Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again

We all of us enjoy our wargaming, our playing with toy soldiers, our board wargames, and our reading around these kinds of topics.

There is crossover between serious games and hobby games, and many of us enjoy that aspect too. Some of the blogs I follow are more towards the serious end of the spectrum, where wargaming is a job, where it is used to prep military and intelligence professionals, and - perhaps - influence real-world policy, real-world decisions. 

One of the newer, modern boardgame designers was recently asked about an expansion to his game on Afghanistan, A Distant Plain, which would take into account recent developments. I quote here part of his response:

Given the speed of events, I think if anything what we are seeing now is each faction’s game pieces being swept around on the map and scooped up prior to being put back into their ziploc bags.

Game’s over, man.

If you want to carry on, I think you will need a different game.

He linked to one of his previous blog posts, and also to an (as it turns out decidedly non-prescient) article on the then current state of affairs, entitled 'Why the Taliban isn't winning in Afghanistan' (from which I quote below): 

“We must face facts,” remarked Senator John McCain in August 2017, “we are losing in Afghanistan and time is of the essence if we intend to turn the tide.” He is not the only one who has argued that the Taliban are on the march. “The Taliban are getting stronger, the government is on the retreat, they are losing ground to the Taliban day by day,” Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, a retired Afghan general who was the Afghan government’s military envoy to Helmand Province until 2016, told the New York Times over the summer. Media outlets have likewise proclaimed that “The Taliban do look a lot like they are winning” and that this is “The war America can't win.”

Although the Taliban has demonstrated a surprising ability to survive and conduct high-profile attacks in cities like Kabul, it is weaker today than most recognize. It is hamstrung by an ideology that is too extreme for most Afghans, a leadership structure that is too closely linked to the Pashtun ethnic group, an over-reliance on brutal tactics that have killed tens of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians and alienated many more, a widespread involvement in corruption, and a dependence on unpopular foreign allies.

What am I getting at, you might ask?

Well, it is that games and game-models that are lauded for their innovation and perspicacity, whose designers are profiled in the Washington Post, whose hobby games potentially influence real-world decision-making, can still get it wrong. Why they get is wrong is not really my focus here, but it is clear that they get it wrong for reasons which include a) a reliance upon commentators who make incorrect assumptions; b) a game-induced need for simplification which means that factors that appear insignificant (but may not be in real life) are minimised; c) that formulated victory equations which may seem plausible to Western analysts who sit within the military or intelligence paradigms may well not match reality.

So what does this say about wargaming? 

That we should all be wary of it. That it may have consequences. That it is inexact for predicting future events.  

As hobbiests our first reaction to 'serious' military/intelligence-adjacent wargames on current or near-future conflicts is often likely to be "cool, we want to see more of them!" And why not? It seems to validate our hobby, encourages new designs, and perhaps adds authority or cred to what we do. 

But current events show that popular wargames on current conflicts do not necessarily lead to increased understanding or to desired outcomes. And in fact, if real-world wishful thinking is rendered in games as plausible result, may lead not to understanding but to folly. 


  1. From a design point of view, there's a difference between a wargame based on historical events and a wargame that tries to predict future events.

    For historical events, we often know the plausible range of outcomes, we are aware of the political decisions that led to those outcomes, we know how the armies and commanders behaved. Within that parameter space, a game can be designed. One can argue about the validity of some assumptions, but roughly, the game will recreate the historical conflict.

    But for current or future conflict, things are different. We might know something about the military capabilities of belligerents (both in terms of hardware and perhaps, but less so, doctrine), but we don;t know the full scope yet of the political decision space surrounding the conflict. So without the political parameters, any wargame will get it wrong when the real actors start operating outside that space. Or to put it in gaming terms: the victory conditions have not been written yet ;-)

    1. Yes Phil, nicely put. And that is part of my point, in that the victory conditions that have been written can lead to false conclusions, and that false conclusions - if they influence decisionmaking - lead to real-world consequences.

