Podcast: History and Games Lab, episode #12

Recently I sat down with Eduard Gafton, of the History and Games Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh, to talk about many things – we talk about the origins of some of my game designs and how I got into game design, and focus on Brief Border Wars and the issues involved in designing games on sensitive and controversial topics (A Distant Plain gets a look in, of course).

A great podcast and some very good questions came up!

I’m in very good company on this podcast… earlier guests in the series include Cole Wehrle, Tomislav Cipcic, Volko Ruhnke and Lewis Pulsipher.

https://player.fm/series/history-games-lab-podcast-university-of-edinburgh

A distant Plain: review at Player Elimination

https://playerelimination.com/2021/09/28/adp

A perceptive and heartfelt review of A Distant Plain by Charlie Theel at his blog Player Elimination. 

Podcast: Beyond Solitaire #58 – A Distant Plain

pic1733403_md

https://beyondsolitaire.buzzsprout.com/1091807/9218856-episode-58-volko-ruhnke-and-brian-train-on-a-distant-plain

A great podcast by Liz Davidson, talking with Volko Ruhnke and me about A Distant Plain’s origin, structure and intent – and touching on the sensitivities of designing games on contemporary conflicts.

Some more Afghan post-mortem, and a sort of analogue

On Consimworld I came across a couple of short pieces from the NY Times (reproduced here due to paywall) that I think are worth referring to in future, as the end of this current phase of the war recedes, the analyses become ever more reductive and simplistic, and the Dolchstosslegende multiply.

Further down, a crude analogue for 2021 using A Distant Plain. Scroll down; I don’t know how to make skip-ahead anchors or whatever you might call them.

First, Ezra Klein, 26 August 2021:

Let’s Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was the Problem

In 2005, my colleagues at The American Prospect, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias, wrote an essay I think about often. It was called “The Incompetence Dodge,” and it argued that American policymakers and pundits routinely try to rescue the reputation of bad ideas by attributing their failure to poor execution. At the time, they were writing about the liberal hawks who were blaming the catastrophe of the Iraq war on the Bush administration’s maladministration rather than rethinking the enterprise in its totality. But the same dynamic suffuses the recriminations over the Afghanistan withdrawal.

To state the obvious: There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible — and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn’t reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America’s belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one. That is the reckoning that lies beneath events that are still unfolding, and much of the cable news conversation is a frenzied, bipartisan effort to avoid it.

Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure. It’s also obscuring the true alternative to withdrawal: endless occupation. But what our ignominious exit really reflects is the failure of America’s foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking in Afghanistan.

“The pro-war crowd sees this as a mechanism by which they can absolve themselves of an accounting for the last 20 years,” Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, told me. “Just think about the epic size of this policy failure. Twenty years of training. More than $2 trillion dollars’ worth of expenditure. For almost nothing. It is heartbreaking to watch these images but it is equally heartbreaking to think about all of the effort, of lives, and money, we wasted in pursuit of a goal that was illusory.”

Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, phrased it well. “There’s no denying America is the most powerful country in the world, but what we’ve seen over and over in recent decades is we cannot turn that into the outcomes we want. Whether it’s Afghanistan or Libya or sanctions on Russia and Venezuela, we don’t get the policy outcomes we want, and I think that’s because we overreach — we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.”

It is worth considering some counterfactuals for how our occupation could have ended. Imagine that the Biden administration, believing the Afghan government hollow, ignored President Ashraf Ghani’s pleas and begins rapidly withdrawing personnel and power months ago. The vote of no-confidence ripples throughout Afghan politics, demoralizing the existing government and emboldening the Taliban. Those who didn’t know which side to choose, who were waiting for a signal of who held power, quickly cut deals with the Taliban. As the last U.S. troops leave, the Taliban overwhelms the country, and the Biden administration is blamed, reasonably, for speeding their victory.

Another possible scenario was suggested to me by Grant Gordon, a political scientist who works on conflict and refugee crises (and is, I should say, an old friend): If the Biden administration had pulled our allies and personnel out more efficiently, that might have unleashed the Taliban to massacre their opposition, as America and the world would have been insulated and perhaps uninterested in the aftermath. There have been revenge killings, but it has not devolved, at least as of yet, into all-out slaughter, and that may be because the American withdrawal has been messy and partial and the Taliban fears re-engagement. “What is clearly a debacle from one angle may actually have generated restraint. Having spent time in places like this, I think people lack a real imagination for how bad these conflicts can get,” he told me.

