GrogHeads Interviews Designers of A Distant Plain

Building on the COIN series for GMT, designers Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke have teamed up for a hard look at Afghanistan with their upcoming multi-player counterinsurgency game, on pre-order now with GMT Games. ~

Brant Guillory, 29 August 2012

GH: OK, now you’ve both got already stellar reputations as game designers tackling tough conflicts, so how did this collaboration come about? Were you getting together specifically to work on an Afghanistan game, or were you a collaboration in search of an interesting topic?

BT: “Stellar”? Well, I might have been in the designing end of things for longer than Volko, but in terms of name recognition and overall sales, I’m still a white dwarf. Volko has scored three big hits in a row with Wilderness War, Labyrinth, and now Andean Abyss. I had helped in a playtest of Andean Abyss in 2011 and was very impressed by Volko’s COIN system. So when he contacted me with the proposal that we work together, I jumped at it.

VR: Thanks Brant! I’d say more the latter. I knew much of Brian’s work. His Algeria design had been a key influence on my own COIN Series system, so I figured that we could produce something harmonious together. I felt that Brian’s work deserved even wider distribution and suggested to him that he ought to do a design for my publisher, GMT Games, in light of GMT’s stellar production values and marketing reach. I added to that the suggestion that he ought to do an insurgency game with me, and make it part of the COIN Series—he could choose the setting. He agreed and chose modern Afghanistan. adpThat topic had not been on my list, but naturally I jumped at the chance to work with him!

BT: I suggested Afghanistan as a topic because I had already designed or done development work on several operational, campaign-level Afghanistan games (namely, Kandahar Province and none yet officially published) but wanted to do something on the entire war – until now, the only games to deal with conflict over the whole of Afghanistan have been by Joe Miranda (Holy War Afghanistan, First Afghan War, Second Afghan War, Asia Crossroads) for other time periods. I think it was about time to try and tackle the Fifth Afghan War (or maybe it’s the Sixth) at the strategic scale, in a way that highlighted the asymmetric capabilities and intentions of the forces involved.

Note that all images are from current playtest versions of the game, and are not likely to reflect the final artwork once the game is ready.


GH: What was the division of labor like and how did it evolve?

BT: Volko’s work on Andean Abyss was the best jump-off point for this game. It was not difficult to take the rules for this earlier game and do some addition and subtraction of concepts and mechanisms, since the COIN system he has developed is both sound and extremely clever. I think the major work involved, besides the prototype map, was in developing cards for the Event Deck and fine-tuning the victory conditions for each of the four factions. Volko and I swatted concepts and tweaks for these back and forth very quickly, and within ten weeks (since we both have day jobs) we had a worked-out design ready to playtest.

VR: Brian has deeper background on Afghanistan than I do, so he has provided most of the subject matter expertise, while I have guided the graft onto my COIN Series game system. Brian did the prototype map with inputs from me and came up with most of the list of events for the deck. I took his inputs on the Factions’ victory conditions and special abilities and fleshed out the operations menus and order of battle. Kicking things around together, and with thoughts from GMT president Gene Billingsley, we together came up with side mechanics new to the Series—Government Graft, the Islamabad Track, and so on.

GH: A Distant Plain is supposed to build on the Andean Abyss system. Tell us a little about the evolution of the system, and how it draws from its card-driven ancestors? What new wrinkles have been introduced specifically for A Distant Plain?

BT: When I first met Volko in person, at the Connections wargaming conference in 2011, I was touched when he told me that my game on the Algerian War (which itself is one of a systemic family of counterinsurgency games) had influenced his development of the COIN system. Wargame designers steal ideas from each other all the time, but readily assign intellectual credit where it’s due – I’m happy with that state of affairs!

Volko’s COIN system is not what I would call a card-driven one, in the sense that his earlier game Wilderness War is. Instead it’s more card-assisted: cards are turned up in sequence but players do not hold hands of cards; a player’s choice of whether or not to implement a card for its effect, or to have a regular turn, will have significant consequences on the other players; and so on. Frankly, I think it’s brilliant.

VR: The COIN Series system, introduced in Andean Abyss, is similar to card-driven games in leveraging player tradeoffs between events and a menu of operations to bring all manner of historical instances, personalities, and capabilities into the game’s narrative. But I sought with the unique way that the Series uses cards and ops menus to get away from too much focus on hand and deck “management” to more realistically focus on what is happening on the geography. Similarly, to keep the focus on higher-level inter-factional politics rather than, say, combined arms tactics or some such, the system uses easy to learn area-control and mostly diceless interaction of wooden pieces, rather than combat results tables and factors on chits.

