Kandahar Hot Washup

Now you are looking at a photo of the affectless map; now you are reading an affectless caption.

There are, by my count, three games dealing with province-level counterinsurgency using Kandahar as its subject. Whether there are any Kandahar games wherein counterinsurgency is just an aspect of local life is doubtful, but worth considering. Which is to say, all three of these games seem to overlay theory upon geography. Okay, that’s what self-respecting theory should be able to do, but just as an exercise it would be interesting to take ethnographic specifics — examine endemic conflicts to see how they interact with extra regional conflict. I’m not going to do that here — file it away under BIG IDEAS — I just want to record my first impressions of Brian Train’s “Kandahar.” I won’t rise to the level of a review; I’m already preparing a review on another of Train’s recent offerings, Third Lebanon War. Enough is enough and I have my own cats to whip.

So you’ve got four boxes which at once depict space, time, and mode of operation without being too explicit. Hex-grid precision should be anathema to pol-mil designs. In fact, a hex grid is evidence against a game’s pertinence to pol-mil. BOX4 is workable and pertinent. It’s also visually unappealing. But, holy cow, BOX4 does great work supporting game decisions and timing. Which forces to risk in operation? Which to use for surveillance? For security? (Jeez I wish we had more specificity about the real human terrain, there.)

Movement is better integrated than it was in Algeria. Of course, the physical space in Kandahar is reduced so that seems fair. The support point system is more flexible than Algeria’s Political Support Level which is ahistorically brittle and far too severe. ISAF is always there with its money and firepower and velcro and CAS and bullshit. Train doesn’t fall into a 1:1 representational trap. ISAF units represent the main effort of whichever unspecified brigade has been assigned the battlespace. Joseph Miranda’s expensive game BCT: Kandahar probably models this a little more finely (but probably not in traditionally broken-out units, either). In this game, ISAF units are bright points to be danced around or attacked according to your secret mission victory conditions (awesome). As mine in the learning game was “Jihad” I had a hell of a lot of fun attacking isolated cadres, even thought the combat elements are infinite bullet sponges. You earn points for manning up and messing with them. Sure, you’ll lose half your force, but you can patch yourself up with all the heavy dosh forwarded from the Gulf.

I’m nearing five hundred words and I haven’t mentioned the chrome. It’s excellent. And subtle. I officially declare I’m stealing the intelligence routines for one of my own designs. (I came up with something similar on my own, but Train’s is more expedient. No. I swear.) Intelligence here isn’t just b.s. smeared across the game’s chassis. It is a contest in itself well worth winning. The game is deep and wide and worth digging into, maybe too deep for some Sundays, but not mine.

13 thoughts on “Kandahar Hot Washup”

  1. Thanks for the writeup!

    As for BOX4 (good notation) being visually unappealing, I am experimenting with the four boxes being physically separated within each map area and given different shapes to add to the visual cues. The new version of Algeria coming from OSS Games will show this. People seem divided about whether it’s a good idea. Personally I like it or I probably would not have done it.

    The Kandahar game that appeared in Modern War magazine is not about Kandahar as such; it is subtitled “Special Forces in Afghanistan” and the map is just a generic brownish area (https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/2849336/kandahar-special-forces-afghanistan-solitaire).

    The Kandahar game you are writing about now was supposed to run in that issue of Modern War; the DG playtest people (whoever they were) decided that what I had submitted didn’t “move” enough and didn’t feature enough kinetic events, didn’t even have anything like a front line… so they put together a solitaire tactical game system where you did all those things. In my opinion one of these is a counterinsurgency game and one isn’t; you tell me which.

    Anyway, there will yet be a third specific-to-Kandahar game out soon, from BTR Games when I have the time to make up the components… it is a version of the “District Commander” series of games which features yet another take on operational level COIN, and no dice!

    1. Correction: the revised edition of Algeria will have the familiar 2×2 “box of boxes” layout, not the separated shapes. I saw maps with both versions and thought we were going with the latter.
      However, EOKA (the Cyprus 1955-59 game) will have them, as a trial balloon. and the next development in the “detail” fork of the BOX4 system.

  2. What curious commentary from the playtesters. “Kandahar” moves plenty. Or, more precisely, it shifts. I like that the space is limited with respect to “Algeria”. There are the same difficulties with being in the right place at the right time and ISAF’s mobile capacities are well represented, though perhaps overly so. The game’s shiftiness isn’t just with regard to maneuver. I admire the possibility of changing missions, especially as this is a feature of my campaign game in “From the Ground Up.” Sucking wind on your mission? Well, bitch to higher and get a new one. The worst they’ll do is say no. Unlike FTGU, the possibility that the mission might be changed without you being consulted doesn’t seem to crop up. Did you consider this?

    1. Playtester commentary was not given directly to me of course, in general the direction was about the level of “the sandwich needs to be more playful.”
      I think in general DG decision makers have a different idea of what counterinsurgency is, and what a counterinsurgency game should look like… I do note that current and future issues of Modern War don’t touch on the topic except for single conventional-type battles taking place in the context of an irregular war (e.g. the most recent Fallujah game, and next issue’s LZ Albany – actually, I just got the Fallujah game, a solitaire treatment by Joe Miranda which looks interesting but I have to try it out).
      But yeah, it shifts. From turn to turn things don’t look different; mobility itself is not super-important, position and how to develop it is.
      Changing missions: when you Appeal to Authority, if you’ve been good and roll well you can pick your own new one. Otherwise you may get a random or semi-random (choose 1 of 2 random) new mission. There is a random event where your mission may change randomly.

      1. Ah, I hadn’t seen that random event. Great minds think alike. Soloed the full game yesterday through to the first opium harvest. I think I may like this a fair piece better than ADP. Whenever I look at the COIN series I’m reminded of that famous, horrible “Afghan COIN dynamics” powerpoint slide, circa 2009. I don’t mean this to be a criticism of ADP, but there’s something crazy and twitchy about presenting COIN on a national level. Perhaps it is the the illusion of knowability that GEN Mattis decried when speaking about the insidious effects of Powerpoint. You know the slide: the one where McChrystal said “When we understand that slide we’ll have won the war.” Would have been more generous to say “Now, that’s a playful sandwich!”

        1. Wow, if you like this better than ADP then I’ve really achieved something!

          My first COIN designs were all set at a national level, even Tupamaro (since over half the population lived in Montevideo). Green Beret, Kandahar and the District Commander series are the ones where I deliberately dived down below that to campaign/ regional level.

          I partly know the guy who created that slide. I even understood it, once. I will send you some of the background for it, which seems to have been lost by the Internet – the one thing that never loses anything.

          1. Thanks, Brian. In hindsight, per usual, I find I’ve been injudicious with respect to the hairball slide. I remember spending a good amount of time gazing at it when it first came to my attention and appreciating the authors’ thought and work. By “horrible” I just mean as visual communication taken out of context. The image of it is a stand-in for the confusion that enters my mind whenever effects-based operations or operations analysis creates more churn than clarity.

            I do have a great deal of respect for OA, but I think it is best applied to more quantifiable domains than COIN dynamics. I think, too, that narrative approaches have unjustly suffered in the COIN backlash — even as I am less convinced by COIN itself. Part of this is professional prejudice as a linguist. Deeply drawn narratives, subjective thought they may be, are so persuasive that humans joyfully mistake them for objectivity. Consider Shakespeare’s importance to Western Civilization. Consider the Afghan detritus of scrimmages in border stations, ten-rupee jezails, and the Taliban whom I incongruously imagine to be wearing a pocket watches and waistcoats. There is quite a lot of terror in handfuls of such dust, but they do expel COIN hairballs from one’s system. Stories are the remnants that will be fought over, regardless of military outcome. What should have been a raid became a rocket being assembled in flight toward the moon.

            Well, here I am arguing a point that you didn’t put. Maybe this explains why I’m skeptical of national-level COIN simulations. But this isn’t to say that I think regional, Galulic COIN is any more effective; it’s just more knowable.

  3. I guess my main handicap is trying to understand this by myself.
    I don’t know any Operations Analysts, or anyone who can explain these sorts of things without creating more “churn than clarity”, at least not face-to-face.
    But yes, the hairball slide is awful to behold (in both the old and new senses of the term), if you haven’t seen how it was built.
    I wonder if a game like Kandahar could be diagrammed like that – what would it look like?
    And shouldn’t that be how I should be working these games out when I sit down to create them?
    Something is tickling the bottom of my brain-pan that someone has created something that graphically displays game mechanics or processes and shows where they interfere with each other… where the hell was it… maybe I’ll just go sit on the porch until I feel better.
    Anyway, District Commander was another attempt to do regional, “Galulic” stuff… I ought to work on that some more, but instead people want other things to get done first…

      1. Wow! I’ll add this to my list of “things worth doing/investigating.” I can’t see how it could do anything but aid in design to make (or try) the process explicit.

        Of course, if every problem looks like a Gordian knot, it isn’t long before you look around for your sword. “Yeah, like everyone else, we would just pray that someone would shoot at us,” says my neighbor in Texas, who had two combat commands in Afghanistan. Vulgarly put, if the hairball can’t be pushed down and swallowed, digested, and pooped out at lower echelons does it even count as food? Aren’t we just arguing about angels dancing on the head of a pin?

  4. “examine endemic conflicts to see how they interact with extra regional conflict”
    That appears to be just what this guy has done, conducted 150 interviews with Helmandis to draw out a 34-year history of conflict in that province, with the same people, families and groups drawn into the same conflicts over land, water and power again and again.
    If I had time to read and absorb this book, I would be able to design that kind of game you want, on the province next door.
    For you and five other customers.
    I should just make up a buncha cards describing me as “auteur des jeux de guerre” and have done with it.
    Vive la Nouvelle Vague!


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