COIN: The Struggle with Insurgency in Wargames

By Martynas Klimas 05 Dec 2017 4

Pushing pixel soldiers around pixel battlefields is something we all love. Some of us also belong to those small, insular Facebook groups of fans of our weird hobby. And as we all know, there’s nothing better than a Facebook group to lose all faith in the community. So it wasn’t surprising to see some guy talking about how nice it would be if we had a game where we could fight ISIS or Taliban or whatever, even if it’s not “politically correct.” He was wrong, of course, but wrong in a way that many people are when it comes to counter insurgency operations and asymmetric warfare.

When it comes to mainstream-ish video gaming, the developers are rarely keen on making terrorist and insurgent groups that different from their opponents. If you take RTS games as an example, the terrorist faction will be the one with stealth units and suicide bombers. This goes for GLA in Generals, Nod in Tiberium universe games, the Consortium in Act of Conflict/War, the terrorists in the ancient Real War game, and so on. And that’s where the asymmetry ends: those factions still harvest resources in the same way as regular ones, they still build tanks and airforces, and have easily identified (and bombed) bases.


Every modder out there believes that GLA needs more tanks.

That’s not at all how insurgencies and terrorists operate. They are not a conventional enemy that is a little different from the “good guys” like whatever regular military opposing NATO would be. Most of the time, the insurgent factions are at a severe material disadvantage. And while that doesn’t really matter when you play games like Insurgency – an FPS shooter of a confrontation between two Violent Non-State Actors so small that even mortars aren’t a factor – it means a whole lot of difference when you scale it to strategy games.

That’s why Volko Ruhnke’s COIN game series of boardgames is really abstract – and super popular. The pegs on the board are closer to a worker placement game than a strategic wargame where each of them represents a division. Events and resources play a much larger role than anything flashy or explosive. COIN games also work on the assumption that these conflicts usually involve more than two sides squaring off, adding an another level of complexity. And if you look at the current conflicts in the headlines, you too can see that there are no clear cut factions in the fight.


Does the red peg have ERA and NBC protection?

On the PC side, Vietnam ‘65 and Afghanistan ‘11 are probably the best videogames tackling insurgencies. They scale down the theatre to present a task that is still surmountable via military means: stabilizing a region. You’re not directing the entire war, yet you’re not fighting skirmishes that will hardly mean anything in the long run either. Instead, you build your infrastructure, you go around talking to villagers, you try and spoil the activities of a shadowy enemy while always keeping an eye on your political capital.

In those games, political points are your currency, cruelly ticking down for every action you do, yet only regained through painstaking effort to keep your area friendly and defeating enemy ambushes. But that’s the thing: none of smaller, individual battles that are RTS-fit really matter in the long run. You can, say, trace back your loss of the campaign in Vietnam ‘65 to “but for want of an infantry company,” but all of the battles in the game are decided by basically a single dice roll with some modifiers. The very thing that attracts people who demand insurgencies in games – the wish to beat terrorists in the field of battle – is really kinda inconsequential in the long run.


Not many games remember the trio of giants that Coalition deployed in Afghanistan.

And even then those games are really forgiving when it comes to fog of war. Sure, you can run a company into an ambush in Vietnam or get hoisted by an IED in Afghanistan. But neither game shows the accumulated stress, propaganda-fueled racism or simple evil of your soldiers resulting in atrocities. You don’t risk calling in an airstrike on a wedding or an errant hospital because CIA doesn’t really care about where the information comes from. You don’t need to deal with Generation Kill’s Captain America-level subordinates who will annihilate villages with artillery because they’re scared. In those games, you don’t need to deal with your own side working against you. The military establishment is almost Command and Conquer-like in not being affected by human failings.

However, none of these considerations factor in many of the more popular games dealing with the subjects. So when the moders that try to bring Men of War: Assault Squad 2 into the modern day add ISIS to the mix, they have to inject captured M1 tanks, because otherwise, you only have regular dudes with small arms. That’s why GLA and other terrorists factions have their own heavy hardware; real life terrorists and insurgents don’t and as such they don’t really pose a conventional battlefield threat to a force that can call in tanks, artillery, fast movers and disposable weapons that cost more than the accumulated damages the cell eating a Tomahawk could cause during its entire existence.

All those toys – jets, MRAPS, tanks and so on – are in no small part what attracts people to militrary history or wargaming. However, gaming an insurgency realistically or meaninfully would mean ignoring the possible RHA rate of Chobham armor, the latest improvements in handheld smart grenade launchers or F-35s low radar signature. The success of an asymmetric war doesn’t really lie on the battlefield and individual skirmishes. It’s not about how many bodies you put in the ground – McNamara and the US learned that in Vietnam, when their precious Kill Count proved to be terrible measure for the success of the campaign – it’s about winning the battle of wills, and working through politics.

rising storm vietnam scope sniper

Rising Storm: Vietnam is an apt metaphor, since no matter how many Viet Cong players you kill, you can’t really win the game.

To put it bluntly, COIN campaigns aren’t won by blowing technicals via drone-fired Hellfire missiles. At the point of of abstraction that V65 and A11 works, you could be pushing around Soviet Motor Rifle troops and using Mi-8s, and it still wouldn’t matter. It’s not about moving divisions on a Hearts of Iron-style map, either. If anything, a COIN campaign is won through a game of Democracy 5: This Guy Really Wanted To Put War Into Our Politics Game, where the plucky player fights the chickenhawks that want to boost their ratings on kill counts, efficiency of such campaigns be damned. They have to face allegations that they’re being too “soft” on the terrorists. They would deal with voters who comment on Funker 530 and YouTube videos, saying that Afghanistan could be won if we brutalized those people enough.

Back in 1930’s the prevailing wisdom was that Bombers Will Always Get Through and that populations can be bombed out of their will to fight. Both sides of that equation proved to be wrong, but what’s important to us is that people getting bombed didn’t roll over and give up. The Londoners are still proud of the stiff upper lip that they maintained during the Blitz, and the German fighting spirit didn’t falter, either. In fact, people got really angry at these foreigners bombing their homes, their pubs and their friends. The real effectiveness of the bombing campaign only showed up when they were sent against such prosaic targets as ball bearing factories. However, few players have advocated for a game where you try to find an economic solution to the opium poppy fields that fund the Taliban.


And even fewer players advocated the Command and Conquer approach of “lets make all factions basically the same.”

Seventy years later, various armchair general have yet to learn that lesson (or literacy). Vietnam didn’t work out for either French or Americans. France employed all the lessons learned in Indochina in their fight to keep Algeria – pumping 3/4ths of a million soldiers into the country – all to antagonize the rest of the world and suffer two military mutinies and a governmental collapse. The Soviets in Afghanistan employed a level of cruelty far greater than Coalition excesses that birthed ISIS in Iraq - and still lost.

I’ll also use this an aside to mention that every nerd that questions the logic of creating super solders in an age where nukes exist should remember the countries I mentioned were all nuclear powers, for all the good it did them.


A 2008 Canadian COIN manual states that military plays a purely support role in tackling an insurgency. The real victory is taking the local support away from the insurgents, and that is achieved by paving roads, building schools, increasing quality of life and sometimes making hard political decisions that don’t look great at a glance. Military is there to prevent the insurgency from ruining all the infrastructure projects and spoiling your efforts to win over hearts and minds. Game developers can struggle, just like Combat Mission’s devs did in the Syria game, to put insurgents on the battlefield in a way that would make them meaningfully different from regular soldiers.



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