War Room models modern COIN operations, but it’s got some work to do to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of wargamers

Modern warfare is complicated. Not in the logistical and political sense like all wars are, but in a more intellectual sense — without rival states facing each other like in the Napoleonic and World Wars or an ideological conflict like the Cold War and the Crusades, the landscape is steeped in shades of grey.

Some of the biggest challenges facing western militaries over the past decade has arguably stemmed from the threat of insurgency. It’s not a new concept – it’s been an integral part of most major conflicts of the 21st century, but it’s only recently that’s its dominated the global defence agenda in such a focused way, in no small part due to American and NATP operations in the Middle-East post 9/11.

It’s proven an alluring subject matter in the war game world as well: insurgency and counter-insurgency have been featured in games from Call of Duty and Squad to Ndemic’s Rebel Inc. and Johan Nagel’s Afghanistan ’11. War Room, the debut title of Binge Gaming, is the latest game to tackle this material, and it does so from a somewhat novel perspective. Eschewing the simple tabletop-like graphics and ‘hand of god’ approach of most wargames for a more diegetic and almost roleplaying experience.

On paper, the game puts you in the boots of the US Army’s military commander in charge of hunting down terrorists cells in Afghanistan and bringing stability to the region by securing the democratic election of local candidates. By taking out insurgent networks and high-priority targets, securing the villages, and gaining the trust of locals, you will slowly bring peace to the war-torn land. In short, it’s the ideals of the American ‘COIN’ doctrine made manifest.

While the game takes place in a real country, the actual ‘Area of Operations’ is fictitious: you are deployed to the fictional province of Kushan, named after the syncretic empire that occupied what would be Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of northern India back in the 1st century AD. There, you must secure all nine sectors and take down every single node of the insurgent network, all while protecting the gubernatorial candidates and bringing your people back alive at the end of each day.

A game like this is ripe for one of two approaches: either a heavy-handed take on the ‘horrors of war’ exacerbated by urban combat, or a Ubisoft-like faux-apolitical approach that ignores all the geopolitical tension in exchange for ‘fun’. War Room sits somewhat in the middle — the game doesn’t posit any kind of critical analysis as to whether COIN actually works or not, but neither does it blindly ignore the challenges of it either. Counter-insurgency is an age-old dilemma, but it’s also dominated American foreign policy since the turn of the century. It’s a question that may not have an answer, despite humanity’s continued attempts to try — there are frameworks going all the way back to Machiavelli that are still standing.

In War Room‘s case, the US COIN Doctrine takes the form of ‘Hearts and Minds’ missions where you send patrols to villages around the map in order to endear themselves with the locals and gain their respect. You must also secure the region by reducing mine and IED densities and sending patrols on routes around each base, further increasing the public’s opinion and trust in your abilities. To paraphrase the US State Department back in 2009, the fight against insurgency is a political struggle in which both sides use armed force to create space for their political, economic, and influence activities to be effective — and as such, the player is in charge of leveraging all their power to gather support and turn the situation in their favour.

In practical terms, the end result is slightly disappointing. You won’t be focusing on training local troops or performing supply and humanitarian airdrops in addition to your standard base and FOB patrols (something Afghanistan ’11 modelled quite well), nor will you be working with the Irregular Warfare Annex or even undertaking any of the many classic counter-terrorism operations carried out by the military and federal agencies alike — the game’s focus is purely on the most basic tier of military deployment in the purview of CENTCOM, and that part, at least, is considerably more fleshed out.

War Room, like any good wargame, draws heavily from real life to flesh out its Operation Promised Land — the game’s own version of Operation Enduring Freedom. Most vehicles and equipment, be they HMMWVs, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, or CH-47 Chinooks, are modelled on and named exactly as their real life counterparts, and the game features a huge array of materiel to pick from: light and heavy infantry, Army Rangers, IED detection vehicles, attack and support helicopters, even airlift cargo planes — things you would need for any military operations, not just a counter-insurgency one.

