Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Book Review – Bullets and Brains by Leo Murray

Brains and Bullets: How Psychology Wins WarsBrains and Bullets: How Psychology Wins Wars by Leo Murray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brains and Bullets is an excellent and very readable book which tries to put some hard numbers on a variety of psychological tactics that can be used to persuade your own troops to fight and the enemy to give up.

This is an excellent work on what happens in combat and why. It is very readable, structured into bite sized chunks on the key phenomena and then some joining up when it has all been explained. Each chapter opens with an account from a real soldier who experienced that psychological effect in combat. This is then analysed and explained, pulling in other examples as required to show that it isn’t an isolated incident but a general effect. Those examples range from the Napoleonic Wars right up to operations in Afghanistan, and they’re the products of proper scientific research not just a collection of war stories from unreliable sources.

That said there is no need to be an operational researcher, or scientist to understand the book. The language used is straightforward and direct, each of the concepts is very well explained and it forms an excellent introductory work as well as being well researched. The target audience is ordinary people without a technical or military background (although the author hopes that many military officers and civil servants will read it and think about it). Here’s my favourite line from the end of the book “if you are paid to be a military analyst, don’t forget that you work for the Crown (or the people) and for soldiers. You owe no allegiance to your cost centre manager. Crack on.”

If you do have a serious interest then it is worth saying that this isn’t fluffy pop psychology (I like those as light reading, having read Psychology at uni). All the conclusions are backed up with hard numbers from years of solid operational research. The author is hoping to influence army officers to use tactical psychology to make them more effective, so for example “even the hardest-fought flank attack seized ground with a smaller force, captured more of the enemy and caused fewer fatalities on both sides. flanking attack was six times more effective than a frontal attack.”

I’m not going to summarise this book like I did for the Stress of Battle, it’s way more available and affordable. Go buy it yourself (or borrow from the Library) and enjoy it. I certainly did.

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Games on COIN

This post is prompted by an excellent post by the guys at On Violence. You should read Capturing Australia! COIN is Boring Pt.3 to which this was my belated comment.

McCormick model of insurgency
McCormick model of insurgency (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My apologies for coming late to this one, I’ve been on leave for a couple of weeks now and being spending time with the family.

I’ve been interested in designing a counter insurgency game since the mid 1990s. The original trigger for my interest were the decolonisation conflicts of the British Empire. This wasn’t a board game, nor a computer game. The group I belong to designs face to face games for multiple participants, a bit like the sort of command post exercises those of us who’ve done some military or civil contingencies time would recognise.

I never ran the decolonisation game that prompted this, it needed 20 players, which was too many for the free venues and too few to make it economic in the hired halls. However there were a number of spin-off games, including a look at the Palestine/Israel insurgency in 1945-48; Malaya in the 1950s and Aden in the early 60s.

By the time I’d looked at those traditional insurgencies we got into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. My most recent attempt, which sort of almost counts as a board game (it has a map, which is really only for flavour) looked at the experience from the point of view of the Afghan farmers, and the drivers that took them to insurgency (or not as the case happens). I ran it twice, both times with someone who served in Afghanistan as one of the players.

I come at all this as a hobbyist. I make the games I’d like to play but cannot find commercially. The same is true of the people that I play with, we form a community of game design activists. (Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group, mainly in the UK). Over the years I’ve played games as both an insurgent and a counter-insurgent. They hold a lot of game play and interest. However a lot of it defies easy mechanisms that you can write down on a few pages than just about anyone can understand.

Part of this is that insurgencies aren’t all the same. What works in dealing with one group might only make things work with another. You need to get inside the culture and methods of the insurgents to defeat them. Or at least that is how I read it. Sometimes it will be unpalatable for modern players to play those games, either because of a close connection with someone hurt by the insurgency, or because current moral standards differ from those of the period or culture concerned.

That said, I think it is possible to write good games about insurgency. They just need to be specifically tailored to the insurgency in question and the players appropriately briefed in advance. You also need players that will roleplay it a little rather than just play to mechanisms.


– See more at: http://onviolence.com/?e=739

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Midnight in Some Burning Town –a Review

I actually enjoyed reading this book, even though it wasn’t the book that I thought I was buying. I had ordered it expecting that it would tell me about the various special forces missions that UK forces had been up to between the first Gulf War in 1990-91 and when it was published (in 2004).

It sort of covered that, but there was no real detail to much of the early stuff, for example the Sierra Leone mission is dealt with in a couple of pages. I’ve seen some other (much more detailed) accounts of the events (from the point of view of the Paras and the kidnapped Major).

However, where it does come into its own is when it explains the issues around Kosovo and Macedonia. The author obviously had a strong interest in this period (possibly based on working there as a journalist) and had clearly spoken to several involved parties (or done some very good research). The writing style is very easy to read, clearly articulates the issues and the motivations of the various parties and also explains the background to the situations very well. You get a lot of the flavour of the conflict and the terror of villagers in the Balkans from the book. It also explains some of the behind the scenes bits that the NATO forces were involved in (not just SF types, others as well). In fact if the book had been billed as an in-depth look at Kosovo and Macedonian conflict in 1999-2004 then it would perhaps have been more honest (although perhaps with fewer sales).

There is a reasonable treatment of the early Afghanistan operations, although there wasn’t apparently much going on there from a British point of view up to 2004 (we got heavily involved in 2006, two years after the book was first published). It also covers the effect on the SAS of the expansion in operations since 9/11 and also the Iraq war (which is part of the proof that the author has spoken to some of the SF community or those closely connected to it as he knew in 2004 of the impending manpower crisis that the explosion in PMC work in Iraq caused).

One of the more interesting bits is a speculative section near the end on what an operation to capture Radovan Karadzic might look like and who it might involve. This was the sort of thing that you might expect from a book about special forces missions (albeit non-speculative narratives of actual missions based on interviews with those involved).

Overall, if you are interested in the Balkans conflicts this is well worth reading, although perhaps shorter on that than a dedicated book might be.

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Another side of the COIN

I ran my game of being an Afghan farmer “The Other Side of the COIN” at the Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group’s (CLWG) annual conference yesterday afternoon. This was its second outing, you can see my onside report from the first run here.

Since the last outing the game has developed further to address some of the comments that the players made then. In particular I had a set of individual objective cards to drive some behaviours and give the players something to focus on that was essentially different each time the game gets played (and also makes the farmers all slightly different from each other, there is a danger that they all do the same thing). The other advantage of the cards is that it stops a purely economic rationality setting in immediately and just converting to grow poppy (because the income levels from this are a couple of orders of magnitude higher that any other sort of crops – the real reason that the Afghans grow so much opium).

Another development was the introduction of a set of cards to represent improvements or capabilities that the farmers can invest in. for example, securing a fuel supply, or building schools etc. These were supposed to form a pyramid of improvement, in that each of the items was allocated a level, and to buy a level 2 improvement then you need to support that with two level 1 improvements. Some of the improvements had pre-requisites, but apart from that it was simply building your pyramid that counted. Each improvement had some icons on the bottom that told you what sort of improvement it was, whether it benefited the whole community or just an individual. It also told you whether or not it promoted the Islamic lifestyle and/or used fuel. The individual briefings, and the farming mechanics, remained completely unchanged from the previous run of the game. I also didn’t get an opportunity to properly document some of the changes.

The improvements were all documented on the cards I produced, and there was a price list to make it easier to know what was available. In this run of the game the valley was a lot more peaceful. We played through two years of farming and in that time two of the four played farmers decided to grow opium, one on a small scale (a couple of fields) and the other as his major crop. In addition there was a bumper crop on the first summer.  This injected quite a lot of money into the game, and so resulted in some significant improvements in the town, a new well and a Madrassa were established as well as regular fuel & medical supplies and a specialist seed supply.  A shortage of time and players meant that there wasn’t any external tension to make different decisions about things, and the local cleric focussed on good works (establishing the water supply and madrassa from the funds raised).

Lessons learnt from this session:

  • the amount of money needs some careful calculation and appropriate denomination notes produced to make it easy to count out the correct sums;
  • the farming mechanisms need to be significantly streamlined to make them work faster, and the task allocation piece removed (or at least built into other mechanisms unobtrusively) as it wasn’t a real constraint on activity;
  • I need longer than two hours to run the game, at least double that, and I also need more players, at least seven, with clearer briefing for the police and the taliban as well as an external agent to foment trouble (or be the catalyst for it);
  • the mechanisms need to be properly collected into a well signposted reference document, ideally quite short. There also needs to be a revision of the play aid for farmers to put all the key mechanics on it.
  • I need a mechanism (or at least a trigger) for involving external authority in the area should there be a widespread growth of poppy. So some research on the eradication programmes and their timings would be useful.

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The Other Side of the COIN

Today was the September CLWG meeting. My game used the whole session and was looking to explore some of the things that might drive farmers to becoming insurgents in modern Afghanistan. I’m not quite sure that I achieved that, but it was a fun session and mostly worked as a game, although the economic model was quite broken. I’ll leave it to some of the players to tell us the story of what happened. I had Jim, Mukul, Dave & Daniel as ordinary farmers, John R was the leading farmer and the acting Governor of the valley (not that he managed to persuade the others to do what he said much). Nick Luft was the local Chief of Police and Rob Cooper was the local cleric, and also a Taliban representative.

