I stood looking out of the café window at the sun soaked street outside. People dressed in dishdashas and pakols were setting up shops in the buildings opposite. Quite a funky bhangra beat was coming out of the speakers in the next window along and the men were all slightly bobbing in time as they worked.
Behind me, sat at a rickety table strewn with maps and plans, were the organisers from Tier 1’s Operation Jawbreaker game.
I considered the question I had just been asked,
“Well what do you think is the safe distance for a car bomb? 30 meters?”
Before I could answer a man entered the room with a tray of Afghan coffees arrayed in small cups and saucers. He piled in some sugar, enough for a large mug, and handed me one. I sipped it while looking out the window.
“I don’t know,” I said to Pyro technician, “we want to catch as many people in the blast as possible, but we don’t want to take out the entire street or they won’t be able to practice a CASEVAC (casualty evacuation) drill.”
Ed, Tier 1 Actual, turned to one of the others in the room, “You’re currently serving in the forces,” he said to him, “what’s the real drill out there these days?”
“It’ all 10 dollar Taliban, these days,” he said and he began to explain to us what that meant.
That’s the level of detail we go to here, I thought to myself as I looked around the room at those listening to him speak. Firstly we had the ex-commando with 8 years service then next to him was the professional roleplayer, who didn’t come out of character all weekend, then 3 airsofters with over 10 years experience each, next was the Pyro Tech and finally me; the head marshal.
We continued listening to Ed’s plans for chaos and I ordered another coffee.
I have played many and been to many events where the organisers said they had reached the perfect balance point between real military exercises and a simple skirmish. I realise now that they either made the game too boring or little more than a skirmish with complex medic rules; milsim for the Xbox generation. In Operation Jawbreaker, Tier 1 also strived for that perfect balance themselves and in the most important respects I think that they came damn close to achieving it.
Before I go further, I should get the bias question out-of-the-way. I do go to Tier 1 games and I don’t have to pay cash for them. Instead I pay in time, lots of time. The head marshal position is all about customer service and requires that I turn up early and leave last, after having joined in with sweeping up the entire site for two hours straight. I am called upon to do various roles in the setup as needed including the more mundane jobs, such as standing at the front gates from 11pm until 12:30am waiting for the last customers to arrive. I could be accused of having a vested interest here, but all I can say is that this is my site and I tell it like it is, or at least as it seems to me. Take that as you will.
The first thing that strikes you upon spotting Copehill Down Village on the horizon, after passing right by Stone Henge and having driven up the tank track, is that it is quite pleasing to look at glittering in the sunshine. From a distance you would never know that it wasn’t a real village at all. It is only as you get closer that you notice the lack of people, animals and cars that signifies something is out-of-place. Then as you arrive at a military check point and you know you are somewhere off the map and into a dark territory known only to the soldiers who have trained among these illusory buildings for years.
Many Tier 1 staff had arrived before us and they were all busy setting up and so I immediately got stuck in by buying a burger from the van in the main barn and perusing the airsoft shop. I did this because I knew that if I left it to later I would be too busy. At this time of day there appears to be an endless amount of hours left, but I knew that as the night drew in and customers arrived that this would reverse and the amount of jobs would quickly get on top of us and require all hands to the pumps.
I started work proper by attending “inside team” briefing at the café. Ed keeps those in the know to a very small group, he says to make the game fresh to all, but I suspect that it’s because he doesn’t want everyone second guessing him and his plans. This was the first time I had been invited to attend to this level. The café was setup by the roleplaying troop who had arrived a few hours before and were all boisterously playing around clearly excited. The effort they put into crafting Afghan village was incredible. The café had tables, with cloths, chairs, a bar, a real coffee machine with small patterned cups on tiny saucers and Afghan looking wares draped all around including a dismantled RPG launcher in a basket. Local music pervaded. Their leader told us the score,
“We have a game ourselves,” he explained, “that is under yours. It may be that I set a task to fetch water for the coffee machine, for the village, from one of the taps we have found in the site, and you may stop that man and search him. He is really fetching water, it isn’t fake, we really need it to run the machine. Or it could be something else, like putting out washing. That is their game. You can interact with them and they will act in character.”
