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.
They won. They also destroyed a cultural site, losing me Support.
And it wasn’t just that one time, either. The genie was well and truly out of the bottle. The more Iranians and Artillery that got thrown at me, the more I had to rely on foreign fighters and Street Fighting. Worse, the longer the war dragged on the more radical cards I pulled. Now instead of choosing between Infantry and Militants, I was choosing between Mujahideen and Assassination, both units that cost me Support and killed civilians – but far fewer than the Regime was killing. My desperate enemies had resorted to using Sarin, Scuds and the radical PFLP GC. As civilian casualties mounted, it became easier for me to justify using Jihadi units. After all, if I could throw everything I had at the Regime for two turns without worrying about civilian deaths, I reasoned, I could end the war and save more lives in the long run. Strangely, this justification isn’t much different from some pro-US airstrike arguments I’ve heard this week.
I won, if you can call it that. Toppling Assad led to Syria breaking up like Yugoslavia. Assad’s Alawite minority and the Kurds split off in their own regions. Religious and ethnic hatreds that boiled over during the fighting lead to a sectarian conflict. The international nature of the war caused regional clashes in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Turkey for years afterward. I got this result twice, even though I consciously tried to mitigate civilian suffering on my second playthrough. Curious what would happen if I never deployed military units at all, I tried diplomacy alone and got crushed.
My best outcome by far came from playing defense in the Military phase and offense in Diplomacy. I restricted myself to native Syrian units – along with some tactics like Comms and Cutting Oil Pipelines – to stall the Regime on the battlefield while coalition-building like hell in the Diplomacy phase. That led to a peace deal that landed me in a power-sharing agreement, sparing most of the civilian population, but meant letting some of Assad’s units steamroll my troops on occasion rather than resort to the more experienced foreigners – though that also meant the conflict never escalated to sieges and Sarin gas.
This balancing act is the crux of Endgame: Syria‘s argument: that the longer the civil war drags on, the more the Regime will rely on heavier units, assistance from Iran, and chemical weapons to crush the Rebels. This extreme pressure, in turn, will make the Rebels increasingly rely on foreign militants to survive – destabilizing the country and drawing the region further into the conflict. “The consequences of using foreign fighters … is it makes it more likely that you’ll lose the peace even if you win the war,” sums up Rawlings. The game emphasizes that the Syrian civil war is not a war between two sides but a conflict playing out between multiple factions and various regional powers. “The rebels are not a monolithic entity – nor is the regime, they are collections of interests being backed by other collections of interests.”
It’s a fair assessment, supported by fact. The Syrian rebels weren’t homogenous, even before foreign interests started piling into their ranks. Some were Syrian Kurds hoping for greater autonomy. Others were radical domestic militants that Assad had cracked down on for years. Still more were moderate secularists, and some of the so-called “foreign” Jihadists who formed the Al-Nusra Front were actually Syrians returning after fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq. On the other side, Assad’s forces aren’t just the military but also his Iranian allies, Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Counsel.
In fact, Endgame: Syria‘s least realistic element is putting one player in control of the whole Rebel military and diplomatic structure. While this is understandable for gameplay reasons, realistically militants don’t wait in the wings until the Rebel leadership calls them, they fight where and when they want to. There are mechanics that suggest that – fighting would destroy cultural sites on occasion, even when I didn’t field any units, and sometimes your army rejects the hard-won peace deal you accept and the war continues against your wishes – but overall the game handles that chaos in the local and regional endings rather than having your troops go rogue. Still, overall the game demonstrates the devil’s bargain Rebels feel forced make with militants.
One interesting way this dynamic plays out – one that’s pretty subversive – is how frustrated the player becomes with the international community. While you need foreign countries to back you diplomatically in order to raise your Support, the continual hot air from otherwise unhelpful countries can become infuriating. I don’t give a shit about your +8 Statement of Support, Qatar. I found myself thinking at one point. Choppers are murdering my people and I need RPGs and a goddamn No Fly Zone RIGHT NOW. Even as someone who understands the risks and consequences of an international military intervention, being the one who’s wishing for foreign airstrikes – rather than the one considering whether they’d be a smart move – is a rhetorically interesting experience.
That frustration mirrors the betrayal many Syrians feel toward western governments that promised them aid but never delivered it, even after Assad crossed the “red line” on chemical weapons use. “Syrians were starting to put their faith in American help, but it hasn’t come,” a Rebel leader recently told NBC News on condition of anonymity. “That encourages Syrians to believe that radicals like al-Qaeda are the only ones seriously willing to make sacrifices to help them.” The strange balance I’d experienced in the game is now a an ongoing conundrum in U.S. foreign policy – air strikes may encourage al-Qaeda recruitment if errant munitions kill civilians, but withholding the strikes might drive Syria deeper into the arms of militant groups.
Rawlings is already planning Endgame: Syria‘s next update. The team adds events as they happen, from Scud missiles to WMD fears to UN talks, sometimes even incorporating feedback from Syrians on the ground. Air strikes, he says, may be the next thing they add, as well as Hamas supporting the Rebels. But updating a game to match real-world events creates problems all its own, like preserving game balance on the fly while still reflecting reality. “We do balance the units into the game so that they fit it overall,” says Rawlings. “But – and it’s an important but – they reflect that unit’s relative power … as per our research into the topics. So the Scud missiles for example don’t have a huge impact and they have not managed to militarily. The WMD fears have had a big political impact so that is reflected.”
Whatever happens this week – events are still fluid as of this article’s writing – Endgame: Syria has more than proved its ongoing ability as a rhetorical tool for understanding conflict. While it’s not perfect, the game does a commendable job highlighting the complexities, difficulties and frustrations presented by the ongoing Arab Spring. Only time will tell if the Rebels will oust Assad, the Regime will crush them, or there’s still hope for a negotiated peace.
As of this writing, a Syrian foreign minister has informed NBC that the regime will turn over its chemical weapons to the international community. Meanwhile, UN weapons inspectors draw up their reports, government shells fall on Damascus, and Tomas Rawlings watches, waiting to see what will happen next.