The rising star in digital COIN simulation returns. South African studio Every Single Soldier of Vietnam ’65 fame is back with Afghanistan ’11. Bigger and arguably better than ever, the Afghan political and military quagmire is about to be served for all to solve.
Editor’s Note: This article was mis-filed in the ‘Reviews’ section. For technical reasons we now have to leave it here, but this NOT an official review of Afghanistan ’11. That article will come when the game releases on March 23rd, 2017.
And like its forebear, this is a game about war, rather than a wargame. The argument is more than pithy pedantry.
Defining the Every Single Soldier COIN model as a wargame is a misnomer. It has the superfluities of a wargame, sure. You shunt troops around hexes and conduct operations as you would anywhere else. But in the case of Afghanistan ’11, the emphasis is squarely on sustaining a campaign, rather than sole-ly waging it. If you’re looking for some hyper-granular squadder or an operational chit-cruncher, this isn’t it. Afghanistan ’11 is a management and logistics sim. The game has combat, and if left unattend-ed, insurgents will melt the goal of a stable Afghan security force hand-off. But, as was the case with Vietnam ’65, it’s not the size of your war machine, but how you use it.
In the preview build, I had the chance to run through a thorough tutorial and two missions. Despite the vertiginous terrain of Afghanistan, the importance of roads and firebase networks is paramount. Un-like Vietnam ’65, there’s a much greater emphasis on ground vehicles – especially the Husky mine-clearer and Buffalo construction truck. These two work in tandem to secure and expand the opera-tional areas; clearing IEDs to ensure safe passage and setting to infrastructural projects like building roads, bridges, waterworks and so forth.
Players begin by ascertaining their objectives. Usually, this is exceeding a hearts and minds quota by a set number of turns. Every requisition and operation drains a political willpower pool, itself a throttle to excess materiel purchase. In essence, Washington demands results for their dollars, and it is one of the more elegant elements of Afghanistan ’11. Positive outcomes replenish the political kitty, so man-aging an efficient campaign is the order of the day.
Hearts & Minds is the other tally to consider. Infrastructure development is key, but not every village will be sympathetic to the cause. UN aid packages and effective war-waging help to sweeten relations, but there’s no saying a village won’t disband their allegiance if the bond is left to founder or you suffer defeat at the hands of militia or the Taliban.
This is where it gets all sorts of heavy. Villages divulge intel on activities somewhere on the map, be it the location of an IED, OPFOR movement or opium crops. These become sub-objectives, each a boun-ty of political points and often a push towards upping the H&M count. Stability comes from constantly checking in on villages, responding to intel and building that web of Forward Operating Bases. Supply is crucial, and while it is tempting to keep units on extended operations, they need rotation or sustained logistics, lest their ineffectiveness merely burn political goodwill in goose-chases and poor manage-ment.
Combat is as you’d expect, with the addition of heavy hitters like F16 and A-10 strikes, augmented by things like artillery strikes and drone usage. Enemy units not wholly killed flee and disappear into the wilderness. They’ll ambush convoys, destroying and disabling vehicles before melting away in all the frustrating realism of the past decade. Again, it pays to emphasise this is not a combat-centric strategy game, but one that meters out engagement as it would constructing a bridge or de-mining a highway. In that sense, it makes combat all the more poignant. Just another tool in the arsenal.
There is also the added political element. In addition to the nitty-gritty of running ops, the expanded nation-building element includes elections. It’s up to the player who they want to back, with each can-didate offering a different stance on a variety of issues. It’s all relatively abstracted, but choosing whether to commit political willpower to a leader who’ll offer up faster ANA troop training over a can-didate with increased village intel output are big quandaries. Every election can and does flip the card table.
The only quibble I do have is how fussy the game can be regarding convoys. It would be nice to be able to assign a number of vehicles to a group, particularly when you’re looking at moving a large taskforce between firebases. As it stands, it often feels like busy work keeping a gaggle of MRAPs and Strykers around vulnerable hardware like the Husky or supply trucks. A small issue, but given map sizes, Taliban and militia activity atop IED proliferation, a little bone towards mobile security wouldn’t go astray.
What I find most illuminating about ESS’s COIN model is the hair-trigger nature of nation-building off-set by insurgency. Every asset is double-edged. Every road a honeypot for IEDs and ambush. Every piece of infrastructure as potentially volatile as it is undeniably vital. Where Vietnam ’65 was a game of sustaining visible and viable marine excursions, the stakes are much higher in Afghanistan ’11.
Treading the tightrope of local pacification, political willpower and the wearying thorniness of an asymmetric foe, the mechanical crescendo is rather thought-provoking. We’ve lived with an intracta-ble, draining conflict for over fifteen years. Only now is the staggering logistical complexity of this con-temporary conflict being explored. In Afghanistan ’11, we get to peek inside the machine of keeping boots on the ground. The frustrating realities of a military giant being harassed and undermined by liquid belligerents and internecine upheaval. Every Single Soldier has done more to examine the conflict in Afghanistan ’11 than any studio prior. This is one to watch.