  2. Replies
    1. Probably not very nourishing food, sorry! Just a bit of a rant really.

  3. I've heard Brian Train talk about designing COIN games, and he is highly thought of. My take on what you have said here is that the fall of Afghanistan doesn't mean he was wrong - it may mean that those whop gamed the scenario didn't take the right lessons from it. Furthermore I would not necessarily expect planners to use one of BT's published COIN games. I've seen close up the sort of matrix game that is quite likely to be used to inform policy makers and planners and they give good outcomes and pose the right sort of questions and allow strategies to be tested. Why what has happened has happened will be trawled over for years. However, a properly constructed wargame is still a very powerful tool in understanding this type of problem and what should be done.

    1. Thanks Graham - yes, he is highly thought of, along with other designers of the COIN school. Of course, wargaming can be a very effective tool, but in this case we can see that the results on the ground show things have been very badly miscalculated. Presumably the situation was analysed carefully - and I imagine wargamed - before decisions were made. The official position seems to be that the Afghan military was supposed to be able to handle any threat. It also seems that if there were privately held doubts about this, it was hoped that such doubts would be realised after sufficient time that direct accusatios of US culpability could be avoided. As it turns out, of course, it has been a disaster. Have wargames played a part in that disaster? If wargames were used as part of the decisionmaking process, then we have to say yes.

  4. A solid post.

    The last two big Washington sponsored War games make for interesting reading and fair play, the USA published the results.

    1. Hmm, do you have a link to those at all OB? I would be keen to have a look at them.


    2. Let me see if I can find you a link. I can't recall where I read them but it's a small list of possibilities.

  5. Interesting post, but I don't understand how your conclusions follow from your premises? At best, such a wargame can give a range of possibilities, so presumably the only way that it can be invalidated if what did happen in reality is impossible to replicate in game terms. It feels like I am missing something.

    1. Yes, it is a bit of a spray, JWH. Whether there's anything worth taking away from it, I'll leave to you to decide.

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated :)


  6. There are strong parallels with Vietnam, perhaps even Cambodia. An insurgent army with minority backing winning and taking over. Lessons not learned it seems. In the case of Afghanistan the role of religion is emphasised much more than the political which is where the west seems to have failed.

    1. They may have been a minority, but they were Nationalists opposed to foreign intervention. That is so often overlooked in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost a Vietnamese nationalist rather than a Communist. In the case of Afghanistan the Taliban can and do present themselves as liberators from foreign occupation.

    2. Thanks Khusru. Good points to think over.

    3. Thanks again, Graham. And the Taliban are on pretty safe ground there - Afghanistan was, after all, invaded!

  7. Using wargames to predict the future is always perilous. In the case of Afghanistan, among many other variables, it was Napoleon himself who said, "the morale is to the physical as three is to one". No amount of training or equipment will likely suffice if the belief of the soldiers in the cause they represent is weak.

  8. Thank you for your comments.

    You mentioned A Distant Plain; this game design stopped in 2013, for a reason.
    To condemn it because it could not perfectly model the situation 8 years after that end, a situation that only came about with changes in political and operational parameters outside the scope of the game, is a bit much IMO.

    There is language in the playbook about how the game is a product of our thoughts and research up to 2012/13, and we did not claim any predictive value for it. We meant that.

    As for this game's possible effect on any real-world decision made about the war in Afghanistan, on any level, I can pretty confidently say there was none! After the game was published there were occasions where unit commanders in both the British and American Army asked for copies of the game, or got back to us later about how they had used A Distant Plain as a form of orientation for their officers, to show them that the situation was more complex than they thought it was. Well, they found that out anyway.

    We are contending with real reality here, not the ordered incremental cave-shadow that is a game. As has been pointed out above, any "game" exercises the professionals use at the strategic level are more like extended discussion forums or matrix games (which took off in American professional circles only recently). There are few rules and definitely no "victory conditions" to satisfy.

