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Posted on Aug 14, 2022 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

What Counterinsurgency Looks Like in the Field – “Zurmat” Board Game Review.

What Counterinsurgency Looks Like in the Field – “Zurmat” Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

By Ray Garbee

Zurmat. Publisher: Catastrophe Games. Designer: Tim Densham.  Price $ 70.00

At Origins in 2021, Catastrophe Games had a demo copy of an upcoming game Zurmat, which depicted counter insurgency (COIN) operations of the Afghan war. Fast forward a year (well, nine months) and I picked up a copy of the recently released game from their booth at Origins 2022. Zurmat looks at counter-insurgency from the perspective of a Coalition military officer assigned to a district in Afghanistan. You have orders to build a secure space within which the residents will support the government.  Of course, this being a two-player game, the Taliban insurgents will be acting to achieve the opposite result in which the populace supports their efforts to build an Islamic state standing in opposition to the government in Kabul.

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Cover of the box

The game description on the Catastrophe Games website sums up the game nicely;

Zurmat pits the Taliban versus the Coalition, as players secretly add influence or decoys each turn, then taking an action that gets stronger the longer you wait, trying to win over the most tiles before the game ends. You begin secretly choosing your own victory conditions, along with the players building the modular map, meaning there is a great deal of tension and variability with each game. Combat plays its part, but just as important is constructing infrastructure and expanding your influence. 2 players, plays in about an hour, with the game ending whenever winter sets in.

The mission statement of Catastrophe Games is to produce “…light, historical board games that are fun, fast and keep your heads out of the rules…”. Zurmat checks all those boxes while providing an experience that illuminates the challenges faced by the people out in the countryside working to implement strategic policy.

Zurmat is a boxed game. The box cover art is done in the fashion of a traditional Afghan rug. Similar to some modern examples, the cover art captures images common to the conflict including rifles and vehicles. The artwork is clever and well executed.

But what’s in the box? A good amount of stuff. The component list includes;

  • Terrain tiles
  • Counters
  • Cards
  • Cubes
  • Player aid charts
  • Calendar chart
  • Counter bags
  • Dice
  • The rule book

Terrain tiles are cardboard squares with the game logo on the back side and a geographic location on the front. Each tile has a road network that may – or may not – connect with adjacent tiles. The tiles are reminiscent of Osprey Games Undaunted: Normandy and Undaunted North Africa in that the square tiles are assembled to create a playing space.  For a throwback reference the tiles also remind me of GDW’s Temple of the Beastmen in that the tiles provide a way of having a randomized space that supports semi-random maps.

The semi-randomness comes from randomly dealing each player a set of tiles and then the set-up process in which the players create the game space. This set up process does a great job conveying the tyranny of distance while reminding us that geography matters.

There is one full counter sheet, along with a partial sheet. These contain all the counters required for the game. The counters were well executed. There are just a handful of counter types – loyalty markers, control markers and buildings.

Loyalty markers are by far the most numerous. These are round discs which have a top depicting an Afghan civilian while the bottom shows either a loyal population group or is a dummy marker.

Control markers do just that – mark the control of a location tile. These are double sided and show either the Afghan National Government flag or the black flag of the Islamic State.

The building counters consist of a set of double-sided counters. One side of the counter shows a school and the other side shows a fort (representing a small outpost or a police station/checkpoint).

A big part of Zurmat is the assortment of cards. Each type of card fills a specific function. The types of cards include event cards, objective cards, operations cards and tactics cards.

Event cards provide a short deck of events (duh). Each turn an event turn is drawn. The events can range from advancing the arrival of winter, the struggle to control the poppy fields and random events that can hinder or help with a variety of activities.

Objective cards provide each side with a set of victory conditions.  Think of these as your orders from higher headquarters defining the mission(s) for the game. In each game, you’ll draw four and pick two. Objective cards offer a variety of victory points which influence the final victory point totals. Adding to the fun is that each player keeps those objectives a secret from their opponent.

Operations cards are a set of five cards that define the types of operations each player can perform. These include the conventional patrol and assault operations that lean into kinetic operations. Other operations include tasks that lean into the hearts and minds skills – recruit troops, declare loyalties and construct buildings (either schools or forts).

Next, we have the tactics cards. These provide options that either grant additional actions to a player or modify the actions of an opponent. There’s a variety of activities here that provide additional abilities which capture the theme and feel of the setting. Some coalition cards model the abilities provided by air supremacy with helicopters and air strikes. Other tactics focus on performing declare actions in tiles, while others are aimed at increasing or decreasing loyalty discs in the various tiles.

