Analysis: Total (Irregular) Warfare - Modeling Counter-Insurgency In Games

Writer and strategy game expert Rob Zacny looks at Napoleon: Total War's 'Peninsular Campaign' DLC for Gamasutra, examining how it adapts an unconventional war to a very conventional strategy game.
[Writer and strategy game expert Rob Zacny looks at Napoleon: Total War's 'Peninsular Campaign' DLC for Gamasutra, examining how it adapts an unconventional war to a very conventional strategy game.] The "Peninsular Campaign" downloadable expansion for The Creative Assembly's PC game Napoleon: Total War pushes the Total War franchise's design beyond its traditional limits while tackling a subject few strategy games dare touch: counter-insurgency warfare. Through great scenario design and the introduction of new units and rules, Creative Assembly has done a startlingly good job of adapting a conventional strategy game to an unconventional war, successfully modeling the paradoxes and trade-offs that marked Napoleon's campaign in Spain. It is difficult to imagine a Napoleonic campaign less suited to the Total War system than the war on the Iberian Peninsula. Total War games have always revolved around conventional, linear warfare. In these games, states raise armies and seize territory on the strategic level, while large armies do battle in massed formations on the tactical level. That scarcely describes even a third of the action taking place on the Iberian Peninsula in the years leading to Napoleon's defeat. The most conventional element of the Peninsular War was the Duke of Wellington's campaign to defend Portugal and liberate Spain from Napoleon. The French had to turn back Wellington's invasions while simultaneously waging a counterinsurgency against Spanish partisans. Had Creative Assembly's "Peninsular Campaign" expansion focused on Wellington's war against the French, the result would have been a traditional and strategically boring Total War mini-campaign. What gave the Peninsular War its character, and makes it such an interesting problem for the armchair strategist, is the interplay between the conventional military clashes, the guerrilla war in the countryside and the struggle for hearts and minds across Spain. Furthermore, each side approached Spain with different means and attitudes. For the Spanish, it was a war of resistance and national liberation. For the British, it was a costly and difficult expedition whose role in the broader struggle against Napoleon was not always clear. For the French, it was an increasingly costly sideshow; less important than the wars with the other great powers, but too important to abandon. This broader context helped define the course the Peninsular War would take. The Frontiers Are My Prison Central%20Spain.jpgDespite this convoluted strategic landscape, the "Peninsular Campaign" uses the systems employed in Napoleon: Total War to sketch out a scenario of similar complexity and difficult decisions, without creating a slew of new rules and mechanics. In the first place, the map is huge. Portugal, Spain and southern France stretch on and on across hundreds of miles of terrible roads and mountain ranges. Where Total War games usually have compressed distances, the vast expanses in the Peninsular Campaign act as a sort of opponent in their own right, imposing tough choices with every turn. Friendly cities and units can see just as far as in the original Napoleon: Total War, but the map's increased scale means they end up seeing relatively less territory. Most of the Spanish countryside remains shrouded in the fog of war, making it easy for enemy units to travel unseen. Even marching troops from one city to another, deep within friendly territory, is an easy way to blunder into an ambush. This vast, unseen countryside forces a greater emphasis on intelligence-gathering and policing. The Total War series has always struggled with the problem of the "super-stack" that afflicts most grand strategy games, allowing players to gather huge armies and steamroll the opposition. But with the action sprawling across Spain, and armies moving slowly between cities, relying on one or two huge stacks is a losing strategy. Smaller, nimbler armies will simply attack undefended areas while a large army sits, muscle-bound and blind, waiting for a decisive battle that will never occur. However, dispersing quick-response detachments across the countryside leaves them vulnerable to being picked off piecemeal, unable to band together to fend off a large enemy force should one appear. The "Peninsular Campaign" features a constant tension between wide coverage and consolidation of strength. This was in fact the very trap in which the French army in Spain found itself, historically. On the one hand, the obvious course of action for the French would have been to concentrate forces and crush Wellington. But the French did not have the manpower to both assemble overwhelming force against the British and maintain control of the supply lines that would sustain such an army. However, the French also couldn't deal with rural rebels because the British were always a threat, forcing the French to keep some forces relatively concentrated. These compromises led to a worst-of-both-worlds situation, with the increasingly unstable countryside siphoning increasing numbers of French troops to guard supply trains, leaving the cities largely undefended from strong British attack. The other major constraint in the "Peninsular Campaign" is scarcity of resources, a problem that affects each side differently. The French, having direct control of most of Spain, can produce wealth and units directly from the country, but the country is in such a state of revolt that most of the citizens are not paying taxes. France's most reliable source of wealth and power is France itself, but the country is separated from Spain geographically by the Pyrenees, and only a fraction of its resources are being devoted to the Spanish campaign (Napoleon had an empire to defend, after all). So the French are in trouble: they need more soldiers to pacify Spain, but in order to get more soldiers they need to find a way to draw wealth from the country, which requires pacifying it. It's not a complete paradox -- it's just barely possible for the French to gain some traction and grow stronger -- but it's a very hard slog. For the British, there is the problem of running a campaign that is wholly dependent on overseas support. Any soldiers deployed to the theater have to arrive via transport, which means the British can't send reinforcements once they move inland. In order to remain on good terms with their Spanish hosts and allies, they must also turn most liberated territories over to Spanish rule. This can mean watching the Spanish squander victories from time to time. So the British must make do with a small army that cannot easily be reinforced, and a dubious ally at their side. The Spanish, ironically, have both the most conventional campaign and the least successful one of the expansion. Where the Spanish experience was mostly one of resistance and insurgence, they appear in Napoleon: Total War as a fully independent nation, and fight a traditional war of conquest. Freedom Soon Will Come Each side has a few tools of unconventional warfare at its disposal. The solution Creative Assembly found for guerrilla war is somewhat inspired: small bands of irregulars appear on the map, roaming the countryside and launching raids and ambushes. However, guerrillas also appear as agents. They can't fight battles, but they can target enemy formations for harassment. This renders the enemy unable to move and kills off a small number of soldiers, effectively robbing the French of both a turn and manpower, mimicking the slow-bleed, paralyzing effect guerrillas had on French operations. Harassmen.jpgThe Spanish also use priests and provocateurs to win over the civilian population, while the British and French only have access to provocateurs -- propagandists who can convert the population to a pro or anti-French position. As a province becomes more anti-French, it's more likely to break into revolt. However, provocateurs are also a scarce commodity, and it's important to use them efficiently. The French can't very well bring the whole Peninsula on-side, so they have to cherry-pick regions to establish a base of loyalty. However, in the same way they have to run down guerrilla bands, they must also keep their provocateurs moving around Spain to prevent discontent from becoming too widespread. The Spanish and British are free to use provocateurs aggressively, although the French can eventually become popular enough that they can start winning over the population. For the most part, however, the Allies can use provocateurs to force the French to commit larger garrisons to pacify the cities or lower taxes, both of which reduce the French capacity to fight the war. Simulating the Peninsular War was beyond the capacity of the Total War campaign engine, but clever scenario design, creative ways of dis-empowering players and a couple of simple, scenario-specific rules leave players facing the same dilemmas and trade-offs that bedeviled their historical counterparts. No matter which faction you choose in the "Peninsular Campaign", you find yourself fighting an under-staffed, under-funded war across a sprawling and dysfunctional country. Both Wellington and Soult would likely recognize that as a good description of the Peninsular War. [Rob Zacny gabs about strategy games every week on the Three Moves Ahead podcast. He also contributes to a number of websites. More of his writing appears at his blog.]

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