Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Battle for Baghdad

Battle for Baghdad. MCS Group, 2009. Designer: Joseph Miranda. $79.95.

Battle for Baghdad is a 3-6 player boardgame that explores conflict, cooperation, insurgency, and counterinsurgency in the Iraqi capital c2003-2008. According to MCS Group‘s publicity materials, “The game emphasizes the roles and capabilities of the various factions involved, and demonstrates how asymmetric capabilities can be leveraged to generate favorable outcomes.” Moreover, in addition to its gaming and enjoyment value, Battle for Baghdad is also explicitly intended as an educational tool for seminars and classrooms, “show[ing] how understanding ones own goals in a multi-competitive environment is insufficient to guarantee stability or success. Knowledge of the goals and intent of the other players is crucial to successful coalition building and in-theater success.”

All of this make the game especially appropriate for review at PaxSims, given our primary interest in the simulation of fragile and conflict-affected states. Moreover, Battle for Baghdad is designed by Joseph Miranda, who has been responsible for many excellent historical boardgames—including the very good insurgency game, Nicaragua (published by Strategy and Tactics in 1988). Finally, since I’m a Middle East conflict specialist by profession, I was particularly eager to give it a try.

Game Contents and Play

In Battle for Baghdad, players variously represent the Shi’ite community, the Sunni community, the Iraqi government, the United States, foreign jihadists, and non-governmental organizations.

Each player can win by amassing 120 political points, or by fulfilling their own unique victory conditions (the Shi’ites and Sunnis need to establish infrastructure in certain areas of the city, for example, while the Iraqi government can win by keeping the two communities apart, and the jihadists can win by overrunning US or government districts). The conflict is fought out on a very nice, mounted satellite-imagery map of Baghdad, divided into various zones, each of which is assigned a differing affiliation and political points value. These areas are won and controlled with (mobile) security units, and (immobile) infrastructure, which collect their political point value.  Two sets of cards also drive game play: “Arab Street” cards which shape the ebb and flow of political resources in the city, and “Arms Bazaar” cards which give players certain abilities (such as the ability to conduct IED attacks, use precision munitions, raid opponents, even use WMD or engage in spectacular terrorist attacks, among many others). The combat system is straightforward, with outcomes based on the number of units (and command) assigned to the battle, as well as the impact of particular cards. Since multiple players can win the game in the same turn, various in-game agreements and coalition play is possible.

The full set of rules can be found online at the MCS Group website here (something I wish more game companies would do).

Overall game play is fairly straight-forward. As a game, my fellow players and I found it moderately entertaining. As noted below, however, it fell short as a simulation of either  Iraqi politics or of insurgency and counter-insurgency—drawbacks that, in my view, starkly limits its potential utility in the academic or professional classroom.

Instructional Potential

Almost as soon as I unpacked the box and looked at the various factions, I had concerns about how accurately this game would model the admittedly complex realities of Iraq. For example, the (Sunni) al-Qa’ida terrorist group, the (Shi’ite) al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the Palestinians (who weren’t collectively involved in the Iraq war at all, except as individuals) are conflated into a single “jihadist” side—something analogous to a simulation of the Northern Ireland conflict putting the (Catholic) Irish Republican Army, the (Protestant) Ulster Defence Association, and Massachusetts all on the same team. Conversely, the intra-sectarian splits within the Sunni and Shi’ite communities (such as those that sparked the Sunni “awakening” movements in the former case, or SCIRI/ISCI versus Sadr versus al-Dawa/al-Maliki, with the Shi’ite religious establishment in an umpire role in the latter case)—all of which have been hugely influential in shaping the political trajectory of the country—aren’t present at all. The key events of the 2003-08 period (notably constitution writing and multiple elections, which were absolutely essential in the partial stabilization of an Iraqi polity, as well as the arrest of Saddam, the al-Askari mosque attack, and others) are also missing.

While the differing victory conditions and potential for cooperative play slightly tilt the players to somewhat historically-accurate alliances and confrontations in the game, anomalies abound. US forces, for example, are fully capable of cooperating with the jihadists to attack the fledgling Iraqi central government, while the Sunni and Shi’ite community have similar orientations towards the Iraqi government in-game, despite the fact that actual Iraqi governments have been Shi’ite-dominated. Some card play combinations can make things even stranger: in one of our playtest games, the major US base at Baghdad International Airport was briefly captured by the Sunni player when he used a “defection” card to apparently convert the US troops there to become Sunni fighters (!).

