Brant Guillory, 16 April 2020
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
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There are several reasons why A Distant Plain can be tough to review. That said, they are all the same reasons that make it a compelling game. How many multiplayer wargames have you played where the players are not simply extensions of a team, but rather working at cross purposes as often as not? How many wargames have you played with an elastic time scale? How many wargames eschew anything resembling unit factors or quantified values? And now take all those tweaks and roll them into a single game, and drop into an ongoing conflict whose outcomes are not yet truly determined.
There are four players: The Coalition, The Government, The Taliban, and the Warlords. Of these, the Taliban are the only one for whom you can draw a reasonably straight line directly from the real life organization in Afghanistan directly to a game role. The Government essentially represents the Karzai administration, but there are game effects that seem to clearly outstrip the existing government’s capabilities. The Coalition is a mix of ISAF, the US, some NGO capabilities, and other external actors attempting to influence actions in Afghanistan. Finally, the greatest amalgam – the Warlords – are the ultimate ‘floater’ faction representing a collection of decidedly non-aligned ‘real’ actors who nevertheless represent a unified set of goals within the mechanics of the game.
The varying scenarios allow you start the war in 2002, 2005, or 2009, but all tend to end around 2013 or so. Obviously, the 2009 scenario is the quickest of them, but any of them will take most of an afternoon, if not more.
Opening the Box
We’ve covered the unboxing before, but to save you jumping to the link, here’s what you get: a solid, 8-panel, mounted, folding map with a ton of useful marginal tracks, boxes, and record-keeping tools; a single sheet of mounted, die-cut counters that are virtually all administrative in nature; a bag of Euro-game-ish markers for the players, representing bases and forces; some dice and pawns; a bunch of plastic bags; the deck of cards used to drive the game along; and a ton of very clear, useful, and well-designed player cards that clearly lay out what players can do on any given turn.
The rulebook is deceptively short, as there really aren’t a lot of rules involved in the game. The bulk of the choices and actions taken by the players are driven by the deck of cards, and that significantly cuts down on the pages needed in the rulebook. There’s a second book – a “playbook” – that includes a tutorial, designers’ notes, explanation of all the cards (very useful if one gets lost, or the dog gets to it), and some historical information.
The Playbook is a real gem, too. The tutorial is the best way to learn the game short of sitting with the designers and having them talk you through the turns. My recommendation is to set up the tutorial scenario on the map, and follow along turn by turn, moving pieces about the board and replicating the narration as it’s explained. Seeing the game in action as you read through the turns will give any player a solid understanding of how the game should flow, and what the rhythm of the turn should feel like.
Turn by Turn
Each turn, there are a variety of tough choices to be made – a clear hallmark of an engaging game. Moreover, these are not turns in which one player sorts out his move while the others check the score of the game on TV and refill the pretzels. Everyone needs to pay attention, because the interconnectedness of the players inevitably means that there’s a nuance you miss if you turn away even for a moment.
The key focal point of the turn is the card that drives that turns action. Most of the cards contain 2 effects for that event card title. Generally, one event is favorable to the Coalition, and the other to the Taliban. Those events may vary in how positively they affect the Government or Warlords. Included across the top of the card is the order in which the players have the opportunity to act, or pass. The mechanics are such that it is rare that any one faction in the game will act on two consecutive turns. Additionally, it may be that whichever faction has the lead on a specific turn may choose to ‘bury’ the actions on the card by executing some form of operation that not only ignores the card, but perhaps even limits what the follow-on players can do. There’s a fantastic visual representation of the turn sequence on the map that keeps the players straight on who acts next, and what options they have.
While balancing the current turn’s options of activating the event card or conducting some form of operation, players also have that rarest of abilities – seeing the future. The current card is being played, but the next card is already face-up, giving the players a look at what comes next, which may lead to passing on an action this turn to get a shot at a better one next turn. It also might involve taking an action in order to force an opponent into a less-attractive choice next turn, as well.
Once those players that can act have done so, the cards shift so that the next turn’s card comes up, new actions happen, and the game moves forward.
Eventually, a “propaganda” card comes up, triggering a series of special checks that can add or remove resources from the game, resetting certain assets, and – if it’s the last one of the game – triggering a victory check.
