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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Twig has concluded

So, the final chapter of Wildbow’s story Twig was posted yesterday. Now the fans are understandably eager for Worm 2.

I found Wildbow’s comments on his own work to be very fascinating and illuminating. Give them a read. As for whether or not Spacebattles will become even more overrun with wormfics-I stand by what I previously wrote.

(Also, the belief that Arc 20 was going to be the final one turned out to be accurate. Whether it was truly prescient or just crying wolf until a lupine beast finally appeared is a difficult question).

What makes a good rogues gallery

Ok, I think I’ve found the superhero with the best rogues gallery, in my opinion of course. Spider-Man, and not just because I grew up with him and he was my family’s favorite hero.

I think there’s two big reasons.

  • A good power set. Spider-Man is in a sweet spot, strength-wise, where you can pit both low-end nominal humans and strong supervillains against him without it seeming too implausible. This isn’t like (and I know I’m using DC here) Superman where his foes have to be either cosmic or kryptonite-based, or a Daredevil/Batman/Punisher where they have to be weaker.
  • The lack of an “evil counterpart” for a while. Evil counterparts are tricky. They have to eventually lose, but they’re symmetric so the fights frequently become less than ideal. The Hulk (Abomination) and Iron Man (A parade of power-suited villains) are notorious for this. It took Spider-Man decades to get a direct evil counterpart in the form of Venom, and even he’s better than most.

 

This, mixed with silver age creativity, makes Spidey’s villains memorable. Sadly (or maybe not sadly), Marvel has had an aversion to making new villains for a while. I’ve heard part of it is a reluctance by writers to create something they won’t have financial or creative control over, but that doesn’t explain all of it. I think it’s just because the comics themselves are doubling down on being niche, while the movies still have decades of material to mine.

Types of Bad Fiction

There are several categories of Bad Fiction.

Category 1: This is the sad mediocrity. The prose is often functional, but bland. The plot is functional, but bland. Often it has the feeling of being done for money or obligation, and thus suffers for it. Occasionally fun to to read if one doesn’t have anything better, but not fun to talk about.

Cat 2: This is the kind of bad fiction that’s heartfelt but terrible. There’s more sincere effort then Cat 1 Bad Fiction. But it’s still ultimately bland. These are generally sloppy amateur projects with bad prose. Most bad fanfiction falls into this category.

Cat 3: This is the sort of bad fiction that has effort behind. Lots and lots of real effort. Now, maybe the effort is a sort of ‘draw a tree but miss the forest utterly’ effort on worldbuilding for its own sake and details. Maybe most of the effort is spent arguing about the work rather than working on it. Maybe all of the above is true. Category 3 Bad Fiction often has just enough technical competence to not be dismissed outright.

I try to focus my Bad Fiction Spotlights on Category 3 Bad Fiction.

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.