Also, although much of the non-jihadist violence in Iraq has been driven by communal insecurity, the characteristics of that insecurity—the paramount need to defend your sectarian home turf and maintain in-group popular support, the substantial advantages of fighting in friendly neighbourhoods, the sectarian mass expulsions that turned brutally “unmixed” many mixed sectarian districts, and the use of neighbourhood barriers and access controls as a strategy to limit  sectarian conflict—just aren’t present. Overall, other than the fine map and graphics, it just didn’t “feel” like Iraq.

I’m not sure the game works much better as a simulation of contemporary asymmetric war or stabilization operations. For a start, the game isn’t that asymmetric. Certainly, there are differing victory conditions and some differences in capabilities (US forces, for example, fight better and can use airmobile movement once per turn). This, however, is pretty common in historical simulations. The Arms Bazaar cards, on the other hand, aren’t asymmetrical at all, despite their contemporary-sounding titles: any player can use any card—be it “Uprising,” “Precision Munitions” “WMD,” “IED/Artillery,” “Terrorist Attack,” or “Contract Security”—to identical effect. Even the NGO player can use them.

More importantly, there’s not much feel for underlying politics, even though population support and control are essential to insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. In Battle for Baghdad you gain political points by controlling turf and killing things, not by legitimizing government authority, addressing grievances, and building institutions for non-violent conflict resolution. Were the game a realistic depiction of either the conflict or of COIN operations, the US player would “win” by securing the population (thereby reducing insurgent access and breaking the cycle of communal violence), strengthening the Iraqi government, building the Iraqi security forces and handing over security responsibilities, easing tensions, promoting development and capacity-building, and ultimately withdrawing troops as a more stable local order emerges. In Battle for Baghdad, however, the US player can win by swooping out of his garrisoned zones with large airmobile troop insertions, taking over vulnerable areas of the city, killing folks and destroying local infrastructure—all of it rather more Apocalypse Now than FM 3-24. Political support is much better handled in such games as NicaraguaAlgeriaIci, c’est la France! (all of which we’ll review on PaxSims soon), or Liberia (which we’ve already reviewed).

Game Mechanics and Adaptation Potential

There are some elements in Battle for Baghdad that could be modified or adapted. For a start, the rather “Eurogame” look and feel to the game—slick visuals, sturdy game pieces, partially card-driven mechanics, relatively straightforward rules, fluid gameplay, multiplayer interaction—certainly showcases a kind of game presentation that you might want to strive for in classroom and training contexts, where you can’t afford to get bogged down in the complexities of a 40 page rulebook, or have non-gamers turned off by the lack of visual references and aesthetic appeal. Unfortunately, the substantive shortcomings of the game as a simulation would preclude most classroom use.

There is also some modification of the game that could be done to try to make it fit the Iraqi setting more effectively. Indeed, since it is rather easy to play, one possible use of the game in the classroom would be to have students play it through once, then use a discussion of its weaknesses as the centerpiece of a discussion on contemporary COIN operations. More ambitiously, one could even challenge students to redesign it themselves, and justify their design choices with reference to actual conflict and stabilization operations in Iraq.

Concluding Thoughts

In writing this review I’ve had concerns that, as someone who works on this topic, this region (and, at times, even this conflict), I’m at risk of being a nitpicking purist. However, it was clear in the collective debrief at the end of a couple of games that everyone in our group felt much the same. Moreover, given that the game presents itself as a potential training and education resource, I’m being particular sensitive to its pedagogical (as opposed to entertainment) shortcomings.

Battle for Baghdad looks great, and can be fun. In the end, however—as with Saddam’s alleged WMD—something just isn’t there.

12 responses to “Review: Battle for Baghdad

  1. Michael Gentile 25/07/2014 at 2:03 pm

    The article mentions opportunity for redesign. Has anyone come up with specific hacks that add value to any level of play?

