Is facile better than nothing in Endgame: Syria?

, | Games

Two years ago, the Assad regime in Syria assumed they could just clamp down on this Arab Spring nonsense until it went away. It didn’t go away. Instead, a long civil war happened. The death toll has been staggering, thanks to the Assad regime’s unfettered use of the military power it has cultivated over the years in Lebanon and against Israel. One of the most common criticisms leveled at the international community (well, Barack Obama) is the failure to impose a no-fly zone over the county, as it did during the Libyan civil war. Sometimes it’s convenient to ignore the difference between Libya and Syria to score political points.

But as the opposition hangs on and pushes back, sometimes city block by city block, they get closer to winning. Well, “winning”. If Egypt can’t even be an Egypt, what are Syria’s chances? But with every defection, with every sanction, with every captured tank, with every demonstration, Syria’s various rebels get closer to taking control of their country. And we mostly just watch through a Google News page.

After the jump, now we can watch through a videogame

You can play Endgame: Syria in a browser here. It’s currently in the approval process for iOS and Android versions. This is the creation of Game The News, which boasts “the world, made playable”. This previously consisted of games to save endangered rhinos and fight for the Freedom of Information Act. Now it includes Endgame: Syria, designed by Tomas Rawlings, who is also one of the creators of Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. Think of a WWI themed X-Com, but with Deep Ones instead of greys. So what is a guy like this doing making a game about the Syrian civil war before it’s even over?

From the press release:

Some may think that the choice of a game as a medium for this subject is questionable, but Tomas is adamant this is not the case, “As game developers, games are a natural way for us to express our thoughts on the world around us. Games don’t have to be frivolous or lightweight; they can and do take on serious issues and open them up to new audiences.”

I like this. But the problem isn’t the concept, which isn’t frivolous or lightweight. The problem is the execution, which is frivolous and lightweight. Endgame: Syria starts on the 91st week of the fighting, with a cool 39,000 casualties racked up and numbers representing support for the rebels and the Assad regime. The regime has a hearty lead in support points. I suppose that’s Russia for you.

The gameplay is based almost entirely on each side’s pool of support points. You play cards during the political phase to put points into the support pool. During the military phase, the regime and rebels line up cards against each other, paying for them out of their support pools. When you can’t block damage from another card, you lose points out of your support pool. Some cards cause civilian casualties, which are counted up from 39,000 to no effect, as near as I can tell. And as you’re playing, the game will suddenly and inexplicably end, sometimes giving you the choice to keep fighting or to accept a settlement. I don’t know why you wouldn’t accept a peace settlement. Maybe you just want to keep playing.

The cards have plenty of related flavor, but it almost never finds its way into the gameplay. You’re just flipping cards and picking them for the numbers. Satellites, communications gear, arm shipments, and Palestinian supporters appear with their accompanying combat values. The mujahideen can hold off a tank. Communications gear shuts down artillery nicely. Occasional AA units are a welcome response to — can you guess? — the regime’s air strikes. Hey, look, the Kurd event knocked a few points off the regime’s support score. How many? Who knows. Hello, Hezbollah. Turkey, France, the UK, and exiles all give you support points, in that order. Qatar kind of sucks. But there’s simply not much gameplay under this thin veneer of current events. That’s Endgame: Syria in a nutshell: a thin excuse for a game.

It reminds me of Victory Points’ solitaire game about the French Revolution, Levee en Masse, which is a matter of flipping up cards representing historical events that modify various die rolls. Then you just roll dice to keep armies from storming Paris. Simple, simplistic, and touched by historical trappings.

I can’t help but think of the asymmetry and uncertainty of Volko Ruhnke’s modeling of the War on Terror in Labyrinth, or Ananda Gupta’s Twilight Struggle as a canny reflection of political theory during the Cold War, or how those types of card-based historical games play with the certainty of known events and the chaos of a deck of cards used by two competing players. I think of Paradox’s revolutionary — literally! — population model in Victoria II. It’s probably too much to expect that level of game design for a quick project about Syria, built to be timely. But I also can’t help but think that the ongoing events in the Arab world, specifically in Syria and Egypt, are too important to have any meaningful resonance in the simple act of flipping cards to chip away at pools of points.

But I want to respect what Rawling and Game The News is attempting. Namely, “using rapid-game development methods to build games quickly in response to real-world events…The developers say that if this game brings the issues of the war to an audience who might otherwise not have engaged with it, then the risk of making something controversial rather than playing it safe will have been worthwhile.”

But isn’t there a better way to model one side desperately clinging to life while a dying regime unleashes its fury? Isn’t there a better way to model the terrible toll this takes on Syria’s people? I don’t know the answer, since I’m not a game designer. But I know how hollow Endgame: Syria feels when it all comes to this:

Maybe that’s the point.