Here’s the final position after four turns and maybe five hours of semi-chatty play. Max and I could have knocked it out faster. I wanted to wait to post further impressions until the experience percolated a bit more. I won’t write about the cut-and-thrust of game play. A deeper current needs wading into. After some correspondence with Brian where we chatted over the wheels-within-wheels nature of the current Afghan War, how to design processes, and the complexities of real-world COIN campaign design, I believe Kandahar is the darkest of all the counterinsurgency designs I’ve seen.
“How do you win?” Max asked. “On joue jusqu’à l’épuissement,” I explained. We play until we quit playing, would be another way of putting it. This game, unlike Train’s other Box4 designs, depicts warfare in an unhappy corner that has known serious conflict for more than thirty years now, where the culture is as broken as the irrigation system the Soviets destroyed, where conflict has become the culture. In that it reminds me of Ben Madison’s courageous Liberia: Descent into Hell.
Of Brian’s designs with which I’m familiar all attempt a similar level of honesty. They are deeply skeptical of ideology and other power fantasies. Their mechanisms give you plenty of rope with which to hang yourself. Glorious blitzkriegs, chevauchées, razzias, and shit-hammerings are rare and never engaged without careful calculation of the downsides. If he had designed OGRE, there would be the possibility of co-opting the cybertank by surrendering power stations along with a good wash and detail. I still say his Algeria is way too hard on the French, although I’ve been able to win playing both sides.
These are, in their way, anti-games. They resist commercialization in the best way by raising the bar for their audience while keeping their author impoverished and angry. And they queer up the taste of a Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure if I share Train’s (and everyone else’s) evident pessimism about counterinsurgency. The undergraduate anthropologist and graduate cartographer in me want someone to say it ain’t necessarily so. But I have heard the frustration expressed in professional quarters for going on ten years now. After a certain point, social network analysis diagrams, or DIME models, or whatever science-po construct you prefer all begin to look like Gordian knots to audiences where everyone carries with them a brigade’s worth of swords in addition to levels of impatience and frustration which can only be calculated by the f*ckton.
To me, Train is of the camp that holds COIN is war as we would like it to be, not as it is. There is nothing of the revolutionary struggle in Kandahar. (My skepticism of revolutionaries very likely outstrips Brian’s.) Anyway, hold on to the concept of war as we would like it to be, for it clears away so much fog in the wargame world that I’m certain to return to this important distinction in future posts.
Here’s the position in Iraq when Barack Obama stepped away from the table: