The Players' Aid

Guest Blog Post: The Troubles Part 2 – An Early Look at a COIN Series Inspired Multi-Faction Treatment of the Northern Ireland Conflict by Hugh O’Donnell

Part 2 – An Early Look at a COIN Series Inspired Multi-Faction Treatment of the Northern Ireland Conflict by Hugh O’Donnell. We appreciate his efforts in designing this thought provoking and raw conflict simulation and in his effort to give us a quick look inside the design as it has progressed.

In case you missed Part 1, you can read that here: https://theplayersaid.com/2019/10/28/guest-blog-post-the-troubles-part-1-an-early-look-at-a-coin-series-inspired-multi-faction-treatment-of-the-northern-ireland-conflict-by-hugh-odonnell/


Upon the Shoulders of Giants

Why a boardgame?

The enigma in the lifting of a small, almost weightless, piece of wood, which carries an unfathomable amount of symbolic weight and significance to a people, communities and to the historical timeline of the 20th Century.

This is what I feel A Distant Plain and the other COIN Series games offer; something boardgames enigmatically incarnate that their digital cousins cannot: the tactility of the map; the onomatopoeia as the components are being un-bagged and spread out to their starting positions. There is a physicality in this type of experience; the presence of other human beings – all essential in the simulation of a visceral experience that aims to immerse, that hopes to engender empathy and understanding.

There is a physicality in this type of experience; the presence of other human beings – all essential in the simulation of a visceral experience that aims to immerse, that hopes to engender empathy and understanding.

Design began by examining a map of Northern Ireland and its most prominent areas: The Six Counties, each themselves entire worlds of hurt and pain. The immensity cannot be ignored and all of this began to unfold before me as I began the necessary reading and internet searching as any piece of academic research would entail.

Plenty of reading. Plenty of searching.

Immediately, I was led to dividing up these six areas into Westminster Constituency Seats: in 1965 there were 12 until 1983, whereupon the Boundary Commission increased this figure to 17 and then 18 in 1987.

Implementation of this segregation would also deliver more localised activity – which is certainly the case with Belfast, itself clearly demarcated by the four points of the compass, geographically and religiously. Thus we have the political and literal ‘battlefields’. But in the beginning it was clearly the Insurgents and Counter-Insurgents who were foregrounded, amplified, perhaps, in light of my studies of A Distant Plain. (It would be later I’d be looking at the Economic Value associated with the Lines of Communication; one of the key aims of the Provisional IRA was to attack (British) Economic interests and it is understandable that their role is very important to this story and its conclusion.)

A Distant Plain was the obvious starting point, and it provided an excellent framework to support my own development (my rulebook is photocopied, well-thumbed and annotated) and I very quickly became desperate to actually start the drafting process, and obviously, and unfortunately, the four Factions continued to take centre stage.

But it wasn’t the respective wooden cubes, pawns or cylinders that I initially focused on.

It was the Event Card system.

I have always set out to use games – digital or physical – as learning opportunities. In designing a serious game – or simulation – one cannot not learn: simulation design is indeed a type of journalism, and an ideal way to understand a subject’s dynamics in addition to its historical context. The Narrative (deliberately capitalised) has always been the most important factor to me. ‘The Troubles’ is a people’s story and a story that must be told; the pawns and the cubes will provide the agency to make manifest the story, whether it adheres to the actual timeline or weaves intricate and engaging alternative parallels.

In designing a serious game – or simulation – one cannot not learn: simulation design is indeed a type of journalism, and an ideal way to understand a subject’s dynamics in addition to its historical context.

Through these cards I believe my supporting narrative will be spun, but the Event Card system is also effective in providing an initial story arc that provides the VCs, the Capabilities, the Resource numbers, etc. To date, I have almost 200 such cards, a number of which deal with events beyond the final ‘Good Friday Agreement’, the latter brings The Troubles to a conclusion.

Initially, the timescale I had in mind was 1969 to 1998; these are possibly the most notable dates: the Battle of the Bogside, British Troop Deployment, etc. However, and most surprisingly, it was the activities of the UVF and the relations between them and ‘their’ Unionist politicos that drew me to later creating the first Event Card as early as 1965.

So there was more reading. And Google Keep is an invaluable tool for capturing those fleeting momentary inspirations that catch one unaware: game design can be like the metaphorical wobbly tooth.

I then began by compiling Election Results from 1966 until 2002 and this allowed me to create an Electorate Population figure, which was scaled in order to fit the Victory Track; also from this information I was able to deduce a conflated ratio value for both the Nationalist and Unionist Factions that would later follow. (Note: there were more than one Unionist and one Nationalist political party as well as ‘others’, but in The Troubles this will be distilled and conflated to a single party for either side).

The first version of the maps – Belfast is depicted on a separate piece of A3 – was acceptable and I began to playtest through 200 Event Cards, stopping at each Election Event (progress is punctuated at the General Elections of 1966, 1970, 1974f, 1974o, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 1997). During this time, Election Cards were amended or created a result of additional ideas or events from the accompanying background readings.

But after I had reached the 1979 General Election, I paused.

I had played the cards in order (there is much to be gained, educationally, from adhering to the chronological sequence of the historical timeline, as there will be in shuffling the whole card deck or shuffling between elections for subsequent plays; the Factions can provide enough multifarious stories) and I really had a palpable sense of Narrative that accorded with my various and multi-faceted readings, unfolding amongst the cardboard and wood in front of me.

But was this simply a war of attrition? I didn’t want that.

And nor did the topic need that.

It was abundantly clear that the Political Factions – simulated or played – had to be included: they were inextricably linked with the context, and if this was to be a valued simulation that would be educational, offering opportunities for real analysis and evaluation, then I had to postpone my current activities.

And I needed a larger map.

This ‘thing’ was actually taking shape – organic. And one could see – graphically/semoiotically – the tensions circa 1979, frozen in time.

I began thinking about differences, differences between this theatre of war and that of the desert of ADP; also simple aesthetic changes, like olive green for the British Troops, and hut-like pieces to represent bases.

Could this be a COIN game with its own distinctive aesthetic?

As I said, one must try to juggle many simultaneous ideas that span several areas of development.  I also wanted to implement a more realistic mechanic relating to IRA Volunteers’ escape across the border – this would obviously be difficult, and more so on their return route: should we add a difficulty die roll? I had already included ferry and airport locations in order to facilitate the bombings in Mainland Britain and activities in continental Europe (Germany, Holland…).

By this point, in addition to the support from Jason Carr and Volko Ruhnke at GMT, I had also enlisted the academic input of Dr. John O’Neill who offered information and detail on all of the main factions – imperative to force deployments, concentrations and strength; their manifestos and their practices. Key elements included the IRA’s philosophy, which was ever-changing and then, later, became bound with the political aims and ambitions of Sinn Fein; there was also the paradoxical relationship between the LOY Volunteers and their Unionist politicians and Government. (The ‘Irishhistoricalgamer’ (@irishshylock) was an excellent resource, too.)

How could these fluid dynamics be incorporated in order to make the simulation more analogous without becoming too ‘rules heavy’? It makes for some interesting rules, Capabilities and Momentum – and throw in Collusion, Internment, Supergrass…

As I play-tested again from 1966 until 1979 (the 1965 Event Card has since been introduced after further research) it was evident that the Westminster Seats area remained fairly static, reflecting the immutability of the Unionist face of Northern Irish politics and Sinn Fein’s long and complicated history of maintaining a policy of Abstensionism from the UK Parliament, and the Irish Parliaments in Dublin and Belfast, most notably temporarily relinquished when the hunger striker, Bobby Sands won the Fermanagh and South-Tyrone By-Election in 1981.

It was impossible to represent the Westminster, Stormont and Dublin Parliaments (perhaps this is my next project?) and so a suspension of belief must be applied in the conflation of SDLP and Sinn Fein into a single, Nationalist Party representing Republicans; the same with the Democratic Unionists, Ulster Unionists, etc. So when the ‘Armalite & Ballot Box’ Event Card is played, or is chosen (WIP), could this shorten the war on the table? Could we provide alternative historical outcomes that hovered on the periphery and may just have unfolded?

I have a main graphic that depicts Northern Ireland’s Parliamentary Seats in Westminster and which ‘flavour’ of MP is afforded which particular Seat. Like A Distant Plain, each province or seat has a space afforded for the placing of Bases by the four military/paramilitary factions; it contains the Electoral Value (as opposed to Population Value) and a housekeeping identifier (e.g. A5 is Belfast West). The Four Factions play cube troops and cylinder bases as they do in the other games in the COIN series.
Additionally, I have created two additional Base areas at each Seat, which will be used by the Political Factions; cubes will populate the rest of the board space in a similar manner to the other factions. These four bases will be flanked by two vertical tracks (0-7) upon which will be placed a coloured Pawn on the numbers relating to the ratio of votes gained.

At set-up, Players will set the voting ratio in each area for that given date. However, as the game progresses, the two Political Factions – UNI and NAT – will conduct Operations and Activities and play Event Cards that will have a bearing on the voting ratios of each individual Seat, which will have collated Green and Orange cubes, in the same physical space as the IRA, LOY, British Army and RUC/UDR cubes.

Sounds messy – but isn’t this analogous to the inextricable bind between the politics and the atrocities of the Northern Ireland of that time?

Propaganda Rounds are renamed Election Rounds and this is where the Northern Ireland Westminster Seats will be determined not only by the number of political cubes or bases present in a region (as a result of Civic Actions, Talks, Canvassing, etc.) but factors such as IRA and LOY Support, British Prestige, Anglo-Irish Relations, etc. as well as other elements of the four factions’ actions that will affect each Seat. This mechanic will not only allow factions to win or maintain a seat, it will also allow each faction’s gains to be stored: political player factions will be rewarded in their endeavour to make ground, and adds to the realism of facilitating medium- to long-term strategies.

It is early days yet, and I am not too concerned about the amount of ‘furniture’ that has appeared on the real estate. But the board should not obfuscate the learning, detract from the narrative; neither should there be an inordinate amount of analysis paralysis. However, the uncompromising activities of one faction on the streets of Belfast or a village of Fermanagh can negate the honest efforts conducted in the political sphere elsewhere. In the final entry in this series, I will be revisiting the moral and ethical considerations of the Victory Conditions for each side, and what remains to be done with playtesting, etc.

It is early days yet, and I am not too concerned about the amount of ‘furniture’ that has appeared on the real estate. But the board should not obfuscate the learning, detract from the narrative; neither should there be an inordinate amount of analysis paralysis.

Once again, a big thank you to Hugh for his time in sharing this look into the early design for The Troubles. I look forward to seeing what he brings to us in the final entry in this series.

-Grant