Review of Afghanistan ’11

I don’t play computer games. Ever, or at least not for a long time. The last one I played was half of Imperialism, the original one from SSI published in 1997.

But I happened across a review of this one and it looks interesting, in that its action seems to approximate a simpler manual wargame, except with a lot more drudgery that the computer mostly handles. It is also an updating of an earlier Vietnam game by the same designer, ’65.

The interesting part is the final two paragraphs, on doctrine:

More fundamentally though, Afghanistan ‘11 is based on some good faith assumptions about COIN that the doctrine itself probably doesn’t deserve. The U.S. strategy of “build infrastructure, visit villages until bad guys go away” is modelled as completely workable in Nagel’s games, despite the fact that the two major American wars that have relied heavily on this strategy are anything but resounding successes. Since David Galula published the first comprehensive explanation of COIN, Counterinsurgency Warfare and Practice (1964), the concept has not been meaningfully adapted nor successfully brought to bear in either major war where it’s formed the centrepiece of American strategy. Afghanistan ‘11 doesn’t interrogate COIN theory, but rather is content to assume that it just works, so long as commanders using it are clever enough.

Then again, what would a strategy game that does critique COIN doctrine even look like? The fact that Afghanistan ‘11 refuses to dig into the question doesn’t detract from its effectiveness as a military strategy game. With relatively few moving pieces, this game evokes a side of modern warfare that’s rarely seen in games due to the difficulties in modeling something as conceptually squishy as “hearts and minds.” The elegance of its design make it engaging and fun from the word go, and the game’s new features fill out the already solid foundation laid down by ‘65.

Emphasis mine. And yes, you won’t find the answer in a computer game, at least not this one.

Oh well, baby (digital) steps….


Interview at The Players Aid blog: Tupamaro


The ever-alert Grant Kleinheinz, one of the “Faithful Eight” (readers of this blog, that is) asked me some questions about Tupamaro, my game on the Uruguayan urban guerrilla movement that is coming out soon from One Small Step Games (Tupamaro available for pre-order from OSS Games!)

Step over and have a look!

How To Kill A Rational Peasant


This post is half-placeholder, and half-recommendation to one and all concerning “How to Kill A Rational Peasant”: a very good film and article made in 2012 by Adam Curtis, on the history and development of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and its misapplications and perversions.

It’s necessary to do this because simply Googling the title of the film leads you to an old URL for the post which is no longer functioning.

So many great references… he leaps and bounds from the story of Jack Idema, a noted fake “security expert”, to David Galula to the film Battle of Algiers to the OAS to The Ugly American to the RAND Corporation’s cost-benefit theories of counterinsurgency, which approach is summarized in this book:


And thence to the failure in Vietnam, the Phoenix Program, CORDS and finally to the 2007 “Surge” in Iraq under General David Petraeus, equipped as he was with FM 3-24 which was in turn inspired by Galula’s theories.

Wargamers will be tickled to note that Curtis introduces one of the film clips thus:

I have also put at the front of the film a wonderful couple of minutes of two civilian “advisers” in Vietnam playing a board game called “Insurgency”. It had been designed by one of the team to express and test out their theories. It sets the weird context for the even stranger reality that then follows.

I don’t know how to embed the clip here, it’s about 2/3 of the way down the post and the initial image is of a bunch of flowers. Anyway, the two analysts are playing what appears to be an early version of the game Insurgency, published by Battleline in 1979, and one of them must be Blake Smith, whose debrief on his time with the AID Program in Vietnam has been published here:

Anyway, I highly recommend this… and now I don’t have to scramble around every time to point someone to it.



Stakeholder-centric COIN: interview on Small Wars Journal


An interview at the Small Wars Journal website with Karsten Friis, a Norwegian expert.

A certain amount of my output on irregular warfare could be described as games swirling around the ideas of population-centric COIN (colloquially, the “hearts-and-minds” approach) as opposed to the enemy-centric COIN (sometimes called “counter-terrorism”, or it was so recently, but it can shade off into the “pyramid of skulls” approach too).

