A Distant Plain

The area around Kabul gets a lot of action

The area around Kabul gets a lot of action

Although I wasn’t very impressed by Andean Abyss, I’m still intrigued by the idea of GMT’s COIN game system, so I went up to EndGame in Oakland to join in their biweekly(ish) wargaming group to try to give A Distant Plain a fair shot.

I’d actually played the game once previously in a near-final playtest version, and hadn’t been very impressed. It’s sill unconscionably long when payed to 5 propaganda cards, easily 6+ hours if the game goes the distance (today we played to the 3rd propaganda cards of a 4-card “short” game in 4 hours). The green faction (the Warlords here) is still pretty boring and basically just doing the one or two things that they do and praying nobody notices; however unlike the Cartels in Andean Abyss, the Warlords in A Distant Plain face extremely daunting victory conditions. The pacing is still pretty slow unless players make a conscious effort to move the game quickly. It’s still completely bewildering the first time you try to play it as each faction has its own set of actions available, and there is a proliferation of different levels players are competing on. The Government wants to control population and pad their Swiss bank accounts but doesn’t care whether their citizens are actually happy; the Coalition wants people to support the government at low cost but doesn’t care about military control; the Warlords want to keep the the state destabilized; and the Taliban just wants everyone to be unhappy.

The magic in A Distant Plain is the relationship between the (Afghan Central) Government and the (US-led) Coalition. Broadly speaking, the idea of the game is that there are two fronts in the war: the military battle for control of territory, and the battle for the hearts and minds of the population. The Government’s  goal is to physically control territory; they are only interested in hearts and minds to the extent that it allows them to engage in graft without the population immediately going over to the Taliban. The Coalition is interested only in hearts and minds, but you can only win hearts and minds by first militarily controlling territory. The two players don’t trust each other, but do have to share a checkbook and have some joint military command. Only one can win. Cue endless and entertaining bickering. This is the soul of the game and does capture the incredibly fraught relationship between the US and Hamid Karzai.

By contrast the positions of the Taliban is fine but far less interesting, and probably not going to keep you going for 4+ hours. The Warlords probably only have about 2 hours in them. So play the short game.

The other important thing I think A Distant Plain improves over Andean Abyss is that it amps up the power of the event card deck. In Andean Abyss, players seemed to quickly figure out that most of the events were really hard to justify taking given the opportunity cost (i.e., not moving pieces on the board). More powerful events mean more get used, which means more flavor, more tension, and quicker play – all good. One player felt like it might have gone too far, but I feel that’s unlikely. Whether it’s hit the sweet spot is hard to tell for sure obviously – this is a rather involved game – but it’s clearly closer.

Like Andean Abyss, A Distant Plain is a complete-information whack-the-leader and be-ahead-at-the-end game with simple and open scores. It’s not great, but at least at this point you should know what you’re in for. You need to be able to enjoy the journey here more than the destination.

Also like Andean Abyss, I remain somewhat frustrated by how superficially A Distant Plain treats the subject matter. For example, A Distant Plain portrays the Government as corrupt by making its endgame victory condition goal being corrupt (each time they take a Govern action, they convert support for the government into patronage, and win on a combination of military control and patronage, not support). There is no sense of or examination of why the Government is so corrupt, or the fact that the only way the US or the Afghan Government actually win this thing (or even establish the foundations for legitimate counter-insurgency) is by hacking away at that corruption. As long as that corruption is a fact of the game, the Coalition might as well go home. The  government was and is so weak because the real power outside of Kabul resides with warlords, which drives corruption at the center. But in A Distant Plain, the Warlords are just a warmed over version of the Drug Cartels from Andean Abyss. A Distant Plain would have been more interesting and authentic – at least if it’s really attempting to be a game about COIN – if it had not been satisfied with just having a great Coalition-Afghan Government relationship, but had attacked the relationship between the Warlords and the Afghan Government and the Warlords and the Taliban with the same vigor.

I also have to say I find the area control mechanics of the cubes-and-cylinders game not very evocative of the violence that has wracked Afghanistan. You’ll get some sense of the human cost inflicted on the Taliban as those cylinders routinely get wiped out by Government and Coalition offensives and airstrikes, and Government cubes are unreliable and will go home or be infiltrated or suborned. But the Taliban doesn’t seem to have the incentive or means to inflict damage on Coalition or even Government cubes. “Good guys” going to the casualty box will be a rare occurrence unless the Taliban can snag a good set of capabilities cards, and should not tax your conscience.

