Developed by Every Single Soldier and published by Slitherine Games/Matrix Games, Afghanistan '11 is the new version of a unique game formula first utilized in Vietnam '65. In both games, combat is only a means to an end: winning the hearts and minds of a nation. In Afghanistan '11 (A11) the player must deal with multiple new layers of strategy in order to achieve that goal. To get a look at the flow of the gameplay, check out my two part AAR.
Part 1 and Part 2.
|The strategic overview screen helps you keep track of the big picture.|
|A supply convoy moves south as Taliban forces descend on FOB Bravo.|
The game has an effective series of tutorial missions which teach you about all the different units and how to use them. The tutorial covers the basic strategic concepts needed for victory, but it will still very much be a trial by fire when you take on your first real mission. This is because the gameplay is open ended and lets you as the commander approach a mission in whatever way you see fit. Will you build up a network of FOB's and roads to create a permanent presence all over the map, or will you bring in numerous helicopters to move everything by air. Likely you will need a mixture depending on the the local terrain and distribution of villages.
There are two different ways to play the game, either the 18 mission campaign based on real world events, or the randomized skirmish mode. The scenarios take the core gameplay and add a few twists, but the skirmish mode alone will keep any player busy.
Let's take a spin through what a typical skirmish match entails. You will begin the game with an HQ and nothing else. Looking out across the randomly generated map you will see a highway, some roads, mountains, deserts, maybe a river, and the key feature that the game revolves around: villages. Each village has a flag indicating its current political leaning. Keep the villages leaning towards the government or coalition and you will have smooth sailing. Let a village slip into the grasp of the local militia, or even the Taliban, and that area of the map becomes more dangerous.
|Not a good neighborhood.|
There are several actions you can take to get those villages on your side. Using your engineer units to connect those villages to the main highway and build a water supply is the most permanent way to accomplish this. However, it requires a significant investment of PP and time. Additionally, that new infrastructure then becomes a target for your enemy and forces you stretch your forces even further. You can also win hearts and minds by delivering UN aid to the villages using either supply trucks or Chinooks. This is an especially good way to influence the more remote villages that you may not be able to reach otherwise. Clearing IED's and destroying enemy units will also boost support in your favor.
The sum of your efforts will be shown in the hearts and minds score, always visible at the top of the screen. Your goal in a skirmish is to get this number past a certain threshold and keep it there until the final turn. Keeping it high will help with the presidential elections which occur a few times during a typical match. Getting a more favorable candidate in office will often make your actions cheaper and enemy actions less frequent. Let that score lapse and your PP will start slipping away. If your political position back home gets too abysmal the game will end prematurely.
Now, while you are working to win the people over to your side, what is the enemy doing? Enemy forces come in two flavors, numerous yet weak militia and the more resilient Taliban. The militia forces will pop up all over the map, and then attempt to place IED's and cause other trouble for you. One hit from any of your combat units will either destroy them or send them scattering in every direction. Taliban units will initially only appear along the eastern edge of the map, representing Pakistan, and then move in to try and influence villages and cause other problems. These Taliban groups take two hits to destroy. Hit them only once and they will flee momentarily, only to regroup and continue with their mission. If a village falls completely into the grasp of the Taliban, they will then begin spawning nearby.
Combat in A11 is simple on the surface. Select a combat unit and mouse over an enemy to see your percentage chance of winning. Click to carry out the attack and hope for the best. The strategy comes in deciding which units to use for combat and when. It is always favorable to destroy the enemy by using artillery, airstrikes, or gunships, because sending in ground forces carries the risk that they will take casualties or even be destroyed. Losing a unit this way is a real one-two punch, since you lose political points immediately and must spend more to replace that unit. FOB's come with a free mortar unit for defense, but it has limited ammunition. More ammo must be brought in from HQ to keep the shells flying. Heavy artillery guns can also be brought in to an upgraded FOB if you need serious defense.
|Funding cuts can make a difficult situation even worse.|
This is a good time to discuss upgrading FOB's. When a FOB is initially placed, it serves as a safe harbor in the field for your units. Units resting there will be slowly resupplied, but cannot replace their losses. You can choose to add on to a FOB with a field hospital, vehicle repair yard, and/or heavy artillery pit. These upgrades are expensive, so you must decide which FOB's are worth upgrading, and to what extent. A fully upgraded and supplied FOB can allow you to maintain a powerful force far away from your HQ. The logistics of keeping that FOB manned and supplied is something you will need to plan ahead of time.
Another item you must consider as part of your long term strategy is the training of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA). On specific turns you will be expected to have achieved a certain ratio of ANA to coalition combat units in theater. Towards the end of a match you will be forced to hand complete control over to the ANA, so you need to have stabilized the area by that point if you don't want to watch all of your hard work be wiped away. Training the ANA is one of the jobs of your extremely useful special forces units. While stationed at your HQ, these units can train ANA artillery, APC, and helicopter units. Move them out to a FOB and they can begin training ANA infantry. The ANA troops are not as good in combat as the American forces, but are better for visiting villages.
|An ideal result!|
Did I mention the part about visiting villages yet? Like I said at the beginning, this game has a lot of strategic layers happening all at once, which made it difficult to find a logical flow for this review! Anyway, each village has a campfire in it that will begin to burn whenever new intelligence is potentially available. You will need to send in an infantry unit to visit with the village elders and see what they can learn. Sometimes your men will come up empty, but other times the location of an IED, opium field, or enemy unit will be revealed on the map. An exposed enemy unit makes easy prey for an airstrike. Getting eyes on the enemy is always the trickiest part of combat in this game, so revealing units in this way is very helpful. The availability of intel in a village will refresh over time, so you will want to be constantly sending out patrols to keep the information flowing. This means that your units can't just sit around in their FOB's, they must be constantly moving around the map. Again, this is where logistical planning early on can pay dividends later.
|That is a lot of IED's. Remember, always bring your minesweeper on any ground expeditions.|
That point, long term planning and logistics, is really what makes this game compelling in my eyes. It's not a game where clever tactical maneuvering of your forces matters much, and it's not a game where putting the biggest weapons in the field will bring you victory. This is a game where thoughtful planning of a strategy requires thinking through how you will keep that strategy in motion. Ultimately, supply trucks and engineers are more critical to your mission than Apache gunships. Of course, that Apache might need to be on hand to save those supply trucks from a surprise ambush!
Afghanistan '11 releases March 23rd and is available directly from Matrix Games or on Steam.
- Joe Beard