A Coalition Tactics card that boosts the effectiveness of the Declare action

Lastly, we have the Operations cards. These cards, combined with the player aid chart, are the heart of Zurmat’s operations mechanism. Each side has the same five cards – Declare, Construct, Patrol, Assault and Recruit.

The Operations cards for the Coalition Player

The declare operation allows you to build loyalty and then resolve the loyalty status of any one specific space.

Construct represents assets and time spent either building forts or schools. Forts will improve the military abilities of the side controlling the tile, while schools do the same thing for loyalty when resolving declare actions.

Patrol is what it sounds like, moving groups of troops into and through tiles, ‘showing the flag’ and building rapport with the locals. Aside from moving troops around the map, you are also adding loyalty discs to the spaces where you patrolled.

Assault is a classic kinetic operation. You move your troops into a space with opposing troops and engage in combat. This indirectly impacts loyalty as troops count when resolving a declare action and it’s the quickest way to remove your opponents’ cubes from the game board. But it’s not without risk. US cubes (representing your American company) that are lost cannot be replaced.

The last operation card is Recruit. Each side uses the recruit operation to levy troops from tiles they control. These will result in adding either government cubes (green) or Taliban cubes (red) to the game board.

There’s a number of cubes used for different purposes and as markers.

  • Green – Afghan National government forces
  • Red – Taliban forces
  • Blue – US military forces
  • Yellow – Game turn marker
  • Black – roadblock marker (from the play of a Tactics card)
  • White – A reminder that winter in coming

There are two (2) player display cards. These are sheets that allow you to track how many of each action has been taken, along with showing the operations point values and which cards are assigned to each value. These also include a sequence of play to remind you of the flow of the game turn.

The calendar track game aid does two things. First, it’s a handy game turn reference. Second it helps manage the assorted event cards that are currently in effect or will be effective soon.

Calendar Board

2 snazzy cloth bags. These are used for storing each sides population discs. They bags make handy containers from which the discs can be randomly drawn. It’s a nice touch and is a classier solution that coffee cups or plastic bowls.

The rulebook is a twenty-page soft cover saddle-stitched booklet. Twenty pages is a bit of a stretch as that includes the cover, the back page (basically a reference chart), a break down of the tiles and cards and the designers’ notes. The core of the rules are about thirteen pages, but those thirteen pages include examples of play and a detailed walk through of setting up the game. The booklet is well laid out and illustrated.

It’s a nice collection of parts. At the heart of any game are the rules. Rules are a lot like software, but how does that software work in Zurmat? The game engine is built around the game turn.  In Zurmat, A game turn is (mostly) an IGO UGO design. I say ‘mostly’, as specific tactics cards will give each player the opportunity to influence actions and operations taken by the other player.

A game consists of at most 10 game turns, but can be as short as 7 game turns, depending on the onset of winter. The game turn sequence is relatively short, and at first appearance is very linear and simple.  A game turn consists of the following phases

  • Event phase – each turn the players draw one (1) event card, reveal it and implement the effects.
  • Draw and assign population – each play draws population discs based on the number of tiles they control and adds the new discs to the tiles on the game board.
  • Draw player tactics cards – each player draws one (1) new tactic card and adds it to their hand.
  • Coalition action – The Coalition player executes an objective action and may play as many eligible tactics cards as desired. The Taliban may play any eligible tactics cards in their hand.
  • Taliban action – The Taliban player executes an objective action and may play as many eligible tactics cards as desired. The Coalition player may play any eligible tactics cards in their hand.
  • Month End Phase – Advance the turn cube, or conduct the game end activities.

Pretty simple, eh? But as Von Clausewitz says, “Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult”. The same is true in Zurmat as you need to synthesize these simple tasks into a coherent strategy to achieve your goals. But these processes create a game turn in which both players are operating in a fog of limited information regarding objectives, loyalties and capabilities. The turns are engaging for both players as a player may conduct limited activities turn (with the right tactics cards.) during their opponent’s action phase and events may throw a wrench into your carefully planned strategy.

The easiest way to explain this is to walk you through a couple of game turns of playing the game.

  • Play through of a complete couple of turns

Let’s walk through a couple of turns and see how things go. The first thing we’re going to do is set up the game. The setup process is clearly defined in the rules, but in some ways the set up for the game is a mini-game unto itself. This is not a simple case of ‘deploy the 3rd Brigade to hex 1708’, but a set of variables, open-ended decisions you make that will shape how events unfold across the remainder of the game. So, during set up we’ll have to plan carefully and evaluate the available information as it comes to light.

Set up is a ten-step process. When you get through all 10 steps, you are ready to start playing. Walk through each step. If that sounds like a lot, relax, it’s not that bad, but it will require you to do some assessment and planning as your decisions now will impact the rest of the game. Are you ready? Good, because the game starts…NOW.

Step 1 – Prepare the district

So, we need to set up the tiles and great the game space that represents the district. First you place the tile with the FOB in the center of the playing area. Then, randomly deal five terrain tiles to each player. Starting with the Coalition player, the players alternate placing tiles. The first four tiles must be adjacent to the FOB, but the last six are placed as desired. This is a key step as the Coalition player is generally trying to build a compact, contiguous road network, while the Taliban are likely looking for roads that are fractured and round about so they can have a secure space far, far away from the FOB.

In our example, the Taliban draw the only poppy field and elect to place it as far from the FOB as possible. There are often victory points awarded based on control of the poppy fields, so this is a sound defensive play. The result of tile placement has a district with several tiles close to the FOB, but a meandering road network that will hinder rapid movement across the district.

The game board after the players have laid out their tiles

Step 2 – Set up the calendar

Pull out the chart and set the yellow cube on the month of March. While you are at it, get the event cards, shuffle them and leave them near the calendar. Next!

Step 3 – Set up the forts and schools

So, we dump two schools and two forts on the FOB. Next!

Forts and Schools deployed!

Step 4 – Prepare forces

Yeah, just grab all your pieces. This included the bag with the loyalty discs, your cards, cubes and dice. Next? Yes, next!

Step 5 – Prepare your tactics card decks.

Shuffle each deck and then each player draws two cards. In this example we have the following card draws.

Coalition

Police Justice

Village Declares

Taliban

Contractors Attacked

Village Declares

Both players have cards which favor activities related to loyalty. The contractor attacked card will hinder Coalition attempts to builds forts and schools.

Step 6 ─ Set control

First, plunk down a Coalition flag on the FOB. Now for the hard part. The Taliban place two (2) control flags anywhere else on the board. Give how they worked to create the board; the Taliban player places their control to cover the approach to the poppy fields. It’s a sound choice, unless the Coalition draws the air assault tactics card.

Step 7 – Deploy Units

Another easy task for the Coalition player. Plop five ANA green cubes and five (5) US forces blue cubes onto the FOB tile. Welcome to Zurmat!  The Taliban are faced with a choice. They place eight (8) cubes split between the two (2) tiles they currently control. In our example they place 7 cubes up front covering the approach to the poppy fields and leave 1 cube covering the back door. They do this thinking that it’s best to concentrate your forces defensively, but also, this allows for an effective assault or patrol action if required.

Step 8 – Determine loyalties

Each player will do the same thing in this step. Draw eleven (11) loyalty discs at random from the bag. Look at them (don’t show your opponent!). Next each player places one disc on each tile. Remember that a disc represents either a loyal population or is a dummy marker. Once you place them, you can’t look at them again. The Coalition puts their loyal discs in spaces around the FOB, while the Taliban place theirs along the main road in the district to capitalize on a patrol action and rapidly build loyalty.

Step 9 – Receive Orders

In this step each side will learn which missions they are tasked with accomplishing. To do this, you draw four objective cards, look at them and select two of the cards. It’s not totally simple as each objective has a differing amount of victory points and some cards cannot be selected together.

Step 10 Prepare Operations

This is a simple step, but it requires a bit of thought and planning as you are fixing the order or operations for the game.Once the game starts, this order is only modified by which operations you conduct.The higher value that the card is assigned governs how much of that action you get to perform, be it patrolling, building, recruiting, declaring or attacking.Given the interrelated nature of the actions, spend a couple of minutes thinking about what you need to do to achieve your mission and what’s the best way to do it.After thinking about it our players have selected their operations queues as shown in the following images;

Coalition Operations order

Taliban operations order

Success! We’ve completed setting up the game. The Coalition forces are staged at the Forward Operating Base and the Taliban control a couple of tiles out in the hinterlands of the district. Each side has their objectives and their starting tactics cards.  As the snow melts and winter gives way to spring, it’s time to start operations in the district.

Game turn 1 starts with a random event. Drawing the event card off the top of the deck we get ‘Pashtunwali’. (Yeah, I had to google it, too.).

First Turn event card

This event can benefit the Taliban player by gaining two loyalty discs to a tile that they choose now. If there are no coalition troops there at the end of the turn, the Taliban player adds the discs to the tile.