So How Does It Play
In a word: tough.
Here’s the truth, that Train & Ruhnke will probably tell you was exactly what they were aiming for – this is a very hard game to “win” but it is equally hard to “lose”. There is almost no good course of action that will hammer one of the four factions so hard that they become irrelevant to the game. It may transpire over the course of the game that one faction ends up seriously behind and out of position to win the game, but they will definitely be in a position to ruin the leaders’ day and determine who might ultimately come out ahead. Similarly, it is almost impossible to get so far ahead that any one player runs away with the game.
The Coalition has an incredible amount of capability they can bring to a fight in damaging insurgent pieces, eliminating bases, zipping around the map, and generally kicking ass whenever they appear. But they are also numerically constrained. They can’t be everywhere, and the gaps they leave are easily exploited by the insurgent factions.
The Government can get a lot of ‘oomph’ from the Coalition, using them to significantly boost forces in preparation for some major actions. But an ill-timed Propaganda card can result in the desertion of 25% or more of the Government’s forces, and the torpedoing of long-term plans. With the proper timing of their actions, however, the Government can quickly build up some hefty support among the population is the northern half of the country and shore up they dominance over enough areas to feel secure venturing south.
I’m convinced that the Taliban player has no way to ‘take back the country’ and return to the level of control they had in 1998. Maybe he can, but I haven’t seen it, nor the path to it, in any of the games I’ve played. That said, within the areas he can actually reach – the border provinces around Pakistan, and the southern edges of the country – the Taliban player has the ability to truly hurt the Coalition and the Government, to crush his enemies, see them driven before him, and to hear the lamentation of their women. There will be several occasions during the game when the cards and the turn sequence will hit just right for the Taliban player to rapidly build his forces with a “Rally” operation, and then turn them loose with an attack that includes an ambush, and suddenly the Coalition player is being hauled before the Congressional Subcommittee on Card-Drawing-Sequences and Poor Dice Rolls. But even with those operations, the gains are fleeting at best, as the Taliban player has a very hard time holding the ground he gains outside of a handful of provinces across the south.
That power vacuum, between the Taliban’s inability to ‘own’ the ground where they operate, the Coalition’s limited footprint, and the Government’s continually-shifting available manpower, plays perfectly into the hands of the Warlords. They are a very difficult faction to play, but one that perhaps plays truest to their real-world situation. The Warlord player basically wants to keep anyone else from running away with the game, and is in a position to help any other player hurt anyone else. By rallying forces to certain provinces, he can flip control of the province in one direction or another (for either side). By plopping bases down in otherwise-uncontrolled territories, the Warlord player can seriously inhibit anyone else’s attempts to move into the area (there’s a limit of 2 bases in any one space). But if the Warlord player over-reaches, any one of the other three factions can almost erase him from the board single-handedly. Doing so would leave that player open to a hefty-counterattack by another faction, but hey – isn’t that just like real life?
Reflective of Reality?
Most of you reading this review know who Michael Hastings is. Most of you will be shocked that I’m about to quote him, too. But in one interview he gave, he said this about Afghanistan:
“Victory and loss [is] identical. In 10 years’ time Afghanistan is still going to have a corrupt government, there’s still going to be various terrorists running around on the border, and the Afghan Army is still going to suck, right? And that’s if we win. If we lose, y’know, there’s still going to be a corrupt government, the Afghan Army is still going to suck, and there’s still going to be terrorists running around the border.”
A Distant Plain does nothing to disabuse the player of this notion. The Coalition can “win” by scoring a sufficient number of victory points (being careful not to give too many to the Government in the process – there is no “shared victory”) but you never get the feeling that there’s been a dramatic sea-change in the overall outcome of the country. Similarly, the Taliban can never truly take back the country, but no available victory condition leaves them with the option to chisel out a new set of borders and declare the Islamic Republic of Talibanistan, so their concept of “winning” is really just “doing better than the newspaper says they’re doing in 2012”.
Oddly enough, the least likely “victory” – the Warlords successfully suborning control of the population by either the Taliban or the Governmentalition – is the most plausible, with Afghanistan devolving into a decentralized collection of loosely-affiliated fiefs, occasionally kowtowing toward the Mayor of Kabul, but with the Taliban sufficiently marginalized that the Coalition feels like they can go home, and with the Government sufficiently powerless that the Taliban are never truly eradicated.