BT: I see a major difference from Andean Abyss is the nature of the four factions. The former game had the government against three insurgents, although the latter were all very different from each other. In this game we have the Coalition and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), two forces with very different capabilities and aspirations, yoked together in what amounts to a marriage of inconvenience, versus two insurgent factions that are both opposed to the Government and foreign interveners, but spend a great deal of effort actively fighting each other as well. It’s also interesting that two of the factions – Coalition and Taliban – have unassailable rear areas that can only be made more or less hospitable through implementing event cards that relate to wider events outside Afghanistan (diplomatic understandings, etc.).

VR: For me, it’s a very exciting development of the system for a number of reasons. The first is the first time that an international counterinsurgent faction (the Coalition) is present—posing new problems of getting forces into and out of the country, new dilemmas of balancing domestic factions and getting timely results at low cost in casualties, and, especially, navigating a frustrating relationship with a COIN ally (the Afghan Government) who will be pursuing its own, often incompatible objectives. In addition, while Andean Abyss and Cuba Libre players will recognize similarities to those games’ Factions, in A Distant Plain’s Afghan Government, drug-running Warlords, or rebel Taliban, the interweave of new victory conditions, capabilities, and events makes each Faction play quite differently than any counterpart from an earlier volume. The Taliban, for example, take advantage of a true sanctuary and sponsor in Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan’s ethnic terrain, via their special strengths in Pashtun-based areas.


GH: How hard is it to design some sort of end-state for a conflict, when the conflict is still going on, and the end-state may not resemble anything in the game once it’s all said and done?

VR: I see the issue as a variant of the general challenge of selecting appropriate start and end points to the simulation of conflicts that ebb and flow for years—which describes most insurgencies. For Andean Abyss, I had decades of internal Colombian conflict to choose from. I chose to cover the mid-1990s to early 2000s for a set of reasons, having to do with the rapidly rising and falling fortunes of the four factions involved in that period.

In A Distant Plain, Brian and I are not trying to forecast Afghanistan’s “end state.” We wanted to let players kick around inside the insurgency and counterinsurgency there that is still going on today, but all the specific events depicted are in the past (albeit recent) or are might-have-beens. So to think of the game ending with the situation about now, in late 2012 or so, would be most on the mark. By the same token, we don’t start with the Coalition’s arrival in 2001 but rather in late 2003, because that is the time that the Taliban insurgency is starting to gear up.

BT: I think the hardest games of all to design are the ones about conflicts that are still going on, because you do not have the benefit of hindsight on the ultimate effectiveness or impact of what actually happened. I also think these games are also the most important ones to design, in relation to AJP Taylor’s famous quote that “History is what happened, in the context of what could have happened at the time.” We need games on contemporary conflicts, not necessarily to derive some kind of clairvoyance about the ending, but to organize our current understanding of the conflict, as we continuously try to organize our understanding of the world around us.

VR: Players in the game are looking for an end state, shaped by their various victory conditions. But Brian and I came up with those victory conditions based on what we judge the Factions have been attempting to achieve, not on any call about how it will end up. The Coalition player is trying to “stabilize” Afghanistan—in the Coalition conception, by developing a central Government that has strong support among the population—and get its troops out without too many casualties. In the game, that might happen or it might not. We’re not predicting anything.

BT: Absolutely, we do not claim any predictive value or political agenda for this game. It does not present any Magic Bullet, perfect plan or pet theory for a never-fail solution to this war. We also fully expect that, now and in the future, to get a bollocking from people (many of whom will never have played the game) for our foolish predictions, wrong-headed assumptions, crank theories, and presumed alliance with the Forces of Darkness in designing it.

VR: Now, if someone out there were to be in the forecasting business, would they gain anything useful from the (much simplified) model of the Afghan insurgency that is in the game? They may well. We make some calls about what the factions are after, their strengths and weaknesses, and how that relates dynamically. But any forecaster would have to decide for themselves what parts of the game’s model are apt and which off, and then do the hard work of relating all that to what is yet to be.

BT: However, we would like to see this game in the hands of players before 2014, the target date for comprehensive withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan, since in game terms this would be the equivalent of the Coalition player excusing himself from the game because he has to get up early for work tomorrow.


GH: What are some of the sources you were able to draw on for the events in the game, and the factions and their behaviors? How much of the research was pure open-source (media/web research) and how much of it was you guys digging into interviews, military documentation, after-action reports, and other war stories for anecdotal events?

VR: I’ll defer to Brian, as he has been the subject matter expert on the project!

BT: Of course we did not have access to any classified material, but I found a tremendous amount of material available – much of it on the Web, at military-related websites. Some sites and books of course were much more useful than others, and most of the work is sifting through what you’ve found and trying to in effect triangulate on certain numbers through corroboration from different sources. I accessed a lot of discussion papers, reports to Congress, and paper books for a wider focus on what drove the course of the conflict for each of the four factions. The game has three scenarios – beginning in 2003, 2005 and 2009 but all ending in 2012 – and there are quite a few websites that contain useful metrics for how things stood at different points in time, e.g. the Brookings Institute’s Afghanistan Index or the UN High Commission on Refugees reports on Afghan population displacement and repatriation.


