Game development is one of those things you recognize when you see it. Yet, absence of development is a portmanteau upon which a reviewer might hang any sort of criticism without going into too much depth. I’ve always found this unsatisfying, even though I’ve made the same criticism myself. This is a case study of Third Lebanon War (3LW), which became Next War Lebanon (NWL) upon publication by Decision Games. I tried to tease out a useful definition in the hope of moving discussion about development in the wargaming community toward better publication practice.
I first played designer Brian Train’s 3LW in advance of receiving NWL. The former is the designer’s edition, informed only by his own playtesting whereas the latter was the version DG brought to market, benefitting from the attentions of an in-house playtest and the effort of developer Eric Harvey. I’ve appreciated Train’s irregular warfare designs since 2007 when, in preparation of a presentation on French influences on US counterinsurgency, I came across his rather sober game Algeria, which was welcome compliment to my reading.
Over subsequent posts, I’ll try to set out the differences in game play between 3LW and NWL, set out the changes made over development, and come to a conclusion about the relation of each to the conflict they model.
I’ve been working rather hard on an article about game development, particularly magazine game development, for a good while now, taking Brian Train’s Third Lebanon War and Decision Games’s Next War: Lebanon as an occasion. I won’t belabor you with a quote before I’ve rendered my work a little more coherent. The above image compares 3LW to a third, much more traditional hex-and-counter game. The article is meant to be an appeal to improve games criticism such that the coherence of the geographies (and many other aspects) are more seriously treated analysed. I suppose the public for this is rather small–and even within that tiny arena this would probably be considered pedantic. But the geographer and cartographer in me can’t be kept down.
I’m also working just about as hard on a chapter for Chris Engle’s upcoming book on matrix games. Both of these are going to take me into January before revisions are finished. I’ll get back to posting on FTGU design soon thereafter. Remember to drop me a message if you’re going to be in North Texas over the holiday season. I’ll be travelling with an FTGU counterset. Watch this space.
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:
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.