Let me offer one more: Even though few believed Ghani’s government would prevail in our absence, and the Trump administration cut them out of its deal with the Taliban, there’s widespread disappointment that the government we supported collapsed so quickly. Biden has been particularly unsparing in his descriptions of the Afghan Army’s abdication, and I agree with those who say he’s been unfair, underestimating the courage and sacrifice shown by Afghan troops throughout the war. But put that aside: Americans might have felt better seeing our allies in Afghanistan put up a longer fight, even if the Taliban emerged victorious. But would a multiyear civil war have been better for the Afghans caught in the crossfire?

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, put it simply: “I think there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance and smart people are struggling with how to rationalize defeat. Because that’s what we have here in Afghanistan — a defeat.”

I will not pretend that I know how we should have left Afghanistan. But neither do a lot of people dominating the airwaves right now. And the confident pronouncements to the contrary over the past two weeks leave me worried that America has learned little. We are still holding not just to the illusion of our control, but to the illusion of our knowledge.

This is an illusion that, for me, shattered long ago. I was a college freshman when America invaded Iraq. And, to my enduring shame, I supported it. My reasoning was straightforward: If George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell and, yes, Joe Biden all thought there was some profound and present danger posed by Saddam Hussein, they must have known something I didn’t.

There’s an old line: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And so it was with the Iraq War. Bush and Clinton and Powell and Blair knew quite a bit that wasn’t true. As Robert Draper shows in his book, “To Start A War: How The Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq,” they were certain Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Only he didn’t. They were also certain, based on decades of testimony from Iraqi expats, that Americans would be welcomed as liberators.

There were many lessons to be learned from the Iraq war, but this, for me, was the most central: We don’t know what we don’t know, and, even worse, we don’t always know what we think we know. Policymakers are easily fooled by people with seemingly relevant experience or credentials who will tell them what they want to hear or what they already believe. The flow of money, interests, enmity and faction are opaque to outsiders, and even to insiders. We do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.

“Look at the countries in which the war on terror has been waged,” Ben Rhodes, who served as a top foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, told me. “Afghanistan. Iraq. Yemen. Somalia. Libya. Every one of those countries is worse off today in some fashion. The evidentiary basis for the idea that American military intervention leads inexorably to improved material circumstances is simply not there.”

I wrote a book on political polarization, so I often get asked to do interviews where the point is to lament how awful polarization is. But the continuing power of the war on terror framework reflects the problems that come from too much bipartisanship. Too much agreement can be as toxic to a political system as too much disagreement. The alternative to polarization is often the suppression of dissenting viewpoints. If the parties agree with each other, then they have incentive to marginalize those who disagree with both of them.

At least for my adult life, on foreign policy, our political problem has been that the parties have agreed on too much, and dissenting voices have been shut out. That has allowed too much to go unquestioned, and too many failures to go uncorrected. It is telling that it is Biden who is taking the blame for America’s defeat in Afghanistan. The consequences come for those who admit America’s foreign policy failures and try to change course, not for those who instigate or perpetuate them.

Initially, the war in Afghanistan was as broadly supported and bipartisan as anything in American politics has ever been. That made it hard to question, and it has made it harder to end. The same is true of the assumptions lying beneath it, and much else in our foreign policy — that America is always a good actor; that we understand enough about the rest of the world, and about ourselves, to remake it in our image; that humanitarianism and militarism are easily grafted together.

The tragedy of humanitarian intervention as a foreign policy philosophy is that it binds our compassion to our delusions of military mastery. We awaken to the suffering of others when we fear those who rule them or hide among them, and in this way our desire for security finds union with our desire for decency. Or we awaken to the suffering of others when they face a massacre of such immediacy that we are forced to confront our passivity, and to ask what inaction would mean for our souls and self-image. In both cases, we awaken with a gun in our hands, or perhaps we awaken because we have a gun in our hands.

To many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop. There are vicious regimes America finances directly. It is callous to suggest that the only suffering we bear responsibility for is the suffering inflicted by our withdrawal. Our wars and drone strikes and tactical raids and the resulting geopolitical chaos directly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis.

This is the deep lacunae in America’s foreign policy conversation: The American foreign policy establishment obsesses over the harms caused by our absence or withdrawal. But there’s no similar culpability for the harms we commit or that our presence creates. We are much quicker to blame ourselves for what we don’t do than what we do.

My heart breaks for the suffering we will leave behind in Afghanistan. But we do not know how to fix Afghanistan. We failed in that effort so completely that we ended up strengthening the Taliban. We should do all we can to bring American citizens and allies home. But if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees. If we truly care about the suffering of others, there is so much we could do. Only 1 percent of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that, too.

