COIN in wargames, a response

So, there’s been a really good article on counterinsurgency and wargames posted on The Wargamer. Take a read, it’s a well-written and certainly thought-provoking piece. For an examination of Vietnam 65 and Afghanistan 11 on Spacebattles, regarded as the height of well-designed COIN in gaming and far more positive towards them than even the article, see here.

However, I also have some quibbles with it, that I think are worth a response. The first, and it’s purely stylistic is that I think the tone is a little too axe-grindy for my tastes-I’ve been working extremely hard to avoid such a tone even in my own mind, so I’m a little sensitive, maybe more so than someone else would be.

That being said, I think it’s a little too unforgiving. If I had to distill them into three main arguments, it’d be…

  • Gameplay still matters.
  • Asymmetric war exists on a spectrum.
  • Existing games can model asymmetric war better than the article lets on if done intelligently.

Gameplay Still Matters.

Ok, I’ll be honest. This statement tripped a circuit in the scenario-developer part of my mind.

And even then those games are really forgiving when it comes to fog of war. Sure, you can run a company into an ambush in Vietnam or get hoisted by an IED in Afghanistan. But neither game shows the accumulated stress, propaganda-fueled racism or simple evil of your soldiers resulting in atrocities. You don’t risk calling in an airstrike on a wedding or an errant hospital because CIA doesn’t really care about where the information comes from. You don’t need to deal with Generation Kill’s Captain America-level subordinates who will annihilate villages with artillery because they’re scared. In those games, you don’t need to deal with your own side working against you. The military establishment is almost Command and Conquer-like in not being affected by human failings.

My thought was that this sort of thing is a lot more interesting and easier to do in theory than it is in practice. This may be do to my bias against making things too luck-based, but it’s also because the meaning of a game is lost if it’s too difficult or unresponsive to play.

Again, I like it in theory. (Heck, I even included a target that turns out to be a falsely identified building full of innocents in one of my Command scenarios). It’s just that my “better is the enemy of good enough” mind views a somewhat unrealistically “smooth” command system as the price to pay for the experience overall.

And on the subject of atrocities, I view them as something that has to be handled with extreme care, and has the potential to be a “be careful what you wish for” moment if they’re implemented in the wrong way. Because there are people online who’ve been asking, in games like Hearts of Iron, to be able to commit war crimes deliberately. And there the path leads to something far uglier than simple Rambo II-style wish fulfillment fantasies.

 Asymmetric War Exists on a Spectrum

I never thought that the OPFOR chart I did a little while ago on a lark would be legitimately useful to make a point. But it symbolizes, given the prospective threats identified on it, a continuum between the two extremes of “occasional attack insurgency” on one end to “World War III” on the other. I think my own Black Gold Blitz is somewhere in the middle, not just because Iran is closest to the Light OPFOR/ROWEN fictional opponent, but because it’s a conventional conflict where one side still has to try using asymmetric tactics to counter their weakness in traditional arms.

So I’m in total agreement that real, serious COIN would require a game built from the bottom up-to be honest, my biggest inspiration wouldn’t be any existing wargame, but SimCity. It also would be niche even by the standard of the wargaming genre, and have the potential to, as any risky project would, be a swing and a miss that doesn’t live up to its potential. However, especially if the scope was narrowed and the enemy identified/changed to go up the threat scale slightly, there’s something more suitable for a conventional wargame to handle.

Existing Games Can Model-If Done Intelligently

The key word is “if done intelligently”. The comment from “some guy” that helped prompt the original article does not sound like a reasoned, intelligent approach to using an existing model to address a sensitive issue. The words “politically correct” give it all away.

But if narrowed down, it can at least potentially work, especially if it’s toned down to “one tactical engagement”. One option is the classic Mirbat-style “attack on Outpost X”, with an enemy force at least slightly above the bottom of the threat spectrum. At least in regards to Command, I find such an encounter works better in older (definitely up to at least Vietnam, and increasingly so even up to 1991) time periods where the AAMG they lugged up can post a threat to your friendly aircraft that has to fly low to hit anything rather than a more modern scenario where the fighter can fly above and safely attack with smart bombs.

That’s the easy-to-make Command scenario.

The considerably more ambitious, and difficult to make one was something I brought up earlier in the release stream of Black Gold Blitz. Where you do have some “Stuff”-even a lot of it, but where there’s a giant set of proper ROEs, fleeting targets, concern for collateral damage, and so on. It’s still ultimately tactical, and it’s still not for everybody, but it’s a huge variation on the standard Command theme that illustrates the challenges of a low-intensity environment. (Ironically, one of the biggest inspirations, and showing how these restrictions can be modeled, came from a totally conventional PVO-vs-SR-71 scenario)

In conclusion

So, that was my response. I probably came across as more critical towards the original article than I actually am. I have to say it’s because I’m a pretty critical person, even towards stuff I enjoy greatly, and it’s just easier for me to say what I didn’t like about something than what I did.

