This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Paris to meet representatives from the Arab League. While the League agreed that Bashar al Assad had indeed used chemical weapons on Syrian rebels last month, none publicly supported an intervention. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are quietly in favor of air strikes, while Syria's neighbors Lebanon and Jordan are understandably more cautious about escalating the war on their doorstep. The U.S. Congress is set to vote later this week on whether to commence a limited air campaign. Everyone's watching and waiting.
Among those monitoring events is Tomas Rawlings, designer of the newsgame Endgame: Syria. Whatever happens over the next few weeks will not only change the lives of countless people in the Middle East, but will also shape the development of Rawlings's game - because Endgame: Syria may be world's first game to evolve along with a real-world conflict.
"When we created the first version - at the end of 2012, the question was being asked if the west should arm the rebels," says Rawlings. "I saw this as a way of getting people to think about that question." His team at Auroch Digital built Endgame in two weeks, working fast because they feared the conflict might escalate even in that short time. They pulled research from diverse outlets like Foreign Policy magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Al-Jazeera, IWPR, The Guardian, Russia Today and the Lebanon Daily Star. Rather than create a military simulation where the player can control either side, Rawlings focused on the question of whether to arm the rebels, reasoning that newsgames don't need to cover every side of an event. "To me they are a slice of a wider story, much as a newspaper article is not the definitive account of any event but a snapshot of a time [and] place."
Endgame centers on the political complexities Syrian rebels face. Players serve as both the Rebels' chief military commander and diplomat, trying to survive the war without destroying the country in the process. The game itself is a digital card game with two phases - the Diplomacy phase and the Military phase. In the Diplomacy phase the player has to choose two cards from a randomly generated hand. Those cards might be endorsements from foreign countries that raise the Rebels' Support - the points you use to buy units in the military phase and that track which side is winning - or diplomatic maneuvers that provide a tactical advantage in the military phase. The Military phase is similar, giving the player a hand of cards and four slots to match them up against the enemy's cards. Each card represents a military unit with an attack and defense value, as well as how much "Support" it costs to play, how much "Fallout" it will create and how many civilians it will kill. Those added values make every turn a tense cost-benefit analysis. Infantry units cost little Support and don't kill civilians, but get slaughtered when matched up against powerful units. Street Fighting and the Mujahedeen, on the other hand, kick tons of ass but cost you support, kill civilians and escalate the conflict. You play until one side runs out of Support or - in rare instances - both sides agree to a peace deal. Then you're presented with both local and regional consequences that change depending on what tactics you used, so rather than just battling Assad, you're fighting the possibility that your own army may spiral events out of your control.
My first two playthroughs I was aggressive, doing my best to win the war militarily while building international support. The first few turns I made gains using Infantry and Syrian-Kurdish YPG Units, tying up the Regime's Infantry and destroying their Shabiha militia. When I got the option to use Militants and Mujahideen, I avoided them - who wants those nut jobs, right? I've got plenty of International Units comprised of Arab Spring veterans that'll serve just as well without burning the country down.
That worked until the Tanks came, and the Artillery, and the dreaded Republican Guard. Any one of them could pound my poor Infantry into the ground and buzzsaw through my International Units. The Regime was schooling me every phase, killing my support abroad with diplomatic maneuvering while stomping me on the battlefield. When the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Choppers appeared on the horizon, I finally caved - I sent in the Militants, just this once.