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.


Connections: Call for Panelists From the Future

Constant Readuhs will remember my mention of and attendance at the annual “Connections” interdisciplinary conference on wargaming, organized by Matt Caffrey and now having its twentieth iteration 22-25 June at the Wright Brothers Institute, next door to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.

Herewith an email from Dr Stephen Downes-Martin of the Naval War College, who is chairing a panel at Connections on “Wargaming the Far Future”:


I am co-chairing the “Wargaming the Far Future” panel, and am looking for panelists!  Are you interested, or do you know someone else who might be (especially from the intelligence community)?  If you control or run a wargaming related web site please consider posting the body of this email (without the “To” list please) to it.  Thanks!
This panel will deal with war gaming requirements and approaches to supporting force structure budget and S&T acquisition decisions to best satisfy long term (half century) US national security interests.  This panel will fit within the theme of the Conference (“Enhancing Wargaming Support to Budget Decisions”), but will focus on problems of supporting decisions with very long term (50 year) implications.
If you are interested please email me with a proposed title and a paragraph abstract of your panel presentation.  Many thanks!

All the best


Stephen Downes-Martin, Ph.D.
Professor, Warfare Analysis
U.S. Naval War College

[Any opinions in this email are solely mine and do not reflect official policy of the US Government or any civilian or military branch of the US Government]

Even if you don’t have anything to contribute to this particular panel, please take a look at the agenda on the Connections Website and consider attending. Though the emphasis is on military/professional gaming, the conference is unclassified and quite open to designers, testers and players of “serious” wargames. The draft agenda so far features:


  • Wargaming 101, by Mr. Matt Caffrey, Col USAFR (ret) (this is a very good and detailed history of military and civilian wargaming and its uses, excellent presentation)
  • Air Force Material Command & Air Force Research Lab 101
  • Wargame Design 101 – Joe Miranda has done this in the past but I don’t know if he is attending yet.

Panel Discussions:

  • Wargaming in Support of Budgeting Today
  • Wargaming Innovations in Support of Budgeting
  • Enhancing the depicting of Agile Combat Support in Wargaming
  • Enhancing the Utility of Wargaming for S&T Prioritization
  • Wargaming the Far Future – Why and How

You can also contribute to the standing Working Groups

  • Enhancing Wargaming Support to Budget Decisions
  • Creating Online Resources for Wargamers
  • Developing the Wargame Community

Possibly the most exciting part is the “Connections Game Lab Practicum“: the conference splits into groups and accomplishes an initial wargame design, while attendees who are not in a design group may wander between groups.  A great exercise in “blitz” game making.


Sometimes, only sometimes, I feel the need to say…


No offence meant, but …

these are not

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Definitely not as illustrated.

Recently I have been working on a counterinsurgency game with a generic Red vs. Blue setting called District Commander. It’s a game for two players concentrating on the concept of the “clear and hold” operation. Chapter 3 of the US Army Field Manual 3-07.22 Counterinsurgency Operations defines and describes this in the following:

 “The clear and hold operation focuses the three primary counterinsurgency programs: (Civil-Military Operations (CMO), combat operations, and Information Operations (IO)), supported by intelligence and psychological operations on  a specific geographical or administrative area or portions thereof…. The clear and hold operation is executed in a specific high priority area experiencing overt insurgency and has the following objectives:

  • Creation of a secure physical and psychological environment.
  • Establishing firm government control of the population and the area.
  • Gaining willing support of the population and their participation in the governmental programs for countering insurgency.”

I am now working on the third version of the game. The first, District Commander, was detail-, process- and dieroll-heavy; but it was subtle and derived in part from a (IMO) interesting game I’d done a few years ago on Special Forces operations in Vietnam. The second, District Commander II, was a diceless and card-driven version; I wanted to reduce some of the randomness and replace it with cards to drive and enable game mechanics, but it still had quite a few rules, processes and details. The third version, District Commander III, is simpler yet: no dice, no cards, less random overall (the randomness comes from the players, not the components) and yet more stripped-down.

 All three versions of the game work well in their own ways, explore some different directions in terms of mechanics, and are (again IMO) diverting and instructive. None is complex by the standards of experienced tabletop game players. But I keep forgetting that what seems simple, almost intuitive, to me can be quite unfamiliar to someone who’s never played anything more involved than Stratego on a tabletop, and is used to having the computer/video game software do the observing of the rules for him (at the cost of understanding why the rules are the way they are, which is the price of this convenient disengagement from the processes).

My question is, why do I so often start with complex ideas and have to work to make them simple? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I really wish it were.