So there are a few tweaks to the game that I would’ve enjoyed exploring, and I’m throwing them out with the caveat that introducing any of them into the game would have dramatically increased the complexity of designing and testing what is already a magnificently-balanced and intriguing game.
First, I would like to see how the Coalition would change without the invasion of Iraq in 2003 siphoning off precious resources and attention from the fight against the Taliban. How would a significant increase in capability affect the game?
Second, I would like to see some ahistorical outcomes considered as victory conditions. What if the Coalition declared success after perforating Bin Laden and took their toys and left the sandbox? Is that a sufficient Coalition “win” that everyone else is left fighting for second place? Or are they just using a publicly-acceptable pretext to walk away from a fight in which they no longer have any interest?
Similarly, is there an ahistorical outcome that involves ignoring the current set of arbitrary borders known as “Afghanistan” and carve out a few different nooks and crannies as unique countries, and establish victory by who got the best deal. Maybe not, but it would make for an interesting variant.
Now, I throw these ideas out there, knowing full well that I’m going to get an email from Brian Train saying something to the effect of “What, are you f*****g nuts?! This was hard enough as it was!” (only more polite, because he’s Canadian). I appreciate that wargames allow players to explore alternatives to what actually happened in history, and while A Distant Plain is an exhausting exploration of the Afghan conflict, there were times where I really felt like we were just rearranging the order in which events actually happened, rather than forging a new history based on our decisions.
The Final Word
It’s damned hard to make a wargame out of an ongoing conflict. It’s even harder to make a compelling wargame out of an ongoing conflict that doesn’t openly favor one side or another, or drive the game toward a desired outcome. A Distant Plain avoids these pitfalls beautifully. Without being jingoistic or openly playing favorites, the designers treat each faction in the game with respect and accurately portray their strengths and weaknesses without making value judgments about the circumstances that led to those portrayals of the factions.
This is a game that makes you think. It’s hard to find a wargame that really, truly makes you think in the way A Distant Plain does. Perhaps its the contemporary topic, or maybe the mixed motivations and cross-purposes of the factions. Personally, I feel that it’s in large part due to the lack of clear victory available to any of the participants. There is a “victory” of sorts, in that the rules tell the players who won, based on the metrics set forth in the game. But the “victory” doesn’t feel like a victory in a game about El Alamein or Chancellorsville or Austerlitz. It’s a shift in the conditions on the ground, but not a change in them.
And the mental gymnastics to get the most out of the limited palette of available options really tax the player, in the best possible way. The COIN series forces players into continual tough decisions. A Distant Plain extends those tough decisions into a milieu in which the player is keenly aware that tomorrow’s headlines could well come from a replication of decisions he’s making in the game. The very recent memories of the conflict may color the approaches players take to the game, but in the end, the game is better for it, for there are few wargames on the market through which we all lived the events on the cards, and watched the headlines unfold with the game.
Does A Distant Plain belong on your shelf? If you’re an aficionado of modern warfare (i.e., me) then absolutely. If you’re interested in a study of counterinsurgency at the strategic level, then yes. If you’re looking for a game in which the individual assets brought to bear on a counterinsurgency are mixed and matched to maximum effect, then this game might not be your best fit, as the assets are not as distinguishable as their effects. Moreover, if you’re a quantitative wargamer – the type likely to argue over the relative firepower of 2-inch naval guns as portrayed in your own game, compared to another just released on the market – then you’re not going to like A Distant Plain’s spartan wooden bits representing “forces” and “bases” with no numerical distinction of the differences between them.
Ultimately, though, A Distant Plain will appeal to those wargamers who are looking for a compelling examination of a difficult conflict in which no one has any clear advantage or path to victory, and in which there is a great deal of replay value as the ever-shifting choices force players to wrangle with resource-constrained challenges, tenuous alliances, and vague definitions of victory. It is perhaps the most realistic portrayal of the high-operational and theater-level strategic challenges of modern warfare currently available, and for that, it deserves high commendation.
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