Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The year in iPhone/iPad gaming

For me, 2010 turned out to be the year of discovery, or in some cases re-discovery, of games in the electronic ether. There are several different facets of this personal trend, with several reasons for it to match. I'll break them into a couple of separate posts, starting with the newest electronic platform, smart phones and tablet devices.

I've had an iPhone for a while, and earlier this year, I bought an iPad. The medium is well-suited for ports of actual boardgames to this medium -- simple to operate, easy to handle, better suited for turn-based experiences than real-time twitchfests -- so it's natural that a few board game designers and publishers capitalized on this trend. Here are some personal high and low points, as well as a notable gap or two.

Often, reviewers of iPhone/iPad games give demerits to titles that don't provide an online option. That's more than a little unfair, since the market for online play of any game might be smaller than the market for smartphone and tablet wargames. All the gamers I know have smart phones. I know of only one who has ever played online.
The make-or-break feature of games in this medium is the AI. The better the AI, the more often I'll play against it, even if it's not a game I particularly like. Small World, for example, is something I avoid in the face-to-face gaming world. (Too obvious which race to pick, several duds, fairly obvious strategies in each turn.) However, it is a game that's perfect for a 10-minute diversion, as long as the AI is up to the challenge. Since it is, I'll play Small World on the iPad, despite my feelings about the game in its original incarnation.

After playing several board game ports, I don't see them competing with the physical versions at all. Quite the opposite: playing on the iPhone or iPad a game with which I've had little or no experience makes me want to play it against a real person in the near future. After one face-to-face play of Roll Through The Ages, I was interested in playing again, but not exactly fired up to do so. After playing it a few times on the iPhone, and getting a better appreciation for the game, I'm way more interested in the live version than I was before. The electronic version is a different experience, not a substitute.

My biggest disappointment is the absence of any real wargames for the iPad. Without Java support, we're a long way from seeing an iPad version of Vassal, which allows Internet or solitaire play of dozens (hundreds?) of wargames. No one has ported even the simplest game, either historical (for example, Napoleon) or not (say, OGRE/GEV), While it may be harder to develop an AI for even the simplest block game than Small World (whether or not it's a wargame), the real barrier, I suspect, is commercial.

The companies that publish these games don't have the people or money to develop iPad or Android versions, and it's not clear how much of a market exists for them. The low price point for the average iPad game also makes it potentially riskier to develop one, since you have to sell a lot of copies to make a profit. Maybe a small development shop with mad iPad skills could specialize in doing these ports for Columbia, GMT, and other companies, who lack the technical or marketing skills to succeed on this new platform.


While my sample is certainly small, and maybe unrepresentative, it's worth noting that reviewers give online play for games on other platforms more weight than customers do. The designers of Demigod, for example, expected it to see more online play than offline. However, when the numbers came in, the online play was far smaller than they had expected. To be fair, they had a famous server crash on the day of Demigod's launch, but even after that debacle, online play never really dominated the game experience as originally imagined.

Surprisingly, there aren't many party games for the iPad, even though (1) it's an ideal device for pass-and-play, and (2) unlike wargame publishers, the companies that own properties like Apples To Apples have the means to roll out electronic versions. So, what's the problem?

My guess is that party games are doing poorly for the same reasons that video games based on big-name licenses (TV shows, movies, etc.) often fail: sloppy design. Just as a Star Trek game that sucks won't sell, in spite of being a Star Trek game, iPad versions of Scene It! and other popular party games don't sell if they suck.

And boy, do they. Scene It! is an especially bad offender. The UI for playing various mini-games, such as the disappearing popcorn one, are confusing or clumsy. They're not particularly exciting mini-games. And, worst of all, the selection of movies are hardly classics. Scene It! feels like the non-stop ads disguised as games in movie theaters between showings, a transparent effort to shill some property that the studios desperately want to push. Note to game designers: I won't remember lines from a movie that doesn't have any memorable lines.

To succeed on the iPad, designers have to stretch themselves more to make it easier to play party games, which are by definition games for people who are not serious gamers. Maybe it will take a few successes among games designed for the platform from the ground up, such as Knowsy, to drive home that point.

Here's a syllogism:
Designing a good boardgame or card game takes talent, patience, and

People designing Android, iPhone and iPad games are not necessarily skilled game designers, and they're usually in a hurry to bring their product to market.

Therefore, if someone designs a brand-new game, never before seen as a physical game, chances are it will have game design issues, no matter how well it functions as an app, or as pretty as the graphics may be.