“I want America more forward-deployed, but I want it through a massive international financing arm and a massive renewable energy arm,” Senator Murphy told me. “That’s the United States I want to see spread across the world — not the face of America today that’s by and large arms sales, military trainers and brigades.”

The choice we face is not between isolationism and militarism. We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.

Next, an interesting piece by a senior Afghan general, Sami Sadat – not that self-serving I think because he was a corps commander in Helmand, and then appointed leader of the Commandos who were among the best of the ANA forces. 25 August 2021.

I Commanded Afghan Troops This Year. We Were Betrayed.

For the past three and a half months, I fought day and night, nonstop, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province against an escalating and bloody Taliban offensive. Coming under frequent attack, we held the Taliban back and inflicted heavy casualties. Then I was called to Kabul to command Afghanistan’s special forces. But the Taliban already were entering the city; it was too late.

I am exhausted. I am frustrated. And I am angry.

President Biden said last week that “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

It’s true that the Afghan Army lost its will to fight. But that’s because of the growing sense of abandonment by our American partners and the disrespect and disloyalty reflected in Mr. Biden’s tone and words over the past few months. The Afghan Army is not without blame. It had its problems — cronyism, bureaucracy — but we ultimately stopped fighting because our partners already had.

It pains me to see Mr. Biden and Western officials are blaming the Afghan Army for collapsing without mentioning the underlying reasons that happened. Political divisions in Kabul and Washington strangled the army and limited our ability to do our jobs. Losing combat logistical support that the United States had provided for years crippled us, as did a lack of clear guidance from U.S. and Afghan leadership.

I am a three-star general in the Afghan Army. For 11 months, as commander of 215 Maiwand Corps, I led 15,000 men in combat operations against the Taliban in southwestern Afghanistan. I’ve lost hundreds of officers and soldiers. That’s why, as exhausted and frustrated as I am, I wanted to offer a practical perspective and defend the honor of the Afghan Army. I’m not here to absolve the Afghan Army of mistakes. But the fact is, many of us fought valiantly and honorably, only to be let down by American and Afghan leadership.

Two weeks ago, while battling to hold the southern city of Lashkar Gah from the Taliban, President Ashraf Ghani named me commander of Afghanistan’s special forces, the country’s most elite fighters. I reluctantly left my troops and arrived in Kabul on Aug. 15, ready to fight — unaware how bad the situation already was. Then Mr. Ghani handed me the added task of ensuring the security of Kabul. But I never even had a chance: The Taliban were closing in, and Mr. Ghani fled the country.

There is an enormous sense of betrayal here. Mr. Ghani’s hasty escape ended efforts to negotiate an interim agreement for a transition period with the Taliban that would have enabled us to hold the city and help manage evacuations. Instead, chaos ensued — resulting in the desperate scenes witnessed at the Kabul airport.

It was in response to those scenes that Mr. Biden said on Aug. 16 that the Afghan forces collapsed, “sometimes without trying to fight.” But we fought, bravely, until the end. We lost 66,000 troops over the past 20 years; that’s one-fifth of our estimated fighting force.

So why did the Afghan military collapse? The answer is threefold.

First, former President Donald Trump’s February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban in Doha doomed us. It put an expiration date on American interest in the region. Second, we lost contractor logistics and maintenance support critical to our combat operations. Third, the corruption endemic in Mr. Ghani’s government that flowed to senior military leadership and long crippled our forces on the ground irreparably hobbled us.

The Trump-Taliban agreement shaped the circumstances for the current situation by essentially curtailing offensive combat operations for U.S. and allied troops. The U.S. air-support rules of engagement for Afghan security forces effectively changed overnight, and the Taliban were emboldened. They could sense victory and knew it was just a matter of waiting out the Americans. Before that deal, the Taliban had not won any significant battles against the Afghan Army. After the agreement? We were losing dozens of soldiers a day.

Still, we kept fighting. But then Mr. Biden confirmed in April he would stick to Mr. Trump’s plan and set the terms for the U.S. drawdown. That was when everything started to go downhill.

The Afghan forces were trained by the Americans using the U.S. military model based on highly technical special reconnaissance units, helicopters and airstrikes. We lost our superiority to the Taliban when our air support dried up and our ammunition ran out.

Contractors maintained our bombers and our attack and transport aircraft throughout the war. By July, most of the 17,000 support contractors had left. A technical issue now meant that aircraft — a Black Hawk helicopter, a C-130 transport, a surveillance drone — would be grounded.

