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)
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.