On the whole the things I learnt from today were:

  • this is a game that probably works better in an annual turn basis rather than trying to do monthly real time, the agricultural decisions can be made quite rapidly and it is just a distraction to try and string it through the game. Also the turn based structure makes it easier for a single umpire to keep everyone at the same point in time.
  • – I need to indulge in quantitative easing, or alternatively sort the economic system to make it easier to scale things up from basic subsistence farming to full on agriculture. So things to look into are the rate at which more land can be brought into production, and reasons why the level of productive land is so low. I also need to look at a valley wide weather effects as well as the localised stuff. That way there is a higher community effect as all the agriculture is co-dependent.
  • Another things is looking at the relationship between the town and the farming hinterland. There needs to be a a two-way relationship, the town needs the food the farms grow, and the farmers need the services the town provides. Some thoughts in the post-game discussion were around levels of infrastructure in the town being necessary to support some of the things that the farmers might want. e.g. needing mechanics to support tractors.
  • consumption from the farmers could be delivered by a range of quality of life indicators, perhaps allowing for a tension between the Islamic and non-Islamic natures of some of them. So there could be an ‘easy’ western track and a more ethical Islamic track. Either way some sort of geometric progression would probably do it and also give the players some sort of indication of how well they were doing compared to the others.
  • there is probably a triangle of technology, belief & opium that can be used to give specific flavour to the game, and perhaps also draw out the conflicts in a more three dimensional way.
  • – I could also give players a qualitative objective or attitude to help them along with decision making and getting into character. E.g. go on the Haj, or an admiration for motor vehicles.
  • – there need to be more women to make more scope for marriages to take place.

Generally there is a lot of streamlining that I can do, which will improve the game. Much of this is pretty obvious from the tryout and not much needs to be said, stripping out some of the layers of complexity and perhaps ignoring the task allocation part of the game except for those that have roles that might change during the course of the game. Also perhaps having a slightly different family tree style approach to the record keeping. You’ll see how it changes by the bits that get posted up on my website at http://www.full-moon.info/doku.php/rules/clwg/coin

And a final governing thought in streamlining things is to keep Jim’s question in mind. “Why is this Afghanistan rather than Ambridge?”

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Thoughts on an Insurgency Game

An article I read in the New Scientist on why people got involved in the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia triggered some ideas about trying to run a game about the locals caught amidst an insurgency campaign.

Farming Today, Fighting Tomorrow?

This is a game to explore why people become insurgents (or perhaps not). Most of the players will be tribal elders leading their group of peasant farmers and directing their decisions about what to grow where and making sure that they can feed themselves and afford to buy the things they need to improve their lives and farms. Loosely set in modern Afghanistan I’ve taken huge liberties with the agrarian system and abstracted it to a level that can play through years in minutes. However I want to play on an event based accelerated real time basis through a period of a few years with a semi-kreigspieled combat system (should that even be necessary).

I think it would work best with about four local players, plus a couple of military players (1 ANA & 1 NATO) and perhaps another umpire to assist. At a minimum we can probably do with three players and me and I’ll plumpire the military side. If turnout was good I think that it could absorb a couple more players, so 3-10 people plus me. Minimum time is probably a couple of hours and we could probably play/discuss all day if no-one had any alternative sessions.

Locals operate on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend“. Each tribe is its own group and works on a very tight knit basis, all of them having the same broad allegiance. Some sample briefing and objectives below.

Example Briefing

Your land is a war-zone. You want this to end at the earliest possible time, ideally without any further loss to your people. In fact there might well be some way that you can profit from the chaos and the reconsitrcution and aid budgets of the foreigners helping your national government. However, you need to remember that you will continue to live here with the people once the foreigners have gone home, and you need to make sure that you avoid making enemies of those that will also remain here as much as possible. If you do make some enemies, then you need to either make amends, or get some powerful allies.


Objectives (in order of importance)

·        maintain the prestige and standing of the tribe

·        be pious and well respected in the community

·        add to the holdings of the tribe and their prosperity

·        increase your tribe’s share of local position


Some mechanism ideas

There needs to be a table showing the contribution to being self-sustaining from the point of view of livestock owned, fields farmed (depending on size and crop grown), and cash spent. If there is insufficient food then accrue a hunger marker and if too many hunger markers then someone may die. This might well be in the gift of the player controlling, but perhaps not.


Tribes will have resources in the following terms:

·        cash (measured in dollars)

·        fields (different areas, but perhaps all a standard fertility level)

·        livestock (unspecified number of animals)

·        food stocks (unspecified but enough to negate a hunger marker per unit)

·        small arms (a measure of how many men can be equipped)

·        heavier weapons (RPGs, machine guns, etc)

·        vehicles (only motorised, ignore donkey carts etc)

·        men (probably in some broad age groups – teenagers, unmarried men, husbands, fathers, grandfathers)

·        women (unmarried & married is probably enough, but perhaps grandmothers also)

·        children (male/female in 0-5, 6-10, 11-14) – maybe too much complexity



very abstract, three types of growth

·        food (both human and animals)

·        cash crops (gives money rather than food, but could be food at a pinch)

·        illicit drugs (gives money, definitely not useful as food)


[poss crop yield of 5 tonnes of food per acre]


[poppy gives 3-5kg per acre, profit margin is 50-100 times that of surplus food, and about ten times that of other cash crops. In 2002 the farmer got $300 per kilo, the traffickers out of Afghanistan got $800 and it had a street value of $16,000 in Europe. Raw opium is bulky and jelly like, a basic lab (which could be in a field) can convert it into morphine base which can be dried and converted into bricks for easy transport and storage. ]


I need to go and do lots more reading around this to see if I can get enough info to run a realistic game.


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