In Afghanistan ’11, history and game design go up to 11

, | Game reviews

My favorite strategy games are also historical essays. Paradox’s Victoria II considers how the rise of wealth corresponded with the demand for social reform in the industrial era. Joel Toppen’s boardgame, Comancheria, examines the cycle of brutalities European expansion and Native American culture inflicted on each other. Stardock’s Corporate/Political Machine explores how perception trumps reality. Afghanistan ’11 is about what we learned from Vietnam.

After the jump, the more things change, the more things change.

As you would expect, Afghanistan ’11 is easily as good as Vietnam ’65. But it’s no mere reskin or even update. It’s a doctrinal paradigm shift. A lot of the moment-to-moment gameplay is familiar, because both games highlight that a fundamental part of war is trucking stuff around. Before shooting can happen, there must be logistics. For every exchange of gunfire, a hundred trucks had to drive a thousand bullets, boxes of food, and drums of gasoline across hundreds of miles. Who cares how many action points infantry has. The more important consideration is how many action points a truck has. Vietnam ’65 and Afghanistan ’11 could have been called War Transport Tycoon. That’s not a criticism. A lot of us enjoy our logistics porn.

But among the many changes since Vietnam ’65, Afghanistan ’11 introduces two fundamental systems. These new systems, each brimming with gameplay repercussions, represent changes in how we’ve fought wars since Vietnam. Say hello to nation-building and turnover.

The concept of “winning hearts and minds” predates Vietnam. But Vietnam turned a counterinsurgency doctrine into a household phrase. That war had a split personality. On one hand, the Viet Cong communist insurgents had to be wiped out. Their bases had to be destroyed, their support cut off, their members killed. You know, the usual stuff that armies do. But on the other hand, the villages that supported the insurgents had to be won over. We needed to convince them not to feed the Viet Cong, not to shelter them, not to join their ranks. We needed the vulnerable people in rural Vietnam to like us more than the communists. This dual approach of breaking and befriending had its own word: pacification.

But armies aren’t particularly good at making friends. Our military struggled with this new job requirement. Its bureaucracy was slow to embrace it. The term pacification more often meant carpet bombing than protecting villages. As you might have heard, it didn’t turn out well. There’s a reason you don’t hear the word “pacification” used anymore.

So fast forward to Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US military once again finds itself fighting wars against insurgents. The neoconservative administration that sent armies to invade Iraq and liberate Afghanistan knew better than to carpet bomb the population. But they assumed they could get in and out with a small powerful force without having to fuss with all that hearts and minds stuff. Like so many of their assumptions, they were wrong. So when a new administration arrived in 2008, they added this to the official army rulesbook:

Army doctrine now equally weights tasks dealing with the population — stability or civil support — with those related to offensive and defensive operations. The parity is critical; it recognizes that 21st century conflict involves more than combat between armed opponents. While defeating the enemy with offensive and defensive operations, Army forces simultaneously shape the broader situation through nonlethal actions to restore security and normalcy to the local populace.

This is no longer called pacification. It is called nation-building. Whereas Vietnam ’65 was a game about pacification, Afghanistan ’11 is a game about nation-building. It’s about this latest specified role of the military as a force that doesn’t just check in with villages from time to time to see if they’ve heard anything about insurgents they can go kill. That’s how Vietnam ’65 worked. When you then killed the bad guys, you earned hearts and minds points, which was your score. Now the military builds infrastructure and feeds people. Now you directly affect the hearts and minds score by building waterworks, maintaining those waterworks, extending roads, and delivering supplies. The supply delivery in particular is important. Just as trucks have to deliver supplies to soldiers, now they have to deliver them to civilians. All that logistics has a whole other level. As the real world manual says, “The parity is critical.”

Nation-building implies there will be a nation at some point in the process. And a nation needs its own army. This was also an important part of Vietnam. In fact, the war gave that part of nation-building its name: Vietnamization. This is the concept of developing local military forces and handing them the war so our guys can come home. It was a critical fumble in Iraq when F. Paul Bremer, the neocon in charge, disbanded the Iraqi military, flooding the country with disgruntled and unemployed young men who didn’t have much else to do than join an insurgency. Oops. But it was a fundamental part of Afghanistan as we teamed up with the Northern Alliance. We knew that no part of the Taliban could remain. We knew that Afghanistan was being rebuilt after years of misrule. We knew there needed to be new boots on the ground after ours were airlifted out. Given the state of Afghanistan, knowing and doing are clearly two separate things. But Vietnamization was on our mind from the very beginning.

Ironically, Vietnamization was a peripheral part of Vietnam ’65. You could train local units, and they were better at communicating with villages. But it was basically an optional gameplay mechanic. The US was entirely in charge throughout the game. Now it’s a fundamental part of Afghanistan ’11 from the get-go. As you play, a clock is ticking that measures what percentage of military forces are composed of locally trained infantry, vehicles, and helicopters. If you don’t hit your target, you incur a resource penalty. If you exceed your target, you get a bonus. The percentage creeps higher every five turns. Hitting that percentage involves both training new forces and sending US forces home. After a game is three quarters played, bam!, the target is 100%. Now all US units come home and you have to weather the final quarter with nothing but locals. The Taliban know this, so they launch a concentrated offensive. At this point, Afghanistan ’11 feels less like an insurgency game and more like a conventional wargame, with hardy enemies pouring in from the eastern side of the map (it represents the border with Pakistan, where Taliban forces have been festering all the while).