Pashtunwali targets the telecom relay in the upper center tile.

Next is the population step. Each side adds loyalty discs equal to the areas they currently control. Since this is turn 1, that means one disc for the Coalition and two discs for the Taliban. (This tracks with the control flags placed during step 6 of the set-up process.)

Next is the tactics card step. Each side draws another card to add to their hand. The Coalition draws the F-16 card, which adds an additional die of US firepower to an assault action. The Taliban pull the Pressure Plate IED, a nasty action which allows for the Taliban to attack with three dice, against any Coalition troops.

Air Support – nice to know you can get it when you need it!

Now we move on to the fun stuff, the action steps. First up is the Coalition. Their first action is to play the tactics card, ‘Police Justice’. This allows the Coalition player to remove to Taliban loyalty markers from any one tile.

They choose the tile that connects the FOB to the Taliban front line. It’s a good start!

Following up on the Police Justice, the Coalition plays another tactics card – Village Declares. Looking at the tile that the police just swept, the Coalition declares that tile. With no Taliban loyalty discs, it’s a forgone conclusion that the tile will declare for the Coalition (the card grants a +1, so even if the Coalition population had been a dummy, it still would have aligned with the Coalition.

The Coalition starts building support in the district!

Finally, the Coalition takes an operations action and plays Recruit for action points. This allows the Coalition to add four (4) Afghan National Army cubes to spaces under Coalition control. The newly declared village tile is perfect for showing the flag, so all four cubes are deployed to face off against the Taliban forces down the road.

Four Afghan cubes report for duty on the front line.

Now it’s the Taliban players opportunity to act. They start by playing the tactics card Pressure Plate IED. This is an attack where the Taliban throw three dice.

They elect to attack the newly deployed Afghan government forces. Rolling the three dice they score…three hits! 

Wow! This is an extreme result, as it was statistically more likely that the attacker would achieve nothing, so this is horrible result for the Coalition. The Coalition player removes three green cubes leaving one green cube that suddenly feels very lonely out there on point.

Next, the play the tactics card, ‘Village Declares’ (I’m sensing a theme here!). Selecting the cell phone / satcom space, they flip all the loyalty discs, discard the dummies and total the support on each side, adding an additional +1 to the Taliban for the card. The result is that the village declares for the Taliban – this is another blow to the status of the Coalition in the game.

Having secured the villagers loyalty, the Taliban now executes the Construction operation and pours resources into the newly aligned village. Two new forts and two new schools pop up almost overnight. These buildings will do much to cement the Taliban’s hold over the village.

Having reached the end of turn 1, the Taliban player adds two loyalty discs to the cell phone tower tile for the event card. The game turn marker is advanced to April (Turn 2) and the players prepare to continue their struggle for control of the district…

Skipping ahead a bit is the situation at the end of turn 2. The Taliban have consolidated their hold on the satcom village. The coalition has secured the immediate countryside and main road to the front line. You get a good sense of the fractured road net.

Zurmat is an engaging game and provides a gamers-eye view of the challenged faced by the coalition forces that tried to translate strategy into tangible results on the ground. The rules are fairly straight forward and present the game in a clear manner. The counters are solidly executed, and the various cards are clear and easy to read.

There were a couple of things that I’d flag as ‘faults’ with the game. None are what I’d call deal-breakers, but if I didn’t call them out, I’m sure someone would take issue.

First up is the quality of the box. This is not a gripe with the composition or execution of the art and graphic design. This is a much more mundane gripe with the physical execution of applying the cover art paper to the box. The application appears to have been a little uneven, with the result that the box lid paper has noticeable air bubbles, which are large enough to form ripples on the box top. I can’t decide if it was intentional, to give the game a hand-crafted feel, or if was a failure of the production process. The other game in my collection from Catastrophe Games USS Laffey does not suffer from this, so the air bubbles may be unique to my copy of Zurmat.  

There’s a couple of references in the rules to the school and fort counters being ‘discs’. This might cause some confusion as these markers are not in fact discs, but represented by square counters. It feels like an error in editing where something might have changed during the development process. It’s a minor thing as the images in the rulebook make it clear that the buildings are square counters and not round discs.

There’s a terrain tile that looks like a cell phone / satellite tower and gives a +1 to loyalty. I can’t tell if it was supposed to have special rules with it or not. But it’s intuitive enough to just add +1 to loyalty to the owner and move on.

