Card #30

ADP card 30

30. Urban Specialists


Ineffective: Taliban Terror in Kabul requires Activation of 2 Underground Guerrillas.
Effective: Taliban Terror in Kabul costs 0 Resources and does not Activate the Guerrilla.

Insurgents need to go where the people are, and a lot of them are in the main urban center of Kabul. The Taliban have been ingenious in using technically skilled fighters to collect intelligence, plan assassinations, and conduct spectacular high-visibility attacks on government buildings. (Moreau; Giustozzi p. 70)



A Distant Plain, 5-10-15 Years On…


Recently on Consimworld someone suggested that I should do some kind of update kit for A Distant Plain, to cover the years since the end of the game’s scenarios in 2013 (coinciding with the NATO withdrawal from combat operations, and the physical release of the game in summer 2013).

People tell me it should be easy… you know, a couple of dozen new event cards and you’re done… right? Just like the people who thought there should be a simple 1979-89 conversion kit, for the Soviet-Afghan War (I hope I don’t have to explain to anyone why this one doesn’t fly).

Hmmm…but what particular events could there be after the  that could not be reflected in the cards we already have? I can’t think of any, because it’s been mostly a story of gradually declining Government control of the country matched with steady state or increasing strength of the two insurgent factions… even things that could still happen now, like peace talks, were reflected by a card in the existing deck.

Off the top of my head, a post-2013 version of ADP would effectively resemble a three-player game… the Coalition would have mostly withdrawn its troops and bases, leaving just some training units – and continuing to pay the bills for the Afghan army and police, the cost of which is double or triple the country’s current Gross Domestic Product. There are two COIN system games that are being worked on right now that feature three-player mechanisms, so that could be adapted possibly. More details are coming out on All Bridges Burning, Vesa Arponen’s very clever 3-faction game on the Finnish Civil War of 1918, which offers some mechanics worth thinking about.

Maybe the simplest thing to do would be to play a short game this way, as a three-player game of say 3 or 4 Propaganda Rounds, with an edited deck of event cards that have been prepared by removing cards that are specific to the Coalition, e.g. #1 1 ISR, #2 and #3 Predators and Reapers, #7 Find Fix Finish.. even then you would probably have to discuss the effect of some cards to reflect the mostly missing Coalition (although it’s not quite missing, a card like #9 Special Forces could still work because there are still substantial special operations troops there).  You’d have to review the deck carefully, but it could be done, I suppose. People are certainly welcome to try.

In the end though, I’m not sure what you would be proving, because the war has simply ground on in the last four or five years… no one seems closer to “winning”, in any sense of the word. Here is a recent article on the state of affairs in Afghanistan, and the tiny expensive/ laborious circles everyone is describing around each other.


Walking the Distant Plain: InsideGMT blog


Over at the InsideGMT blog, Chris Davis gives his impressions of A Distant Plain and how it captures the atmosphere of what he actually experienced during his service in Afghanistan:

A Distant Plain in Warsaw!


At least three games were running simultaneously.

Piotr Bambot is a teacher who likes to use games in his classroom and sometimes works for the Polish military’s equivalent of their War Colleges. Recently he spent a day with a group of officers playing A Distant Plain!


Piotr is the one with the short haircut.

The place was the Military Center for Civic Education in Warsaw, during a course called “Leadership and social competence”. I can see officers from all branches of the services playing together… Piotr said everyone was highly interested and engaged.

I’m really happy when I see that these games can be of some professional use!


Clockwise, I see two Air Force Lieutenants, two Army junior Lieutenants, a Navy Lieutenant Commander, an Army Sergeant and a Major, and two more Army Lieutenants.

A Distant Plain: P500 on 3rd printing launched!


GMT Games has launched a P500 for the THIRD printing of A Distant Plain!

This will be a straight reprint of the second printing, which I think had caught all the errata from the first.

If you get in on it now, you pay $54 instead of the regular price of $78!

Namechecked on VICE Waypoint and Killscreen!

ZOC book cover

Over at Waypoint (the section of VICE magazine that deals with gaming and gamer culture), Muira McCammon, an academic who writes on Guantanamo Bay quotes from the essay on irregular warfare games I wrote with Volko Ruhnke for the Zones of Control anthology . She also references A Distant Plain and Labyrinth.

So, what sort of game system might be able to model the complexity of GiTMO, to give voice to the challenges that detainees, journalists, lawyers, and guards have faced in the detention facility’s history?

