Now approaching its sixteenth year, the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is the longest armed conflict in American history, and arguably one of the most difficult to capture in a wargame format. That’s probably why Afghanistan ’11 isn’t really a wargame, but rather a strategy game about a specific kind of war: counterinsurgency. As such, the game is less concerned with enemy casualty counts and focuses instead of the decidedly fuzzier notion of “winning hearts and minds” as laid out in the COIN theory.
Afghanistan ’11 is the second of Johan Nagel’s asymmetric counterinsurgency games, and it makes some welcome additions and corrections to the format he established with Vietnam ’65 (you can read Richard Talbot’s Wargamer review here) while retaining the overall gameplay structure.
Here’s how that works: As a U.S. commander, your job is to keep the Hearts & Minds score of a particular Afghan region, the average of the H&M score of all the villages, moving up. You do this by visiting villages, delivering UN aid packages, connecting villages to highways, finding and disarming IEDs, and by defeating enemy units in combat. Villages’ H&M score will decrease whenever a IED scores a hit on a US or Afghan National Army unit, when a coalition unit runs out of supplies in the field, when the militia or Taliban hit a US or ANA unit, when a militia intimidation unit reaches a village, when opium crops are destroyed, or when a US-built waterworks is damaged.
You’ll recruit units using Political Points (PP), which represent congressional and popular support for the war in Washington. Congress wants value for money, so they’ll loosen the purse strings the more they see you get results. Stay ahead of the timetable for training and handing control over to the ANA, and you’ll see your PP allowance go up. But asking for reinforcements or suffering casualties leads to support drying up.
As with Vietnam ’65, there’s a hard cap on each game’s turns, although in Afghanistan ’11 there’s an added wrinkle: by default, US forces depart at turn 50, handing control over to ANA units you’ve hopefully been training, which then must hold out on their own until turn 60, at which point the game ends. If you’ve managed to keep the aggregate H&M score at or above 50, you win.
It’s an easy game to pick up and play, and that’s thanks in a large part to the simple elegance of its design. There isn’t a huge list of units at your disposal: infantry and MRAPs, Strykers, special forces squads, a couple distinct helicopters, supply trucks, howitzers, and the build-things unit, the buffalo. Crucially, there’s also the Husky, a vehicle designed to clear IEDs along roads. Where the clear emphasis in Vietnam ’65 was on the iconic Huey, here helicopters are too expensive to recruit and operate to rely on for most transport. You’ll have to do a lot of driving in Afghanistan ’11, and the highways and dirt roads can be nail-bitingly lethal to traverse. Your invisible enemies will be busily placing IEDs along crucial supply lines, and while infantry units can opt to search for them while on foot, the only practical means of disposing of them is to have Huskies constantly driving up and down busy roads.
The Forward Operating Bases from Vietnam ’65 have been improved. You can now add modules to them, allowing them to house artillery, field clinics, and vehicle repair bays. Having an artillery battery on standby in the neighborhood is extremely helpful when a convoy runs into Taliban ambushes. Your buffaloes can build FOBs in designated areas, but if you find yourself with a surfeit of Political Points, you can use a Chinook in a pinch.
Shuttling ammo, rations, fuel, and UN aid around the map will take up more of your time with Afghanistan ’11 than fighting it out with Taliban and militia forces does. This is a game about security, not battlefield tactics, and your moment-to-moment decision-making will center around how to get which supplies to what FOB and whether it’s safe to do so. Meanwhile you’ll be keeping an eye on local villages’ allegiances, and checking for the telltale bonfire that indicates a fresh opportunity to gather intelligence.
(As a side note, the bonfire iconography is another holdover from Vietnam ’65, and it struck me that it could be Nagel’s own wry critique of COIN doctrine as a process of “running around a map putting out fires.”)
There are further improvements on the Vietnam ’65 model as well. The map is presented in full 3D, making Afghanistan ’11 quite a bit easier on the eyes than its predecessor. Also, an 18-mission campaign helps provide some historical context missing from the randomly-generated skirmish mode maps. In what I thought was a very nice touch, your achievements are displayed as awards or decorations on an Army class A uniform in the menu.
But I have my complaints as well. The interface, while slick and unobtrusive, doesn’t use any text, so you’ll just have to remember what each icon means. Another irritant is the sole reliance on the left mouse button, except in the case of scrolling the map around, which for some reason is mapped to the middle mouse button/scroll wheel. An odd choice, given that the right mouse button isn’t used at all. I imagine this is because the previous game was cross-released on both iOS AND PC, and this game pretty much uses the same engine. There isn’t a mobile version releasing this time around, but if Slitherine/ESS ever change their minds Afghanistan ’11 would be well suited.
There’s now a political layer to the game, where you’ll periodically pick a candidate to support in regional elections. Unfortunately, it’s rather shallow, and the extent of the political influence on the game is a series of modifiers to production costs and loss penalties. And while the campaign is a welcome addition to the randomly-generated skirmish mode, it’s often hard to draw the line from the historical flavor text explaining real-world operations and battles to the scenarios they introduce.
More fundamentally though, Afghanistan ’11 is based on some good faith assumptions about COIN that the doctrine itself probably doesn’t deserve. The U.S. strategy of “build infrastructure, visit villages until bad guys go away” is modelled as completely workable in Nagel’s games, despite the fact that the two major American wars that have relied heavily on this strategy are anything but resounding successes. Since David Galula published the first comprehensive explanation of COIN, Counterinsurgency Warfare and Practice (1964), the concept has not been meaningfully adapted nor successfully brought to bear in either major war where it’s formed the centrepiece of American strategy. Afghanistan ’11 doesn’t interrogate COIN theory, but rather is content to assume that it just works, so long as commanders using it are clever enough.
Then again, what would a strategy game that does critique COIN doctrine even look like? The fact that Afghanistan ’11 refuses to dig into the question doesn’t detract from its effectiveness as a military strategy game. With relatively few moving pieces, this game evokes a side of modern warfare that’s rarely seen in games due to the difficulties in modeling something as conceptually squishy as “hearts and minds.” The elegance of its design make it engaging and fun from the word go, and the game’s new features fill out the already solid foundation laid down by ’65.
What I’ll take away from Afghanistan ’11 is the fraught trips back to HQ, hoping my fuel-starved Blackhawk can make it home over the foothills of the Hindu Kush and not be shot out of the sky by a Taliban RPG team, or praying that my supply trucks make it a far-flung FOB before a sandstorm hits. I’ll remember cursing an IED that detonated on a bridge I’d cleared two turns ago, and the feeling of accomplishment I got from successfully handing over operations to newly-trained ANA soldiers.
This isn’t isn’t going to scratch the old school grognard’s command itch, but it’s a surprisingly deep and satisfying strategy title. If you enjoyed ’65, there’s enough new and improved to easily justify picking this one up.