But I don’t disagree with the main points of the article, whatever my other critiques may have been. I hope my critique and commentary are well-received, and I hope any readers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed making it.

 

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Indian Ocean Fury

Gunner98 has released two new Command scenarios for testing. This one is the Indian Ocean Fury set, taking place in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. (The out of order numbers are no cause for alarm, simply because some scenarios take longer to make than others)

The two are Indian Fury 1: Persian Pounce and Indian Ocean Fury 3: Socotra Scramble.

Both are as big and complex as you’d expect. I’ve noticed that Gunner98 throws in a lot of minor nations as allies to the USSR-everyone from Algeria to Finland to Eritrea has thrown their hat in the ring in his various “_____ Fury” scens. I don’t know how much of this is motivated by plot concerns and how much of it is motivated by gameplay ones.

Generals KIA

The subject of generals killed in action post-1900 holds a bizarre and somewhat morbid interest for me. It’s a period where personal presence on the battlefield was theoretically less important thanks to the use of the telephone and later radio. It’s also a period where fighting formations became exponentially more powerful.

Not surprisingly, the World War II Eastern Front takes the cake. Although there were exceptions, American general officer casualties were surprisingly low-they were comparable in both World War II and Vietnam despite the lower casualties of the latter war.

For a later period hypothetical WWIII/high intensity peer war, I have a tentative list of dead generals that mainly includes air/missile strikes (including a corps commander and some of his high-end staff taken out by a hit on their badly sited HQ). Besides those and maybe a few shot-down ones, there’s an example I made of the commander of an airborne division killed by a tank raid on a forward helicopter base he’s visiting.

Earlier, I have considerably higher casualties among general officers. This is because there’s often more divisions and because worse C3 means the generals have to be at the front more often.

 

Command Community Pack Commentary

The latest Command Community Pack has been released, with a whopping 29 new scenarios available in it.

I made two of them, Brazil Abroad and Human Limitation, and figured I’d give a “director’s commentary”.

  • Brazil Abroad was both logistically limited power production, and a slow-paced, sustained ops air campaign, something I feel has been underutilized in Command. I wanted to give the player limited resources and a wide array of freedom when pursuing a target, which in practice meant a LOT of targets.
  • Human Limitation is a concept I’ve been interested in for a while, even before I got Command. Not just of Gaddafi’s African adventures leading him to Rhodesia, but the basic min-max concept of lots of equipment and little skill vs. the exact opposite.

What will I make next? I’m considering a Circle Trigon scen or doing what I’ve long scoffed at, making a pull-out-all-the-stops classic WWIII.

Unleashing the Circle Trigon

So, it’s very weird how when dealing with the early “Circle Trigon” phase of US military OPFORs (a history of their progression I recorded in another post at Baloogan Campaign), my usual approach to exercise scenarios has been turned on its head. I played a largely futile attack by USMC aircraft on a battleship/cruiser pair in Command, and it was really fun.

However, instead of an American battleship and cruiser, I represented the Trigonist warships with a French battleship and Spanish cruiser. This was “in-character” for the Aggressor backstory, which featured them carved out of Bavaria, Italy, Spain, and France. The Aggressor Navy being vaguely defined gives me a lot of creative freedom (it’s neither a direct copy of an American unit or obvious Soviet stand-in). I think my approach involves…

  • For later OPFORs, using “Actor” aggressor units adds variety, as a break from the waves of units. But for this earlier environment, obscure French/Spanish/Italian units “in-character” get their chance to shine. The Circle Trigon backstory is so goofy I feel compelled to run with it.
  • The proficiency setting is not always “Ace”. Weird how, even as I focus on the ‘characters’, I shift to the ‘actors’ proficiency. These are ad-hoc units trained in Aggressor tactics and speaking Esperanto, not the full-time OPFOR that became a beast at Nellis and the NTC. But who knows, I could make them aces if I wanted to 😀
  • Just wanting to have fun.

And I certainly did. I really should make a full Aggressor scen that treats everything seriously.

 

 

 

Command Fiction: Sixty Turning And Forty Burning

This Command Fiction is based on the community scenario Operation Vulture, which is in turn based on a real (and thankfully never enacted) proposal to use heavy bombers to support the French at Dien Bien Phu.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Only ten of the Peacemakers were serviceable. There were many reasons, from spare parts still being flown in to the tropical air not being to the liking of any aircraft. Still. The number-crunchers would have something to chew on once the analyses came back.

Could a greater payload (a much greater payload) in an individual platform make up for a decrease in overall platforms? The world, the French, the PLA, and the Viet Minh were about to find-

Ok, that was loud, the staff officer thought as the aircraft hefted its tons of bombs upwards. Really, really, loud.

-find out.