Case in point: Destiny's Blade, an iPad game clearly inspired by Magic: The Gathering. It's a fun game for a while, in spite of some goofy UI decisions. (Why oh why is deck-building so damn hard in a game about deck-building?) The developers are very responsive to bug reports and constructive criticism.

However, even after multiple updates, it's still a blah game with some clear balance issues. For example, one computer opponent has nothing but fast-attack creatures, a horde of velociraptors. It took me dozens of tries to defeat it, because practically nothing trumps that opponent's ability to quickly summon a helluva lot of creatures that dish out a helluva lot of damage. That's the point at which any CCG or LCG player will lose faith in the game system, or the mix of cards designed to operate within that framework of rules.

In spite of the mixed record of boardgames on smartphones and tablets, I'll still keep trying them out. I love the iPad, since it fills a niche that the laptop never did. Among other virtues, it's genuinely possible to read books on it, something that never worked on a laptop or desktop. (No surprise, therefore, I've loaded up the iPad with PDF copies of rulebooks for games in my collection.)

In fact, I'm writing this blog post on the iPad, the first time doing so. I'm, moving as much of my activity from the laptop to the iPad as I can, so I'll continue to be a potential customer for iPad boardgames, both ports and first-time designs.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The best and worst game experiences of 2010

It's that time of year for "Best of..." lists. Efforts to enumerate the best games published that year always seem a little arbitrary to me. Why a top 5, or a top 3? What if 2010 turned out to be a banner year for boardgames, or a barren one? The best games published this year aren't necessarily the best on the market. And, in any case, "Best of..." lists often say more about the reviewer than the game themselves.

Instead of passing judgment on the games themselves, I'll tick off some of the best game experiences I've had in 2010. By the way, if you've ever wondered about the value of Boardgame Geek's "games played" features, here's one benefit: I might have forgotten over half of these games, without this running chronicle.

In no particular order...

  • Maria. Since our game group has had many three-player nights, Maria saw a few plays in 2010. I love this game, both for how it plays, and how well it simulates its subject. I don't think I've ever seen a game deal with the tricky balance of power politics of the 18th and 19th century as vividly or interestingly as Maria does. It plays quickly, leaving me every time with the desire to apply the lessons learned to the next bout.
  • Runewars. At first, I harbored doubts about the game. Was this going to be an overproduced game which, like a few other FFG titles, suffered from too much attention to the components, and too little to the actual game play? Happily, Runewars turned out to be an excellent game, with lots of interesting choices, subtle strategies, and high replay value. Despite blowing a few key rules in our first plays, we saw enough potential to continue playing. I'm very glad we did.
  • Neuroshima Hex. Not only has this proved to be a great quick game face to face, but it's easily my favorite port of a boardgame to the iPad and iPhone. You can finish a game in about 10 minutes, and the AI is smart enough to give you a continued challenge.
  • Twilight Imperium. I've already said my piece about this month's session of Twilight Imperium in another post. Suffice it to say, I'll play this game at any and every opportunity. While Runewars is designed to reach the endgame faster, Twilight Imperium gives you a bit more time to savor the game experience and fine-tune your strategy.
  • God's Playground. Another great three-player game. While I've learned to appreciate After The Flood (Martin Wallace's other three-player game) more than I did on the first play, I still prefer God's Playground. In some games, you keep the invaders at bay; in others, they rampage through Poland mercilessly. In both cases, the game stays interesting and competitive. One of the best "coopetition" games out there. Plus, medieval Poland is a very interesting subject historically, and a great topic for a game.


Fortunately, 2010 saw very few bad gaming experiences. However...

  • Rush and Crush. A completely blah racing game, which is another way of calling it a failed racing game. No real excitement.
  • Innovation. Please, please stop trying to make the "Civilization that plays in less than an hour" games. Something will always suffer. In this case, the effort to make the game play quickly hinges on keeping every turn short, and the path to victory fairly direct. Unfortunately, in trying to meet these requirements, there are too many turns in which you can't make any real progress. Bim bam boom, keep it moving.
  • Tammany Hall. This is the game that inspired me to write a post about the role randomness plays in giving players a buffer to make adjustments in their strategy. Tammany Hall is way too deterministic for a game that takes a fairly substantive stretch of time to complete. I can see where you will improve your strategy over multiple plays -- but so will everyone else. The twin problems of "beat on the leader" and "how the heck to I catch up" seem very likely to remain.
  • Combat Commander Battle Pack #2: Stalingrad. Not a bad game at all, really, but it definitely wasn't the Stalingrad I expected. Practically no buildings...? Weird.

