The war in Afghanistan continues apace – last year, the Trump administration pledged to increase U.S. troop levels and follow a “conditions based” approach to the ultimate goal of ultimately handing over security to the Afghan government. The war rarely surfaces to the top of the news cycle though, and we’re left to assume that the same broad strategy is place: shore up and train Afghan forces, and hurt the enemy. In the new Royal Marines DLC for Every Single Soldier’s Afghanistan ‘11 (review), what you’re getting more of the same stuff that made the base game so interesting, although even with the fresh set of units and new scenarios, it’s starting to feel the slightest bit stale.
Royal Marines includes a new 10-scenario campaign featuring the U.K. forces’ amphibious infantry service. These are fairly demanding missions, and from the outset you’ll be scrambling to deploy and position forces in order to start raising your “Hearts & Minds” score and maintaining popular support (represented with Political Points) back home. The new unit roster doesn’t change the nature of the game up too much – infantry and special forces are more or less unchanged from the base game, and most of the new vehicles tend to serve the same function as their American counterparts. Some mechanical changes have been made, however: MRAPs, for instance, have been replaced by the British Warthog, which has the very handy ability to travel over mountainous terrain. One genuinely new addition to the roster is the FV107 Scimitar reconnaissance tank. You also have a spiffy new Royal Marines dress uniform on the menu, for which you’ll gradually earn medals, ribbons, and badges.
The new scenarios are challenging, and they’ve left me with mixed feelings. While I’ve enjoyed the chance to return to Afghanistan ‘11’s unique balancing act of political strategy, infrastructure building, and security tactics, these new missions lean heavily toward the ‘clear and destroy’ type. They demand more aggression than most of the original campaign missions did, and that somewhat takes away from the ‘hearts and minds’ themes on which the core game is built. Several give you the task of eliminating Taliban units in a large area, and I found these more frustrating than enjoyable, since the computer-controlled enemy is usually able to move undetected and even vanish back into the rugged mountainside after an attack.
But for a game set in Afghanistan, that’s a thematically-appropriate kind of frustration, and one that makes me want to improve how I approach a given mission. What’s more concerning is a first-draft feel to some of the new missions – several don’t seem particularly well thought out, and the introductory text on a few of them needs some serious tidying-up. Since these introductory texts are the main connection to the historical engagements the scenarios are meant to portray, it’s disappointing that they’re so haphazardly written.
However, this doesn’t wind up being particularly significant, because Royal Marines is of course the same abstract concept game that Afghanistan ‘11 is. This isn’t a game that’s trying to simulate historical battlefields in terms of unit manoeuvers or tactical formations. Afghanistan ‘11 is about thinking about counter-insurgency strategy in board game terms, and that means the fine details like unit designations and vehicle types don’t matter all that much in the end. Moving your pieces is a way to express your strategic priorities rather than your tactical sense, and in that light, Afghanistan ‘11’s attractive visuals and hex-based tileset feel almost overdone.
What makes Afghanistan ‘11 such a stand-out game is that it forces you to set aside the usual wargame concerns and think seriously about security as a function of force positioning, civil affairs, and logistical support. This decision to focus in on counterinsurgency as a guiding philosophy necessarily means that the fiddly unit details we expect in a wargame disappear into the background. And so, the Royal Marines campaign seems to miss its own point – it’s adding more of what matters least to Afghanistan ‘11.
That said, the DLC provides plenty of good reasons to return to Afghanistan ‘11. ESS has added some key new features that add meaningful depth to the core experience. Your construction units can now set up roadblocks along highways, the better to control the new flow of civilian vehicles that travel along them. In Skirmish mode, you’ll have to watch these like a hawk, since Taliban forces can use them to launch VBIED attacks against villages connected to major roads. Raising the H&M score in villages will grant you an Afghan National Police unit, which you can use to visit other villages to gather intel or man roadblocks. These are changes that show up immediately in Skirmish mode, but that I didn’t see at all during my time with the campaign.
While I wish that the campaign had incorporated these meaty new mechanics, I think Royal Marines works just as well or better in Skirmish mode anyway. The randomly-generated maps mean you won’t have the veneer of a specific historical connection, but as I said above, that’s hardly what made Afghanistan ‘11 so appealing in the first place. Civilian vehicles and car bombs turn roads into even more interesting foci for strategic planning and anxiety, and your decision on whether to connect a village to the highway system is now more fraught. Other changes, such as the buff that SAS soldiers confer to nearby infantry, meaningfully reshuffles the way you think about troop placement.
These mechanical additions that Royal Marines makes to the original Afghanistan ‘11 formula are enough to offset the new missions’ feeling of retreading old ground. The fresh coat of paint and a few new units are pleasant enough, particularly for anyone with a personal connection to the Royal Marines or British forces in general, but the real value in Royal Marines is found when you fire up a Skirmish game and try out the new chess pieces at your disposal.