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Tabletop Gaming, Models, and Minis => Wargaming => Topic started by: bayonetbrant on August 29, 2012, 04:52:40 AM

Title: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: bayonetbrant on August 29, 2012, 04:52:40 AM
Hey folks!
Following up the interview (http://grogheads.com/int-adp1.html) with Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke about their upcoming Afghanistan game A Distant Plain, the designers have agreed to hang out here for about a week or so to answer your questions.
Please offer your feedback below, and fire away with your questions for them!
(interview part 1 (http://grogheads.com/int-adp1.html) and part 2 (http://grogheads.com/int-adp2.html)).

Thanks to the guys for a great and informative interview.  And thanks in advance for agreeing to hang out with us for a bit while we fire questions at them, too  :)
Title: Re: Feedback on Designers' Interview for A Distant Plain
Post by: LongBlade on August 29, 2012, 11:40:06 AM
I have a few questions. I'll post each separately so that they can be quote replied so folks can follow each individually.

How did you guys take the raw data and turn it into something in the game? There must have been a flood of information and much of it not exactly written to be digestible in gaming format. For instance, what did the UN's report on refugees tell you and how did you use it?
Title: Re: Re: Feedback on Designers' Interview for A Distant Plain
Post by: LongBlade on August 29, 2012, 11:41:08 AM
What kinds of hypothetical events did you use that have not (yet) happened historically, but could have? How did you determine what to use and what not to use?
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: stevenaustin6 on August 29, 2012, 01:18:28 PM
I work (through the next 2 months) in the intelligence directorate at COMUSNAVCENT.  Any chance we could get a playtest set in the hands of the regional analysis shop here in Bahrain?  (Those analysts who track the conflicts and emergent events throughout the CENTCOM AOR.)  We have an FPO address, so the shipping/postage would be at plain old US domestic rate.
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: btrain on August 29, 2012, 02:30:33 PM
Playtests are being done through VASSAL modules.
Contact the developer, Mike Bertucelli, at proimages@me.com and he will fix you up!

Thanks and good luck in Bahrain!

Brian
Title: Re: Feedback on Designers' Interview for A Distant Plain
Post by: btrain on August 29, 2012, 02:38:01 PM
Yes, there is a tremendous amount of material out there and most of it is, frankly, not that useful or easily translateable into a game format. You would think that even order of battle information might be readily useful but it isn't, because in game terms what shows on a board is a measure of capability, not plain numbers.

So it may be all very well to read that the Afghan National Police had an overall strength of 85,000 at some point in time, but that's just a number - you have to dig deeper and see how many of those 85,000 are actually potentially useful at their jobs (not that many, as it turns out). Looking further, you see that the ANA may have large and increasing numbers every year, but also has an annual desertion rate that has been fairly constant at around 25%. So you have to build that into the game as well (we did).

One mechanism in the game is the return of refugees from abroad. Though a complete census of Afghanistan has not been done in over 30 years, it is known that over 6 million people have left the country, and many of them have returned. The Government player has the option of placing Population Returnees markers in certain provinces; thus he is able to change the "human terrain" slightly through governing benignly. I consulted UNHCR material for statistics representing the Commission's best guesses as to how many refugees had settled, and where.

These are just a couple of examples.

Brian

I have a few questions. I'll post each separately so that they can be quote replied so folks can follow each individually.

How did you guys take the raw data and turn it into something in the game? There must have been a flood of information and much of it not exactly written to be digestible in gaming format. For instance, what did the UN's report on refugees tell you and how did you use it?
Title: Re: Re: Feedback on Designers' Interview for A Distant Plain
Post by: btrain on August 29, 2012, 02:49:37 PM
Putting together the Event Deck took a fair amount of effort, and most of the events in the deck have actually happened or reflect real capabilities and incidents. But there are a few not-yet-events in the deck, as it is now (the effects of cards, and even the cards themselves, may change during playtesting):

US-Taliban talks (haven't occurred, as far as we know) - slows one side or the other down until the Propaganda round

Power Shuffle - greater attachment of Warlord troops to Police, or vice versa

Green Cards/Brain Drain - exodus of guerrilla or government talent to take courses at the University of Phoenix

Dostum - the warlord returns from exile, as he did in 2009, but takes a greater role in the government

Coup d'etat in Kabul - Karzai is deposed and there is a realignment of support, including some confusion, desertion and redeployemnt among Government forces.