The contractors also took proprietary software and weapons systems with them. They physically removed our helicopter missile-defense system. Access to the software that we relied on to track our vehicles, weapons and personnel also disappeared. Real-time intelligence on targets went out the window, too.

The Taliban fought with snipers and improvised explosive devices while we lost aerial and laser-guided weapon capacity. And since we could not resupply bases without helicopter support, soldiers often lacked the necessary tools to fight. The Taliban overran many bases; in other places, entire units surrendered.

Mr. Biden’s full and accelerated withdrawal only exacerbated the situation. It ignored conditions on the ground. The Taliban had a firm end date from the Americans and feared no military reprisal for anything they did in the interim, sensing the lack of U.S. will.

And so the Taliban kept ramping up. My soldiers and I endured up to seven Taliban car bombings daily throughout July and the first week of August in Helmand Province. Still, we stood our ground.

I cannot ignore the third factor, though, because there was only so much the Americans could do when it came to the well-documented corruption that rotted our government and military. That really is our national tragedy. So many of our leaders — including in the military — were installed for their personal ties, not for their credentials. These appointments had a devastating impact on the national army because leaders lacked the military experience to be effective or inspire the confidence and trust of the men being asked to risk their lives. Disruptions to food rations and fuel supplies — a result of skimming and corrupt contract allocations — destroyed the morale of my troops.

The final days of fighting were surreal. We engaged in intense firefights on the ground against the Taliban as U.S. fighter jets circled overhead, effectively spectators. Our sense of abandonment and betrayal was equaled only by the frustration U.S. pilots felt and relayed to us — being forced to witness the ground war, apparently unable to help us. Overwhelmed by Taliban fire, my soldiers would hear the planes and ask why they were not providing air support. Morale was devastated. Across Afghanistan, soldiers stopped fighting. We held Lashkar Gah in fierce battles, but as the rest of the country fell, we lacked the support to continue fighting and retreated to base. My corps, which had carried on even after I was called away to Kabul, was one of the last to give up its arms — only after the capital fell.

We were betrayed by politics and presidents.

This was not an Afghan war only; it was an international war, with many militaries involved. It would have been impossible for one army alone, ours, to take up the job and fight. This was a military defeat, but it emanated from political failure.

A Sort of Game Analogue

Now, not surprisingly, I’ve been posting on BGG and other social media recently in response to people commenting on A Distant Plain and how it could, or could not have modelled these events. Here is the gist of some of what I have been saying (forgive me if it is repetitive for some of my Constant Readers).

A Distant Plain was designed in 2012 and its action stops in 2013/14, for a reason. There is language in the playbook about how the game is a product of our thoughts and research up to 2012/13, and we did not claim any predictive value for it. We meant that. To condemn it because it could not perfectly model the situation 8 years after that end, a situation that only came about with changes in political and operational parameters outside the scope of the game, is a bit much IMO.

The current situation, in COIN terms, required meta-level events and arrangements far beyond the framework of the original game design, combined with a lot of deliberately bad and counter-productive play. In my unfocused way, I can still try to render an ADP analogue, a rough game-equivalent (or inequivalent) states and conditions, and how they could be prompted or advanced by deliberately bad play. Don’t pick nits with it please, I’m trying to bend this thing to do something it wasn’t meant to do.

By 2021:

  • The actual formal talks opened between the US government and the Taliban in 2020, to which the Government of Afghanistan was not even invited, have an effect far larger than those of Card #24 (US-Taliban talks) because they set in motion a timetable for ultimate American withdrawal. In effect, the Coalition player has played this card and declared that the last bus home for him is 10:35 and he has to be on it, with his copy of the game!
  • There is a small number of Coalition cubes and a small number of Bases (all those private military contractors have gone home). They cannot Assault and are limited to one Sweep per card. They do not add Aid in Surges (well, they do, but it is all diverted to no game effect – in fact, Aid would be very low in this analogue). They rarely Train and if they ever do, they do not reduce Patronage.
  • There is a much reduced number of Government cubes, and considerable and accelerated desertion and loss of presence and power among the Government Troops and Police because, quite frankly, the political leadership of Afghanistan is no longer interested in supplying or even paying their security forces, as they have been offered (or arranged) a personal bolt-hole out of this. Government deliberately does not Train and loses some cubes practically every turn (but there are always some Troop cubes; some ANA units, especially the Commandos, have fought hard). For his part, the Government player also has to get up early for work tomorrow and wants these people out of his house, so he is not really interested in playing much more than the Coalition player.
  • Few or no Air Strikes. (Bagram was shut down months ago and less use was being made of airpower anyway – all the private contractors have been withdrawn, the ones who among other things kept the Afghan Air Force flying).
  • A large and growing number of “local understandings” that result in the more or less pre-planned flip-flop or absence of security forces – see the earlier post Making flippy-floppy. So along with the loss of cubes above, the effectiveness of Taliban Infiltrate and the Warlord Suborn is much greater by now, as is the Captured Goods rule in Attacks and Ambushes.
  • Fewer Warlord cubes and bases. President Ghani had been cracking down on their leaders and dismantling their militias for several years. Hence they weren’t all that interested in defending such a government, while arriving at arrangements with local Taliban. So, Warlords do not Suborn Taliban.

