Probably without realizing it, Ubisoft created an insurgency training simulation when they designed Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. They did so in a unique place and time for a video game: Rome in 1499. AC:B is almost worth playing just for the tour of a digital Renaissance Rome populated by swarms of people, shopkeepers, guards, pickpockets, and prostitutes. But, let’s be honest, people play video games for action. Fortunately it’s the action and plot of AC:B that impart some key lessons about how to run your own insurgency.
First, the background. The Assassins and the Templars are both secret societies that first coalesced during the Crusades. Both groups want to capture “Pieces of Eden,” artifacts that can grant their possessor great power and wisdom. The Templars want to use this power to control the world and the Assassins want to stop them. In 2012, the groups are still waging a secret war behind the scenes of society. Both groups utilize technology, called Animus, that allows someone to relive the memories of their ancestors stored in their DNA. Enter Desmond Miles. Through Desmond, a descendent of Assassins, both sides want to unlock the whereabouts of the artifacts. The first ancestor examined with this technology is Altair ibn-La’Ahad, a Crusades-era Assassin. The second is Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an Assassin in Italy during the Renaissance-era where the Borgia family controls the Templar order.
Ezio cuts a bloody swath across Renaissance Italy in Assassin’s Creed II, but my focus is on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the second game to feature Ezio and the one that best captures an insurgent dynamic. In ACII, Ezio simply wants to kill as many Templars as he can, including Pope Alexander VI, then retire to a nice villa with Caterina Sforza (If you don’t know who this is, I highly recommend reading about her). In the beginning of Brotherhood, the Borgia assault Assassin headquarters at the villa and scatter the group. The game literally starts out with a lesson about the inability of conventional tactics to defeat an ideological movement, presented in grand style as the player defends the villa with cannon and the Borgia assault with siege towers, siege guns, and waves of troops in formation. After being overwhelmed, Ezio escapes and travels to Rome to wrest control of the ancient capital from the Borgia.
This is where Insurgency 101, courtesy of Ubisoft, begins in earnest. Ezio, being only one man, cannot attack the Templars, who control the Vatican, vast armies, and Rome itself, directly. He has to start small and utilize guerilla tactics.
Lesson One: Information Operations
Step one for any insurgency is to prove that the ruling regime is not so big and bad after all. Delegitimizing the political power that you wish to oust will garner popular support later. Fortunately Ezio has a pretty good plan to embarrass the Borgia: go to one of their isolated guard posts, kill everyone inside, then set it on fire.
Lesson Two: Popular Support
While popular support may or may not be the key to an insurgency, it is still important. Insurgencies depend on the civilian population for a source of recruits, supplies, camouflage, intelligence about the enemy, and counterintelligence to prevent the enemy from finding out too much. As Ezio travels through Rome, the player is presented with situations where Borgia troops are beating or attempting to kill local civilians. The player can choose to interfere and then recruit the liberated peasant as a new assassin. Just as in real life, the more allies you recruit the more abilities you can unlock, like calling a swarm of friends with crossbows to ambush enemies that are too strong for you to fight alone.
Lesson Three: Guerilla Tactics
Truth be told, you can make it through the game quite easily by just running around and stabbing every bad guy you can find. It is a game after all. But, if you choose to operate more as a guerilla, the game rewards you with a higher score and unlocked rewards. Guerilla warfare is key to a force that is weaker than its opponent and seeks a strategy of erosion. Eroding the enemy’s strength over time is much easier if he can’t ever find you.
Lesson Four: Build an Alternative System
Once you’ve sliced and diced your way through counterinsurgent outposts and proved to the people that you’re stronger than the status quo, it won’t do to just sit on your laurels. It’s time to exploit the space you’ve earned. As the player frees sections of Rome from Borgia control, they can invest cash in those areas to open up an economy. The more your economy thrives, the less items such as weapons, armor, clothing, and artwork cost. While there will always be some hardcore malcontents that will support an insurgency with supplies, sustaining a guerilla force is easier the more people you have on your side. If they’re making money, they’ll be more willing to let a little slide your way.
By the end of the game, the player’s Assassin insurgency has reached critical mass and the Borgias control only the Vatican. This sets the stage for the last act of the game. Ezio can… ahem, roam the streets of Rome pretty much at will, a worthwhile endeavor since the game acts as a virtual tour guide to the Eternal City. Upon approaching a notable building, like the Colosseum for example, the player can bring up an article that describes the buildings origin and importance. Ezio’s journey is not complete though and he must finish what he has started. The ending takes a decided turn to conventional warfare, as insurgencies sometimes do, but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a rollicking trip through a Renaissance insurgency, helped along by historically based characters like Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo Da Vinci. Assassin’s Creed 3, which comes out today and is set in the American Revolution, should offer insight as well. Expect to see a post on it in the near future.