  2. Jon Compton 28/07/2010 at 1:41 pm

    Mr. Brynen makes some mention about game theory and it’s lack thereof in the game. Trainer At Large makes a valid observation about multi-level games in response. In truth, the game contains several game theoretical constructs (chicken, dollar auction). These inclusions were not accidental. The alliance rules even enforce Nash and Pareto optimal solutions within the context of overall strategies. Initiative bidding is set up as a dollar auction specifically to represent the sunk cost element involved, but they also set the price of Arms Bazaar cards, which describes the level of political clout purchased by the expenditure, and the level at which other would-be political operators must operate. The interplay of the initiative bidding structure, the alliance rules, and the selection of first player (and the relative political and military advantages and disadvantages that process implies) actually set up prisoner’s dilemma situations on a fairly regular basis.

    So while game theory is not a theory about games, it was certainly considered a great deal in the formulation of this particular game design.

    As one of the game designers, I also want to add that the game does, in fact, allow you to test actual political strategies, but these are done by the player’s choice, not enforced by the game system. We did exactly that in the development process of the game, but specifically chose not to straitjacket players into behaving like their real-life counterparts. The dilemmas, however, are very close to what we knew about the real-life ones at the time we designed the game (2004-2005).

    Regardless, I, for one, am very proud of this game, and am honored to have been a part of its genesis.

    I also get the impression that Mr. Brynen, whoever, Trainer At Large is, and myself may have attended some of the same conferences.

  3. Trainer At Large 22/06/2010 at 7:37 pm

    “Similarly, the game largely omits the dynamic of two and three-level games whereby parties are not only interacting with rivals, but with their constituents and external sponsors. ”

    Wow, did you even play the game? They interact with their constituents by collecting political points, and interact with their sponsors via the victory conditions.

    Game theory is not a theory about games.

  4. Trainer At Large 22/06/2010 at 7:33 pm

    Seems to me the system could only mirror the situation if players played in lock-step like their real-life counterparts, and with the same sets of capabilities. This is an unreasonable expectation, given that the game seems to allow players to execute any sort of strategy they like, and that it tries to emulate the uncertainty of the environment, more than the certainty of what’s already happened. And, again, the game was designed while the event was occuring, only 2 years after it began. Your insistance on a replication on the exact environment is unreasonable despite what the ad copy says. Also, I came to this discussion from seeing the rating you gave it at BBG. A 4.5 rating seems, frankly, petty given that your only probelm with the game is the advertising.

  5. Rex Brynen 22/06/2010 at 2:08 am

    First, I would like to thank the Battle for Baghdad design team, and everyone else, for their thoughtful and extensive comments. I should probably also mention at the outset that the review is meant to primarily focus on my evaluation of its educational and training value, not its enjoyability as a game.

    Battle for Baghdad certainly is based around the notion of bargaining, cooperation, and conflict. It isn’t the only game out there with negotiations built into it, of course: games from Diplomacy to Chinatown to Settlers of Catan involve this too. Does Battle for Baghdad do it better than others? In one important respect, yes: the differing victory conditions and potential for coalition play generate some interesting non-zero-sum play possibilities.

    On the other hand, do those play possibilities particularly mirror the situation in Iraq, or of civil war, COIN, or stabilization operations? Not so much, in my view. At a theoretical level, there are too many important aspects that are missing. The game rule that renders agreements made during the coalition phase binding throughout the game turn, for example, runs counter to the cooperation-under-anarchy and prisoners’ dilemma relationships of civil conflict. Similarly, the game largely omits the dynamic of two and three-level games whereby parties are not only interacting with rivals, but with their constituents and external sponsors. Finally, I don’t think that players particularly “replicate in the minds of the players the mindset of their real world counterparts.” Rather, we found a lot of what one play-tester called “gaming-the-game,” with actions taken regardless of how consonant that action was with the real-life behaviour of the actual parties.

    Considering the game as set in the “backdrop” of Baghdad, rather than attempting to actually replicate the Iraqi experience, would certainly offset many of the criticisms in my original review. So too would the idea that game moves can merely be metaphors for a variety of other things–that, in other words, a “terrorist attack” card used by the UN might really represent a UNICEF vaccination program, or an amnesty when played by the Iraqi government player. However, I don’t think this is exactly what the game box promises with its references to modelling the “real world situation” or “historical tactics.” This abstraction is also problematic from a learning perspective. If a WMD card (for example) has identical effects in the hands of all actors, how would students learn about the very different, asymmetrical capabilities, vulnerabilities, and constraints operating in either the Iraqi context or comparable cases of conflict? Without substantial pregame and postgame briefings, might they not draw quite the wrong conclusions about who does and does not do what (“the US uses WMD in Iraq!”) in the real world?