Curiously, the one thing you have few of are drones. While in real life there are over 25 prototype and operational MQ variants of UAVs besides the ubiquitous MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, you often have access to just two units of a single recon model. These are your eyes and ears on the AO, sent to locations of interest to monitor the situation and give you a bird’s eye view of the battlefield. The drones circle the area until they run out of fuel or are recalled, and provide you with a mobile camera platform equipped with three colour-modes and multiple-zoom capabilities from which to observe your troops progress and call in air-support strikes.

Outside the drone feed, you manage your bases from a satellite view which gives you full real time monitoring of established sectors. You start with a single base, which acts as the main stronghold for the whole game, and recon surrounding regions before establishing FOBs in predetermined locations deemed suitable. There is little freedom to be had in an operational sense, really, as most of the options and game mechanics are hard-coded — you only establish bases where the game wants you to, you can’t control staff in bases or change priorities to rearm air support aircraft faster or prioritise the repair of damaged ICVs, and you can’t even use artillery howitzers.

That last bit is a personal gripe of mine, as I personally value freedom in military games. War Room actually does a decent job of offering several CAS options, ranging from F-16 air strikes and C-130 fly-byes to attack helicopters and strafing runs, but it lacks some basic functionalities like the ability to send fighter support on keyhole tactics or the ability to deploy a C-130 in station in a pylon turn — basic abilities that I fully expected in a game wholly built on the premise of operational command.

Another aspect the game tries to model is the impact of civilian and troop casualties. It’s tied to the all-encompassing ‘trust’ metre, and it’s a metric that you have for both the local region you’re in charge of, and CENTCOM itself. At the moment the implementation feels a bit lopsided, although losing troops AND hurting civilians both cost you ‘trust’. The game has several mechanics around attempting to MEDEVAC wounded soldiers from the battlefield, which you can watch from the drone feed but the civilian side seems to have less consideration.

You can’t deliberately target civilians, but calling in airstrikes or other ordnance too close to huts and other civilian infrastructure can cause non-combatants to be killed. When this happens, you’re told this is a war crime and lose some trust. And… that’s it? We’re not going to accuse War Room of trivialising the real humanitarian cost of this kind of warfare, but the contrast between how you interact with your own soldiers and how you interact with the world around you is a bit stark.

Another mechanic that needs a bit more work is the interface itself, as War Room is not very forthcoming with things like travel times, resupply predictions, or any other kind of ETA whatsoever. I love the way the game gives you a little countdown whenever you call in air support — and the time is longer the farther from the base the AO is — but there is no way to find out how long it will take for my F-16 to circle back for another run outside the drone view. For that matter, why the hell is my F-16 only able to drop a single bomb on target and seems utterly incapable of circling in a holding pattern in anticipation for continued close air support requests?

But speaking of underwhelming mechanics, the strangest bit is that the very concept of intel is all but lacking. You can’t gather info on enemy movement to get a whiff of possible traps, and the game is also very iffy with ambushes proper: you either lose all your troops in a split-second to enemy fire, or order a retreat which is inexplicably labelled as a ‘failure’. Getting infantry back alive from an enemy ambush that you had no way to even suspect was coming during a covert recon mission is not a failure in any sense of the word — there is nothing wrong with retreating from a patrol if it means the operational goals are unchanged and everyone gets to go home safe and sound.

War Room is a notable attempt to leverage an under-utilised USP, namely that of operational warfare in modern times, with all the up-to-date bells and whistles of modern game design. It’s nice to have a wargame that uses decent graphics, instead of something that looks like it scanned an SPI game from way-back-when. That said War Room‘s treatment of its own subject matter is a bit questionable at times, and it’s not even the best example of a game of this type. This is a good option if you care about immersion, but in terms of game mechanics and breadth of options, Afghanistan ’11 does it better.

Besides that, this feels like it should be an Early Access game. The developers have already posted up a serious roadmap for content coming in 2021, but despite the game being released ‘formally’ you can definitely see where the gaps are. Even if you want to set aside everything about COIN and the civilian dynamic, just looking at the operational space we’d expect more tools and options at our disposal for a game set (roughly) in the 2010’s. There’s a great game here – but it’ll need time to truly reveal itself.

War Room was released on November 17, 2020 – we’ll keep playing it to see how it comes, and may consider a formal review further down the line.

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