Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Part 2: Is this COIN, Whatever COIN means today?

 At this point the usual reviewer on BGG (yes I hate that place!) will start to ramble about balance, fun, cards, and perfect strategies. I reckon people are happy with this, but not me. I derive my entertainment, my fun, from how much plausible decision making I am experiencing while playing. I am not enthralled by clever mechanics if they force me to distance myself from reality (yes I consider Combat Commander rubbish and over-clever!).  As I boasted earlier I think I am also qualified to tell the people that ramble about the impossibility to have simulations that they can shut their mouths and look up simulation in a dictionary. What concerns me if is, despite lavish components, and a working set of mechanics Andean Abyss is telling me something about the real conflict in Colombia. I am not talking of sweat and blood here, this is a simulation not reality, I am talking about decision making. Even if the game is entertaining I am here to evaluate how  it addresses the problem of COIN operations. Allow me to start this rambling stating that at the moment we have only a very nebulous idea of what counterinsurgency is. More or less because we have grouped so many things under this label that it has lost any real significance. We have problems in the real world just to define insurgency. I do not believe that there is a general COIN model. Some people like John Nagl think it exists, but the same people are also prone to misquote their sources to buttress their claims and to ignore evidence to hide their fallings. They have been labelled COINistas in several circles. Furthermore they claim that not only there is a general COIN model but also a perfect solution to COIN (yes the perfect plan!). From a Historian perspective there are insurgencies and counter-insurgency campaigns but you cannot have an insurgency model, this is a thing better left to the average rambling social scientist and the lesser minds doing International Relations Theory (at least some of my colleagues in my old department fit that description; this is criticism levelled against some specific individuals and their ramblings about using models to explain everything ignoring capabilities). I think this approach is basically faulty, overambitious, and frail with dangers. Yet from an historical standpoint Colombia is an insurgency and also a pretty nasty one. While I cannto create a checklist for insurgencies around the world I can smell a clear one when I bump into it. In Colombia there were at least two factions (FARC and the loosely organize Cartel) that wanted to replace the government or force it to concession. There was not a lot of high intensity warfare because, despite successes and reasonable external support, the FARC never developed a conventional capability to really take the military head on. It was no Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq here the FARC never had a chance to drive their tank columns in the streets of Bogota, thus they had to collapse the government by other means. 

A corollary to this is that there is no insurgency warfare (and by extension COIN warfare) as a distinct kind of war. There are historical campaigns that could be simulated to provide insights.  From a wargamer stand point this mean that I will not address how the COIN series succeed in portray a generic counterinsurgency model, but rather on how it portrays Colombia.  At the moment of this writing I know three other games using the same system are around, but I will not comment on them now. Here I am in the business to compare Andean Abyss to the reality of Colombia.

Said that this I will put the cart in front of my oxen  and flatly state that Andean Abyss does a good job to portray Colombia from an historian perspective.  It presents the players with historically appropriate tradeoffs. It does not hurt in that regards that I tend to subscribe with the majority of Volko’s decisions.  From a Historian perspective civil wars are not just an ideological conflict between models from the left and the right, the rambling of ideologically dominated scholars notwithstanding. Even more importantly civil wars are usually not just a two player game with factions neatly arranged in blue and red team.  Even with their complexity and purported analytical backgrounds professional games tend to fall in this category with clearly defined Red and Blue teams (something with spurious green teams in the middle). As I mentioned in part I Andean Abyss has four factions with different goals and methods. It is certainly a simplification (I am pretty sdure the Cartle was much more than a single faction, and you can defined the AUC as a loose confederation), but it is important because it shows the multi-headed nature of the war in Colombia while still keeping the model reasonably approachable. 

While alliances and common goals are included in the game it is also clear that there will be only one winner (but I am not willing to imagine how a Cartel’s ruled Colombia would have ended… ok it is easy, weak central government in the pocket of the Narcos… but then would have they stopped? Well I end my chilly digression). The game also take a middle ground between the two competing approach to insurgency, the military and civil approach. It is a war. Even if you are in the business of promoting your ideology and your view of Colombia’s future, you are at war and you have to conduct direct operations. You have to kill the bad guys. Now a little digression…  the real advantage of the four faction approach is that your definition of good and bad guys could change during the game. There are time when alliances, truces, and deals are necessary. Even in the single player version where you are the Government you reazlie that at time you need to grant one of your opponents a bit of breathing space because you need to focus on someone else.  It is not just killing bad guys, you have to dedicate considerable resources to this task. 

