Wot I Think: Afghanistan 11

Let’s see if I can get through this without using the W word. Afghanistan 11 is a w****** (history-steeped military strategy game with influential terrain and plausible, reality-derived unit relationships) but it would be a tragedy if w******* (habitual users of history-steeped military strategy games with influential terrain and plausible, reality-derived unit relationships) were the only people who ever stumbled into its quicksand. The W word, especially when used in close proximity to hexy screenshots, tends to imply threadbare themes and moribund mechanics. It doesn’t generally suggest a game with the irresistible momentum of Civ, or the colourful intricacy of Tropico. A game like the quietly brilliant Afghanistan 11.

Designer Johan Nagel begins by handing us all the biggest and best military toys. We get the drones, the F-16s, the A-10s, the Apaches, and the M777 howitzers while our AI opponents – the warlord militia and Taliban – must make do with technicals, AK-47s, RPGs, and homemade explosives. Johan then proceeds to explain, through a host of simple yet ingenious rules and play elements, why sophisticated tech and a ludicrous firepower advantage have never guaranteed victory in The Graveyard of Empires.

In a war zone where enemy cadres either emerge from impossible-to-find caves to plant IEDs and intimidate villagers (militia behaviour) or infiltrate from the eastern map edge – Pakistan – staging ambushes, sabotaging infrastructure, and harassing vulnerable bases, before slipping back whence they came (Taliban behaviour), marching around Napoleon-like at the head of an intimidating army is pointless. Completely eradicating the foe in open battle is impossible. The most you can hope to do is restrict their operations, and persuade their willing and unwilling sustainers, the villages dotting every map, to forsake them.

Hearts and Minds are won with a sage mix of vigilance, diligence, aid and violence. Regular village visits build loyalty. Nearby victories, infrastructure improvements, and IED clearing operations cement it. Eventually the locals are confident enough to start sharing information. Yesterday we saw a group of armed strangers digging a hole next to the bridge… My brother-in-law told me there’s a party of foreign fighters camped in the hills south of the main highway. In an environment where locating a maddeningly elusive enemy is half the battle, these tip-offs are gold dust.

But gold dust that will trickle through your fingers unless you possess the network of Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) necessary to mount swift, effective counter-insurgency actions. Where other logistically minded battle sims are happy to accept wiggles of controlled hexes between units and depots as functioning supply lines, A11 asks us to plot and oversee every ration, ammo and fuel delivery in person. It’s rare for a turn to pass without at least one supply-related jaunt commencing or concluding. Hmm, my mortar battery at FOB Alpha desperately needs bombs. I’d use my Chinook to courier them over but it’s currently porting fuel to that Buffalo engineering vehicle constructing a waterworks at Marjah, so it looks like I’ll have to risk a truck dash along the Malgir highway, or ‘Ambush Alley’ as I call it.

This constant shuttling of supplies, combined with modular FOB construction, and unit purchasing (units are bought with Political Points, a fluctuating form of income impacted by many of the same activities that effect the local and national Hearts and Minds score) often make Afghanistan 11 feel more like Anno or Industry Giant, than Panzer Corps or Battle Academy. It could be tiresome, but almost never is because of sly, unpredictable enemies that like nothing better than preying on fat fuel tankers or helos dangling vital sling loads. Some of the game’s tensest and most satisfying moments centre on logistics. Blunting a major Taliban attack with a judicious mix of airpower and artillery? Highly gratifying. Watching a battered long-distance convoy limp into a FOB that has been cut-off and fighting for its life for several turns? Priceless.

None of the above is likely to come as a great surprise to owners of Vietnam 65, A11’s mechanically similar forerunner. What should startle and heartwarm however, is the way Johan has enmeshed entirely new components – components that add flavour and enrich an already dense decision space – without miring pace or mortgaging approachability. I’m talking primarily about elections, handover and events cards.

Handover is a feature worthy of an Alex Wiltshire ‘The Mechanic’ article. Where in V65, Special Forces-trained local troops were merely an economical way to enlarge and deepen your military bootprint, in A11 – especially late-game – they are essential to success. On turn 50 of a standard 60-turn random-map skirmish game, the vast majority of US units on the map file into capacious C-17 transport aircraft and, breathing weary sighs of relief, head for home. Your network of bases are taken over by the Afghanistan National Army troops you’ve been recruiting and battle-hardening over the past four to six hours. With a wonderfully bold flourish of his designer’s wand, Nagel distills complicated history and ensures the closing phases of games are turbulent and testing.

The tempo of play is also impacted by periodic elections. Whether the candidates you back end-up victorious in these is heavily dependent on your H&M performance during the five turns before ballots. While you scurry about buying votes with aid deliveries, road construction, and (if all goes to plan) combat successes, you can be certain that out of sight there are dusty wraiths with spades and AK-47s just as busy.