What kinds of hypothetical events did you use that have not (yet) happened historically, but could have? How did you determine what to use and what not to use?
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: Volko on August 29, 2012, 06:29:58 PM
Quote
US-Taliban talks (haven't occurred, as far as we know) - slows one side or the other down until the Propaganda round ...

Sometimes life even pre-imitates art...

http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/05/01/obama_official_direct_us_taliban_talks_ongoing (http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/05/01/obama_official_direct_us_taliban_talks_ongoing)

Brian did a great job answering so far, and of course beat me here!

StevenA--If you and your regional analysts there are able to give ADP a go on Vassal, I'd love to get impressions.  Thanks!

Volko
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: stevenaustin6 on August 29, 2012, 07:38:43 PM
VASSAL isn't going to fly from inside the workspaces, due to heavy restrictions on what can be installed on even UNCLAS machines (i.e. I'm quite certain that VASSAL will not be on the authorized software list).

However, we also have a couple of hard working NGA representatives just down the hall, with access to large format, high-quality printers.  Perhaps I could use the VASSAL materials to fabricate a hard copy playtest set?  E.g. have the NGA guys print a large map?  Is the developer the person to talk to about the map and countersheet files?
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: Volko on August 29, 2012, 08:10:49 PM
Hi Steven.   MikeB's playtest site has all the files needed to assemble a physical set, including cards and markers as well as the map, both tiled and full sheet.  You would need to come up with some kind of bits for forces:  we use 9mm cubes, 10mm cylinders, and 15mm discs, but Andean Abyss playtesters got creative with chits, plastic bits, and whatnot.  But as mentioned in the interview some testers have already assembled sets so they don't have to rely on Vassal.

Let me know if you need help getting in touch with Mike to get on the Playtest group.  I'm at volkojill@cox.net.

Regards, Volko
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: saslett on August 29, 2012, 08:11:58 PM
"Green Cards/Brain Drain - exodus of guerrilla or government talent to take courses at the University of Phoenix"

This event card really struck me as surreal.  Does University of Phoenix even have a presence in Afghanistan?  Why would taking college classes result in an "exodus" of guerrilla(?) and government talent?  Why would these groups en masse decide to take courses at an American university?  In what?  Is this some sort of not-so-subtle dig at the University of Phoenix?  I'm confused.  Is there a particular reason this event is what it is?

Why not replace this event with something more plausible like: "Brain Drain: growing Afghan private sector lures away government / guerrilla talent" or "Green Cards: coalition-employed Afghanis flock to take advantage of U.S. green card program"

Anyway, like everyone on this board, I'm greatly looking forward to the game and have already preordered my copy.  This particular event just struck me as really weird. 

Good luck with the designing and play testing!
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: LongBlade on August 29, 2012, 09:18:44 PM
"Green Cards/Brain Drain - exodus of guerrilla or government talent to take courses at the University of Phoenix"

I chalked that up to a good sense of humor. But the good news is that my guess isn't necessary; we have the developers here :)
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: LongBlade on August 29, 2012, 09:26:11 PM
In re-reading your interview, I was struck by your comment:

Quote
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?

(emphasis added)

In wargaming there is always a tradeoff between realism and playability - even fun.

How did you arrive at this balance?

Are you satisfied that you've accurately encapsulated the essence of the conflict?

Why did you draw the lines where you did (money, too much detail to be interesting, etc.)?

