Syria’s Endgame in ‘Endgame: Syria’

Given recent events in the news, I figured now was as good a time as any to try out this little app that I had downloaded on my tablet several months ago. Endgame: Syria is a newsgame (a game that seeks to portray the situation of a news story by having the player work through competing systems) created by Tomas Rawlings. The term “newsgames” was coined by academic Ian Bogost in his book of the same name. It’s an exploration of journalism at play and using the grammar of a video game to convey an understanding of complex contemporary scenarios. Probably the most famous newsgame is September 12th, which depicts a Middle Eastern marketplace filled with civilians and terrorists, and the player making choices by clicking on areas to bomb. Bomb civilians and other civilians will turn into terrorists.

It’s a simple set up with a simple point to get across. Bombs cause collateral damage, and collateral damage will create new terrorists. That is what bombs do. Endgame: Syria is trying to explain an even more complex situation. The rebel uprising in Syria against Assad’s dictatorship has a popular analog, that of the Rebel Alliance against the Evil Empire. We like to root for the underdog. Endgame: Syria is no exception. It’s firmly against the regime, but instead of presenting a righteous cause, the game instead decides instead to look at the practical aspects of the Syrian rebels trying to fight a ground war.

Any argument about a situation requires some simplification for initial understanding. Endgame: Syria turns the multi-dimensional conflict into a turn-based card game that allows the player to try out different strategies for managing a rebellion. While specific tactical decisions might result in loss, from a broader perspective the game focuses on demonstrating the main positive and negative outcomes that occur as a result of the player’s overall strategies. Certain interactions, like a single turn dedicated to communication managing to result in the salvation of all of your troops from an airstrike is somewhat unrealistic, but such a moment still gets the point across that the rebels are scattered and any communication at all can save lives against a fighter jet. Another example of such simplification is how the game creates two nominally even sides, one representing the Assad regime and the other representing the rebels — as if the two organizations are somehow somehwhat equal in power and resources. While Assad’s forces can easily be categorized as a single entity, the rebel alliance in real life is comprised of disparate groups that will probably turn on each other once their common enemy is gone — if they are communicating or aware of each other at all.

The game plays out in two phases each turn: a diplomatic phase and a military phase. In the diplomatic phase, the two sides play two cards each. These cards set up the conditions in the military phase. The cards are either foreign countries offering support, which add to your resource pool (support is the main resource of the game), diplomatic maneuvering that serve to counter opposing cards, boosts to your other cards’ attack or resistance stats during the military phase, or other advantageous things like a No-Fly Zone card or an enemy defection card.

Following diplomacy, the game moves into the military phase. Here the board has four slots on each side. You place one card (from eight possible options) into each slot to play against an enemy card. Each card has an attack number, a resistance number, a number of how many civilian casualties it causes, and a listing of the percentage possibility of fallout. Each card also lists the cost of how much support the player has to spend in order to play it. Of course, more powerful units cost more support to play.

In between each phase and each turn, there is also the possibility of random events occurring. These events can affect either side or both sides. A news report might go viral and show the despicable actions of the regime causing them to lose support. Or another news story might pull attention away from Syria and cost the rebels support. Loose weapon shipment regulations may get you anti-aircraft weapons for the turn. Or the UN could declare a temporary cease-fire making every card cost an extra 10 support for that turn to play.

The game ends with either side running out of support. Should the regime do so, Assad is ousted from power. Should the player run out of support, the rebellion is crushed. Or the player could accept a peace agreement that might randomly be offered at the beginning of a diplomatic phase.

Those are the basics of the game. From there, you play it as you would any other tactical card game. In fact, most of the information about the real world conflict comes from the names of and scant details on the cards. Each side gets their own set, even if they may have similar effects. For instance, different countries support the regime than those who support the rebels. They result in differing combat buffs or cause the other side to suffer penalties in different ways. The regime will lower your attack number by temporarily turning off Internet access in the country, while you can lower their resistance via satellite information from abroad. Or they can remove options in the military phase by causing dissent, while you can increase your own attack power by uniting the different factions temporarily. But the big difference between the two sides is that at the beginning of the game, the rebels are seriously behind in support — close to 60 points.

I played quite a number of games trying different strategies to try to oust the regime without destroying the country. At the end of the game, you will be told who won, but then the game describes the consequences of your strategy on the country at large. Use too many militants (which is tempting due to their higher stats), and you will find that religious fanatics start oppressing citizens. Likewise, sectarian violence can erupt if there was too much fallout from military exchanges. And these effects can also reach beyond more than just Syria, as it is possible that the conflict can destabilize the entire region. Over and over, I tried to get the best possible result, not knowing if such a thing were possible.

In life as in art, there is a division between understanding a concept intellectually and truly understanding it. Many will know how something works and describe it, but inside themselves it’s all wordplay and that final step of internalizing a lesson or idea is just out of reach. We all know that war is hell. It’s been beaten into us by the popular culture so often that it has become a cliché. But we can say the words and never truly understand what they mean. The light may never go on. Sometimes there is no substitute for lived experience. It is different for each person. Newsgames offer that experience through their systems, putting you in the shoes of the decision makers so you can see the options and constraints that form their actions.

