Walking the Distant Plain

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Barg-i-Matal, Nuristan, Aug 2010

I want to introduce you all to Chris Davis, the creator of the Practical Tactical blog. Chris currently serves in the US Army, and is a veteran of Afghanistan. Chris likes to use simulations as teaching tools to train soldiers, but he’s also very interested in how designers create games based on their own experiences and perspectives. This article – hopefully the first of many from Chris – shares some of his reflections on A Distant Plain based on his experiences in Afghanistan. I hope you enjoy the article! – Gene

The mountains and valleys of the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan would prove challenging to anyone. But conducting military operations, particularly counter-insurgency activities, proved exceptionally difficult. The steep inclines and deep ravines limited mounted and dismounted mobility. The high altitudes of the Hindu Kush combined with the unpredictable weather made aerial mobility arduous.  Additionally, the centuries of cultural isolation, in large part imposed by the intimidating terrain, created an insurmountable obstacle to winning hearts and minds.

COP Keating

I spent the better part of 2010 and 2011 in these mountains. No amount of historical study could prepare me for the trials my unit would face. The previous command had suffered tremendous loss when the Taliban assaulted COP Keating. Our numerous bases and outposts were named after Americans previously killed in combat. We came prepared to fight.

It was a short helicopter ride from Jalalabad airfield to FOB Bostick, now since closed. Flying through the lush green Kunar valley did not betray the menacing forces conspiring to ambush American troops at every opportunity. Beauty and danger co-existed side by side in near-perfect harmony. Small arms fire, improvised explosive devices, and mortar attacks harassed our units almost daily. And when conducting joint operations with our partner kandak of the Afghan National Army, I could never be quite sure if the next attack would come from them or the Taliban.

FOB Bostick

On one memorable night in the village of Barg-i-matal with our Afghan partners, a lone shot rang out in the night. It was followed immediately by a cascade of small arms that culminated in a full-on orchestra of discharging weapons, large and small, into the mountainside. When it was all done, the Afghans reported to us that they saw a flashlight in the distance. It seemed the Afghan Army shared our paranoia about identifying friend or foe. No one dared to investigate the light after it disappeared into the darkness.

Valleys of the Damned

The game A Distant Plain by Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train brings me back to the challenges faced in the valleys of Kunar and Nuristan. The shape of the country always reminds me of a misshaped egg, rotten to its core. Good intentions always seemed to have a way of blowing back on you. Money spent on road crews would enrich local contractors that funded IED cells operating on those same roads. Clinics and our own aid stations would be used to treat wounded insurgents assured of their anonymity.

After a one engagement near a village, a man with shrapnel wounds came to our base for medical attention. I asked him if he was aware of any Taliban activity in the village. He said no. I asked if him he heard the recent battle. He replied no again. I then asked him how he was wounded by shrapnel. He said it was an accident. After the completion of a major operation that killed many enemy combatants, the Karzai government intervened to stop our next mission at the request of the local village elders. Not long after, we suffered a casualty killed while on patrol.

That’s the story of Afghanistan, and it plays out much the same way in A Distant Plain. You’re never certain if your allies or your enemies are more dangerous for accomplishing your objectives. Will your ally poach your resources or obstruct your strategy? Will the Taliban infiltrate a government unit and create a green-on-blue situation? War games are “fun” to be sure, but they also offer historical lessons about our assumptions, and perhaps for some of us, a therapeutic outlet for controlling a situation that is out of our control. There are real people and experiences behind the abstraction of a historical war game.

My greatest appreciation for A Distant Plain is not its thoughtful mechanics. It’s not its high production value. It’s the immersion. It’s the feeling that things could be different. It’s the familiarity of the names and places. It’s the all-encompassing challenge of resolving a seemingly intractable conflict. The designers thrust you into the heart of America’s long war and ask you to achieve the impossible.

Flipping through the deck of cards reveals recognizable names and concepts. It takes on new meaning having seen the use of Reapers and Predators, having supported Village Stability Operations, and having searched for Mullah Omar’s deputies. In this way, the game provides a deep level of satisfaction while presenting the usual problems of counter-insurgency.

The interdependency fostered by the game reflects the difficulty of solving the conflict. While the Afghan government wants to control spaces, the U.S. wants to gain the population’s support and minimize its troop commitments. However, it can be tempting to use U.S. firepower to clear spaces of Taliban control. Both factions need to work together, even if uneasily, reflecting the real-life tensions at every level in the American-Afghan relationship.

It does not take long in A Distant Plain to recognize the difficult challenges faced in resolving the conflict. It captures the complexity and intractability of the real conflict. The large deck of event cards and the mounted map board add to the game’s immersion by presenting the country’s characters, places, and tools for the players to see for themselves. And most importantly of all, it raises important questions still being asked 16 years later.

How do you clear/hold/build with limited resources? Where do you start? How do you isolate the insurgent from the population? How do you compel your ally to cooperate with your strategy? And how do you subdue a determined and experienced enemy? I don’t have the answers to those questions, but at least in A Distant Plain, I can try to answer them, this time from the safety of my gaming table.

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5 thoughts on “Walking the Distant Plain

  1. Thank you so much for your article Chris!
    I’m pleased that we have managed to capture these impressions or atmosphere of the Afghan conflict for you, though they are not pleasant ones.
    I had a remark a while back, in a discussion on another’s blog, from someone who said he had tried to play ADP but that he couldn’t enjoy the game because it was “too much like work”.
    He had been a Marine in Helmand, and thought the game did much too good a job of capturing the frustration and futility he had felt there.
    I knew then that the game had succeeded in this emotionally connecting way.
    In my reply to him, I said that other, non-military players had also found the game not-fun, and they couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to do, so they quit trying.
    I said I wanted to think that the direct lesson they learned from this is that wars are not meant to be fun, nor are they susceptible to solution by an hour or two of play…
    And the indirect lesson they may have learned is that, as gamers, they had the option of walking away from the table, something the real participants didn’t (and don’t) have.

  2. This was an excellent read. I enjoy all the COIN games I have played, to a lesser or greater degree, but this one is my favorite. It just captures the feel of the situation the best, in my opinion. The friction of the four factions is genius.