GH: In many long-running conflicts, some actions don’t have consequences for many years. Other actions have immediate consequences that may seem positive, but have overall negative long-term or second-order effects. How can a board game capture a long-term dynamic like this in a turn-by-turn situation?

BT: Time is elastic. Turns in the game do not represent any fixed interval of time – a given turn could cover only a few weeks, or it could be most of a year, or both, depending on what is happening in different areas of the map. However, players will constantly be turning over in their minds both short and long-term decisions, and trying to assess what the “second-order” effects of these decisions will be.

VR: I believe that the accumulation of long-term effect as well as unintended consequences are particularly salient features of insurgency and counterinsurgency. The COIN Series tries to bring such features out in a variety of ways. First, critical, cumulative effects are assessed at semi-random intervals via “Propaganda” cards that punctuate campaigns representing a year or two. Much player blow-by-blow during the campaigns aims to build toward the Propaganda round, to be able then to influence the population, garner resources, or perhaps even score a victory through an overwhelming position. Many individual player decisions also incorporate short- versus long-term objectives and gains, such as whether to crimp operational tempo with training effort or deployment of a unique capability. Finally, the nature of most event cards—each a dual option that players will have to expend effort in order to guide in the direction favorable to them—in part represent unintended consequences.

BT: I think we’ve let the players provide a lot of this uncertainty for themselves as they try to plan – I think it’s better for them to feel they are the authors of their own success or misfortune, instead of laying it at the feet of scripted situation – but we have also built into most of the Event Cards a further set of choices that can help or hinder each side, either for the rest of the game (e.g. granting or denying certain capabilities) or for a shorter period.adp


GH: Elaborate some of the elasticity of time. Wargamers are used to fixed intervals, in large part because they’ve grown accustomed to “units move X distance in Y time” analyses of the forces involved, and those scope and shape the maps, units, everything about the game.  How do you introduce a truly variable time element and still keep the players in a frame of mind that lets them make accurate and realistic decisions about what they can accomplish?

VR: A way that some wargamers may relate to elasticity is how several Card driven games feature changing hand sizes over the course of a game even when beginning or end of hand sequences and mechanics remain the same.  What is being represented here?  Perhaps a side has more or fewer resources for a higher or lower ops tempo in the same time period.  Or perhaps longer to shorter periods are represented by each succeeding hand.  Combine that with the now common point-to-point wargame maps, where not all points have the same distance between them, but units expend one movement point per connection regardless.  CDG designers are not always explicit about the intent, but apparently there is some elasticity involved.  They are showing time and space related to other things in a looser (and possibly more elegant) way in these strategic and even operational level games than fixed intervals.

I find this flexibility appropriate to the mindset of counterinsurgency.  The decision makers don’t really know how long or how much it will take to get the consequences they are after.  “How long does it take to get my division from here to there?” is not really as interesting a question to model as, say, “How many resources will it take over how much time to convince that region’s population to back the government?” The semi-random appearance of the next “Propaganda” card in ADP in part tries to incite that kind of uncertainty, the mindset of having to deal with that flexibly as a decision maker.

BT: The kind of decisions players are making in the game are not the kind that involve moving X units in Y time, where X and Y are discrete units. When a player undertakes an operation like Sweep or Extort, it represents a concentration of resources or capability in a certain area over a non-fixed interval of time. A given cube or cylinder in the game does not represent a fixed unit like 3/187/101 “Rakkasans” or the “A-535 Martyr’s Brigade” or anything like that.  Also, there will be instances where there may be actual forces in an area but they are not particularly active or useful – for example, much of the Afghan National Army or Police agencies are present and deployed across the countryside, but are not engaged or likely to be engaged against the enemy.

I think wargamers are a bit more forgiving of this concept now than before, but I acknowledge some people will not be able to let go of the idea either. So it goes.


adpGH: As a player first sitting down to the game, what are the key decisions I’m looking for, and how should I weigh my options when considering what actions to take?

BT: Well, if it is your first time sitting down to play the game, you are probably more interested in finding out how the game works, at least in the first few turns. But once you have mastered the mechanics, you can now concentrate on how to win. You must understand the victory conditions for every faction, and every decision you make should be interrogated as to how it serves YOUR win – keeping in mind that everyone else is doing the same, and it’s all too possible for someone to sail to victory up the middle while the other players are tearing each other to pieces. The game has no hidden information, except what is in the heads of the other players – and this can lead to a lot of internal “he knows that I know that he will want to do this, because last turn he did that, so I will do this other thing to upset him, now how does that help me” dialogue.

