Although I wasn’t very impressed by Andean Abyss, I’m still intrigued by the idea of GMT’s COIN game system, so I went up to EndGame in Oakland to join in their biweekly(ish) wargaming group to try to give A Distant Plain a fair shot.
I’d actually played the game once previously in a near-final playtest version, and hadn’t been very impressed. It’s sill unconscionably long when payed to 5 propaganda cards, easily 6+ hours if the game goes the distance (today we played to the 3rd propaganda cards of a 4-card “short” game in 4 hours). The green faction (the Warlords here) is still pretty boring and basically just doing the one or two things that they do and praying nobody notices; however unlike the Cartels in Andean Abyss, the Warlords in A Distant Plain face extremely daunting victory conditions. The pacing is still pretty slow unless players make a conscious effort to move the game quickly. It’s still completely bewildering the first time you try to play it as each faction has its own set of actions available, and there is a proliferation of different levels players are competing on. The Government wants to control population and pad their Swiss bank accounts but doesn’t care whether their citizens are actually happy; the Coalition wants people to support the government at low cost but doesn’t care about military control; the Warlords want to keep the the state destabilized; and the Taliban just wants everyone to be unhappy.
The magic in A Distant Plain is the relationship between the (Afghan Central) Government and the (US-led) Coalition. Broadly speaking, the idea of the game is that there are two fronts in the war: the military battle for control of territory, and the battle for the hearts and minds of the population. The Government’s goal is to physically control territory; they are only interested in hearts and minds to the extent that it allows them to engage in graft without the population immediately going over to the Taliban. The Coalition is interested only in hearts and minds, but you can only win hearts and minds by first militarily controlling territory. The two players don’t trust each other, but do have to share a checkbook and have some joint military command. Only one can win. Cue endless and entertaining bickering. This is the soul of the game and does capture the incredibly fraught relationship between the US and Hamid Karzai.
By contrast the positions of the Taliban is fine but far less interesting, and probably not going to keep you going for 4+ hours. The Warlords probably only have about 2 hours in them. So play the short game.
The other important thing I think A Distant Plain improves over Andean Abyss is that it amps up the power of the event card deck. In Andean Abyss, players seemed to quickly figure out that most of the events were really hard to justify taking given the opportunity cost (i.e., not moving pieces on the board). More powerful events mean more get used, which means more flavor, more tension, and quicker play – all good. One player felt like it might have gone too far, but I feel that’s unlikely. Whether it’s hit the sweet spot is hard to tell for sure obviously – this is a rather involved game – but it’s clearly closer.
Like Andean Abyss, A Distant Plain is a complete-information whack-the-leader and be-ahead-at-the-end game with simple and open scores. It’s not great, but at least at this point you should know what you’re in for. You need to be able to enjoy the journey here more than the destination.
Also like Andean Abyss, I remain somewhat frustrated by how superficially A Distant Plain treats the subject matter. For example, A Distant Plain portrays the Government as corrupt by making its endgame victory condition goal being corrupt (each time they take a Govern action, they convert support for the government into patronage, and win on a combination of military control and patronage, not support). There is no sense of or examination of why the Government is so corrupt, or the fact that the only way the US or the Afghan Government actually win this thing (or even establish the foundations for legitimate counter-insurgency) is by hacking away at that corruption. As long as that corruption is a fact of the game, the Coalition might as well go home. The government was and is so weak because the real power outside of Kabul resides with warlords, which drives corruption at the center. But in A Distant Plain, the Warlords are just a warmed over version of the Drug Cartels from Andean Abyss. A Distant Plain would have been more interesting and authentic – at least if it’s really attempting to be a game about COIN – if it had not been satisfied with just having a great Coalition-Afghan Government relationship, but had attacked the relationship between the Warlords and the Afghan Government and the Warlords and the Taliban with the same vigor.
I also have to say I find the area control mechanics of the cubes-and-cylinders game not very evocative of the violence that has wracked Afghanistan. You’ll get some sense of the human cost inflicted on the Taliban as those units routinely get wiped out by Government and Coalition offensives and airstrikes, but the Taliban doesn’t seem to have the incentive or means to inflict damage on Coalition or even Government cubes. “Good guys” going to the casualty box will be a rare occurrence unless the Taliban can snag a good set of capabilities cards, and should not tax your conscience.
If you’re interested in the topic of counterinsurgency in general and Afghanistan in particular, I recommend Max Boot’s Invisible Armies, which is a solid survey history of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Also Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents (not those insurgents) and Daydream Believers, as well as his many columns for War Stories over at Slate, in which he has discussed the surges and the complicated relationships between Washington and Kabul at some length. While I think A Distant Plain does an interesting job of tackling elements of the war, to me it relates the stories of the battles but not the actual fundamentals of counter-insurgency. Perhaps due to the currency and rawness of the topic it couldn’t do any more, but if that’s the case, why make it?
I’ve saved the worst for last, mostly because it’s the least interesting, but the design of the action cards which are central (and crucial) to the game is truly awful. The pictures are small and busy and you often have to squint at them to make out what’s going on. The text size is small and low-contrast and hard to read even when you have excellent light and are looking right at it, which of course you almost never are because it’s right across the board. The sandy background further disrupts the already terrible readability. It’s unforgivably bad and is a significant obstacle to enjoying actual face-to-face play (does all playtesting take place over VASSAL these days?). These needed to be either on larger cards with bigger fonts, or the pictures needed to be ditched, or something, because a crucial element of the game is borderline unusable.
So I won’t deny there are a number of things about the game that bug me, some of them pretty significant. I’m trying to decide if the fact that it has one really great thing plus a generally more nuanced and interesting texture than Andean Abyss makes it worth playing. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do think it has a lot more going for it than the previous game did. Even if it’s not a panacea, the central driver of the US-Afghanistan relationship gives the game a soul that Andean Abyss lacked. The better and more interesting event mix gives the game a bit more energy and motion. I think if you know what you’re getting into and set expectations appropriately it’s worth a shot, although some experience with the much shorter Cuba Libre will be valuable in making it less daunting. Just stick to the short game, and make sure the pace moves.