This turnover concept gives Afghanistan ’11 a narrative structure that had no counterpart in Vietnam ’65. Games vary dramatically based on the procedurally generated map, the single highway that passes through it, the locations of the villages, the locations of the Taliban caves that spawn units, the forces you choose, the bases you build, and other factors. But every game will have that same overarching narrative of Vietnamization, or turnover. Every game will be about nation-building, and then seeing how well that nation holds up. The closest example I can think of is Brian Reynolds’ design for Colonization, in which your colony would invariably have to fight against her mother country. That structure loomed over every game, despite all the other variables.

Afghanistan ’11 sports lots of new variables. Alongside its new structure, it also has new randomness. As a game progresses, pressure builds up for elections. When these elections happen, three candidates appear, each with a set of global gameplay modifiers. One might give you more resources each turn, while another might take away resources each turn, while the third might instead have an effect on the cost of military units. Naturally, you’ll prefer one over the others. You can tilt the vote, but you can’t decide it. In fact, for a game that keeps so much of the mechanics above-board that it has a boardgame elegance, the elections are curiously — and intentionally — under the hood. Who knows what determines the winner? As we learned during the Arab Spring and the 2016 winter, democracy doesn’t always mean liberal democracy. Self-determination isn’t always self-interest.

Random events also pepper the game. One turn air strikes might be more expensive because someone accidentally hit a hospital. Not a big deal if you’ve been managing your political capital wisely. Another turn a bunch of Afghan military units defect. Ouch. Seriously, ouch. That’s a big deal. The random events — unknown unknowns, Rumsfeld might call them — show a trust in the design. This game is good enough to weather something just happening out of the blue. In fact, that’s one of the lessons. Sometimes the universe is just as much an enemy as the guys who are shooting at you.

Like many elements of the Afghanistan ’11 design, you can turn off elections and random events. The settings are tweakable, and there’s even a difficulty level independent of the various settings. I recommend going easy on yourself for the first few games. Literally. Set the difficulty to easy. You’re learning. You’re not ready for the Taliban and the universe to hit you in the face simultaneously. There’s even a campaign consisting of scripted set-ups and objectives. Not my bag, but apparently enough people whined about the lack of campaign in Vietnam ’65 that it was worth the development time. Have at it. Let me know if it’s any good. I’ll be over here playing the real game.

Also new is a whole lot of extra sizzle. Afghanistan ’11 looks great. Civ V great. The looming mountains, the dusty trails of trucks trundling along dirt roads, Blackhawks and Chinooks hugging the ground, the A-10, F-16, and C-130 flyovers. When the computer is making your queued up moves, zoom the view all the way in. Now sit back and enjoy the Mad Max of bad-ass hardware like Huskies, Buffaloes, and MRAPs. Designer Johan Nagel, a South African, points out that these are all South African designs based on hard-learned lessons from their war with Namibia. Is it any coincidence Fury Road was basically a South African production shot in Namibia? Of course the Buffalo looks like a war rig. You can all but see Charlize Theron’s robot arm hanging out the driver-side window.

Afghanistan ’11 does a simple trick to represent how the lethality of war has changed. Now everything in the game has two hit points (delicate trucks excepted). The first hit damages it. A second hit will kill it. This means you can take care of your forces more readily. Be sure to return a unit to headquarters to heal it after that first hit and you’ll never suffer a casualty. This represents another important lesson learned from Vietnam about minimizing casualties, as well as more advanced medical technology. In Vietnam, one in four US casualties was a death. In Iraq and Afghanistan, only one in ten US casualties is a death.

There’s also a neat trick that distinguishes men (and women) from machines. When a unit is damaged in Vietnam ’65, whenever you spend a few political points to repair it, it’s good as new. But Afghanistan ’11 charges you a “med evac” fee for damaged (i.e. wounded) infantry. You pay this fee every turn, for every wounded infantry. Furthermore, the cost goes up considerably the longer the infantry stays wounded. Take your time repairing those Blackhawks if you want. But there’s a sense of urgency with soldiers. You have to take care of them in a different way than you have to take care of their hardware. Lives matter more than $6 million Blackhawks.

This gets at something I love about Afghanistan ’11, which not only sets it apart from Vietnam ’65, but which also sets apart the war in Afghanistan from the war in Vietnam. Today America prosecutes her wars in a more humane, transparent, and even moral way than she did in 1965. And among the lessons we learned in Vietnam and put into practice in Afghanistan is cultivating respect for our soldiers at home. Vietnam is the war the public hated so much they spat on returning soldiers. But even the most vocal opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are quick to point out they support the troops. Respect for military service is so ingrained in our culture it’s hard to imagine the alienation many Vietnam vets felt. In Afghanistan ’11, your priority is on taking care of your soldiers. Nagel, himself a former soldier, honors his former profession.

He also provides a remarkable insight into the art of game design. The essay written/designed into Afghanistan ’11 isn’t just about American history. Afghanistan ’11 learned a lot from Vietnam ’65 about gameplay density. It’s less of a slog through a jungle and more of a helicopter ride over the mountains. More happens. More options for meaningful decisions. More roles for more tools. Units move farther and can do more. More action, less waiting. More systems threaded smartly into existing systems rather than bolted onto the margins. This essay isn’t just about the changes in war since Vietnam, but it’s about changes in game design. Nagel also honors his new profession.

(If you enjoyed this review and would like to see more like it, please consider supporting my Patreon campaign.)

  • Afghanistan '11

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • A remarkable essay about history and game design. Also a damn fine game.