with the Player Character thing a big pain in the tuckus owing to that whole freewill bugger Meaning I have to go to some length to limit the actual range of available choice that basically comes down to a kind of social contract with the Player if I’ve limited my prep and focus to a genera, over the top high-opera (Flash Gordon), or specific time-period like WWII, or a bank robbery, etc elseif I pretty much have to have the whole planet as a functioning, abstract gestalt if I don’t want to run into map-edge or I start digging type problems. I use 4x games as model, the simplest approach is to use Civilization to spit a map that gives me a kind of world framework and play through to get a basic history going just past the point I drop the Players in to get a notion of near future events. I have to stop around there as Players have an odd effect on a imaginative game. The minds eye can create imaginative “visualizations” through communication and games I think can help to share the mental images of the Players one with another more objectivaly. Owing to this, coupled with the freewill business, I note that Players bring Heisenbergs’ uncertainty principle into the imaginative gameworld by way of simple questions that affect “particles” of imagination… was it Heinlein who termed that idea fictons? IDK as my internet uploads are through and I need to try and get that elusive onemorething done that’s never done so I’ll try and sum up and hope I got the idea at least hazy out there. So I think that traditional wargames off that kriegsspiel model get too locked into that form and don’t look to embrace other forms in support simply because this is a “wargame”. Okay. Fine, it’s a wargame… they why are the players given god views for? Realism? It’s a silly defense of the form unless the concept is a retro approach which is fine but not always sufficent but breaking a form once well set in MY mind at least can be a difacult thing. It took me quite awhile to hammer out a working draft (writing is like pulling eye teeth for me) and over that time I wasn’t picking up any new material… time and cost were enemeys of mine and I was struggling there with the light at the end of the tunnle outdue to budget restraints and it’s really been only this year that I’ve been able to play a bit of catch up and my constant mucking about in the Civ titles let the Paradox stuff slip by until the beginning of this year. the approach they use has been very helpful to me not only in some specific mechanics but much more so in breaking my mindset out of the crystalized Civ matrix it had self-imposed itself into and has allowed me to get some fresh takes on other areas I’ve felt were awkward or otherwise lacking. Anyway It’s just my thought that COIN seems to be as more a build and prep structure as than a typical wargame… the combat almost seems incendental almost like a fail a good COIN strat ought to avoid in the first place. I tag it more of a Transport Tycoon/Capatilism type vibe with some SimCity like building and the underlying happiness/moral mechanics for the populations going up a couple of few notches or perhaps dropping down a peg or so where I wonder where the designer imagines the Players point of view is physically located. An office? A “command center” NORAD? How would information flow and not only what would a Player be able to do from their POV but what could they not do. Perhaps there’s a game in a smaller focus if nothing appeals standing back a bit. Hope I haven’t bugged ya with my blather and I’ll be looking forward to gleening all I can from the materiel you’ve so graciously put forth the effort to make available to me. Thank You for that and for bearing my babble.

    • brtrain says:

      A few carriage returns wouldn’t have gone amiss… thanks for your thoughts but frankly the torrent-of-consciousness presentation makes it difficult to read.
      As I noted on the LinkedIn conversation which led you here, perfect information and perfect control are the curse of wargames.
      Of course it’s not realistic, it’s not even meant to be; it’s a gross abstraction and simplification of the situation it attempts to model.
      Further, the God view leads to the search for the God button or perfect solution, which is why some people approach wargames as elaborate puzzles to be broken or at least mocked… “well, the rules don’t say I can’t hide counters under the map, or eat them when they’re eliminated”… I don’t design for these nits.
      But what I am working towards articulating is that I am feeling a bit trapped between player convenience and/or transparency (in order to help them understand what I want them to know), and the kind of mental immersion experience I want players to have (what I want them to feel).
      As you say, it’s a matter of framing; to an extent playing a wargame is a bit of a role-playing exercise.
      Now the frame is starting to flick back and forth so I will cut this short.

      • brtrain says:

        Yes, your comments on the nature of a COIN game are apt… it should have very elastic time and space parameters, and concentrate on the building or non-kinetic, long-term actions most… and armed combat is partially an admission of failure of your strategy.
        We did discuss this a bit more upthread; don’t know if you have read everything in the last couple of posts – which is growing into a really interesting discussion.
        Something like the Civ/SimCity approach you mention was done with “Urbansim”, a videogame made for the US military by the Institute for Creative Technology at the University of Southern California.
        You should check out journalist Michael Peck’s experiences with it.

  7. Mike Dale says:

    Hi Brian

    Do you really think that combat is ‘partially an admission of failure’? For all that it is an undesired outcome, if physical security (and, just as importantly, the perception of physical security) of the population is a necessary prerequisite to progress, then surely, the controlled and judicious application of force is not only warranted but necessary and a positive demonstration of intent and capability? I mean, the enemy gets a vote too, and the insurgents are not typically going to go gently into the night …
    Now, I understand that there’s a fine and fuzzy line between necessary and unnecessary, judicious and ill judged, and that we can never really know what the population interpretation of even the most restrained application of force will be. However, I would maintain that as physcial security of the population is a necessary but not suficient condition of COIN success, so must armed combat be a necessary but unfortunate corollary.

    Mike D

    • brtrain says:

      Hi Mike, yes I think I did overstate it, of course having occasional combat is not an admission of failure, but being goaded into (or adopting a policy of) building pyramids of skulls is. Physical security is one of the most if not the most highly valued conditions for success, and yes you do have to fight for it sometimes, but judicious and restrained use of force is best… and as we’ve discussed, we’re not always sure how it will pan out vis a vis the insurgents, or the populace.
      I think that’s part of the key of the suspense that you were talking about upthread, of course.

      • Neal Durando says:

        Brian, not to put too fine a point on it, but I think doing COIN itself is an admission of defeat on a strategic level. I’m always interested in conflict simulations but I think COIN ones are mostly about changing the shape of the hole the counterinsurgent finds himself in. I think this begs fascinating questions about the dynamics between doctrine and simulations vs. games, which I hope will get posed in London next week. I’ve been looking at Mirranda’s Decision Iraq and I think the buy-in to US narratives are rather deep and blinding. Haven’t played yet, of course–it may make a great game, but on a political science level I think it already is showing its age.

      • brtrain says:

        Well sure Neal, taking it back one step further you could say that having to engage in COIN is an admission that the government has already failed – that it has serious flaws in its legitimacy and/or its ability to keep its people able to resolve their differences through political and administrative means.
        This is where COIN games disappoint too, they can’t address this point since it has to be worked in as one of the game’s basic assumptions – if you could fix the government, then you wouldn’t need to do COIN and no need to play the game at all!
        Hence the game, to be a bit more satisfying, needs to model at least some aspects of this “given” – the government’s corruption, venality, incompetence and its effect on the campaign.
        Some games have nibbled at it – Victory Games’ Vietnam 1965-75, GMT Games A Distant Plain, some of my designs like Shining Path and Greek Civil War.

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