What would you add to make a more "realistic" game if you the above constraint(s) weren't there?
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: btrain on August 30, 2012, 10:30:41 AM
"Green Cards/Brain Drain - exodus of guerrilla or government talent to take courses at the University of Phoenix"

I chalked that up to a good sense of humor. But the good news is that my guess isn't necessary; we have the developers here :)

Jesus H., the literal mind will have me yet.
Yes, I have a good sense of humour, or so my wife tells me.
Your substitute text accomplishes the same purpose.
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: bayonetbrant on August 30, 2012, 11:02:31 AM
"Green Cards/Brain Drain - exodus of guerrilla or government talent to take courses at the University of Phoenix"

This event card really struck me as surreal.  Does University of Phoenix even have a presence in Afghanistan?  Why would taking college classes result in an "exodus" of guerrilla(?) and government talent? 

I think the joke was that the US grants a lot of green card exemptions to Afghan intelligentsia to come to school in the US, so everyone leaves the country to head to the US for school.  They're not taking courses in Afghanistan - they're leaving for the US (hence, the exodus).

The chuckle in there about UofP is that their key admission criteria is "can you pay for it?"
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: btrain on August 30, 2012, 11:13:48 AM
In re-reading your interview, I was struck by your comment:

Quote
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?

(emphasis added)

In wargaming there is always a tradeoff between realism and playability - even fun.

How did you arrive at this balance?

Are you satisfied that you've accurately encapsulated the essence of the conflict?

Why did you draw the lines where you did (money, too much detail to be interesting, etc.)?

What would you add to make a more "realistic" game if you the above constraint(s) weren't there?

Great questions LongBlade. And thanks for putting all the questions in one post, personally it makes it easier for me to answer them all in one go.

The tradeoff between realism and playability, and where to draw the line between the two of them, is a crucial principle to have in mind. Though I think "realism vs. playability" usually ends up as "added-complexity-in-search-of-verisimilitude vs. playability". And, as you pointed out, physical constraints like money and component limitations, as well as non-physical ones like players' time and available numbers, also play a role.

Volko's COIN series games dance along the wavery oscilloscope-like line between "serious wargame" and "instructive deep Eurogame". He chooses important topics that need to be studied and implements them in games that reward intense thought and an appreciation of second-order effects. But in order to respect the constraints described above, we do have to make abstractions and there has to be a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of players (who have already partly gone down that road in agreeing to sit down and play a game; see https://blog.itu.dk/MFPG-E2011/files/2011/09/5-semiotics-vs-mechanics.pdf for an interesting little run-down on that).

Anyway, to return to your question, I think we have struck a balance between verisimilitude (I tend not to use the word "realism") and playability, with a reasonable number of players (and remember that the game is playable with fewer than four, and even alone, once we have the algorithms worked out for that) in a fairly reasonable amount of time (your first few games will take longer, as there is a learning curve in playing the game well - no one course of action is immediately obvious - and you will need to identify and eject the Analysis-Paralysis players in the interests of the clock). At this stage we are tweaking the effects of cards and mechanics to make sure the game retains interest and depth over multiple plays.

Have we encapsulated the essence of the conflict accurately? Another very good question; I think we have gone down that road a good piece, in highlighting the asymmetries of capabilities, intentions and strengths/weaknesses of the four factions, and how this conflict is an extremely complex and drawn-out one, with many surprises in store for players.

What would we design if there were no constraints? Well, the first constraint that would have to go would be the limits on the designers' time: we have day jobs and families, and the need for periodic refreshment and sleep! Speaking for myself, I would, for a start:

- increase the number of players to at least 20, each with slightly different agendas;
- throw in an entire logistics/admin/troop training sub-game, which imposes its own restraints on play;
- make players play the game for days on end, in little cells or alone, with incomplete information that usually isn't shared at all, or transmitted inaccurately by several hostile umpires;
- hide the "true" victory conditions from one and all, so no one has a very good idea of just how well they are doing;
- and so on, and so on...

These are the pieces of "realism" that only rarely get picked up in hobby wargames, if at all. They often don't show up in professional wargames played by the military either. Most players don't like to play such games, and of course Volko and I would have to design all this too...

Brian
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: LongBlade on August 30, 2012, 11:33:52 AM
- increase the number of players to at least 20, each with slightly different agendas;
- throw in an entire logistics/admin/troop training sub-game, which imposes its own restraints on play;
- make players play the game for days on end, in little cells or alone, with incomplete information that usually isn't shared at all, or transmitted inaccurately by several hostile umpires;
- hide the "true" victory conditions from one and all, so no one has a very good idea of just how well they are doing;
- and so on, and so on...

Good stuff. Sounds like something better done at a convention :)
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: btrain on August 30, 2012, 12:14:40 PM
Yeah, it would be a diverting 40 minutes or so, before players wander away in frustration and disgust to go play Memoir '44 or something....

Brian
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: Volko on August 30, 2012, 04:47:54 PM

In wargaming there is always a tradeoff between realism and playability - even fun.

How did you arrive at this balance?


This is indeed the rub.  I call it the EFGs of design:  a great sim game should be Easy, Fun, and Germane to its audience.  These objectives are in tension, and we call a design that resolves that tension "elegant".

I hope that ADP will convey insight, but GMT Games' first question before accepting a design is "Is it fun?".  So the game must give up much on the insight corner of the triangle.

The trade off you mention is why focus is so important in a wargame.  Fortunately, with strict adherence to an appropriate focus, designers should be able to deliver germane insight in a fun and digestible package.

As an example, ADP portrays the locations of Coalition forces in Afghanistan via just 20 wooden cubes and 6 wood discs.  If you are interested in, say, how one NATO member's forces compares to another, or what would happen if the Germans deployed down here instead of up there, these uniform cubes cannot give you much insight.

But within the game's focus--national-level counterinsurgency--they might.  If what is germane to you is how to expend resources across COIN activities, what is the relationship among the major players in Afghanistan, or what is the role of ethnicity in the war, you'll get to play around with all those issues in this game, and--we hope--have great time not hard work.

Volko
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: LongBlade on August 30, 2012, 05:24:40 PM
But within the game's focus--national-level counterinsurgency--they might.  If what is germane to you is how to expend resources across COIN activities, what is the relationship among the major players in Afghanistan, or what is the role of ethnicity in the war, you'll get to play around with all those issues in this game, and--we hope--have great time not hard work.

Volko

Great answers from both of you.

Interesting that the focus is less on assets - e.g. the surge. Obviously that was by design. Was it more or less irrelevant or did the design just not incorporate it for reasons discussed above?
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: Staggerwing on August 30, 2012, 05:25:28 PM

I think the joke was that the US grants a lot of green card exemptions to Afghan intelligentsia to come to school in the US, so everyone leaves the country to head to the US for school.  They're not taking courses in Afghanistan - they're leaving for the US (hence, the exodus).

The chuckle in there about UofP is that their key admission criteria is "can you pay for it?"

And maybe that they're an Internet University?
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: Volko on August 30, 2012, 06:42:58 PM
But within the game's focus--national-level counterinsurgency--they might.  If what is germane to you is how to expend resources across COIN activities, what is the relationship among the major players in Afghanistan, or what is the role of ethnicity in the war, you'll get to play around with all those issues in this game, and--we hope--have great time not hard work.

Volko

Great answers from both of you.

Interesting that the focus is less on assets - e.g. the surge. Obviously that was by design. Was it more or less irrelevant or did the design just not incorporate it for reasons discussed above?

Thanks.  Well, that list I typed above are just examples.  How many assets to "surge" in (or out) of Afghanistan is a critical decision for the Coalition player.  We even call the Coalition Special Activity that brings forces in "Surge". 

We wanted to leave Coalition force levels completely in the hands of that player, so you can deploy the whole OB right away, or pull out of the war precipitously, if you prefer.  We represented the Coalition's goal to stabilize Afghanistan and get out by making that players victory score equal to Afghan popular support plus the number of Coalition pieces back home (in the Available Forces box). 