I've played Race for the Galaxy to the point where I don't want to play it ever again. I certainly got my money's worth, but the game started to irritate me. The randomness of card draws, combined with the deck that got larger and larger with each expansion, made half the games feel like a wasted effort. 

It doesn't help that the last expansion threw the game out of whack. Games ended with more lopsided victories. Prestige didn't seem like quite the game-balancer I had hoped it would be.

There are lots of games that I wish we'd been able to play in 2010. Most of them are two-player games, and most of those are wargames. Our little group just isn't structured in a way that we can easily break into parallel games, so two-player titles have fallen by the wayside. Hearts and Minds, Hellenes, Stalin's War, Claustrophobia, Battles of Westeros, A Most Dangerous Time, Command & Colors: Napoleonics...The list continues.

On the multi-player front, high on the list of games I'd love to play in 2011 are Here I Stand and Successors. Both are card-driven wargames, covering fascinating periods of history. Good fits for our group, but we just haven't been able to get to them yet. (Getting 6 people together and enough time for Here I Stand is no small feat, as we've found.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The 30-minute epic is an oxymoron

One of the best Christmas presents this year was a rollicking game of Twilight Imperium last week. Thanks, Dave, for setting it up! I know it wasn't just for me, but I did enjoy the hell out of it.

Why do I love Twilight Imperium? Because it is unabashedly epic, in a genre that's full of good epics (Dune, the Foundation series, Ender's Game, Ringworld, the Hyperion series, etc. etc.). You won't finish in an hour, or two hours, or even three hours. But so what?

If you were adapting any of the epic SF stories I mentioned for the screen, you couldn't do it justice in 90 minutes. Ditto for epic stories from other genres, such as grand historical dramas like Lawrence of Arabia. Games are no different, particularly since you're doing more than just passively watching the story unfold. Building a story from scratch takes time, whether it emerges from the mechanics of a boardgame, or it happens more deliberately in a role-playing game.

We played almost an entire game of Twilight Imperium in a single evening. No, really. While we saved time through some shortcuts, such as fixed set-up, we also needed extra time to explain the game to a couple of new players. We ended one turn short of finishing, because it was getting pretty late for a weeknight (closing on 1 AM). But we felt satisfied with the experience -- at least as satisfied as if we had spent the same amount of time playing three or four shorter games.

People who impose an arbitrary ceiling on play time are cheating themselves out of a lot of very satisfying boardgame experiences. Sword of Rome, for example, presents the bare-knuckled power politics of the ancient world. Invading Gauls! Quarreling Greeks! Aloof Etruscans! Relentless Romans! If you pack all that, plus Carthaginians and Samnites, into an historical rollercoaster of a game, why complain that Sword of Rome supplies four or five rollicking hours of drama, instead of merely one or two?

Especially since the alternative doesn't exist. The 90-minute epic is a myth. There's just not enough time for anything that the word "epic" might mean, such as "a cast of thousands," or "big events happening to larger-than-life people." I've seen some noble efforts, but unfortunately, they don't work.

Galactic Emperor, for example, whittles the Twilight Imperium theme down to the point where you've barely researched anything, or invaded anywhere, or colonized anything, before the game is over. In that short span of time, the focus has to be on scoring points, since there's not enough theme to enjoy for itself. The really short Civilization-ish games have to abstract so much that, in some cases, I'm not even sure who I'm supposed to be. In Sword of Rome, I know when I'm playing the Gauls, but in Roll Through The Ages, I'm playing the...Uh...Er...Um...

Heck, reality TV shows depict a kind of epic struggle, and they take a dozen or more hours per season to tell the whole story. If you really want an epic boardgame experience, get ready for hours of fun. And stop looking at the clock.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Randomness in boardgames: Forgiveness

[The latest in a series about randomness in games. Here are the links for the first and second parts.]

I have a reputation in our little gaming group for hating train games. I only partially deserve it, because the reputation started with things I actually said. I really dislike Ticket To Ride, for reasons that aren't relevant for this blog post. And I really hated my first session of Age of Steam, for exactly the reasons I'm writing this post. The fact that I dislike two train games doesn't mean that I'll never play a train game, but don't bother asking me to play either of those.

Age of Steam irritated me because, as a new player, it wasn't fun. Our game consisted of two noobs and two pros, and whaddaya know, the pros mopped the floor with the noobs. Turn one, I felt as though I was making a sub-optimal choice, but I had no idea how bad it really was until later. Every turn gave me greater awareness of exactly how dark the shadow of doom o'erhanging me really was. Decisions made early in the game came back to haunt me, so that by mid-game, it was clear that I was blocked from doing anything interesting.