VR: They are legion, but I’d focus on these:

As the Coalition, a small or big footprint? The Coalition has wide control and strong incentive to manipulate force levels in country. A light commitment opens up the possibility of declaring victory quickly, while heavy commitment ensures a long campaign and exposure to mounting casualties. But Coalition forces are effective and needed to pursue objectives across much of the country; without a heavy commitment how will the Coalition guide any outcomes?

As the Afghan Government, how closely to work with the Coalition and how hard to go after the Taliban, the Warlords, both, or neither? You’d like to keep the Coalition in country long enough for you to build up your wherewithal against their eventual departure. So you don’t want them to succeed too fast. On the other hand, you do want to impose the central Government’s writ, so you can’t allow the Taliban or the Warlords to grow too strong. And you know that tight Government-Coalition cooperation can be potent against these competitors.

As the Taliban, how much to build up before striking and whether to focus on popular opposition to Karzai right away or first rack up some casualties among the occupier to block a Coalition victory? The Taliban are mostly secure across the Durand Line, somewhat so in Pashtun-dominant areas of Afghanistan, and less so elsewhere. Victory will require influence outside the safer areas, but it is possible to get behind the attrition 8-ball and never rally back to sufficient mass.

As the Warlords, how to build up bases to produce resources and exert just enough influence to keep the other factions divided and not coming down on your head.


GH: When the player gets up for the game table after a rousing session playing A Distant Plain, what’s the key takeaway you want them to have?

BT: That this game helped him to see that the war is far more complicated than he thought, and that the real war in turn is far more complicated than this game, which has taken a great deal of liberty and abstraction with the subject.

VR: That Afghanistan today is a particularly vexing example of Kilcullen’s dictum that counterinsurgency is fundamentally a competition between many groups, always more than two-sided.


adpGH: Will there be any expansions / additions that allow players to either explore the situation in Afghanistan pre-9/11, such as the Afghan Civil War that followed the Soviet withdrawal, or an update in a few years that looks at the events from 2012-2014 or so?  Or would those be significantly different games that would require a different approach?  Is there value in introducing the idea that the US/coalition could’ve intervened in Afghanistan in the late-90s, without 9/11 as the triggering event?

BT: I think the situations you are describing would be essentially different games. The components of the game could be used to construct such, but the victory conditions and Event Card decks would need to be completely rewritten. So, no.

I also do not think that there would have been a foreign military intervention in the late 1990s. Europe and the US were too concerned with events in the Balkans, Somalia and elsewhere, and as miserable as things might have been for Afghans in that decade, the rest of the world was not interested in rebuilding their nation for them, after twenty years of knocking things to pieces.

VR: Another inhibition for me against doing expansions any time soon is that there are too many fresh topics that I am itching to do.  I always love to see other folks come up with variants on something I have designed, but I myself can only do a few things at a time.  After A Distant Plain is printed, I’ll almost certainly turn to Angola, Iraq, and other topics before I return to Afghanistan.


GH: What would we ask you about if we knew what to ask you about?

VR: Who’s developing the game? What’s planned for playtest of the design? And how do I get in on it?

Mike Bertucelli—experienced playtester on my previous designs and current GMT developer for Joel Toppen’s Navajo Wars—is developing A Distant Plain with us. Gene wanted a single developer for the ongoing COIN Series, and happily for us Mike stepped up to the task. He has set up a first-rate playtest home on Google, while Joel has provided a gorgeous playtest Vassal module. Meanwhile, Connections grognards Bill Cirillo and Sean Diller already have an outside physical set in play. We welcome anyone willing to put the effort into providing us game reports and feedback to get in touch with Mike (“Hobiecat” on line) and get on board!

BT: Where, oh where, can we see more about this game and how can we get our hands on it? has shots of game components and will feature more content as it is generated:

Consimworld has both heartfelt debate and current events on the game’s progress:

Preorder page on GMT website ($52 now, $78 later!)

Brian and Volko have graciously agreed to take questions from readers in our forums for about a week after this interview runs. Please drop in and ask away – they are insightful and articulate guys who will know doubt offer thoughtful responses to your queries. Or at least fake it really well!

Chat about it below, or in our forums, or hit our FaceBook page >>

2 Responses to GrogHeads Interviews Designers of A Distant Plain

  1. […] strategy game designers in the US, as his COIN series is taking over the world.  He’s visited with us before, in discussing A Distant Plain before its release a few years ago.    He comes back for a more […]

  2. […] pieces seem to have been drawn from their particular expertise in a specific field, such as Ruhnke & Train talking about asymmetric warfare, or Antley talking about Twilight Struggle.  At least a few of […]

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