    1. Hi Brian, again, thanks for your comments. The playbook for A Distant Plain that Brian mentions is online here for those who might like to look at that:

      I in the end my frustration is that the west does not seem to learn. Wargames on modern topics were my angle in on that because this is a wargaming blog, not a current affairs blog. It is possible (even perhaps likely) that I have been unfair in my characterisation and/or reductionist in my thinking. I am not going to try to defend that. My post says what I wanted to say on the topic and I will leave it at that.

      As a gamer with an interest in history, I find that to some extent I see conflicts through the lens of the games I play on them. Not as much as I see games through the lens of what I know of the conflicts, but a good game will, within certain parameters, add to my impression of its subject. If someone has played Labyrinth, A Distant Plain, or other games on modern current or ongoing situations, I think it is natural that their experiences with such games will affect their view of the broader situations represented. I'm sure that this is what designers want their designs to do - inform players, ask them to think around the topic, and challenge them to come up with strategies that fit the in-game circumstances.

      How much that may affect real world decisionmaking I cannot quantify, and it may well be that I have given games both hobby an serious an outsize importance in this regard.

      Nevetheless, in Afghanistan now we have a humiliation unfolding. This defeat may fundamentally alter the perception the rest of the world has had of the United States. That at high levels the current disaster appears not to have been anticipated is, to my mind, a terrible indictment.

      Of course, I have no insider knowledge at all, but it seems to me a failure of planning, of imagination, of understanding, and of leadership.

      On reflection, perhaps I should've just gone for a current affairs post. It would have been fairer!

      Thanks again, and thank you for your detailed analyis in the other comments here as well.

      Best wishes,

    2. I think the current disaster was well anticipated but not accepted by anyone who could have done anything about it.
      You are right when you say it was a failure of planning, of imagination, of understanding and of leadership... to this I would add layers of organizational self-delusion (telling the boss what he wants to hear), conflict avoidance (not telling the boss what he doesn't want to hear), and the priority given to graft and greed by the Western principals (mostly Americans but other countries too: why stop the music while the money's raining down).
      These are all things that can hardly be modelled in a board wargame; the analogue for ADP I described could only have been arrived at by deliberately, artificially bad play and factors outside the game world itself.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. (I'm sorry for the many comments, but there is a character limit on them)

    But we can still try...
    A day or two after the blog post of mine you linked to, on Boardgamegeek and Facebook there were a couple of threads on the "update scenario" theme that were interesting. I amplified my thoughts and tried to render an ADP analogue there in my unfocused way, the rough game-equivalent (or inequivalent) states and conditions, and how they could be prompted or advanced by deliberately bad play.

    By 2021:
    - The actual formal talks opened between the US government and the Taliban in 2020, to which the Government of Afghanistan was not even invited, have an effect far larger than those of Card #24 (US-Taliban talks) because they set in motion a timetable for ultimate American withdrawal. In effect, the Coalition player has played this card and declared that the last bus home for him is 10:35 and he has to be on it, with his copy of the game!

    - there is a much reduced number of Coalition cubes and a small number of Bases (all those private military contractors have gone home). They cannot Assault and are limited to one Sweep per card. They do not add Aid in Surges (well, they do, but it is all diverted to no game effect - in fact, Aid would be very low because of this). They rarely Train and if they ever do, they do not reduce Patronage.

    - There is a reduced number of Government cubes, and considerable and accelerated desertion and loss of presence and power among the Government Troops and Police because, quite frankly, the political leadership of Afghanistan is no longer interested in supplying or even paying their security forces. Some members had not been paid in nine months. Government deliberately does not Train and loses some cubes practically every turn (but there are always some Troop cubes; as noted above, some ANA units, especially the Commandos, have fought hard). For his part, the Government player also has to get up early for work tomorrow and wants these people out of his house, so he is not really interested in playing much more.

    - fewer or no Air Strikes. (Bagram was shut down months ago and less use was being made of airpower anyway - all the private contractors were withdrawn, the ones who among other things kept the Afghan Air Force flying).