Certain writers seems to believe that if you make the people happy  they will simply turn to your side and the opposition will disappear. Then they tell you how you can make people happy. Well in Andean Abyss there are advantage in having people supporting you, yet this support is flickering and often take just a couple of guys (cubes) firing Kalashnikovs for it to disappear. Combat operations and civic action are interlinked. You cannot just push one, to a certain extent if you do not kill the bad guys your effort is wasted. I know that this is not politically correct, but violence is critical for success. After all if violence was not an option the situation would not have warranted the title of Andean Abyss

 A successful player has to have a monopoly on violence, this means not only the ability to use it, but to prevent the opponents to use it. As much this sounds simple this is the great nightmare of the game. Violence is cheap, and produces several rewards, especially for the irregular players. Yet the more violence you employ the less control you have on the long term outcome. If the FARC just behave like bloodthirsty butchers the government will collapse, but the AUC will take benefits and expand. The AUC is probably even less happy with you than the Colombian Government is. Also the more people apply violence to the same area the more chaotic results are produced. So you not only need to apply reasonable violence you need to be able to control the amount of violence that the other factions use.

If you want to have this kind of  monopoly you need to remove the bad guys from the area. Again we return to the critical dilemma, how you remove them? Killing them of course, yet to kill them you use violence and resources. The resources you use in combat operations (Assault and Attack) are not available for other actions. These resources are the aptly named resource points  (money, supplies, everything) and your forces (the dreaded cubes and octagons). Both are finite and your forces are also limited by the basic law of physics, they cannot be in two places at once.  This force oyu to look at geography, both natural and humans. You need to prioritize your gains in area that are important to you. Yet, you also need to prevent your opponents to do the same in areas that are critical to them. As the government player, for example, you really want to keep cities and prosperous area under your firm control. Yet if you let the cartel run amok in the coca producing areas they will simply become filthy rich and powerful and your half friends in Washington will be mightily pissed off and with reasons. 

Well I was saying something about not putting resources where the enemy is strong? I got rewarded with FARC and Cartel unchecked growth!

Moving from general principles to ‘details’ Andean Abyss is not falling apart. The way local capabilities are represented is also effective. The Colombian army is not this powerful instrument. It is small; it has not a lot of force multipliers, especially at start. If you want to confront the FARC head to head you have to realize this before you start to send your guys against their strongholds. I could now start a tirade on why it is important to engage even an unconventional enemy on your terms and why in the end Westmoreland was doing the right thing in Vietnam, but I will wait until Volko decides to be generous again with Fire in the Lake… (hint hint).  But this is not Vietnam, this is Colombia and even if you have a sound COIN approach you have to tailor to your actual capabilities. While the regular army has some they are not a top level force in terms of equipment.  The game accurately tell this to you even if you do not have counters representing choppers, air power, or mechanized forces.  As much I dislike abstractions in Andean Abyss the extremely abstracted level used to represent force elements (oh my God, I am talking as the chaps at DSTL) is warranted.  Still, and this is an impressive feat in my little book, the game manages to track improvement (or collapse) of combat capabilities. In the real world the Colombian Army experienced and impressive transformation and you can see it in the game… if you are lucky.  These transformations are not pre-ordained. They take good people and a bit of luck (and powerful and smart friends supplying you the right kit at the right time). In the game the improvement of the Colombian Army are driven by cards. Sometime you are particularly unlucky and these cards are the ones you removed from the deck when you generate it before the game.

This brings us to another critical element: Lady Luck. I think this is a key aspect. There must be an important element of randomness. Despite is almost completely diceless combat Andean Abyss requires, especially if you are the Government or playing solo as the government, an abundant dose of luck. This is because the strength of the government depends on capabilities that are largely provided by the United States, or by internal reform initiated by local elements.  The fact that some cards are indeed removed from the deck during game preparation is critical. If you are unlucky you will lose your key force enabler (happened in my first solo game) and your hopes will suffer a severe blow.  Is this a gamey approach or is a sound simulation decision? Well, some people, including the analysts working for the Ministry of Defence here in UK or some chaps in the British Army do not like luck or randomness. I have been told countless time that in analytical simulation randomness has no place. Outcomes have to be predictable. You cannot tell the general that his operation failed because he threw bad dice… except if the General in question is Major General Andrew Sharpe OBE and he understands what this means. Ooh well, I am quite sure Captain Aoki, Imperial Japanese Navy, would be delighted to knew that a single lucky 1,000 pounder bomb could never have hit the Akagi, especially if his ship had been attacked by only three dive bombers and only one bomb hit her. If you do not have randomness and luck you have predictable results, practically you can read the future and you are providing decision makers with working crystal ball. To be brutally honest I think that refusing randomness and luck is a product of flawed logic and the obsession with the ‘Blue will always win’ approach.  