So anyway, we can try and construct some game analogies, but this does not make a new scenario. It makes an unplayable, or at least pointlessly uncompetitive and not at all comparable game, with victory conditions that no longer apply because one player (Coalition) is effectively no longer at the table, and another player (Government) is not really interested in playing anymore.

We talk about defeat being a phenomenon that takes place in the mind of the adversary – and in this case, it’s been a catastrophic collapse of morale/interest in what was going on. Besides A Distant Plain I have designed other games on insurgency, many of which belong to one or more families or systems. One of those other families is the “4-box” system. The central concept is an index of “political support” which rolls up a lot of things into it, and responds to this concept. When one side hits zero political support, there is assumed to be some catastrophic failure or collapse; end of game. On the way there of course, there are numerous and growing problems and disadvantages, so it does accelerate. Titles in the family include: Tupamaro, Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes, EOKA, Kandahar.

And beyond just games – if you are talking about COIN theory like FM 3-24, well manuals of doctrine don’t cover this either as again, a morale failure of this magnitude reflects political and social events far beyond the ken or power of the unit commander reading the manual. FM 3-24 does make some points about the government of the host nation having to have some kind of credibility or legitimacy among the people it claims to protect and rule. Well, that was a big part of the problem in Afghanistan all along!

One more note, about meta-level events and arrangements: one thing about the COIN system games, indeed most wargames, is that they have no hidden information (except for any secret deals the players may have made with each other). And few if any games have the ability to lie to the player himself about the state of his forces and how they are doing in the game. Yet that is exactly what would be required to make an approachable model of the historical end of this war: years and years of players lying to each other and themselves; the game itself lying to all players about the state of play; layers and layers of self-deception, mistaken signals, perverse incentives and hidden agendas. Casual game players have no patience or dedication for this; professional players of “games” founded their careers on it, and stars fell on their shoulders.

“Listen to the General every goddamn word

How many ways can you polish up a turd

LEFT RIGHT LEFT LEFT RIGHT”

GMT goes SPI

https://www.gmtgames.com/p-945-the-british-way-counterinsurgency-at-the-end-of-empire.aspx

Four-on-the-floor, that is… as in Quadrigame!

A while ago I had a talk with Stephen Rangazas, who has come up with an interesting way of distilling much of the 2-player COIN system experience down to a few cards and a small number of pieces… and he has put four examples of such in one box, called:

The British Way: Counterinsurgency at the End of Empire is the first of several COIN multipacks, containing four separate games exploring a series of thematically related insurgencies. Between 1945 and 1960, the British fought four major “emergencies,” as they referred to their counterinsurgency campaigns, each trying to manage their retreat from empire. The four games in this pack focus on exploring British counterinsurgent responses to a variety of different opponents, including communist insurgents in Malaya, militant nationalists in Kenya, and smaller and more clandestine terrorist organizations in Palestine and Cyprus. The games adjust the core COIN mechanics to provide a compelling new way of handling two-player conflicts, while also streamlining several mechanics to quicken gameplay. The British Way offers an approachable introduction to the COIN series for new players, while presenting experienced players with four mechanically distinct games to explore and compare.
 

Highlights:
  • Four full games in one box: Explore four different conflicts set during the twilight of the British Empire in the 1940s and 1950s. Each game uses a unique ruleset building on the same general mechanical structure, ensuring that they are easy to pick up while still offering a distinctive experience.
  • A new adaptation of the classic COIN system: Improved two-player sequence of play and a versatile Political Will track for determining victory. 
  • Unique mechanisms reflecting the British approach to each conflict: New Villages in Malaya, the ‘Pipeline’ in Kenya, Curfews in Cyprus, and Mass Detention in Palestine.
  • Small board footprint with quick-but-deep gameplay: Each game plays in under 90 minutes and takes place on a single 17×22” board.
  • An “End of Empire” Campaign: A campaign scenario allowing players to play the four games in a linked series with a cumulative scoring system, random ‘external’ events relating to British decolonization, and new mechanics to integrate each game into the campaign.