    Let me say again how much I appreciate MCS Group’s response above, even if I’m not swayed–at Paxsims we welcome constructive criticism of our constructive criticism. It certainly beats all those adbot-generated Viagra posts that the WordPress spam filters work so hard to keep out of the comments section! I’ll also resist the urge to comment further, instead leaving it open to everyone else to add something…

  6. Trainer At Large 21/06/2010 at 8:29 pm

    Have to agree with MCSG’s response. We played the game several times and saw immediately how it applies to the political situation. Agree that it’s short on the military sim aspect, but as a trainer who has to teach people how to play such games before they can be of any practical use, this game is somewhat of a Godsend. I disagree completely that it doesn’t hold up to its advertising. If anything, it exceeds it. The inovations in the design alone make it stand-out. It even has a dollar auction representing political positioning. Great stuff.

  7. Battle for Baghdad Design Team 21/06/2010 at 6:01 pm

    Thank you for the review of our new Battle for Baghdad game, and the kind comments regarding the Nicaragua game design. We would like to clarify Battle for Baghdad’s design and purpose. The game is not intended to be a military simulation of operations in the Iraqi capital, nor is it intended to reflect historical realities of the specific military aspects of the campaign. Rather, the game is more political than military, and the design intent was to place players in a situation of modern political conflict using the situation in Baghdad as a backdrop.

    Several examples exist of intense simulations of modern insurgency/counter-insurgency (see Nicaragua, Holy War: Afghanistan, SEALORDS). However, these often become number-crunching exercises. Although number-crunching has a place, it is not an appropriate tool in this situation. The idea in Battle for Baghdad is to replicate in the minds of the players the mindset of their real world counterparts. To this end, game functions are abstracted and concentrate on qualitative factors. In most other designs, qualitative factors often get short shrift.

    We all know how force-on-force works, so the combat model is very simple. Where it becomes complex is through the interplay of cards, which bring in many risk factors such as loss of a major command organization, or conceding large numbers of political points to the other side. Think of what happened with the US Marines in Beirut in 1982, or the Rangers in Mogadishu — a tactical success can have negative political ramifications. It’s also important to understand that many game mechanics are heavily abstracted concepts. Neutralization of a Command, for example, does not necessarily represent destruction of that command, but a degradation in its owning Faction’s capacity to act through that channel.

    We want players to be on the shifting sands of many chaotic factors, and have to use their skills to win through. Thus, players expecting the surety of calculating factors to insure success cannot help but be disappointed by this game design, just as they would be in the actual event. A bad hand of cards can be mitigated by forging the right strategic alliance. A player can lose a battle, but use a Collateral Damage card to draw a political victory from a military defeat. This is more of a game of poker than chess.

    Regarding lessons specific to Baghdad, we elected to open up a broader array of possibilities than those that occurred specifically in the event. Battle for Baghdad is not a history lesson. How could it be? It was designed while the events were still occurring. The game posits that the options available were greater than the sum of those actually taken. Thus, the game forces players to react to specific situations as the game unfolds with the tools that they have available, while still trying to execute a larger strategy.

    There is an audience for the game, and its interests and capabilities must be considered. We want people to be able to set it up and play in the course of an evening. This meant conflating many things down to a playable rules set (only four pages!) and a limited number of turns.

    For example, the Jihadi player has control of several divergent groups. These seeming anomalies are accounted for by things such as the Defection rule, which causes forces to switch sides. Look at Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan—the operation fizzled in large part because US command control broke down and different American-controlled forces went different ways. There are any number of ways these sorts of situations can be handled, but the defection mechanism is the easiest. Again, it’s an abstraction that represents an abundance of potential real-world possibilities, but distilled into a single metaphoric mechanism.

    “In Battle for Baghdad you gain political points by controlling turf and killing things, not by legitimizing government authority, addressing grievances, and building institutions for non-violent conflict resolution.”

    We believe that this statement epitomizes a severe misconception regarding what is going on in the game. When political points are placed on the map due to Arab Street cards, the point placement represents demands for services in that area. By deploying infrastructure and security to that area, you collect those points, which now represent political capital. The abstraction is that those deployments are made to address whatever demand or grievance is occurring. The entire mechanism represents exactly the process of legitimizing authority and addressing grievances.