In the specific case of Andean Abyss these events represent decision and commitments that are outside the ability of the players to predict. Do we know for certain that Colombian officers would have been able to adapt their tactics and force structure to successfully defeat FARC forces in the field? I think no.  The randomness in the game important both from an analytical and a teaching (read historical) point of view.  It allow the game narrative to develop in different way and, even more importantly from the historical point of view, allow you to discuss the relative importance of different factors and event. The more plays you have the more insight you get on the relative importance of specific events and strategies. Yes, an history book or a report can give you the same, but you can discuss it and try the logic of Volko’s research  better that simply reading a dry text were a sequence of causes and effects is just [provided to you.  I am firmly convince that conflict simulations, especially good ones like Andean Abyss are better suited to generate understanding and discussion on dynamics than books or lectures and I am saying this with several years experience of teaching, sometime also using games in the classroom. I will not be shy and said that if I have to teach COIN I will definitely use Andean Abyss  to explain Colombia and COIN campaign in similar situations. The underlining model is solid, and they way the narrative develops it is reasonable.

Where the game is not satisfying me is in its general representation of operations. Beside the distinction between troops and police on one side and military forces for the government and guerrilla in general there is no attempt  to differentiate combat capabilities. There is also no way for the FARC to build a conventional military capability. They will stay guerrilla for the whole game and the government will always have a military advantage (predictable combat) over them. Specific military capabilities are shown by cards and event rather than being explicitly portrayed by o map game elements. I think that this is wrong, not just wrong in general (insurgencies tend over time to acquire conventional capabilities), but also for Colombia where the FARC attempted some effort to field a sort of conventional force, not very successful mind you, but they attempted to at least hold on their ‘liberated areas’. Yet in this particular scenario it is not a deal breaking mistake.  My other gripe is on combat. It is too predictable; you know that you will have an exact return for the resources you invest.  While it is a good way to model technical superiority but it lacks the potential to show the really bad results that could be produced by poorly executed operations. Its counterpoint is that so much randomness is introduced in other elements and this randomness indeed tends to favour the unconventional factions that probably the net effect is the same. Still I would have preferred to have a game deck less stacked against the Colombian government on one side and the potential for severe disasters in military operations on the other. I think that on the military side Joe Miranda’s system in Target: Iraq is more to my liking.

Wrapping up this long discussion I would say that Andean Abyss is indeed capable to produce a believable narrative and believable mechanics to support its subject. As the FARC player you can follow historical tactics and be rewarded with logical outcomes. As the government player you have in  broad terms the same tools at your disposal that the people in Bogota had at the time.  You are also prisoner of outside actors and factors over which you have limited or no control.

No wargame is perfect. Wargames are like weapons systems, they are a compromise between various need. Still some compromises works much better than others (like the F4 Phantom was awesome, and the F-111B was awful). Said that I think Andean Abyss does a better job in replicating is slice of reality than several other systems, commercial or professional, I have seen. I think that is much better than the professional stuff I have seen or worked with for a lot of reasons. First of all the fact that the action is more open. There are some assumptions about right and wrong approaches, but a lot is left to a real open action-reaction cycle. You have the freedom to experiment with different approaches and to get different results. It also teach you that a given approach is not ensuring you a perfect result, war is indeed a two side play and there is a competing conductor/director trying to make his version of the script dominant. Andean Abyss also lacks the obnoxious subject matter expert so prevalent in professional games that introduces arbitrary events often just to force a script in the narrative. Yes, the event on the cards are arbitrary, but… they are based on historical event that happened and they are independent from exercise controllers who seems to favour a specific side. The events are also explained and the designer gives you reasons for them (thanks Volko!). Furthermore the fact that each event could be usually exploited by both sides depending on the player order and previous action allows you a certain leverage in ability to plan. More to the point they are random. It is not Mr X (no name involved) telling you this is happening because he has his own script. You pick the card and something happens that may be good or bad.

Considering abstractions, designer’s choices, mechanics, and history I think Andean Abyss succeeds as a simulation of the Colombian Civil war. It uses several abstract mechanics, but it does not feel abstract at all. I think is a giant step forward compared to what the professional gaming community is using right now. Better designs, more defined goals, more testing,   My only caveat is that the system can fall apart along the seams if conventional war-fighting  elements are introduced.  If you are interested in the recent history of Colombia or in having a peak at how a real insurgency evolved and collapsed, Andean Abyss is indeed for you. The fact that it is also a nail biting game with a real solitaire approach does not hurt!

Also despite my nasty approach to some categories I can assure you that no academics, operational analysts, or British Army officers have been injured during this review.

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