    - a large and growing number of "local understandings" that result in the more or less pre-planned flip-flop or absence of security forces - see this post on my blog for some good links to this ( So along with the loss of cubes above, the effectiveness of Taliban Infiltrate and the Warlord Suborn is much greater by now, as is the Captured Goods rule in Attacks and Ambushes.

    - Fewer Warlord cubes and bases. President Ghani had been cracking down on their leaders and dismantling their militias for several years. Hence they weren't all that interested in defending such a government. So, Warlords do not Suborn Taliban.

  11. (also, I appear unable to reply to myself!)

    So, we can try and construct some game analogies, but this does not make a new scenario.
    It makes an unplayable, or at least pointlessly uncompetitive and not at all comparable game, with victory conditions that no longer apply because one player (Coalition) is effectively no longer at the table, and another player (Government) is not really interested in playing anymore - a catastrophic collapse of morale/interest in what was going on.

    And beyond just games - if you are talking about COIN theory like FM 3-24, well manuals of doctrine don't cover this either as again, a morale failure of this magnitude reflects political and social events far beyond the ken or power of the unit commander reading the manual.

    FM 3-24 does make some points about the government of the host nation having to have some kind of credibility or legitimacy among the people it claims to protect and rule. Well, that was a big part of the problem in Afghanistan all along!

    Finally, besides A Distant Plain I have designed other games on insurgency, many of which belong to one or more families or systems. One of those other families is the "4-box" system. The central concept is an index of "political support" which rolls up a lot of things into it. When one side hits zero political support, there is assumed to be some catastrophic failure or collapse; end of game. On the way there of course, there are numerous and growing problems and disadvantages, so it does accelerate. Titles in the family include Tupamaro, Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes, EOKA, Kandahar.

    Brian Train

    PS: funny that you should mention that Washington Post article; the author spent a lot of time and trouble talking to me about it, but it all ended up in the editorial wastebasket. So there is no indication that the game is a co-design, still less that the second designer was not even an American!

    1. Many thanks very much for your thoughts, Brian. I will try to respond properly tonight.

  12. Hi everyone. In my opinion, scope of such type of games shoulnd't be the prediction of future, but rather for the players to familiarize and get acquainted about the campaign they will be engaged later on for real. So the game is not the goal, but a mean to reach a minimum degree of knowledge trough a gaming experience.
    Predictions, if any, could be possibly made after several thousand of sessions of game play, employing a sort of "Montecarlo" statistical method. Even doing so, since we are inspecting phenomenas ruled by social sciences rather than physics or mathematics, the outcome should't be looked as solid truth but rather as a mere possibility among thousands. From here the consequence: such type of games requires lot of resources vs results that are hard to verify and validate.

  13. It will be interesting to see (although I daresay a blanket of secrecy will be deployed) to see how any wargames and their insights were used. I have been articles suggesting that it was distinctly career limiting to play too well as the enemy team in US military wargames and I daresay game assumptions that were too negative were also given a compulsory "revision".

    A bad workman always blames his tools so I wouldn't blame the gaming tool which provides are very disciplined frameworks for analysis.

  14. Your post raises interesting points. Still, If the game in question--or any game or simulation for that matter--states that the exercise will serve to predict (or even help predict) probable outcomes, then it's taking on a very heavy task indeed. I'm not at all sure that the designers of "A Distant Plain" have ever stated that it was what they were doing. For my part, I cannot think of others who claim that their designs exist for that purpose either. The vast majority of simulations look to depict events that occurred, or may appear in the future, given certain conditions. But there is a difference, I think, between depiction and prediction, between this is how the conflict went or could proceed versus here is the outcome, here's how it will end. Much of course depends on the simulation, but a good deal also rests on the players. And since many simulations are intriguing because they deal with what-if's, being able to identify the endgame accurately is antithetical to that purpose.

    Might I add that it is not only "Western analysts" but observers, commentators and experts elsewhere who were stunned by the Taliban's takeover. Beijing might be publicly basking in the glow of what is portrayed by many here in China (though not all) as a "further sign of American decline", but few if any seem to have seen this coming either, be they wargamers or area experts. There's a lesson or twelve here in the Taliban takeover for many of us, but it's not at all clear if what one wargames or where one lives will predict what one learns.