Prototype maps for Kenya and Malaya

Malaya
The British Emergency in Malaya (1948-1960) is viewed by some as the classic case of a successful counterinsurgency campaign, fought against an insurgency led by the Malayan Communist Party. The Malayan Emergency significantly influenced counterinsurgency theory and would become a model case, later appealed to by commanders in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to the present. The British Way: Malaya is the perfect introduction for players new to the COIN series, offering a shorter two-player game experience that will give players some familiarity with Government and Insurgent factions in other modern COIN volumes, such as Cuba Libre or A Distant Plain. For experienced players, it also serves as a good introduction to the new core mechanics in The British Way by offering Factions and Operations that will be familiar from previous COIN volumes but with several new systems, such as the Political Will track, streamlined Sequence of Play, and a shifting British Commander Capability.

Prototype event cards for Malaya


Kenya
The British Emergency in Kenya (1952-1960), fought against the Mau Mau insurgents, dramatically departed from the strategy modeled in many of the modern COIN volumes, with a heavy focus on coercion rather than winning ‘hearts and minds.’ In game terms, this means a shift away from building ‘Support’ towards new mechanics modeling various forms of repression used by the British in Kenya. However, their use of repression can have political consequences back in Britain, represented as a potential penalty to Political Will—as one British official noted, “If we sin, we must sin quietly.” The British player must balance this core tradeoff, while the Mau Mau player must mobilize the Kikuyu population and expand their revolt to survive the overwhelming British response. The British Way: Kenya depicts a dramatically asymmetrical conflict where an extremely poorly equipped insurgency must utilize clever (and in some cases brutal) tactics to try and ride out an overwhelmingly powerful, often unconstrained, and increasingly criticized counterinsurgency campaign.

Prototype event cards for Kenya

Cyprus and Palestine: New Counter-Terrorism Mechanics
The next two conflicts in the pack depart more significantly from core COIN concepts because Britain’s two opponents in Cyprus and Palestine operated as smaller clandestine terrorist cells rather than the larger insurgencies depicted in Malaya and Kenya. Instead, new “counter-terrorism” tactics are modeled, such as Curfews, Intelligence, Arms Caches, and a more detailed Sabotage and Terror system. These two games offer a fresh approach to a different kind of conflict and provide an even quicker play experience for two-player COIN duels.

Prototype maps for Palestine and Cyprus

The British Emergency in Cyprus (1955-1959) was conducted under the shadow of international opinion and increasing pressure from the international community to respect human rights. As the British player tries to balance locking down the population while managing international pressure, the EOKA player will launch sabotage attacks in towns across the island while building their organization in the mountains. The British Way: Cyprus is probably the simplest of the four games in the pack, although the new counter-terrorism mechanics it introduces are significantly different from anything that has appeared in previous COIN volumes.

Prototype event cards for Cyprus

Likewise, during the Palestine campaign (1945-1947), the British player will be faced with the Jewish resistance groups Irgun and Lehi launching sabotage and terrorist attacks across Mandatory Palestine, while risking criticism from the US and other international observers if their response is too heavy-handed. The British Way: Palestine further develops the new counter-terrorism mechanics introduced in Cyprus, while also including unique game systems to model the British use of the blunt tool of Mass Detention, the shifting cooperation of Haganah (the Jewish Agency’s armed wing), and high-profile terrorist attacks such as the King David Hotel bombing.

Prototype event cards for Palestine

A Note on “The British Way” of Counterinsurgency:
“that nauseating phrase I think I invented” – General Sir Gerald Templer on the term ‘Hearts and Minds’
The historical simulations included in The British Way are designed to depict the full array of strategies used by the British during these conflicts, ranging from the more benevolent provision of material benefits through pacification programs to the horrific measures used to gain control over the local population. Many myths have arisen about an ‘enlightened’ British approach to counterinsurgency that emphasized the use of minimum force and focused on winning the population’s “hearts and minds,” compared with the supposedly more violent approaches taken by the United States in Vietnam or by France in Algeria. However, new scholarship on these conflicts has confirmed the brutality of the methods commonly used by the British in their counterinsurgency campaigns. As summarized by the historian Hew Strachan, these conflicts were often decided by “the firm smack of government,” not the popular winning of hearts and minds. This multipack is intended to help synthesize and present these crucial developments in our understanding of British counterinsurgency, even if that means the simulations depicted are at times more thought-provoking than fun. The designer’s main goal is that players find these games informative about what happened during each conflict and why, and that the gameplay leaves them wanting to learn more. Each game will come with a detailed Background booklet describing the events depicted and listing additional sources, while the combined Playbook will include comparative essays discussing British counterinsurgency across the four games and how it is depicted in conflict simulations.