What the interviewee is talking about here is that neither approach has been particularly successful when applied in the strict sense, but that the role of government and its expeditionary/ interventionist allies should be to weaken the armed insurgents and other agencies driving the violence to the point where you can hammer out a peace. You can’t get ’em all. He says:

We have argued in favor of what we call a ‘stakeholder centric’ COIN. The center of gravity is the forces engaged in the conflict. A solution will need to include them, they cannot be excluded. Even jihadist movements with a global ‘brand’ tend to often be largely locally based and fuelled. They can therefore potentially be reconciled into a local solution. If you want to have a sustainable peace then some kind of a legitimate political construction is needed. There will have to be some kind of political agreement where some of the grievances of the insurgents are addressed. You need political and cultural intelligence to understand the environment, who are they, why are they fighting. The political strategy that the COIN operation is supporting should address all these features in order to formulate a political solution once the opponents were weakened enough and are ready to negotiate. In most societies you can talk about stakeholders. They could be warlords, religious leaders, elders, people that represent constituencies that are essential to achieving lasting societal stability. A COIN operation should therefore be stakeholder-centric so the focus should be aimed at all the relevant societal stakeholders that may impact on a future political agreement. The goal is not that of re-engineering a foreign society, but more along the lines of facilitating/enabling a political process that is representative of the main political stakeholders and political forces.

The process of continual abstraction that’s done in trying to get a reasonably playable game on a conflict, to the point where it hits at least some of the higher spots of a functional model of that conflict, blurs the distinctions between the kinds of COIN described. You remove a black octagon from the board; was its leadership vaporized in a drone strike or did everyone go home because that greedy tax collector was finally killed? The in-game procedures might differ but to the play of the game, generally the result is the same – unless the designer has tried to make the results differ too (e.g. in games where I’ve tried to reflect some aftereffects of strenuously-applied kinetic operations).

Another difficult point is when and how the game ends. It has to end, because there are only so many cards in the Event Deck, and people will sit still for only so much of this nonsense before they remember that they have other things in life to do. Barring some faction’s early victory, Volko Ruhnke’s and Mark Herman’s Fire in the Lake ends in 1972, as that was when the Paris Peace Accords started to get hammered out – not in 1975 when the NVA T-54s broke down the gate of the Presidential Palace in 1975. Colonial Twilight ends in 1962 with negotiations as well, as the intention of the French government to divest itself of formal administration of and responsibility for Algeria is a given in the game.

I’ve been thinking about that recently. Once in a great while there will be a game designed on the political pre-game that positions the antagonists for the war, e.g. Days of Decision (I, II and III) by Australian Design Group, and the interesting but untested political pre-game that was included with Arabian Nightmare: Kuwait War back in 1991. But once the game’s over, there is a hurried post-mortem while the pieces and cards are swept up and re-bagged for next time. That political process of hammering out the peace, and just as importantly the reconciliation of foes, is something that never gets covered in the games. There aren’t even any games that cover it, not even the positioning for it, though I try to reflect that in the wording of some of the victory conditions of my games.

Well, that’s not the point, people will say… I signed over my Saturday afternoon for the Big Sweep, not to pretend I’m sitting around a conference table after the shooting’s done. And they’re right, in their limited way that reflects how all these games are also limited.


Paddy Griffith’s Counterinsurgency Wargames – out now!


John Curry, through his “History of Wargaming” project, has for several years now been bringing out a combination of old, long out-of-print and quite new books and material on wargaming, both hobby and professional.

Paddy Griffith was a prolific designer with a foot in both these worlds. He was a lecturer in Military History at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for many years, and created several board wargames (collected in “A Book of Sandhurst Wargames”) and many sets of miniatures wargaming rules. He also expanded the genre of “sprawling wargames”: very large-scale tabletop games played by teams of players to game out big battles.

John Curry has been rescuing a lot of Paddy Griffith’s work from potential eternal obscurity, and releasing it via the print-on-demand and ePub routes (Lulu, Amazon, Kindle, etc.).

Here is one of those items: Paddy Griffith’s Counterinsurgency Wargames, a set of three games dealing with counterinsurgency as it was then understood in the late 1970s, designed by Griffith while he was at Sandhurst. Two of the games are suitable for committee play by small groups, the third is the setup for a large exercise involving over 250 people and an entire class of Sandhurst cadets.

The Kindle edition went on sale last week, as did the paper edition. See the link below for a preview of the Kindle from Amazon ($9.95).

And here is the link to order the paper product: £12.95 plus shipping.

Now, I am telling you all this not just because it is an interesting book and subject in its own right, but also because I got to write the foreword! This was a new experience for me and I found it challenging to write, as it deals with the development of official British doctrine over the years.

Here’s a review on the Paxsims blog: