A Distant Plain, by GMT.

Terrorism. Counter-insurgency. CIA. Afghanistan. These words would stir up interest in many of us, but to a class of school students?

‘A Distant Plain’, designed by Volko Ruhnke (ex CIA agent) and Brian Train, and published by GMT is one of GMT’s COIN series – asymmetrical, insurgency/counter-insurgency – and which allows players to adopt the role of one of four factions within the context of this century’s Afghanistan War: The Coalition Forces, The Afghanistan Government, The Warlords, and The Taliban. Yes – the Taliban.

Games – war games included – are well used in educational settings, as well as in the workplace to support professional development, collaboration and team building. (This link offers a PowerPoint on an evaluation of the games use with Ministry of Defence, and included officers and service personnel who had actually served in this theatre of war.)

One of the main drawbacks, coupled with the steep learning curve (a trajectory on which I am still!), is the time required to set the board up, in addition to having no easy way of ‘saving state’: the duration required to play exceeds the default fifty minute period of a class. One would need to (carefully) store the board and components (perhaps taking some photographs of current play, card deck, etc.

The map is attractive, yet sparsely detailed: Afghanistan’s key provinces and borders are shown, as well as a number of status areas within each province; there is a huge ‘status track’ that borders the board, as well as additional status areas outwith the map area. Numeracy skills are a significant factor in co-ordinating the game, remembering how many resources they have, the political/diplomatic climate.

Pupils have to strategise in order to deploy their troops and bases: pupils are required to speculate and discuss either conducting an Operation, or playing an event card (or passing).

The game system employs a card-driven component that forces pupils to consider not only the current card in play but also the forthcoming card; this forces players to consider current situations with prospective events from their own and the perspective of the other three factions. And taking a turn on the current card has an impact on the faction who is next to play: one’s actions can limit or benefit the other player.

The game supports active collaboration – deal-making, discussions between each faction on whether they will PASS on a card turn or perform one or other card event that benefits them or their opponent(s).

Games such as Distant Plain, Fire in the Lake, Andean Abyss, Labyrinth help us – teachers and students alike – to consider complex situations, human and political affairs within which resources and actions have certain limitations, finite quantities; all of which is within a context that is historical.

Language – emergent discourse – is the key to the formation and construction of highly organic mental models that are constructed by the students during gameplay.

Isn’t that what we desire for our students when we set them a learning activity?

Pros:

  • Decision making – worker and resource placement and management
  • Collaboration
  • Immersive strategizing
  • Relevant and contemporaneous context/theme
  • Rich content-driven card system

Cons:

  • Steep learning curve
  • Initial set-up, storage and game resumption
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