    Thanks for your post and for your very fine website and work.

    1. Here are the last three paragraphs from my designer's notes in the playbook, as published in 2013:

      "History as Game, Game as History
      This game was released in the summer of 2013, in advance of
      NATO’s final withdrawal from combat operations. This is important to remember if you are reading these notes in 2020 and scoffing at how we got it wrong, or marveling at how we got it right.

      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 understanding of the conflict, as we continuously try to organize our understanding of the world around us.

      We do not claim any predictive value or even a particular 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, or indeed to any insurgency. Our aim was to give players an indication of both just how complicated the situation is, and of many of the factors that contribute to its complexity. We feel we have done our research to derive the essential asymmetries between the four factions at the game’s level of abstraction, and populated the game’s “world” with a set of actual (and a few hypothetical) events that do or do not arise during play as players move through the Event Deck. This also gives the game a very unscripted quality, within bounds, and almost infinite replayability. The game’s scenarios also portray the conflict at three different points in its historical development, should players wish to “take over” at certain junctures."

      So, perhaps I got it a little wrong, as some people turn out to scoff in 2021, not 2020.

    2. And here is Volko Ruhnke, in his section of the designer's notes in the Playbook:

      "Game and Reality

      I will close with a few thoughts about designing on a still fresh—and, for many, raw—historical topic. My conviction is that even a rough simulation can add to the exchange of ideas on a controversial topic, and so such simulation in the form of an engaging game is worth attempting. The corollary is that how game designer choose to try to represent their perceptions of a controversial reality matters and is fair game for critique.

      First, as Brian notes, we don’t pretend with this board game and all its simplifications to be predicting anything about the way ahead in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, we do hope that playing the game will at least help those interested to explore and will help illuminate some
      of the relationships and peculiarities of the complex conflict that continues to play out there.

      Second, in attempting to provide such exploration via a game, Brian and I have sought to withhold value judgments. We are not seeking here to convince anyone about rightness or wrongness of particular policies connected to the subject. We have aimed instead for respectful representation of the parties, as we imagine they perhaps might even see themselves, even while we as citizens of nations that have been participants in the conflict inevitably have loyalties."

    3. Volko spent his career as an intelligence analyst, and later as a teacher of intelligence analysts, for the CIA. He if anyone understands the limitations of analysis, the what-ifs it can generate, and the actual results that are always different in some way. He if anyone understands the futility of making a game or model and pointing to it and saying, "... and the real answer comes out here." I did not spend my career in this field but I don't feel any differently.

    4. One final note on Coalition victory in ADP: recently over on Space-Biff!, his blog of game design reviews and thoughts, Daniel Thurot published a review of All Bridges Burning, a COIN system game on the Finnish Civil War. The comments turned again to A Distant Plain and Daniel remarked:

      "I suppose it depends on how one regards the handling of those foundations. Just last month, somebody on Twitter mentioned that this outcome was always inevitable in Afghanistan, and that the only piece of media that really understood that inevitability was A Distant Plain — specifically, that the better your faction performs, the worse its relationships with its allies become. (I wish I could find that comment now! Sadly, my searching skills have never been very good.)

      I get the sense that many people took Brian Train’s game as somehow propagandistic. I took it as a statement on how foreign interests clash. The best outcome for the Coalition is to shore up some support and then disappear from the country, even though none of the underlying causes of their involvement have been solved. That’s why I bring up the “Saturday night fever” problem. In most cases, one or two extra turns would spell defeat for the Coalition after their winning move.

      In other words, the Coalition can only win because the game state is finite. Played across an indefinite state, the Coalition will always lose. Which speaks more to the limitations of the medium than anything else."

    5. Thanks for your thoughts, P-f-t-P, and to you as well, Brian.

  15. Thank you.
    Volko and I did not then, and do not now, nor did we ever claim any great predictive value for A Distant Plain.


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