The level of graphics in the game for counters and cards is serviceable. From the perspective of this ummm… graying gamer, I found the level of detail on the counter and cards totally acceptable. Having said that, the level of art on the counters and cards is not what some of the younger folks and/or Eurogame crowd may be expecting with color pictures and all that fluff. But let me be clear – the cards and counter convey the information they represent in a clear, concise manner and do not hinder game play. If anything, it suggests the feel of a field briefing where you get the data you need, but the presentation is utilitarian to the point of being spartan.

That’s it. Just a few, fairly minor, gripes. None of which detract from playing the game. Setting aside those cosmetic items, there is a lot to like about this game. It’s one of the few games that drills down to the nitty gritty level of implementing policy. (For other examples, see Brian Train’s District Commander: Kandahar from Hollandspiele games, or Patrick Reustchmann’s, The Siege of Orgun from Revolution Games.)

Zurmat does check all the boxes for a “light, historical board games that are fun, fast and keep your heads out of the rules”.

The operation card mechanic is a simple, yet elegant way of depicting the planning process. The players really need to give thought to their initial assignment of the operations cards. While it may seem simple as to what you want to do first, it’s determining what comes next where Zurmat really shines. You have to plan your operational cadence with an eye towards which activities are foundational to other operations and which will hinder your opponent.

Many of the operations cards are tangled up with each other. Patrol actions influence declare actions, which influences both the recruit and build actions. The kinetic option of ‘assault’ sits off to the side ready to hammer your opponents’ troops and maybe swing the balance of loyalty in a tile in your favor.

The interrelated nature of the operations – and your opponents’ actions, reminded me of Wallace Shawn’s character Vizzini in the movie The Princess Bride. I found myself debating my options while my inner monologue carried on with “Clearly, I cannot choose recruit, as I have not yet declared, but I should not declare until I’ve built more loyalty by patrolling, but I cannot patrol as that will expose me to your attack.” …and so forth. Of course, the other quote rattling around in there was “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”, but I digress.

I’m just getting warmed up!

 Zurmat stands in contrast to a high level strategic COIN game on Afghanistan like GMT’s A Distant Plain. It reminds me of another quote from Von Clausewitz “Everything takes a different shape when we pass from abstractions to reality”. While A Distant Plain does a great job of exploring the conflict at an a strategic level, (and is a solid game in its own right), Zurmat gets you down into the weeds of implementing policy on the local level.

Out of the gate, I’ve got to say that Zurmat dragged me out of a deep state of gaming ennui and reminded me that playing games could be fun, challenging and historically engaging without requiring a complicated set of rules that take all day to play.

The box art breaks from the conventional styling while conveying a sense of the cultural divide between western coalition forces and Afghan cultures. It helps set the expectation that Zurmat is going to be a different game.

That carries over into the component artwork. The tile art does a great job of conveying the Afghan landscape, as a dry, khaki canvas with islands of vibrant color in the agricultural areas.

The game play drives the challenges faced by both sides. Each player has similar goals – exert control over the district, build support among the population and prevent your opponent from doing the same. But achieving those goals requires planning and a little luck. The operations and card play capture the feel of operations in a district and convey a sense of the frustration and carnage that so often typify counter-insurgency operations.

Solitaire game play continues to be an important consideration for board gamers looking at a new game. So, I sure that many of you are wondering ‘does Zurmat support solitaire play?’

The answer is that it is sorta/kinda a solo game. There are no dedicated solitaire rules. Of course, you can play any game as a solitaire game by wearing two hats and playing each side. But doing so with Zurmat will compromise a lot of the things that make Zurmat such an engaging game. There is a lot of hidden information which feed the tension of the game play. Without dedicated solo rules, you’ll lose much of the fog of war. And while, yes, you can slog through it wearing both hats, the game really shines with two players. Do yourself a favor and find someone with whom you can play the game!

I greatly enjoyed Zurmat. It hits a sweet spot that gives a good, complex gaming experience without being a complicated game. The set-up process means you’ll rarely get the same game twice, so each game will offer fresh challenges. The game is simultaneously engaging and frustrating and there is a lot of back and forth as the players via for supremacy in the district.

If you are looking for a game that captures the feel of the Afghan conflict on a smaller scale, Zurmat is an solid choice!

Armchair General Score: 95 %

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  2

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of hobby magazines.

1 Comment

  1. As the designer/co-designer of two of the other three games you referenced, let me say that i also enjoyed Zurmat a lot!
    (I’ve designed or co-designed two other games on Kandahar province as well, Kandahar (from One Small Step) and BCT Command Kandahar (MCS Group), but unlike Tim Densham, I have never actually been to Afghanistan.)
    I really liked the op card procedure, as well.
    Very clever design overall.

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