Game components
  • Two double-sided 17×22” mounted game boards
  • 4 Game Event Decks and 1 Campaign Event Deck
  • 54 Wooden Pieces
  • 8 Pawns
  • One full-color counter sheet
  • Eleven double-sided player aids
  • Two 6-sided dice
  • 4 Combined Rule/Background Booklets
  • 1 Combined Playbook/Campaign Guide
Number of players: 2
GAME DESIGN: Stephen Rangazas
DEVELOPER: Joe Dewhurst 

 

You better believe I signed up for this!

I believe I am customer #303, snicker….

A word about that “hearts and minds” aspect, though… I have been extremely busy lately and have not been able to finish work on a post I was making in response to “The Hearts-and-Minds Myth: How America Gets Counterinsurgency Wrong”, an article that appeared last week in Foreign Policy magazine by Jacqueline Hazelton, who teaches at the Naval War College. She also wrote Bullets Not Ballots: Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare which has been poked my way more than once recently. 

I don’t understand the binary, all-or-nothing thinking that goes into commentary on these things… it’s not a stark choice between “pyramid of skulls” or “armed social work”, it never is. If you never punish or pursue the insurgents, you will not win. But if you never do anything to address “why?”, the concerns of the insurgents or the populations they spring from (because no one ever does this for fun), you will not win either. 

But I am looking forward to these sporty little fellas. Happy to see a second game on Cyprus, too!

A tale of two surges

battle-of-algiers

https://mwi.usma.edu/it-was-the-best-of-coin-it-was-the-worst-of-coin-a-tale-of-two-surges/

Over at the Modern War Institute, an interesting short article by LCOL Michael Nelson comparing the respective surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, outlining how local conditions, history and prospects will trump or at least modify general principles of counterinsurgency doctrine (assuming your army even has such a doctrine).

As often happens, the lead and final paragraphs are the most significant and I quote them here… but the whole article is worth a read:

….. Scholars and practitioners alike are familiar with the axiom that one should avoid fighting the last war. It should go without saying, then, that one should also avoid trying to fight two distinct, concurrent wars as though they are the same conflict. While there are guiding principles for counterinsurgency, there is simply no one-size-fits-all template for success.

However, heavily relying on methods from a different conflict is roughly what the United States tried to do in Afghanistan in 2009 with the attempt to replicate the apparent successes of the surge in Iraq. The fatal flaw in this plan was predicated on a misunderstanding of the circumstances and the environment that had created the conditions for reduced violence in Iraq. Perhaps most disappointingly, these plans for Afghanistan were made and implemented by some of the same leaders who earned praise for having turned the Iraq War around when it was at its most bleak.

……

All warfare is political, and all warfare shifts on human decisions made in complex circumstances. But this is doubly true of counterinsurgent warfare. It is a complicated endeavor that requires deft understanding of the motivations and goals of multiple actors. America’s mistake, in two theaters, was in trying to reduce one of the more complex forms of conflict into something simple, uniform, and replicable without regard to the environment. While the United States should not shy away from studying, determining principles of, developing doctrine for, and preparing to conduct counterinsurgency, we must remember that these guidelines are only as good as the means by which they are adapted to the fight at hand.

These words are especially poignant to me as a designer of games on insurgencies in many different countries at different historical periods.

I have published some 11 games using three general “system” mechanical approaches: the “4 box” system (Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes, EOKA, Kandahar), the GMT COIN system (A Distant Plain, Colonial Twilight) and the District Commander system (Maracas, Binh Dinh, Kandahar, ZNO). Each game was adapted to reflect the particular historical, geographical, political and military conditions of the conflict, within the general “grammar” of the game system.

But I have a further set of eight historical insurgency-related games that use mechanics unique or near-unique to their design: Binh Dinh ’69, Chile ’73, Green Beret, Nights of Fire, Operation Whirlwind, Somalia, Tupamaro, Ukrainian Crisis. 

I haven’t yet designed anything on the Iraqi insurgency, but when that day comes, I will do my best to assure it will not be a cookie-cutter effort.

Punched, punched

Out today, the second number of Punched, a free online zine on wargames edited by James Buckley of Cardboard Emperors!

https://www.cardboardemperors.co.uk/punched-2#coin

This one is a special issue with lots of content on COIN everything:

  • James Buckley discusses the four keys to the success of the COIN engine
  • Jason Carr talks about COIN’s success, discusses some mechanics, and considers the future of the series
  • Volko Ruhnke discusses how insurgencies are modelled in the COIN series, and what Control and Oppose/Support mean
  • Fred Serval writes about the seething mass of fan-made COIN games churning around on the GMT COIN Discord server; it’s frightening to poke your head in there. Of special interest is an upcoming quad of short games by Stephen Ranganzas using cut-down COIN system mechanics to explore “the British Way” of counterinsurgency: Palestine, Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus.
  • Also, a really nice review of Brief Border Wars!

It’s free, it’s there, it’s waiting for you at the above link!

Oh, and would I ever love to attend this con in July – Camden is so neat (setting aside the tourist-trappy stuff). But maybe next year.

Camden

Team play of COIN system games

O’er the hills and far away….

The estimable Brant Guillory of Armchair Dragoons and other manifestations has published a guide to the team play of GMT COIN system games that he and his group have put on at Origins!

It’s brilliant, go check it out.

The hidden intelligence part is reflected in having teams of two players for each faction – one diplomatic and one military – but the diplomatic player cannot see the map and the military player cannot see the card, nor are they privy to the negotiations the diplomat has hammered out with the other players. This makes this method very good for games where there is a lot of argle-bargle, and Brant usually does this method with A Distant Plain (an even better wrinkle with this one is that the Warlords faction is played by two, but they take both roles, on alternate turns!).

Very clever, indeed.

Hidden COINs

original image: Greg Groesch for Washington Post story, 2016

Many of my Constant Readuhs will know of my fondness for games with limited information for one or both sides, and my disdain for games that make a point of giving both sides complete information when lack of same was critical to the historical situation the game claims to represent.

I’ll freely admit that many of my games have this exact fault. I rationalize that it’s for ease and speed of play when the players may have enough new stuff to struggle with already, that Chaos may rear its head and wreck the perfect plans people make with their undue dollops of information, that most wargames are played solitaire anyway (maybe even truer of my games too!), that players hate the loss of control and certainty and don’t particularly care how unrealistic that is, and so on… But I keep making such games, and write optional rules for other games where fog of war can be introduced.

But hoo boy, would I like to make it a big part of everything I design. If you’ve ever played an umpired or double-blind game, board or miniatures, you quickly get the feelings of angst and caution you should be feeling when playing these things… every bend in the road is an ambush, every house is boobytrapped.

And so, from the time that I first started in on the GMT COIN system (playtesting of Andean Abyss, then work on A Distant Plain and later Colonial Twilight), it didn’t bother me much that these games were perfect-information exercises, as the multi-faction nature of the games gave people enough to tussle with. But more than a few people have commented about how this does let the game down in the realism department, where insurgency situations are concerned.

I can’t shake the feeling that an umpired game of say, A Distant Plain would be something to see (or not see, or not be sure you’ve seen!) indeed. It wouldn’t be hard to arrange with multiple copies and a willing Director, would take a long time to play most likely but it would be an eye-opener for the players… who would also have to be willing, because this kind of thing strains the patience of most players who like their complete information and control of things, though that situation is far from reality. 

I’ve never had the time or opportunity to try this. Anyone is welcome to give it a spin. Has anyone tried it, or heard of someone trying it? What do you think?

On Youtube: Heavy Cardboard plays Colonial Twilight

On the Tube of You, Edward from “Heavy Cardboard” (on the 6th anniversary of his show!) plays a COIN system game for the first time: Colonial Twilight. He does something a little different: he plays the short scenario and takes the role of Government, introducing and teaching the game as he goes, while the Peanut Gallery (everyone watching: including Volko Ruhnke himself for a while!) discusses and suggests the FLN moves. What a great idea to learn the game collectively!

He didn’t promise to play the game well, and you know what, I don’t play games particularly well either; never have. But the play and the learning of it is the thing, for me.

Thanks Edward! I appreciate it.

(note: the stream goes for about 7 hours since it’s his first COIN game, and he introduces everything about the game first… so feel free to skip ahead to the game itself. The main commenter in the Peanut Galley, Laura Guy, very ably played the FLN!)