Ed nodded sagely and continued the description of the serials, pre planned events, that he had designed.
“We will come to here for an Ashura with the Elder and the Taliban will bomb us when we leave,” he said.
Soon a group were walking the site checking where the explosions would be.
The basic idea for the scenario was that the villagers were unaligned to either the US side or the Taliban players (known as Blue and Red forces) and would decide on their allegiance based on the play of the teams over the event. Ed likes to design a very fluid series of set pieces that he always refers to as “organic”, in which the players have large amounts of autonomy to play however they will. I remember in the last event, Blackheart, the morning serial required that the US forces retreat across a field upon which the Reds had a skirmish line setup. That was scripted only in the sense that the Red commander knew they would be returning that way. Where he ambushed them was up to him to perform on the fly. Who won the conflict was up to the players themselves.
Red defeated the Blue on that occasion and then went on to invade their (now) lightly defended firebase. Again, this was an organically branching storyline that wasn’t in the written plans, but rather was the next natural step after defeating the Blue team in the field. Should the Blues have won, then it wouldn’t have happened.
After the walk around I sat down and started thinking how I would incorporate the safety rules into the brief I would give in the morning. This was my job to write into my briefing, but I was to have 20 minutes with Ed to run through it before the game kicked off. Ed always keeps an executive role in decisions made by the team members. This is a management method that makes the entire event into a creation that he builds into a cohesive whole and that has his finishing touches (very Steve Jobs), but at the same time it puts a heavy burden on his shoulders and makes the final hours before the game starts increasingly tough as decision after decision needs his input. In my “real” life I have worked in many management environments both as a team member and manager myself, managing mixed teams from all sorts of disciplines, and so I know how hard it can be.
Customers were arriving and so I took care to talk to as many as I could until I was called to take a turn at the front gate. At 1:30am I laid out my gear, setup my cameras and loaded my mags. Then I turned into my sleeping bag, the sounds of others continuing to work surrounding me.
Morning. Sleeping on the hard and dusty floor was becoming easier for me. I am used to it and no longer ache or feel too stiff. 6am, time to get up and get some coffee and a bacon sandwich from the girl tending the food stall (a rare pleasure at a Tier 1 event). I reminded her that once the 7:30 briefings were over, she needed to leave.
“No break?” she asked in faltering accented English.
“Break? No. This is milsim.”
“Noooo, don’t tell me this,” she smiled nervously.
“Sorry. This whole area will be a battle zone. There is no safe zones, no breaks.”
She nodded, a little unhappy.
“I’ll have another coffee,” I offered conciliatorilly.
Frankly, I thought as I sipped at the weak excuse for coffee, this was going to be quite light compared to some Tier 1 events. Here they would have a FOB and somewhere to lay their rollmats. In the Wendigo game, held in Sweden just after christmas, the team had to walk 30k into the battle zone and sleep in the snow.
The safety brief was split by team this time. I did Reds first and they were briefed along with the role players. The Blues came after. Doing it like this meant that the two teams did not meet each other and the Blues could not so easily identify the Reds from the villagers. A Red without a gun was a civilian and the event was designed so that, at the beginning at least, Reds would be mixing in with the villagers to cause confusion. Throughout the event the Reds had great fun with this, such as during the Ashura, the Red commander tried to casually walk into the café and get a coffee. His mock surprise and grin at being rebuffed by the Blue guard units was a joy to see.
The event started with an in-game briefing from Ed and a patrol into the village to find out where the enemy were. During that patrol the villagers were found at their shops and they immediately tried to sell to the soldiers. The rules of engagement were clear; anyone unarmed cannot be shot, but no one was to approach closer than 5 meters (the range of an explosive vest) without being searched.