I might have learned something from that experience that I could have applied to the next game, but frankly, Age of Steam just didn't grab me enough to make me want to play that game on that theme for another two or three hours. Maybe I'm wrong in making this conclusion, but Age of Steam did not feel like a game that would give me much room for trying out new strategies. The idea of playing a couple of turns, finding myself blocked again (it just seems like that sort of game), and then sitting around waiting for the end just didn't grab me.

To be honest, I'm not that interested in railroads, so the theme didn't give me impetus to play again, either. However, it's also the case that, unlike other Martin Wallace games I've played and loved, Age of Steam did not give much room for improvisation in the middle of the game. Nor did it feel, unlike Princes of the Renaissance, that the final outcome was really up for grabs until the end of the game.

In Princes, smart plays do increase significantly the odds of victory. But it's also entirely possible for new players to get enough of a clue to give more experienced players a real challenge. Princes provides just enough randomness where it matters, such as battle die rolls, to make it possible for players to catch up through smarter bids or more productive wars.

One of the most common complaints about randomness in boardgames is that it undermines the decisions you make. From one perspective, that's certainly true. In a game with no randomness, such as chess, you're completely in control of your fortunes. No flip of a card or roll of a die is going to screw up your strategy.

However, the lack of randomness makes learning within a game of chess possible, but not immediately applicable. If you're so new to the game that you don't understand how important the opening is, you'll lose to a more experienced player. Assuming you don't run out of patience with chess altogether before the game ends, you'll apply the lessons learned to the next session.

Chess isn't for everyone, however. It's not a casual game for friendly get-togethers in the same vein as Carcassone. You have to want to be a chess player to buy into the series of brutal lessons you'll endure as you gradually improve your understanding of the game. If you just want a quick diversion that poses an interesting challenge, and which rewards you with a score at the end, play something else.

If you want your game to appeal to more than just the most dedicated players, this is an important principle. Sure, bad luck can mess with you, but randomness also opens opportunities you might not otherwise have. Rather than watching the cascade effect of early mistakes unfold turn by turn until the inevitable conclusion, you can capitalize on a few lucky die rolls or card draws. The leader can be somewhat confident of a victory, but there's always the risk of an unexpected stumble. (Which makes the game more interesting for the leader, too.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

I've Been Diced! episode 8: Experience games

This episode, we discuss games in which the experience is the best reason for playing. Points are great, but they're not the point in games like Arkham Horror, Chainsaw Warrior, and maybe a whole lot of wargames. Plus, I recommend an old Avalon Hill game, recently reprinted, that's a great example of an "experience game." And welcome back, Paul! And welcome to the podcast, John! These and other exclamation points await you.

So how do you grow your gaming network?

I have a lot of sympathy for Wargame Dork's recent howl of despair at recruiting new gamers into a group, or new non-gamers into the hobby. Here's something I found especially poignant:

Its all been an utter failure. Nobody on player finders, nobody on forums, nobody through Player's Wanted posters, nobody through store Yahoo groups or Facebook pages.  Nobody on IRC.  Nobody at work who claims to be a gamer.

Our little group is facing a similar challenge. We've had a couple of players drop out indefinitely, one because of new parenthood, the other because of a crushing work schedule. And, personally, I'm stumped about how to find more players like us. Which is weird, given how there's a humongous online forum for boardgamers in general, and another for wargamers.

Sure, there are tools, such as this BGG/Google Maps mash-up. It helps address one criterion for an opponent finder: Is this person close enough that we can get together on a regular basis? But it's missing the other criterion: Is this a person with whom I'd like to game on a regular basis? Or even invite into my home?

I'm sure someone has proposed that feature on BGG. Maybe it's there, but I'm missing it. While I do some excavating, it's worth mentioning that a for boardgamers would be a very helpful tool.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Labyrinth: Flawed simulation of a conflict that's difficult to simulate

[Cross-posted at Boardgame Geek.]

After three solitaire games of GMT's new wargame Labyrinth, I’ve had enough experience under my belt to write a review -- not about Labyrinth as a game, but as a simulation of the United States’ clash with Islamist terrorist groups since 2001. Based on what we already knew about counterterrorism before the 9/11 attacks, and the many hard lessons since then, Labyrinth is a flawed simulation in many ways:

  • It misrepresents terrorist groups.
  • It misrepresents terrorist goals.
  • It misrepresents terrorist methods.
  • It misrepresents counterterrorism.
  • It reduces counterterrorism to its military elements, at the expense of its diplomatic and intelligence components.
  • It overlooks many important aspects of Middle East politics that have had a direct impact on US counterterrorism elements.
  • It creates a cartoon version of US foreign policy options.

At the same time, Volko Ruhnke deserves credit for being the first to dive into one of the most difficult topics for a wargame. Counterterrorism is so different than conventional warfare that traditional wargame conventions would have to be radically changed, and in many cases discarded. Since wargame designers haven’t explored this topic before, the question of which elements are essential, and which can be discarded, are very hard to answer. In addition, nine years after the 9/11 attacks, popular conceptions of terrorism still contain many of the flaws that existed before counterterrorism became the #1 national security objective for the United States.

While there’s plenty of room for overlooking the flaws of the first major game on this topic, Labyrinth gets many of the critical aspects of counterterrorism wrong. To be fair, there’s room for debate about a few of the elements I’ll criticize in this review, so I’ll try to be clear where there’s more of a question mark than an exclamation point hanging over a particular design decision.

The designer’s notes start with a quote from Thomas Friedman, which is a very bad way to start. Friedman’s factual mistakes and bad predictions about national security matters are infamous. Friedman’s track record on Iraq was so bad that he inspired a new term, Friedman units (abbreviated to FUs), which became an icon for bad predictions about that conflict. Friedman is also famous for his “Suck on this” comment during a Charlie Rose interview, when he defended the invasion of Iraq as a “good idea.” Friedman’s argument was, even if we invaded a country not involved in 9/11, we needed to take a big stick to the backside of some Middle Eastern country. Any one would do. (“It could have been Saudi Arabia...”)

Of course, the last several years have shown that distinctions in the Middle East are very important, especially given the high cost of mistakes. The invasion and occupation of Iraq did not have the "demonstration effect" that its architects intended, either with enemies or allies. Because of Iraq, the United States has had fewer tangible and intangible resources for dealing with these other players. And, of course, it pushed Americans into a shooting war with people who did not attack the US in 2001. If distinctions matter in these actual conflicts, they also matter in simulations of them.

Which brings us to the central storyline of Labyrinth, a conflict between the United States and “jihadists.” There are no distinctions among those little black pieces you push from one part of the map to another. In the real world, while collaboration does occur among terrorist groups, their differences far outweigh their commonalities. Al Qaeda’s goals are not those of the Filipino group Abu Sayyaf. Not only is their daylight between Al Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf, but Abu Sayyaf isn’t the only Islamist, separatist group in the Philippines. As in many internal wars, multiple factions are fighting the regime, and sometimes each other. The agenda, methods, and base of the Moro National Liberation Front, one of these other groups, are not the same as Abu Sayyaf’s.

To its credit, Labyrinth does include event cards that highlight this division. Unfortunately, those event cards are a small nod to these divisions, in a game that has core mechanics that blur them. The idea that, as often happens in Labyrinth, a cell in the Philippines would hop on a plane to carry out terrorist attacks in a random country (Sweden? Canada? Lebanon? India? Who can guess?) is ludicrous. Most of the groups represented by Labyrinth’s little black tokens are focused on local objectives, not transnational ones.

In fact, a major element of any grand strategy for defeating terrorist threats is exploiting these divisions. Al Qaeda mutated into a “franchise supplier” for local terrorist groups, so defeating Al Qaeda requires separating it from the Abu Sayyafs around the world. Treating them as one monolithic terror network is counterproductive, just as ignoring the split between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China was, until the Nixon Administration, a missed opportunity to deal more effectively with both communist adversaries.

The nomenclature these groups adopt sometimes confuses the differences among them. Just because a group has Al Qaeda in its name ("In Iraq," "In The Arabian Peninsula," etc.) doesn’t make it a wholly owned subsidiary of the Al Qaeda that attacked the US in 2001. They may have adopted the name because they are fellow travelers that work closely with Al Qaeda. Or, they may have adopted the Al Qaeda name because of its brand, and have little to do with the real Al Qaeda.

We may find ourselves in direct conflict with these groups. They may hate us for everything we stand for. We may never be able to make peace with them. However, they may lack the ability or desire to attack the United States, and they may not be as closely allied to Al Qaeda as their names suggest.

Other wargames provide a model for depicting the splits among revolutionary groups that Labyrinth omits. Brian Hill’s excellent game about the Chinese Civil War, Battle For China, divides the anti-communist side into multiple bickering factions, without overly complicating the game. Factionalism is a major part of Triumph Of Chaos, which covers the Russian Civil War. It’s not only possible to make factionalism a part of a wargame design, it’s necessary if you’re going to do justice to many conflicts.

Labyrinth smears these distinctions further in the victory conditions for the game. While a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack on the United States would be a genuine catastrophe for the United States, it is not necessarily a victory for all terrorists. Prior to 9/11, Al Qaeda split over the question of whether it was more important to attack the “near enemy” (Middle Eastern governments, in particular Egypt’s) and the “far enemy” (the United States and Western Europe, which support these regimes). While Osama bin Laden may have won that internal debate, his ideological opponents have grounds to say, “I told you so.” The American government’s decision to aggressively pursue counterterrorism at an unprecedented level hurt Al Qaeda. The United States did not stop its aid to Middle Eastern regimes. Other terrorist groups, now in the American crosshairs, have reason to complain about bin Laden’s decision.

If anything, Labyrinth shows how dangerously facile the phrase “war on terror” is, when trying to describe a conflict with specific opponents with varying objectives, some of whom menace US interests in only the most indirect ways. The United States has a hierarchy of threats, with another attack on domestic soil at the top of the list. It is fighting specific groups that may plan that kind of attack again. Other revolutionary groups may be terrorists, they may be Islamist, and they may menace other American interests, but they rank lower on the ladder of threats to national security.

You may have noted a slight change in the language I was using to describe the combatants. “Terrorist” accurately describes the little black cylinders in Labyrinth -- but only to a point. If they are meant to represent the Taliban (on either side of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border), Hezbollah, Jaish al-Mahdi, or similar groups, they are not terrorists per se.

On occasion, these groups may use violence to terrorize opponents. They may be actively working against American interests. They may pursue ideologies that are opposed to our beliefs. They may be enemies on all these scores, and then some. But they are not the same type of adversary as Al Qaeda in 2001, or other distinctly terrorist groups, such as the IRA in its heyday. From a strategic and operational perspective, Osama bin Laden has more in common with Timothy McVeigh than Moqtada al-Sadr.

So what are they, if not terrorists? In some cases, a more accurate term would be guerrilla or insurgent. In others, militia might describe them more accurately. The methods used to fight each category of opponent differ. To defeat insurgents, for example, we apply the principles of counterinsurgency.

Counterinsurgency is not counterterrorism. The two are related, because in both cases the target is a revolutionary organization. However, since insurgents (the Viet Cong, for example) don’t organize, recruit, or operate in the same way as terrorists, the approach to fighting them has to be different.

Nation-building, for example, is a necessary part of counterinsurgency. It is not necessarily part of counterterrorism. Therefore, Labyrinth’s link between counterterrorism and nation-building is false. Many counterterrorism campaigns, such as the British government’s long war with the IRA, resemble a struggle with organized crime  -- not surprising, since in both cases, the adversary is a small, secretive, violent organization. In no way did the British government need to “nation-build” to end the war in Northern Ireland. In counterterrorism, force plays an impoertant role, but intelligence, deception, and diplomacy are equally important tools.

The context in which the United States is fighting terrorist organizations complicates this picture. For example, the Taliban in 2001 was providing a safe haven for Al Qaeda, so the US and its NATO allies had to fight the Taliban to get to Al Qaeda. The alliance between the two groups continued after the invasion.

The Taliban is a genuine enemy of the United States. Its ideology and methods are odious. However, its organization and methods are not the same as terrorist groups like Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, or the tiny Islamist cell in Spain that executed the 2004 Madrid train bombings. And if you think this is a distinction without a difference, consider the “governance” level for Japan and Spain. Does Labyrinth’s narrative, in which terrorism is both a product and a cause of bad governance, make any sense?

Labyrinth’s version of terrorist strategy follows a simple formula: terrorist attacks lower a regime’s ability to govern. At a certain point in the balance of forces between the terrorists and the regime (plus the regime’s foreign allies), the terrorists carry out a final push that ousts the regime, replacing it with an Islamic republic. There are several problems with this picture.

First, this strategy owes a lot more to Mao Tse Tung than Osama bin Laden. This sequence of events describes a classic guerrilla strategy, in which the revolutionaries build momentum through political recruitment and military attacks. Eventually, the conflict reaches a point where the besieged regime can no longer defend itself against the guerrillas’ expanding political and military organization. In a big final push, the regime falls.

Terrorists don’t pursue this timeline. In fact, it’s the opposite of what they try to do, remaining small and secretive to maintain their ability to execute terror attacks.

Second, the one Islamic republic in existence today didn’t start this way. The Iranian revolution followed a much different course, in which the Islamist factions capitalized on wide-spread disaffection with the Shah’s regime. In the same fashion as the Russian Revolution or French Revolution, once a broad coalition of anti-regime forces ousted the old regime, the most radical among them carried out a second seizure of power. The timeline for the Taliban’s rise to power resembled neither this model, nor the one depicted in Labyrinth.

Third, terrorists are largely indifferent to the level of governance in the countries where they operate. Many countries that have suffered terrorist attacks -- for example, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, and Israel, to name but a few -- are hardly failed states. Failed states can provide convenient bases, but the terrorists’ targets are often very successful regimes.

Fourth, the terrorists are usually indifferent to the quality of governance in these societies. More often than not, they are trying to coerce regimes into policy changes (releasing terrorists, removing troops from Saudi Arabia, etc.), not regime or even leadership changes. And in a few cases, such as the Baader-Meinhoff group, their strategy is to goad the regime into a greater level of policing and control, with the aim to inspire a backlash from the over-policed population. (This strategy never really worked, but that was the plan.)

At bottom, terrorism as a method uses ruthless, dramatic, and well-communicated acts of violence to intimidate regimes into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do. This approach gives the tiny group of terrorists power way out of proportion to their size, or the tiny percentage of the population that might actually support them. Because the vast majority of citizens vehemently disapprove of these methods, and the regime is not a failed state, terrorists remain small and secretive. In other words, it’s a very capable level of governance, in Labyrinth’s terms, that convince sthese groups to adopt terrorist methods and organization in the first place. (Unlike insurgents, who have more political and military space in which to organize and fight on a larger scale.)

To fight this kind of adversary, governments cannot rely solely on military force. Nor is nation-building the primary stage for counterterrorism, since “governance” isn’t really the issue. (Counterinsurgency, on the other hand, does depend a great deal on improved governance.) The effort to find, fix, and finish terrorist groups is a long, patient process in which human intelligence, signal intelligence, and infiltration are as important to “disrupt” terrorist cells as Predator drone strikes and “kick down the door” raids.

Labyrinth, on the other hand, depicts counterterrorism as a predominantly military exercise. By deploying troops to a country, you gain the ability to disrupt terrorist cells there. Otherwise, you’re pretty much helpless, except for a small number event cards (Special Forces, for example) that let you remove cells where you don’t have troops.

If intelligence is part of this design, it’s so abstracted that it’s invisible. Diplomacy is also missing from the picture. The US works constantly with other governments to develop and share intelligence, even though some of these governments may not be our allies. In fact, the US government occasionally communicates with adversaries like Syria, and rivals like Russia, when a particular terrorist group is a mutual concern. Sometimes, the United States acts on this intelligence; in other cases, US officials count on other governments to take action. In no way, however, is the American counterterrorism dependent on troop deployments in the way that Labyrinth depicts.

As focused on the Middle East as Labyrinth is, the game misses many key aspects of the Middle East that are critical to US counterterrorism strategy. The Sunni/Shia split, a fracture line that crosses politics across the region, is almost an afterthought in the design. A few cards allow actions to occur in countries with a mix of both sects, but that hardly captures the dramatic importance of this division. Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia, for example, worry as much about a Shi’ite uprising as they dream of Islam's return to the doctrinal purity of the first four caliphs. Since the Shi’ite uprising is a much closer possibility, they are willing to support Sunni terrorist groups as a counterbalance against potential Shi’ite threats. On the other side of the sectarian divide, Iran capitalizes on Shi’ite outrage, funding its own set of terrorist proxies to advance its interest in the region.

The sectarian divide, as intermingled as it is with the interests of regional powers, leads to the kind of unexpected and seemingly bizarre results that are hallmarks of Middle Eastern politics. For example, rising Iranian power has prompted a collaboration between Israel and Saudi Arabia that was unthinkable a decade earlier.

Labyrinth glosses over these distinctions in a way that makes the game hard to swallow as a simulation of Middle Eastern politics. The US decision to tilt in the direction of the Sunnis, both in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, did not go unnoticed by Shi’ites who are keeping score about the balance of power between the two sects. Nor did it failed to go unnoticed by regimes whose power and influence depend on the state of affairs within Islam. Alliances should shift, based on US actions, in a way that opens some possibilities and closes others.

Some actions allowed in the game should be a lot harder, or involve some kind of trade-off. Even if Pakistan were an ally, it’s weird to be able to station troops there without repercussions. Playing Labyrinth is an odd experience, in which US actions don’t seem to have effects where they should. (In contrast, Twilight Struggle gave the US and USSR unmerited control over world affairs.)

At other times, some actions carry consequences that seem crazily unpredictable. In my second game, the US not only lost a great deal of prestige for the invasion of Afghanistan, but in the same first turn, the Election card triggered a sudden shift against such “hard” methods. While any game like this should have some unpredictable elements, the idea that, in October and November 2001, both the US electorate and world opinion would turn vehemently and immediately against the US invasion of Afghanistan strains credulity.

One aspect of the Middle East where Labyrinth is, arguably, a mixed success is Iraq. You can easily play the game without invading Iraq, which is by no means a scripted event. Iraq represents an expensive distraction, as you try to keep Afghanistan on its feet, block the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and unravel terrorist plots in Europe. The only downside of Labyrinth’s depiction of Iraq is the significant number of event cards that simulate events in the history of the Iraq invasion and occupation (Anbar Awakening, Saddam Captured, etc.), which imply a greater significance for Iraq in the game than seems to be the case.

Finally, the game has a very strange attitude towards Iran. The regime that has been supporting revolutionary groups across the Middle East, investing heavily in WMDs, influencing post-invasion Iraqi politics significantly, and otherwise throwing its weight around the entire Middle East feels like, in Labyrinth, a minor player. Weird.

The role of Iran, however, points to what could be better material for a future wargame.The cold war between the American and Iranian governments from 1979 to the present would be a good basis for a Twilight Struggle-like game. Instead of pitting the US against a largely fictional foe (“the terrorists,” in the most generic sense imaginable), the other side would be a solid player in Middle Eastern politics. While it’s not the only axis around which US interests in the Middle East turn, the shadow war with Iran’s theocracy has occupied a lot of the American government’s attention. There would be clear phases to the conflict, played out across the Middle East (Iraq, Lebanon, etc.), and across multiple battlefields (terrorist attacks on allies, espionage, threats against oil exports, etc.).

While superficially the game suggests that the US player could easily choose either a “hard” or “soft” posture, the game clearly rewards the “hard” approach. Certain event cards (for example, Libyan WMD and Iraq WMD) depend on the US having a hard posture. Disrupt operations affect two cells when US policy is hard, and only one cell when soft. Military intervention (a.k.a. “regime change”) is only possible when the US stance is hard. Other than getting a +1 bonus on War of Ideas rolls when the rest of the world is also in the Soft column, there’s no benefit, in game terms, for being anything but Hard.

This is a caricature of the choice between hard and soft power, which is more an emphasis than an exclusive choice. The Bush Administration could have depended more on soft power than it did, after the invasion of Afghanistan. A direct military action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban did not dictate that the US would deal with all future threats in the same way. In fact, the US often takes a very hard posture against some adversaries, such as North Korea, because of the nature of the conflict. These strategies are persistent from one presidential administration to another, even if the occupants of the Oval Office are as different in their approach to world affairs as Clinton and Bush.

Circumstances dictate the choices among hard and soft power implements as much as the umbrella foreign policy that the US government pursues at any particular moment. As hard as the policy has been towards the Taliban, the experiment with negotiating a separate peace with some Taliban factions started during the Bush Administration, not Obama’s. Labyrinth’s hard/soft mechanic is a cartoon version of foreign policy that borders on something that even the most ardent neoconservatives would see as absurd.

I have other nits to pick with Labyrinth. For example, why should the number of Islamic republics automatically hurt US prestige? Instead of making the US seem like a paper tiger, another Taliban-like regime might make more governments rally around American power. However, I’ve probably said more than enough by now in this very long review to make my major point: as a simulation of the conflict that has defined the last decade, Labyrinth falls very short of the mark.

[One final note. The United States and its allies are fighting many wars along many dimensions of conflict. Whether or not a particular opponent is, strictly speaking, a terrorist organization is in no way diminishing the importance of defeating that foe. Nor is drawing a distinction between Al Qaeda and another terrorist group a way of saying that there is ipso facto no real point to defeating them. The US also has other national security priorities, such as the stabilization of Iraq, that may have little or nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Drawing these distinctions does not diminish the efforts of American and allied personnel who are working hard, at extreme risk, to defeat our enemies. Quite the opposite: we should appreciate what they do, every day, in fighting one of the most many-faceted and vexing conflicts in our history.]

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The difference between theme and meaning

Soren Johnson, the lead designer of Civilization IV, has a great duo of posts on the difference between theme and meaning. His point applies to any type of game, including boardgames, which he cites liberally (Ticket To Ride, Diplomacy, and others) throughout the piece. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

The executive summary: game designers should bring theme and meaning into close alignment. It's the best argument against "pasted on themes" I've seen.