If you’re interested in the topic of counterinsurgency in general and Afghanistan in particular, I recommend Max Boot’s Invisible Armies, which is a solid survey history of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Also Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents (not those insurgents) and Daydream Believers, as well as his many columns for War Stories over at Slate, in which he has discussed the surges and the complicated relationships between Washington and Kabul at some length. While I think A Distant Plain does an interesting job of tackling elements of the war, to me it relates the stories of the battles but not the actual fundamentals of counter-insurgency. Perhaps due to the currency and rawness of the topic it couldn’t do any more, but if that’s the case, why make it?

I’ve saved the worst for last, mostly because it’s the least interesting, but the design of the action cards which are central (and crucial) to the game is truly awful. The pictures are small and busy and you often have to squint at them to make out what’s going on. The text size is small and low-contrast and hard to read even when you have excellent light and are looking right at it, which of course you almost never are because it’s right across the board. The sandy background further disrupts the already terrible readability. It’s unforgivably bad and is a significant obstacle to enjoying actual face-to-face play (does all playtesting take place over VASSAL these days?). These needed to be either on larger cards with bigger fonts, or the pictures needed to be ditched, or something, because a crucial element of the game is borderline unusable.

So I won’t deny there are a number of things about the game that bug me, some of them pretty significant. I’m trying to decide if the fact that it has one really great thing plus a generally more nuanced and interesting texture than Andean Abyss makes it worth playing. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do think it has a lot more going for it than the previous game did. Even if it’s not a panacea, the central driver of the US-Afghanistan relationship gives the game a soul that Andean Abyss lacked. The better and more interesting event mix gives the game a bit more energy and motion. I think if you know what you’re getting into and set expectations appropriately it’s worth a shot, although some experience with the much shorter Cuba Libre will be valuable in making it less daunting. Just stick to the short game, and make sure the pace moves.

Andean Abyss

Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss is the first game in GMT’s new game series on counter-insurgency (COIN), with a game engine that could be described as a wargamicized El Grande (or perhaps El Grande meetsLabyrinth). Four players fight over a Colombia ravaged by insurgency, drug lords, and paramilitaries as they try to further their own factional goals. The game takes place shortly after the events of Mark Bowden’s excellent book Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, when the Medellín drug cartels were clipped in the mid-90s. One player plays the Government, and is the driving force for the game as they try to extend their writ throughout the country. The others play the FARC revolutionaries oppose them, the AUC paramilitaries, and free agent Drug Cartels.

This might not immediately strike you as a promising subject on which to base a game. The conflict is a nasty one of assassination, kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and terrorism. It’s still ongoing, and ideas about it are likely to be educated guesses mixed with speculation. However, counter-insurgency is a compelling general topic. The United States’ most problematic foreign policy for the last half-century has been hip-deep in it, and so a game that is illustrative in even a small way could be important. Colombia, relatively unknown to the Americans that are the core market for wargames, could get less bogged down in ideology. From a purely game perspective, highly asymmetric games – where different players play with different objectives, or even different rules – are interesting and highly asymmetric games, like Ruhnke’s previous game Labyrinth, are very unusual. For me personally, I’m always drawn to games that successfully tackle challenging themes. A game that could get you emotionally drawn in to the tragedy of Colombia’s wars would be incredibly compelling.

The play of Andean Abyss is driven by a deck of event cards. Each card has an ordering for the icons for the four factions (Government, FARC, AUC, Cartels) across the top, which is the turn order for this card. Two cards will always be visible, this turn’s and the next’s. Each faction in turn has the opportunity to do something – take the event, run one or many operations – or pass. Only two factions can be active on each card, and whatever the first faction does generally forces the second faction into a more restrictive action (so if the first faction does an operation, the second faction will have a limited operation). Additionally, taking an action this turn forces a faction to sit out next turn, so a cycle tends to develop, with two pairs of factions alternating cards. However, being the first faction to act usually means significantly more flexibility than going second, so it’s important to know when to pass because the turn order on the next card up is favorable and giving up an opportunity to act now will give you more freedom later.

Once you’ve decided to take an operation, your options are given by a faction-specific Chinese menu of thematically named actions: march, recruit, train, attack, assassinate, extort, airstrike, cultivate, terror, and so on. Each faction has troops (cubes for the government, cylinders for the insurgents/guerrillas) which fight for the control of areas, and bases (discs) which provide both the economic backing to fund operations and places to recruit. Control is described on two axes (population in an area can support the government or oppose it, while the area can be physically controlled by one of the factions), and there are different types of areas (regions, cities, lines of communication) with different economic and population-control implications. The Government has a lengthy process to go through of cycling in army, then police cubes in an abstraction of building up civic infrastructure while other factions try to keep their power bases and forces in being and remain flexible. While there is a significant amount of real nuance here, to me it felt like just a really complicated and asymmetric variant of El Grande. You need your cubes in the right place and in sufficient quantity to control areas. If they’re out of position you need to move them. If you don’t have enough pieces on the board, you need to get more out. If you’re short money to fund actions, you need to get out more bases or do some extortion.

Volko Ruhnke is the designer of both Andean Abyss and Labyrinth, so it’s not surprising that to the extent that both games succeed, they succeed in similar ways, and where they fail, the failings are similar also. Labyrinth may have struggled with politics, reality, and a wonky endgame, but it was remarkable for how well it allowed two very different player positions with different motivations and different tools to play the same game. Importantly, neither position or viewpoint was privileged over the other – both Jihadists and the US get the same level of thematic attention from the game. Ruhnke’s older design Wilderness Wartried to do something similar, but it’s flaw (while, like Labyrinth, still being a game I enjoy) was that it privileged the British point of view somewhat over the French. The British concerns seemed to get more attention in gameplay detail and drove more of the action, while the French were essentially reactionary.

The factional viewpoints in Andean Abyss are somewhere in-between these two earlier games. The Government’s position is thematically well-developed, with a detailed process for expanding their writ. The guerrilla factions – the FARC, AUC, and Cartels –  all feel pretty similar though. They all have a broadly similar range of actions available, although they are playing to quite different game-state goals. Those different goals though are were I believe Andean Abyss goes off the rails.

The first problem is the relatively straightforward nature of the AUC and Cartel victory conditions. While the Government has to go through an involved process of pacification, and the FARC is fighting a lonely and probably doomed war for control of population and regions, the AUC and Cartels need only get a fairly small number of bases on the board and (for the Cartels) accumulate a wad of cash. These relatively minor players – with few forces, no interest in controlling population, and more limited options – are compensated with easy VCs, to the point I’ve actually never seen anyone other than the Cartels or AUC win the game. Now, this is just my I experience and I don’t actually believe it’s the way it has to be, but it brings me to my main, crucial problem with Andean Abyss, which I could have written several paragraphs ago and saved us all a lot of trouble:

Andean Abyss is a game about counter-insurgency with no – none, zero, zilch – asymmetrical information. No hidden cards, no hidden units, no mysterious capabilities. Everything is on the table all the time. You know exactly how much force everyone has everywhere, you know the entirety of the options available to everyone, you know the results of any operations anyone might run. To the extent that there is randomness to the outcome of operations – which is almost none – everyone knows the probabilities. Everyone knows exactly how the the population thinks and exactly what to do to change their minds.

This seems highly questionable from a thematic point of view and gives little sense of the murky nature of these conflicts. Not only that, it has manifestly undesirable consequences for gameplay. Instead of making quick decisions about risk, players run several degrees of chess-like move and counter-move look-ahead, because that’s how the game is clearly telling them to think, and it turns what should be a 2 or 3 hour game that would be pressing its luck to go 3 hours into a tedious marathon (my games have gone 5 hours even for the short game). Even worse though, everyone can see all the time exactly who is exactly how close to winning. So it just turns into the usual exercise of bashing whoever is in front.

I had some hopes that familiarity with the game would drive down the playing time. The menus of numerous different actions, apparently different for each faction (although less diverse than it first appears), is hugely daunting for new player to grapple with. Playing a 100% open information game where everyone has different actions available and trying to get some sense of the implications of what you’re doing requires understanding a lot of things and constantly puzzling over options. Once you’ve learned this stuff, you could hope for a more streamlined experience. Unfortunately, there are two major obstacles. Firstly, few people really want to play again after the first 5+ hour slugfest. Secondly, the time you save in understanding the game is clawed back by the fact that now everybody knows everyone has to be on the lookout to block anyone who comes close to winning. So you add a lot of less than compelling scenario analysis and back-and-forth time back in.

Finally, like Labyrinth before it, Andean Abyss ducks too many hard questions and instead presents us with a crisp, clean, and sanitized design of cylinders, cubes, disks, and highly predictable outcomes that does little to convey the violence and capriciousness of the conflict. Perhaps an RPG would be a better format to explore the tragedy of Colombia, but Andean Abyss could have done more just by integrating more historical photos into the map and reference cards (the photos on the cards are too small and too far away to reliably make out), and using a more naturalistic approach to the visual design.

I really wanted to like Andean Abyss and wanted it to be a launchpad for a new and intriguing series of games. Flawed as they were, I am still fond of Labyrinth and Wilderness War. The game mechanics of Andean Abyss – the event cards that drive turn choices, the individualized faction action menus, the light economic model backing a positional game of discs and cubes – are promising. There is clearly a game that could have been built using them. Unfortunately, Andean Abyss is not it. Despite the undeniable level of thought and detail that has gone into it, what comes out at the end is just tedious, overlong, and overcomplicated in the same way as many other much less thoughtful king-of-the-hill type multiplayer wargames are. Unless future games address the core problem of 100% information symmetry, I don’t hold out much hope the series will improve.