A weaker design would rely on event cards to inject excitement or fill thematic gaps. In A11 the cards, presented as newspaper headlines, merely nudge and remind. There are things happening in Washington and Kabul that you can’t hope to influence. Process the change, be it a shift in unit cost, PP income, H&M or whatever, and, bearing it in mind, get back to work. Helo-hampering sandstorm turns are foreseeable (they’re marked on the strat-map screen along with a wealth of useful info about village allegiances and enemy activity) but invite the same sort of stoicism.

Vietnam 65 was campaignless, relying, justifiably I felt, on a powerful random-map skirmish mode for replayability. The sequel sports a similarly excellent skirmish mode but also boasts a sequence of 18  historically-based outings (configurable difficulty settings means no-one should get hopelessly stuck while moving through these). We get recognisable maps and cunningly customised victory conditions. Less positively we also get austerity briefings, ISAF lip-service, and the odd weak attempt at simulating small-scale Special Forces missions. Discovering that the British forces mentioned in one mission intro, wore the same uniforms, operated the same vehicles, and spoke in the same accents as US ones, was disappointing. Better no Brits, Canadians, Germans etc than token, characterless ones? I think so.

Although I’m not holding my breath for a free update with Jackals, Mastiffs, and Merlins, I am hopeful Every Single Soldier/RetroEpic Software will do something about minor irritants like the very limited save facilities, occasionally annoying aircraft animations, and absence of an undo button, in the weeks to come. There’s currently only two save slots (one for skirmish, one for campaign) no way to correct accidental moves, and leafing through units is a little more laborious than it needs to be because based helos insist on rising into the air before accepting commands.

And if a future patch added a ‘chance of civilian casualties’ tickbox to the difficulty settings I hope I’d have the honesty to use it. A11’s representation of opium production is refreshingly mature and nuanced (destroying poppy fields damages the Taliban, boosts PP income, but erodes local H&M), something that can’t be said for its representation of air strikes near settlements, none of which ever have negative H&M consequences.

Whatever happens to Afghanistan 11 in the future, it’s sure to be one of my most played w******* (history-steeped military strategy games with influential terrain and plausible, reality-derived unit relationships) this year. I love how it forces me to spin plates. I like the way it uses IEDs and RPGs to transform every vehicle move into an adventure. In a genre dominated by demolition and death, the emphasis it places on construction, and improving the lives of the local populace, is cheeringly discordant. The theme isn’t one I’m naturally drawn to, but the design is so strong, the history so ingeniously utilized, an ‘RPS Recommended’ rosette is inevitable.

Afghanistan 11 is available now priced around £21

From this site

36 Comments

  1. Stugle says:

    Thank you for the in-depth review, Tim. This’ll go straight on my wishlist once I get home.

  2. Babymech says:

    I refuse to play a game that’s so focused on walruses.

  3. BlackeyeVuk says:

    I really want to dig this game, but them godawful colors…

  4. Michael Fogg says:

    Interesting, I wonder if this is comparable to Unity of Command, the other recent nu-hex strategy. Also, it won’t be long until it gets accused of justifying or at least ‘normalising’ (whatever that means) US imperialism by some very ‘enlightened’ posters.

  5. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    It might just be my mind, littered with crap but hilariously named ancient strategy game titles as it is, but I read every w******** as Wargasm!

  6. dystome says:

    What a bunch of w*****s.

  7. Shiloh says:

    I’ve been going back and forth on this since I heard about it. On the one hand, the setting certainly appeals – I’m a huge fan of A Distant Plain and would love to see that translated from board game to PC game. On the other hand, I’ve played quite a bit of V65 and though I certainly enjoyed it for what it was, I found the busy work of supply frustrating and not really my sort of thing.

    I see there’s a bit of a discount over on Steam at the minute, so I might have a go at it.

    • SpiceTheCat says:

      Oddly, the logistics part of V’65 was what made it work for me, and I’m glad it wasn’t excessively streamlined out of A’11.

      I’ve just finished reading Chickenhawk, and the routine of Hueys on resupply missions, casualty recoveries and troop lifts between bases and potentially hot LZs is brilliantly captured in V’65.

      De gustibus and all that :)

      • Shiloh says:

        Chickenhawk is a great book, I read it last year. FYI if you’re in the market for a recommendation, I’m reading Company Commander by Charles B MacDonald at the moment, his memoirs of being an infantry captain in the US Army ’44-45 (including the Bulge). He also wrote the fantastic Battle of the Bulge, which I’m re-reading at the same time as CC – well worth digging out if you can find it.

        Different war, same old troubles.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    Ok is w****** “wargame”? It’s honestly not clear to me. Nor is the joke about how that would be a dirty word.

    • Stugle says:

      The joke is that Tim doesn’t want to scare off people who would normally look at a wargame (especially one with hexes) and run for the hills, while they might enjoy the particular spin on that genre that this game offers.