The hitch of course is that it is rather hard to influence affairs in Afghanistan without a big Coalition force (since the Afghan Govt has related but distinct objectives), so you are balancing the two halves of "win and leave".  And the more troops you send in, the more the exposure to casualties.  Coalition casualties suffered in Taliban attacks (or in Warlord attacks, if your relations have really gone sour!) go to a separate box and a portion are removed permanently from play--so they take away from that victory score.  The more casualties you suffer, the more you have stabilize the country to claim a win.

The Taliban player knows this, presumably, and while pursuing his own goals (popular opposition to the central government plus strength in insurgent bases), the Taliban also can be working to cause those Coalition casualties to block a quick Coalition win.

Government forces can protect Coalition troops and bases from casualties, and are relatively numerous and cheap for either the Government or Coalition player to train up.  But can they be trusted?  The Government player has other concerns and can pull out of a province to expose the Coalition there, and in any event suffers a sharp desertion rate.

... And so on it goes. 

Volko
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: LongBlade on August 30, 2012, 07:13:32 PM
Thanks - I *did* know that because you talked about the "big footprint vs small footprint." Sorry, brain lapse.
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: bayonetbrant on September 06, 2012, 12:16:22 PM
How are NGOs modeled in the game?  Are they all just event cards?  Rex likes to point out that when MSF starts talking to NATO in Afghanistan, they tend to point out that they've been there for 30-odd years before NATO bothered to show up, so MSF and the like have some pretty long-term relationships and programs already in place. 

Also, what about shifts in NATO/US doctrine over time, in the way that the war started out as "kill Taliban" and morphed in nation-building, with side trips for counter-terrorism, capacity-building, etc?
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: btrain on September 06, 2012, 07:55:39 PM
There are a couple of related cards such as "NGOs" and "Development Aid" which can benefit the government by building support or permitting Civic Action, or boost government Graft and warlord resources through poor auditing and diversion. I won't argue that some NGOs have been there for a very long time, nor that they do good work, but it seems to me that they go out of their way to avoid overt identification with either side, in the interests of being able to do that good work (per Rex). So they are not a great factor in the overall insurgency-counterinsurgency struggle.

Shifts in doctrine: both sides will get a chance, through card play, to implement or not implement certain capabilities that reflect changes in tactics or doctrine (there's also a card that forces one side to give up one such!). Of course, these capabilities do not dictate how you're going to fight the war; they just make it easier or not to implement your overall strategy.

Brian
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: Volko on September 06, 2012, 08:16:51 PM
On shifts in doctrine, echoing a bit of what Brian just said, I would see that as at the level of command or decisionmaking in the game.  In other words, that's exactly the sort of thing you get to play with:  is it the right time to stop worrying so much about finding and assaulting Taliban Guerrillas and focus on training Afghans and building popular support? Etc.
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: bayonetbrant on November 20, 2012, 05:54:14 PM
Apparently A Distant Plain flew through the p500 process at GMT and has already made the cut. 

Maybe we played a part in getting people amped up for the game?  Or maybe it's just the stellar reputations of the two designers :)
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: bayonetbrant on April 12, 2013, 08:27:41 PM
Newly-released near-final artwork for the game

(http://sphotos-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/553228_554488831262426_529242298_n.jpg)
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: btrain on May 23, 2013, 11:59:30 AM
And the game itself will be out in August, to be presented at the WBC!

Preorders still begin taken, at the low low price of $52.00 ($78.00 after publication).
Latest preorder count is 796!

Brian
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: bickford on May 25, 2013, 04:19:50 PM
Quote
Preorders still begin taken...
No Thanks.
There is a group (veterans and Canadian mostly) that boycott Train and all his games.
Words have consequences, when you disparage certain groups they have the privilege to express their displeasure.
Sorry but it must be said, you made your own bed.
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: bayonetbrant on May 25, 2013, 06:03:50 PM
hmmmm....
Title: Re: Feedback and Q&A Follow-up for A Distant Plain Designers' Interview
Post by: btrain on July 10, 2013, 04:53:17 PM
First I've heard of such an organization.

Or of "bickford", for that matter.