Afghanistan & The Ultimate Counter-Insurgency Sim - An Interview with Johan Nagel

By Ian Boudreau 05 Apr 2017 0

Less than two weeks after the release of Matrix Games' Afghanistan ’11, developer Johan Nagel is already excited about plans for the future for his game, and for more counterinsurgency games in the years to come.

Despite some bugs that popped up after launching, and a higher price point than its predecessor Vietnam ’65, Nagel says that Afghanistan ’11 has been selling well, and that the player community has been largely positive about the game. (You can read our review here.)

“To be honest, this wasn’t the smoothest launch on the planet, and I’m the first to admit it,” he said.  Every Single Soldier (the name of Johan's dev company) has pushed out six patches since launching the game, and Nagel says he’s been spending a lot of time on the Steam forums, personally responding to issues that players have brought up.

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That player feedback is helping shape the way Nagel is building the features and enhancements he plans to add to the game post-launch, and he said he has a lot in store for the game in the coming months. In the next few weeks, Nagel said, they’ll be adding the much-needed convoy system. A patch pushed out Tuesday added a feature allowing players to sort units by type within bases and FOBs — something players have been asking for on the forums since launch.

Later on down the line, though, Nagel says there are three paid DLCs planned for this year, which will add the British Royal Marines, the United States Marine Corps, and an ISAF force that includes Germany, Poland, Holland, and potentially other NATO nations.

These won’t just be re-skins of existing units, Nagel said. Each new faction will include new spins on existing units, new nine-mission “mini-campaigns,” and new service-specific uniforms to display on the main menu. For the planned British expansion, for example, special forces will be a vehicle unit instead of infantry, which introduces critical changes to their use in the field.

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“I know you Americans are passionate about your Marine Corps, and so am I,” he said. “We want you to be able to mix and match, and make a coalition force out of all of these units.”

So while there’s plenty to look forward to in terms of Afghanistan ‘11 content, Nagel is excited to talk about new counterinsurgency games he has in the pipeline.

“The next big step forward for Vietnam ‘65 is going to be Angola ‘86,” he said. A veteran of the South African Border War, the Angola conflict is close to Nagel’s heart — the war he fought in as a young South African lieutenant in 1986 was yet another U.S./Soviet proxy war in a long line of proxy wars, where one superpower supported a state and the other propped up a nascent rebellion.

“That’s a totally different war, so it’s a remodel, it’s not just a reskin,” Nagel said. The way he conceives of the next game, it’ll have a host of brand new mechanics. Six factions rather than four, cross-border raids, tracking… Nagel wants to keep building more detail into his increasingly detailed state-versus-insurgent sim.

Sempreatentos

As if one whole new game wasn’t enough, Nagel then wants to tackle the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“After that, we want to revisit Vietnam again, in Vietnam ‘66 —put it all together and make the definitive COIN sim,” he said.

Clearly, Nagel is not a man lacking in motivation. When he talks about his games he’s excited, he wants you to know how much he loves the subject matter he has chosen for them. He’s excited about people playing his games, and he wants to talk about how much more he wants to do.

For some reason, then, it’s funny to learn that he was successful long before going into game development: After leaving the South African army at the end of the Bush Wars, Nagel pursued a career in finance and in 2009 was named CEO of FNB Insurance Brokers. But after thirty years in finance, he decided he’d had enough, and went into game design full time, using a set of rules he’d developed back in the ‘80s and partnering with Matrix to bring them to market. When I played Afghanistan ’11, I was struck by how it used a relatively simple set of rules and pieces to  evoke something that’s been missed by most wargames, and misunderstood by the American public since the beginning of Vietnam. Playing Nagel’s games feels board-gamey, but also intensely evocative in a way I wasn’t prepared for. Despite my own misgivings about COIN, Nagel’s games portray modern conflict in a unique way – one that is uniquely tuned to the weirdness of modern asymmetric warfare.

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“There’s a story here that needs to be told,” he said. “Why do we need to wait fifty years to tell that story?”

Part of that storytelling, that sharing of experience, is building frustration into the game based on his own experience in Angola. “Frustration is an underlying concept if you are the counterinsurgency force,” he said.  “We used to patrol for days, and we used to get a little bit of intel and we’d get all excited about it, and it would go nowhere.”

“You’ve got to capture that,” he went on. “You can’t just gloss over it and have Apache helicopters swatting Taliban, that’s not what this game’s about.”

Nagel and I talked a bit about the idea of games pushing back, about creating frustration deliberately, and I mentioned Lucas Pope’s amazing Papers, Please.

“I don’t know if you’d call the game ‘fun,’” I said.

“But it is in a way,” Nagel said.

“It’s satisfying,” I offered.

“It’s very satisfying. It’s satisfying frustration,” Nagel said. I agreed.

I asked him what the most difficult part of making Afghanistan ‘11 was, and he said it was making sure the game wasn’t merely – in his words – a re-skin of Vietnam ‘65.

“I was pretty harsh on myself,” he said. “And that’s what drove me to the election system, and the newspaper system, and the waterworks system, the nation-building. It wasn’t difficult, but it was a lot of pressure I put on myself to make sure it wasn’t just a re-skin.”

Afghanistan ’11 is available now on Steam, or direct from Matrix Games own digital store.

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