(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.)
A few weeks ago, I made the not-so-original observation that there were (almost) no video games about counterinsurgency, or at least any video games that took counterinsurgencies seriously. But before games went digital, the world gamed analogue-style.
Oh yeah, I’m talking about board games, with wooden blocks, plastic soldiers, card decks and dice.
If you love strategy, you probably love board games. I’d guess that 95% of ROTC cadets and national security PhD’s love the board game Risk, the game of global domination. Michael C and I are no exceptions. We’ve written about Risk before, mainly because we love it. Just love it.
Risk is all traditional warfare, almost a parody of the general idea of how war works. Your troops are here. Enemy troops are there. Get a bigger army and kill them. Oh, and take Australia or South America first. (Somehow, Australia is a strategic stronghold.) Worried about the locals rebelling? You shouldn’t be. The more land you hold, the more troops you get. Conscription!
Virtually every strategy board game--from Chess, Checkers, Abalone--follows this basic pattern. Find the enemy, then kill them. Or surround them, in the case of Go or Hasami Shogi. Stratego introduces the fog of war...but you’re still trying to destroy your enemy’s forces before they destroy yours. (Morale is never an issue.)
Then we come to wargames, modern board games that simulate real war. Risk is the king of the wargaming genre, considered to be the first mainstream wargame. Other mainstream games like Axis and Allies and Diplomacy still focus on taking territory and winning. As the genre aged, the subject matter and gameplay matured as well, but the focus didn’t stray from traditional war. In Warhammer Fantasy Battle, the players simulate fantasy battles between fictional races. In Gettysburg, players recreate the historic battle (this trend has been repeated ad nauseum for almost every important battle/war.) In Panzer Leader and Squad Leader, you literally command ground troops.
Virtually every popular strategy board game depicts traditional warfare, which begs the question: what about counterinsurgencies? Are there COIN board games? If there are COIN board games, are they popular? As I wrote in my post on videogames, I don’t know how you would even make a game about counterinsurgency without inspiring outrage. Could you design a game that wouldn’t incite debate? Could you make it simple?
To find the answer, I turned to three friends who are self-described board game junkies--two of which attend gaming cons--and they hadn’t heard of any COIN board games. But a quick Google search later, I found it, the COIN board game:
As one reviewer describes it, Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss is “the first title in the newly planned COIN (Counter-insurgency) Series focusing on historic internal war scenarios in which insurgency and the interaction of multiple sides played a major role.” (To check out other games in the rest of the COIN series, which are based of the game mechanics developed in Andean Abyss, click here.)
Awesome. Just what I was looking for. So how do you play?
“Andean Abyss takes 1 to 4 players into this multifaceted campaign for control of Colombia: guerrillas and police, kidnapping and drug war, military sweeps and terror. Each of four factions deploys distinct capabilities and tactics to influence Colombian affairs and achieve differing goals...Andean Abyss also provides an engrossing model of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Colombia—smoothly accounting for population control, lines of communication, terrain, intelligence, foreign aid, sanctuaries, and a host of other political, military, and economic factors.”
Wow. Sounds fascinating. (And I do mean that, although hardcore board gaming falls into a similar territory as Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft for me. I’m aware that if I start playing games like that, I’ll fall in love and become a nerd. (Er, more of a nerd.)) This game has inspired conversation and debate (check out this review, this review and this podcast) and the game designer, who has spoken at military universities about his game, writes essays describing the modeling and explaining the choices he made.
But I’m not writing this series to discuss the accuracy of counter insurgency gaming. (My first thought when found Andean Abyss was, “I want to play this game and review it on the blog.” Hopefully I’ll write about that in a future post.) No, I want to discuss the aesthetics of counterinsurgency media.
What’s the problem with Andean Abyss? Take this paragraph from a review of the game:
“Upon cracking open the box we find two booklets, one for the rules (16 pages) and another playbook (44 pages) which includes a detailed tutorial, designer notes, card descriptions, and many other sections to help ease play. I’ll point out it’s imperative to give the playbook a solid read through as this is essential to understanding all of the elements of play in this extremely interesting, possibly initially confusing, simulation of the volatile political situation of Colombia in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”
So a counterinsurgency board game does exist...and its rulebook is 44 pages long. And you have to read it first. And even this game isn’t popular among hardcore gamers. None of my friends had heard of it, though one guy did have Labyrinth, a post-9/11 board game about America versus the terrorists also created by Volko Ruhnke. Among the hardcore gamer community, which is already small, Andean Abyss doesn’t rate as highly as other as traditional war sims. I doubt a counter-insurgency board game will ever be accessible to anyone but the most hardcore hardcore board-gaming fans.
I don’t blame gamers or game designers; it’s not their fault that COIN is boring. So until the junior version of Andean Abyss gets made, I’ll be camping out in Australia trying to take over Asia.