Some might say that you wont understand war until you are on the battlefield as a solider or civilian, and not just see the horrors, but experience their lasting effect. Still others say being in danger yourself is not enough to truly understand. You have to lose the person you were closest to, to truly understand. I wont discount those ideas, but for the sake of this discussion, I’m not going to dive so far down that rabbit hole. Endgame: Syria doesn’t ask you to understand the horrors of war. It asks you to understand the systems that push and pull on each side, leading to the actions that they ultimately take.

I played and played searching for the best possible outcome. There is no positive outcome, just the least horrible. And time after time, the regime would beat me, or I’d squeak out a victory at a cost far too high. At one point, I thought I had done it. The regime was ousted with no sectarian violence, no destabilizing of the region, and no religious extremists emerging. The only downside was the loss of hospitals, utilities, and other basic facilities from functioning properly. I mentioned this on Twitter and got the response I deserved. “So you made a desert and called it peace?”

Another time I came close was when the only consequence at the end of the game was that Syria split into different countries. The Kurds created their own nation state, Assad’s supporters took another third of the land, and the rest of the rebels got the rest. The game likened it to the splitting up of Yugoslavia at the end of the last century (or the beginning of this one, depending on who you’re asking). This ending made me sit back and think if this couldn’t be considered the best possible ending. Maybe it would be best for different groups to have their own borders and their own governments, so ethnic minorities wouldn’t have to submit to the whims of the majority given the region’s history. I know that Yugoslavia didn’t break up without major problems, or that refugees from Iraq, Turkey, and who knows where else might soon overrun a Kurdish state. Hell, under these circumstance, this nation could become another Israel. But it’s not an outright, clear-cut negative like the other consequences of the game are. It seems more like one that requires its own examination to explain why it may be for the best overall or a terrible idea given the realities of the world.

Then one day I did get a total victory. I ousted the regime, the game declared the country still intact and no major group popping up to continue causing hell for the nation’s people in the aftermath. Now winning at all requires some luck in terms both of the cards being drawn in the diplomatic and military phases as well as the random events that reshape play. But I had changed my strategy several times since I started playing. I reflected on what the game was telling me. What, with a little luck, would lead to the best possible outcome for the rebels?

I focused almost entirely on getting support during the diplomatic phase. I would grab a No Fly Zone card should it pop up and once or twice a debuff for my opponent’s attack or increase my own forces resistance should there not be enough support cards. But the one card that I wanted every turn was Defection. Defection means the regime loses two actions for the turn and that they will only have two forces on the field that turn and two empty slots that can be attacked with impunity. It also means the regime is attacking me with fewer forces. The latter was far more important because the name of the game for me in this game was defense. I would put the cheapest troops in front of whatever the regime would throw at me. I made liberal use of the communication network that would shutdown one of their attack cards. I would throw infantry in front of tanks just to absorb as much of the hits as they could and leave as much of my support intact as possible. I wasn’t focused on taking out the regime troops or causing them damage in battle. If it happened great, but I no longer cared about hurting them, just outlasting them. Every time the news would blame my side for damage to a historical site, I would curse them because I would lose support. In the end, the cheap troops killed few civilians and caused little fallout. In the end, the regime ran itself into the ground with its more expensive units.

What Endgame: Syria seemed to be telling me is that the rebels are at the mercy of the international community. Their only hope is keep chugging along, watching their friends and family get pulverized by a much better equipped and organized military machine until Assad just runs himself dry. But, unlike a game, that idea isn’t quantifiable, nor is it an easy prospect to jump in front of a tank with no guarantee that anybody is watching or recording such an act of heroism. When such acts may do nothing more than stall opposition for a few minutes, yet you have to — if only to give others a those few extra minutes to get away. The rebels are angry, and they want to hurt those that have oppressed them so much and for so long, but if they want to win and have a country afterwards, they can’t. They have to suppress their baser desires for revenge and retribution for the good of all — not to mention the reality that the rebels aren’t a single group, but a mash up of patriots wanting democracy, Kurdish militia, Palestinian citizens, religious militants, international supporters, and most recently Al-Qaeda. The reality is far more difficult than the game portrays.

Then I tried to duplicate my victory. Then I tried to duplicate any victory. The play sessions after that minor breakthrough over the next few days were a string of crushing, “burn the land behind you” defeats. Several games in a row, I suffered from a string of random events that stripped all support for the cause. In one game, every single turn had me losing support for one reason or another. Assad’s regime didn’t kill me, the international press did. Infighting, clashes with the Kurdish militia, blame for bombings and fires, all of it drained support for a less than stable cause. In reality, I don’t think it is the rebels’ survival that is the most indicative of victory. It is the support of the people, both domestically and abroad, that matters most. A government showing its support is all fine and dandy, but it isn’t worth as much as the people not losing faith in your cause.