The Blues enjoyed this, but I could tell that this was an unusual situation for them and stressful. Good. The Reds pushed the envelope as hard as they could by hanging around and amongst the villagers, taking photos and counting our numbers into phones. At one brilliant moment a Red popped suddenly out of a doorway in an alley and reached for a Blue player’s sidearm, just stopping short and grabbing his hand instead to shake it. By the end of the first patrol lots had happened; the Ashura had been organised for later, Ed had taken stock of his troops ability to follow orders and the Blues had grown tired of the Reds already. Multiple requests to shoot Reds over ever more brazenly “dicking” (spying) on us were requested. I myself requested to shoot one guy, but was refused. A shame, it was a quiet street, a straight shot of 50m and there was no wind; I would have loved to have made it.
We went back and Ed called the Team Leaders (TLs) together for a brief that they then passed onto their teams. The Blues were organised into two types of troops: Marines units under Captain Dan and Delta units under Ed. Each would be assigned different types of missions and have different types of engagements. I would have liked to play a Delta, and I suppose I could have as I was in the Command Element (as a military observer and Intelligence Operative) and could jump in with any unit as needed, however my brothers – the DAs – were in the Marines and I wanted to be alongside them.
After the brief we headed back out for the Ashura with the village elder and this was to be the first action serial of the day.
On the way to the café we were approached by three men dressed as a camera crew and with body armour upon which was written “PRESS”. They had a boom mike and shoulder camera, which they shoved right in our faces and asked us, in a thick Australian accent, for an interview for “Wanga Wanga News”. On the one hand I almost wet myself laughing and on the other I realised that this is the sort of thing that happens in “reality” all the time. Ed made then stand-off, but they followed us closely talking incessantly into the camera. Some his stuff was really funny. We made it to the village and met with the Elder in the café. He assured us that he was friendly to Americans and would help us identify the Taliban. The meeting broke up when it became clear that the villagers outside were closing the boards covering their windows. Something was about to go down. Lots of people were in the street and the, safe, presumption was that they were all Reds.
As we left the building and made down the short flight of stairs the bombs planted in the cars was due to go off.
However, no plan survives contact with the enemy and what happened was that the Blue guarding units bugged out leaving Ed and I standing alone outside the café with no one in the blast zone. We shared a look and Ed ordered the unit back. This was all part of being organic I guess! Then the car bomb went off. I spun around to see the remnants of the bomb and screamed,
“IED! IED! We have a man down! MEDIC!”
About 10 people had been hit by the blast and gone down screaming themselves. Then I was shot in the leg. The top windows of the shops opposite had been flung open to reveal armed Reds firing down on the street.
Villagers, all crying to God, ran around picking up those on the street and helping them into houses (which wasn’t in the plans but natural enough I guess), a firefight kicked up as the Reds punished the Blues for not being in the right place as a unit. All through this the camera crew were wandering around the street doing a “Kate Ade” report until the reporter too got shot. He went down and shouted into the mike,
“I haven’t been hurt this much since I got bitten on the leg by that Crocodile as big as my penis!”
I sat against the wall, a frightened villager wrapped a bandage against my “wound”. I kept filming it all and awaiting the rescue.
Rescue was supposed to come from the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that were loaded up at the base onto the four ton truck. They were to swoop up and do a CASEVAC drill to get us out and back to the FOB. However, as these things often do, they deployed too far away and then one of the players twisted his knee jumping out of the truck and they had a REAL medical situation to deal with. Luckily, Tier 1’s medic was the TL for the QRF and he took care of it. The result was that I was not rescued and died in that street. 5 minutes bleed out had passed and I limped back to the FOB for an enforced 15 minutes dead time.
The Day continued with various serials and contacts designed to push the two teams. The commanding was actually forcing this issue. One example was that the Blue patrolled through the site and into an ambush. Now I know that the Reds could ambush us, but where was anyone’s guess. The Blues reaction was simply to look to the commanders for orders. Something that I find a lot of beginner TL’s do is that if orders don’t come down then they simply stay where they are, even if that place is in the open being shot at from cover. They are frozen into inaction by the chain of command. Such is the challenge of leadership under fire! As it happened, it went down perfectly as the Blue commander and the Captain stood on a hidden IED and both went down dead in a huge explosion. Sure enough the Blues were cut down without their leaders.
Having retreated to the FOB the Reds now started aggressively pushing against us by riding up close to the gates, sniping from afar (they have an ex-commando sniper on their team) and throwing the odd grenade over the gates.