    In the game you can build infrastructure and thus address grievances, which is what collecting political points generated by the Arab Street cards amount to. You can build institutions (infrastructure) as a cost-effective means to defend territory and gather political capital (points), but this is not forced on the players. Rather, it is one of several rational strategies one can employ. That controlling turf and killing things was used more frequently as a strategy represents the disposition of the players more so than that of the game.

    Using combat as a mechanism to gain political points directly tends to be very inefficient. This should be one of the lessons learned in the first play of the game. Combat inflicts casualties on both sides, and reacquiring and reallocating those assets tends to cost most, all, or more than the points gained from the combat itself.

    More specifically regarding legitimatizing government authorities, we have some disagreement here. This might have made sense during the Cold War era when fighting communist insurgents, but our interpretation of today’s conflict is that the government is only one player among many. A player of Battle for Baghdad has to look at other factions, and get them on your side, to win. This is the case today in Afghanistan as well, where the US is trying to force a government model that has little relevance to the conditions in country. It just may be that a tribal or religious-based solution is more appropriate. In the game, of course, you can align with the government, but this does not guarantee success, as we have found out. The answer may be in aligning with religious groups, or international NGOS, or even Jihadis. The game allows you to explore these options. History is rife with examples of where we have covertly allied with forces that we find otherwise unacceptable, so the notion of such alignments we felt had to remain a real possibility within the game. Abstraction, again, is the rule here. Prior to the invasion, there was a great deal of very good research that said we needed to bring Muqtada al-Sadr into the political fold very early, yet we elected not to for ideological reasons more than practical ones, and we paid a high price for that decision. A US/Jihadi alliance in the game does not necessarily represent a formal alliance with Al-Qaeda, but rather other more transient factors that may include manipulation and environment shaping.

    We hope you will give the game another look with these comments in mind. We believe that the game is in fact a highly useful tool for seminars and classrooms (and has successfully been used as such), provided you are trying to teach how to manage unfolding situations as opposed to teaching history about a specific conflict. Battle for Baghdad is definitely not a history lesson; it is a cognitive exercise in coping with chaotic situations where each player’s goals and actions must be tempered by the goals and actions of the other players. Should you elect to modify the game to be more specific to your particular understanding of the Baghdad situation, please do send us a copy of what comes out the other end. We would be more than happy to entertain the contribution as a variant of the game and offer it to appropriate parties.

  8. Rex Brynen 15/06/2010 at 1:11 am

    Brian, I think you’re absolutely right in what the game is, and isn’t. However, the publishers have set expectations otherwise: the game box blurbs describe it as “model[ling] the real world situation,” and allowing players to “test historical tactics.” The PR materials go even further, with reference to having made “Battle for Baghdad as representative of the situation as possible” and highlighting that it is “intended as an educational tool.” By those criteria, I don’t think it works.

    I do think I might set designing a more accurate game variant as a potential assignment for one of my Winter 2010 term courses, however–it would force students to look in depth at both Iraq and contemporary COIN doctrine, and it would be interesting to see what they come up with. I might even post the results to PaxSims!

  9. Brian Train 14/06/2010 at 7:08 pm

    Rex, thanks for your thoughtful review.
    I think Joe Miranda and the other people who worked on this design (full disclosure: though I have worked with Joe to develop several of his designs in the past, I didn’t do much more than play this one a couple of times while it was still in prototype and make some comments) may have intended the game design as a framework to hang player interactions on, and used the Baghdad setting as the “hook”, instead of meaning to present an intensive and detailed analysis of the kaleidoscopic Iraq situation. I think it does lend itself to extensive redesign, or at least development of different scenarios and situations.

    I would also note that the game was first designed in 2005/06, and took until now to reach its Pxxx break-even point and get published.

  10. Rex Brynen 13/06/2010 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks for the comment. However, it’s not really relevant to the subject of the post, which is about a conflict simulation boardgame–not the “online gaming industry.”

  11. 13/06/2010 at 3:41 pm

    Over the years, the online gaming industry, most products videogames for males in general. In fact, there are many games oriented towards the action of male protagonists. Currently, the video game industry opened its doors to women players and games are designed to meet the needs of female fans. However, games for girls are not like that model global game.

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