    • Premium User Badge

      subdog says:

      The joke is that wargaming is such a unloved niche that regular RPS readers will likely skip right over it.

      • syndrome says:

        Seriously, arent those people scared already by reading the game’s title? I certainly didn’t exactly expect Stardew Valley when I saw AFGHANISTAN ’11

        • field_studies says:

          I’ll wager I’m not the only RPS reader who virtually never plays any of the games Tim Stone writes about, but rarely misses an opportunity to read his writing.

  9. Panther_Modern says:

    Bought this last night and can say that it is stellar. I cannot think of anything that has done a better job at modelling asymmetric warfare. $30 is about $10 too much for what this is but it is a good time none the less.

    If you enjoy games about building systems (zacktronics, factorio) I think you’ll get more of a kick out of this than a grognard wargamer.

  10. Landiss says:

    The game sounds good, but to be honest it’s a little expensive for me. Right now Vietnam ’65 is for 5 € (promo on bundlestars). I think I’ll get that now and the new one maybe some time in the future.

  11. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Nice review thanks. Sound like it puts interesting spins on the familiar hex wargame “formula.” Loved me wargaming in the past but now now just some HoI and Panzer Corps on occasion, so this hit the spot.

  12. Vietnam65 says:

    We learnt so much from V65 and plowed it all into A11, even had to leave stuff out which we will get to on this journey …
    Tim’s points on air strikes on villages and British forces are so valid , are working furiously on them all!

    • heliotropecrowe says:

      Well done. You’ve made a brilliant Mae that really builds on and deepens the V65 experience.

      I particularly like that actually engaging the enemy with infantry is now one of your main weapons.

      I’m currently struggling away on what feels like a stinker of a map with only three villages accessible by road so God help me if the Taliban manage to take out my Chinook. My MI-8’s are having a very busy campaign as you can imagine and I’m being forced to use apaches and SF directed A-10s in place of artillery. The drawdown is really going to hurt…

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      The comments about the British might be valid – though given the numbers of French, German, Italian and Polish forces there a generic NATO might be a better representation.

      Tim doens’t mention the biggest element of the Western intervention though so I assume its not modeled at all? link to foreignpolicy.com

  13. strummer11 says:

    One save slot per mode and no undo? Pass.

  14. heliotropecrowe says:

    Implementing an undo function seems like it might be difficult given how the game is based on hidden movement.

    • syndrome says:

      That’s solved by simply requiring the user to softly-confirm* the unit’s movement. Only THEN you reveal its sight radius and remove the possibility of an undo.

      * Hard-confirm would be “CONFIRM” button, but ofc noone would appreciate that extra click. Soft-confirm would be, for example, switching to another unit or deselecting the unit, which implicitly sets the previous unit movement in stone for the turn and reveals the area around it. Panzer Corps already has a very good undo facility, that doesn’t spoil the FoW revelation mechanic.

  15. Phil Culliton says:

    Great review, Tim.

    Back when I was a game dev I worked on a design for a game that was basically precisely this. Even now that I don’t do games full time I still come back to it every now and then – just a fascinating and important thing to try and model. Huge number of mechanical hurdles and difficult questions to answer.

    This, however, looks excellent, and sounds like they really nailed the asymmetrical aspects. Well done to you, folks at Every Single Soldier, Retro Epic, and Slitherine. This goes on my list to buy ASAP.

  16. Henas says:

    Any word on an iOS version? V65 on iPad is one of my most played on that device.
    A11 sounds similarly as good.

  17. DeadCanDance says:

    Please make Mr. Stone a permanent member of RPS’s olympus.

  18. manny says:

    The realistic aesthetic has always been a problem for wargames. Why there hasn’t been more wargames imitating possibly the most popular ever made, Advance Wars, confuses me. Perhaps the vets don’t like cute but it doesn’t necessarily have to be cute.

    • syndrome says:

      That’s a very good question indeed. Another good question is why exactly the mainstream game dev industry incessantly devalues their target demographics, underestimating its intellect, capability to solve problems, and enjoy games at a slower and more deliberate pace.

      What they do instead is to promote attention-deficit behaviour, to reward instant gratification, and ultimately to make people ignore / not appreciate the hard effort that goes into making anything truly palatable, by not making them think about it at all.

      This promotes a deep-down cynic in the average gamer, as he/she is estimating the games’ quality based on graphics and explosions alone, or even more cringeworthy, on its social and political rhetorics, where every story has to start up with an over-the-top Holywood cinematic, or has to contain an awkward romancing act — only to appease to those who don’t play games to become smarter or to enrich their lives, but to find something that would explain the global inequalities to which they are already a victim — just to nail someone’s beguiled attention throughout the otherwise below-average content, tailored for a much more mundane, slower, likely populous, though hard-to-entertain audience, due to no inherent values other than tendency to flock around any blockbuster or general opinion.

      Wargaming is therefore an exact opposite, if you take the above into consideration. There is no middle ground.

      If you want to appease to someone else, you seemingly have to mimic the absolute atrocity in production value, to which mainstream is oblivious by design.

      I really wonder if this is intentional, or if it’s simply an echo of how typically the market operates in two (or three) distinct groups of people.

      tl;dr
      If you’re smart and value thought-provoking games, it is likely you wouldn’t care for its graphics, but it has to look HARDCORE.

  19. unacom says:

    Thank you for your thorough break-down.
    Afghanistan 11 has been duly added to my backlog.
    Am I the only one who consistently confuses the developers´ name with this gentleman here?
    Probably been tripping over too many foxes…

  20. Tobberoth says:

    It’s a great game, but it has several issues which makes it frustrating to play at times. Some animations are quite slow, for example helicopters rising from bases. This slows you down quite a bit when you just want to toggle through your units. Buttons are sensitive and often do not respond to clicks, forcing you to click commands several times. Units in some hexes can make it hard to select bases. Some actions are fairly unclear in their effects, such as supplying UN aid. It seems to increase H&M a small amount, but it’s hard to tell how effective it is. Terrorists are unreliable. Sometimes you can run your vehicle with 2 hex viewing distance across a road. Then you run a supply truck across the same road on the same turn, and suddenly you’re attacked by terrorists which you didn’t see before.

    Many mechanics are not well explained, and sometimes I’m unsure if I’m facing a bug or just misunderstanding some mechanic. For example, I’m playing the first campaign mission after the tutorial, and part of the mission is to part two supply vans at a FOB. This by itself is fine, but it’s a long mission and you need to use the supply trucks. 30-40 rounds in and several of my supply trucks have been blown up, but I can’t recruit any more. I have tons of PP and I’m in fairly good control of the map, but I can’t beat the mission since I can’t build those supply trucks. I can build any other unit. No idea if the amount of supply trucks is somehow limited in this mission or if it has just bugged out.

    This game desperately needs a wiki to explain the mechanics in depth.

    • syndrome says:

      All true. Although I like the general idea of the game VERY MUCH, I solved the said issues with a magic combination of keys (ALT+F4).

      That being said, it’s not that I don’t acknowledge that an indie game might have bugs or usability insufficiencies, no, it doesn’t have to be perfect, however, extremely consistent typos such as “diffused” instead of “defused” (to name just one, and it’s hardly the lone example) have contributed MIGHTLY to said magic combination. I am not that much of a grammar nazi, but I have no patience for the lack of native language proficiency, as that’s highly indicative for the quality of other areas as well.

      You see, I evaluate games by looking past the superficialities. I tend to look at the mind of the designer. I observe the tiniest details, and as a game designer myself, I speculate as to whether he paid any attention to appeal to my sense of perception. At age 36, I am de facto member of this game’s target group, yet it failed to engage me past the first five hours.

      Don’t get me wrong, it’s never black and white, and I still expect to see more from this developer, but I can’t shed away the feeling that he was rightfully employed at a bank.

      The game is too expensive, too hardware taxing for what it is (thus coded badly — I am a Unity developer, I know such things), and too poorly realized in the accessibility department, i.e. extremely unreadable for normal/casual people who don’t inject NATO (or USMC, whatever) codes and abbreviations in their veins, and riddled with basic usability issues (such as constantly making you wait for its helicopter animations to complete, even Tim couldn’t resist to mention this). Even the scroll isn’t responsive as it should be, but poorly tweened for no apparent reason, producing a frustrating lag.

      Mr. Nagel, I wholeheartedly congratulate you on your vision, the game’s general boardgame-ish design that nearly-perfectly encompasses the major aspects of modern asymmetric warfare, and apparent success in the media, but you could’ve done so much better in the execution part. I will never pay ~$30 for this, for that much money any product has to offer an experience that’s smooth AF.

      IMHO

    • Tobberoth says:

      Slight update to my post now that I’ve played some more and looked more at the steam discussion forums: While my complaints still stand, I have to give credit to the developers. There’s already been several patches (my specific issue with not being able to complete the mission has been fixed, it was indeed a bug concerning saves and mission objectives), and the developer is very active on the forums, and there’s plenty of bugfixes on the way. Not only that, but there’s apparently a lot of content coming as well, such as more campaign missions and new units and systems. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, more stuff is amazing, on the other, this is a 30 dollar released game, not early access. It’s a bit weird that a system mentioned in the manual of the game (convoys) is not actually in the game yet.

      My current opinion: Unless you know you’re into these kinds of games, give it a bit of time before you buy. It’s already worth the money for me because I just really enjoy the game, but for many people, it’s just a bit too rough at the moment for the price. I’m certain the developer will get it into great shape though.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>