The Blues had moves too and sent out snatch squads to capture enemy and undercover squads to listen in on information. Enemy captured were roleplay questioned and DNA Sampled using kits Ed had with him. Units of marines then went out to show force in areas and try to capture High Value Individual Targets (HVIs). They then also had to rescue trapped and cut off units, etc, etc. Everyone was kept busy.
Eventually darkness fell and I took some sleep before the early morning raid. An Information picture had been built up during the day that led to the identification of a particular house as the location of a HVI. At 3am a plan was put into effect and we tabbed outside the village and around to the house in question. The Delta teams were then stacked up outside and the basement doors were blown in. The Assault was on! I went in as a cameraman and watched as the élite Deltas set off every trip wire and mine trap going up the stairs like they were playing IED Hopscotch. Tutting to myself I watched as they cleared the house and then we withdrew. The Red main forces didn’t engage us, but the Blue’s blood was up and at one point the Deltas engaged their own protective screen of Marines before realising it was Blue on Blue.
The morning sun was soon up and the Reds moved in until they owned the entire village. An early Blue patrol to see how far the Reds had advanced was shot up as soon as leaving the FOB. The head Elder then visited us and said that he was leaving the village and this meant that Ed could turn the event into a more direct conflict. The Blues fought the Reds back to the center of town and this setup the large serial for the day, which was an assault on the 90 rooms of building 25; where the Reds had shot up the Ashura from. My DAs were tasked with leading the assault and, once we got to the building, we started clearing it. The downstairs was mined, so I figured the contact would be on the stairs. There is a particular skill-set to fighting up staircases, which is something I personally have learned the hard way while playing at Electrowerkz in Islington. I had swapped out my Magpul M4 for my CQB shotgun, which would be much more powerful and pointable than any AEG on singleshot (the rule in buildings). Soon I had cleared a stair and we were up to the top floor.
The Building fell to the combined forces of all the Blues and for a brief moment the area was ours. However, undeterred, the Red forces pushed back and by the end of play we had been mostly killed. This was a great testament to the quality of the Red forces who were vastly outnumbered.
For me the end of an event is the least fun part. While the punters pack up and leave, hopefully as happy as I was with how it went, the Tier 1 team now has the onerous duty of cleaning the entire site of BB’s and closing all the windows. This took 2 hours of sweeping.
People were very tired indeed and for some, myself included, the prospect of driving home was daunting. The team then all went for a pizza and chatted about pretty much anything but the game. I always find I need space, a few days, to come to terms with what happened and, being so tired, it is too easy to be grumpy. I did however, find out some of the interesting backgrounds of some new Tier 1 players and was impressed to find out that one was a professional Ice Skater! Or at least I was too tired to do anything but believe him.
We all said goodbye and my drive back to Ipswich via South London and Epping began. It ended at 1am.
Milsim is not an easy-sunday skirmish. Often things will not go your way as both the quality and quantity of opposing players will be high. Moreover, you may have to follow “unfair” orders such as being made to do guard duty rather than go out on a patrol. The game itself is long and tiredness creeps in as you struggle to keep up your spirits and your focus in the face of combat. This is all very humbling to the sorts of egos airsofter’s usually have. Contacts can last hours and dying and bleeding out causes you the long walk back to the FOB and a forced rest for 15 minutes. On top of all of this any cheating will get me on your case and bad play such as losing your temper or shouting “take your hits”, etc are all stamped upon.
For all that, this is the most realistic and involved airsoft imaginable for the price. Explosives of all types, mortars, grenades, IEDs, car bombs and suicide vests are all in play. Professionally trained personnel are on both sides, people used to the harsh realities of real combat, who make it all look easy. Myself I play airsoft of a weekend and then commute into London for a city job at a desk. My aching muscles a reminder that I spend my weekends doing something a little different, reminding me that I like to be challenged and tested in body and mind. It’s more than a little blat-around with the chums on a Sunday, this is an involved escalating conflict, expertly crafted and creatively planned. I know, because I spend some of my time putting it together as a part of the team. As a part of Tier 1.
Images from the article & upcoming Jawbreaker DVD: