If you stare into the Andean Abyss

, | Games

The argument about whether or not games are art is often just a plea for games not to be ridiculed, and instead to be treated as serious endeavors. I usually avoid it, because I think it’s a misplaced argument, and far too defensive a posture to take about something that shouldn’t cause anyone any embarrassment in the first place. But there must be something to it, because I keep running into it, sometimes in the weirdest places.

After the jump, I run into it in a boardgame about Colombian cocaine trafficking.

The corollary to the above is that it’s sometimes hard to separate the idea of “serious games” from “gamers trying to be taken seriously.” Partly this is the fault of non-gamers, who see games as useless wastes of time. Partly this is the fault of gamers, who spend an inordinate amount of time apologizing for playing games. And partly this is the fault of game designers, who bury any interesting ideas under cartoonish children or overdeveloped adolescent fantasy tropes, making it easy for dismissive observers to equate games with “comic books” and “my eight-year-old.” Smarty-pants wargame designers are no better, smugly thinking that calculating exactly how much firepower the 39th Panzer Corps was able to muster on June 22, 1941 and then turning it into a game mechanic is in itself some sort of mature observation on life. Neither approach seems like a good way to be taken seriously.

So I’m excited to be playing a game of Andean Abyss, the latest design from Volko Ruhnke, designer of Labyrinth. Labyrinth took on the challenging task of treating the war on terror as a boardgame. Using the tried-and-true mechanism of card-driven gameplay, it delivered an asymmetrical two-player treatment of an unconventional conflict, with a lot of good gameplay ideas. So I was delighted to learn that he was designing another game, this time about the modern conflict in Colombia. That pre-order was no question for my wallet. And now, here it is.

Andean Abyss has so many interesting ideas that it’s hard to focus on any one of them. That’s probably to be expected from a game which tries to model asymmetrical warfare among four (!) separate combatants, and provide anything from solitaire to 4-player gameplay. But the most interesting piece is the idea of a single event deck instead of players holding hands of cards. Furthermore, the deck incorporates many dual-use events. Which is where the magic happens. You heard it here.

Dual-use events did appear in Labyrinth, but the design was still fundamentally about the dichotomy of using cards for friendly events or for operations points, and the triggering of enemy events if you used their card for ops. Andean Abyss eliminates the idea of a hand, and instead presents cards to players one at a time, to act on or not. To make these decisions more interesting, it enables both the government and anti-government forces to take advantage of the same card, although with a different take on a specific event. The designer’s notes explain.

English language studies of the Colombian conflict read so differently from one another that they seem to be describing multiple countries. Is Colombia a thriving democracy, with a popular government that has brought economic prosperity and relative peace to its people in the face of vicious terrorist and criminal threats? Or is Colombia a harsh dictatorship by an economic elite, dressed up as democracy but in fact using state-sponsored terror to keep its ever more impoverished masses under heel, and the FARC simply the people’s defense? You can find either thesis in North American scholarship.

ANDEAN ABYSS does not attempt to settle these questions.

Great, so what? Sounds just like the antiseptic hand-washing we’ve heard about other wargames: “Sure that game piece represents Kampfgruppe Peiper but you can’t commit war crimes in this game, it’s just about military strategy.” Even games which do address the morally questionable aspects of past wars end up assigning fixed values to them: in Bomber Command it takes two Incendiaries to convert one Major Fire in a Residential Area. So how is Andean Abyss different?

In some ways, it isn’t. The FARC insurgency can perform special activities called extort or kidnap. The AUC paramilitaries can assassinate. And the Colombian cartels can cultivate, process, or bribe. So if you play the game, you can extort money, kidnap hostages, or deal drugs. Sounds like a family evening.

But the dual events introduce an element of nuance that should get gamers thinking about how they approach historical games. For example, the card “Betancourt” describes the kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt Pulecio, a Green Party candidate for president, who was kidnapped in 2002 and held for six years. One possible play of the card gives a pro-government result: “Sympathy for famous hostage” and shifts two cities and one department to active support. The other is called “Hostage negotiations forum for FARC” and shifts three spaces from passive to active opposition to the government.

That may sound like simply not taking a position on history. Which it is. Except that to do it, Ruhnke essentially rejects the core tenet of simulation design, which is that you are actually rigorously simulating something. Because the fundamental trick of dual-use events necessarily leads you to approach historical events through your own interpretation. In Twilight Struggle, the advent of Solidarity could be nothing but a setback for the Soviet Union. In Andean Abyss, the “Betancourt” card considers two different perspectives on the kidnapping campaign and its effects. Another card, “Union Sindical Obrera,” posits two different outcomes for the Colombian paramilitaries’ conflict with organized labor: one in which the targeting of labor organizers removes FARC support or bases adjacent to large pipelines, and another which pushes labor to supporting FARC and shifts support in two cities towards the insurgents. There isn’t any commentary or philosophy: everything is contained in game mechanics on the card. But for an interested gamer, it’s one step from there to reflecting on life. I’m not sure how a game can get more serious than that.

Historical boardgames with concrete mechanics can give rise to concrete thinking about history. If you make a game about World War II in Europe, and you include submarines, you have to assign some value to them, and once it gets added up in that genre’s particular calculus, you know whether unrestricted submarine warfare was worth it or not, in game terms. Or what you would have to do to make it worth it. Should Germany have built a larger fleet of U-boats? Try it and see.

But art is about the universalization of individual human experience, and there isn’t any human experience in building U-boats. Neither is there any interpretation or reflection, which is part of that same universalization of experience, except maybe reflecting on the fact that you didn’t build enough U-boats.

More traditional storytelling game genres like role-playing games don’t do much better, because their stories often are hamstrung by the same concrete mechanics that necessitate every click to progress through to a predetermined outcome. Or, in games with multiple paths, the outcomes are either identical or there is such a clear message that little interpretation is required.

So I’m both baffled and delighted that the cards in Andean Abyss got me to reflect on my interpretation of what I understood about the narco-wars in Colombia and that country’s Communist insurgency. If I were to assess it in the same rigorously quantitative way wargames approach life, I’d have to say it has given me more pause for reflection than any board or computer game I have played, ever.

That’s a big claim to be making for an obscure boardgame by a tiny California company. But strategy games are uniquely positioned for this kind of geopolitical challenging of assumptions by the fact that they can produce very different outcomes without requiring separate endings. Given a certain chain of events, the Communist FARC guerillas may overwhelm the government. Or another set of circumstances, using the cards’ same events but a different historical understanding might empower the AUC paramilitaries, or even the narco-cartels. Not in spite of the game’s fixed assumptions about the nature of history, but because of its acceptance of the malleability of historical perception.

Ruhnke lays it all out for you in the freely available playbook. Much of it is devoted to the sample playthrough, but designer commentary takes up about a third of its 44 pages, and I encourage anyone interested to read it. Ruhnke explains some of the reasoning behind this concept:

Dual-use events proved particularly helpful in representing the historical and ideological controversy over Colombia’s struggle prevalent in the sources that I had available (see “Fantasy of the Right — or Left?” below). But these event cards represent not only alternative interpretations, but also alternative history (that which did not occur, but could have) and double-edged swords (uncertainties over which of two effects might most influence the course of conflict).

If you want actual evidence of games being taken seriously, take a look at this photo:

That is Andean Abyss designer Volko Ruhnke on the left, presenting his game at a class on counterinsurgency at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. taught by Gen. Carlos Ospina Ovalle (far right), former commander of the Colombian Army during the time the game was set in. Gen. Ospina is one of the game’s event cards.

If that’s not a serious game, then the revolution has failed.