My answer: the wargame.

Wargames are a great way to parse asymmetrical conflict in a political system, and in many ways, GiTMO can be understood as a series of power struggles. A wargame has the potential to model the tensions between journalists, detainees, lawyers, and members of the U.S. military. It could give us an outlet to reflect on serious episodes in GiTMO’s history, like that time when Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon accused journalist Carol Rosenberg of “multiple incidents of abusive and degrading comments of an explicitly sexual nature.” It could help us examine the history of coalition building in GiTMO, like when detainees held an election to select two leaders, one who was revealed to the Americans and one who worked in the shadows.


What Ruhnke and Train speak to is a problem that extends beyond wargames. A lot of us with differing ideological, religious, ethnic, and other backgrounds are uncomfortable with the idea of people “playing” games about serious things like war crimes and human rights violations.   Anyone trying to make a wargame out of GiTMO would have to simplify the place, and that carries a number of inherent risks. Another problem: GiTMO is still a morphing, changing place with an uncertain future.

I can think of a few ways to do this, actually, but that will have to wait while I work on other projects. I suspect that Camp Delta will be there for a while yet.


Banner: Rodger MacGowan.

And a few weeks ago on a website called Killscreen, she also wrote about A Distant Plain and what did and didn’t go into the Events Deck for that game.

Event cards helped me become comfortable with wargame design. The first deck I really loved and explored belonged to A Distant Plain (2013), a wargame about contemporary Afghanistan. I considered how my Afghan friends would critique the narrative put forth in the deck and the board. What would they think of this attempt to boil a segment of their nation’s history down? Omission, deletion, marginalization, and exclusion—these are issues that always bubbled up in my mind as I shuffled through the deck.

I had mentored a group of Afghan women writers, many of whom were based in Kabul, and I always wondered, if they had been taught wargame design, how might their deck have differed? Instead of having a card devoted to “Koran Burning,” would they have given a card to mark the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada, an Afghan woman falsely accused of burning a Qur’an? As wargame designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train crafted their A Distant Plain (2013), which cards had been edited out?

She does have a point and I did attempt to answer her in the comments, but I don’t know if she saw it.

A deck of 72 event cards presents only 72 different chances to alter the game as it is played, even though the number of combinations is astronomical (72 factorial, or 6.123446 to the 103rd power). As I’ve said before, a wargame is a created object, a distillation of first and second hand experience and therefore cannot be a neutral one, any more than there can be a neutral novel. Deliberately or not, there of course will be deletions, omissions, exclusions and abstractions – that’s endemic to the process of recording history itself, let alone abstracting from that history to make a model in the form of a game. The designer, through the processes of research, conceptualizing, testing and production of a game, must make a series of choices of what to include in their design, what to leave out, and how to model what’s been judged relevant enough and left in.

Volko and I were aware of this of course, and took a few online kicks in the ribs for even trying to design a game on a war that was still underway. We felt that most importantly, a designer should be prepared to “show their work” and stand behind what they have done. Therefore we tried to select events that one were based on one or more actual historical events, tactics, or tendencies that materially affected the conflict; in a couple of cases things that could have affected it and were possible but didn’t happen (e.g. a coup d’etat in the Afghan Government). In all cases we had descriptions of what is represented by that card in history in the game’s playbook, with a reference to one or more items in the game’s bibliography.

Jeremy Antley, whom McCammon also references, wrote an interesting post on this aspect in his blog concerning the “My Lai” event card in Fire in the Lake. (Unfortunately, his domain name has expired so I can’t link to it right now – it was at Jeremy, pay the Internet Gods!)

And in the final analysis, A Distant Plain is a manual wargame. It’s entirely possible for Muira McCammon, or anyone else, to introduce, edit or replace the cards in the game, for greater or lesser (but certainly different) effect. As Mary Flanagan points out in Critical Play, that’s just the beginning of what you can do!

Playing the Recent Past: presentation to UVic class


Today: a  presentation to a class at the University of Victoria – AHVS311, “History of Video Games” – on board wargames as tools for exploring history, the narratives they generate, and the problems (and value) of wargames in portraying recent conflicts, with particular mention of A Distant Plain.

Somewhat like the talk I gave at the University of Montreal game designers’ class, but taken back a step and sideways as the students are not designers (and may never even have seen a board wargame before).

Script and slides are here:

AHVS311 script

AHVS311 slides