Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: November 2012

Syrian rebels sand-table their assault plans


Sand tables (whether purpose-built, or hurriedly scrawled in the dirt) have long been used within the military to provide a graphic representation of enemy positions and demonstrate an intended attack plans to troops—even, it seems, in Syria.

The still picture above (taken from the video below) shows members of the rebel Kita’ib Ahrar al-Sham (“Free Men of Syria Battalions”) planning a successful attack upon a Syrian government S-75 (SA-2) surface-to-air missile battery near Aleppo using a sand table, blocks, toy vehicles, and identifying labels to depict the SAM garrison.

h/t @LizSly and  @CrispinBurke

NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming (10 December 2012)

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defence University has announced that the next of their roundtable series on innovations in strategic gaming will be held at NDU (Washington DC) on December 10. Col Uwe Heilmann of the German Air Force will present on the use of commercial-off-the-shelf board wargames for leadership competence training, based on his work at NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Center. Dr. Scott Martin of George Mason University will present on Mason’s academic initiatives in computer game design, as well as an overview of the Serious Games Institute.

More details can be found here.

Red Team Journal: Mateski on “The Metagame”

Judging from Mark Mateski’s recent foray into the genre, wargamed-themed fiction is an idea whose time has come. In his thoughtful short story “The Metagame” at the Red Team Journal, he manages to addresses gaming, innovation, strategic evolution, and the nested logics of war.

I’ve posted an extended excerpt below, but you’ll need to go here to find out how it all ends.

AS A CHILD, Lewis B____ loved war. All year, he would long for Christmas, not for pudding or carols but for a tin of toy soldiers. It was all he ever asked for, and it was all he ever received.

As an adult, Lewis B____ loved war even more. Every evening on his way home from the factory, he would buy the daily metropolitan just to read the news from the front. He lived alone in a drab flat down by the wharf. No one ever visited, and Lewis preferred it that way.

But Lewis wouldn’t just read about skirmishes and dogfights; he would re-create them. His toy armies rivaled the real ones in number and variety. In every corner of his room, stacked to the ceiling, were carefully labeled tins and boxes, stuffed with miniature soldiers, sailors, and war wagons.

Every evening, he would unpack select units and reenact the battles of the day. Beneath the glow of a single lamp, Lewis would pore through the battle bulletins and extrapolate positions and tactics, his frayed and heavily annotated copy of C. F. G____’s The Science of Modern-Day War open on the floor beside him.

During the first months of the fighting, Lewis’ armies ably replicated the conflict. The war expanded, however, and the larger engagements soon overwhelmed his modest flat. He grew so frustrated at the massive landing at E____ Bay that for several days he didn’t unbox a single soldier. It was then that Lewis began to sketch the outlines of The Game.

For nearly a year, Lewis experimented with different cards, maps, and rules. At first, he despaired of ever being able to capture the complexity of conflict with anything short of an infinite deck. Some time during the middle of the second full summer of the war, however, he realized that The Game worked. He no longer had to bend the rules or add new cards to reenact even the largest engagements. What’s more, he realized that The Game clarified the actions of all players. Lewis had never before seen the clash of arms so clearly. In fact, no one had, not even the distinguished C. F. G____.

The Game in its eventual published form was actually quite simple: eighty-four cards organized into four suits—black, white, yellow, and red—plus four wild cards. Players alternated placing combinations of cards on a highly stylized map of the world.

LEWIS WAS A GENIUS. He was also a coward. As war spread across three continents, he fretted. Should he sell his game? If so, to whom? Should he burn it and retreat to his familiar toy soldiers? Some extra money would be nice, but nosey neighborhood monitors tended to frown on factory workers who thought above their station.

Against his better judgment, Lewis eventually confided in his brother, who knew a man who traded in trinkets—cheap baubles to prop up the spirits of children raised on privation and war. A game? He might be interested. Go see Pablo R____ on S____ Street. Lewis was skeptical, but curious and lacking any alternatives, he went.

Pablo R____ was less of a trader and more of a smuggler, or so Lewis suspected. Lewis showed him the hand-made game. Pablo shrugged. He might be able to sell it to an investor on the island—gangland territory. Lewis panicked. He fled the shop and returned the next day to discover that Pablo had sailed that morning, with The Game.

Pablo did find an investor, who discerned at least a fraction of The Game’s true value. Instead of marketing it to children, the investor sold it for a small fortune to an enemy princeling.

THE PRINCELING GAVE THE GAME to his field marshal who gave it to the head of the royal staff college, General V____, who played it for a week before proclaiming it to be “a paragon of martial sagacity.” General V____ commissioned the greatest painter in the land to design a version of The Game worthy of the general staff. Only ten numbered copies were ever published, each inlaid with gold leaf. They rarely left the general’s sight, and every night he locked them in a vault.

The general believed The Game could help him win the war, but—cautious like the old fox he was—he called the king’s greatest thinkers to a summit, where they tested, probed, studied, and dissected The Game for a month. At the end of the month, the royal mathematician proved that The Game was “a perfect facsimile of the infinitely variable cosmos”; the royal theologian declared The Game to be “a window into the mind of God”; and C. F. G____, who had retired to the kingdom on a hefty annuity, affirmed that The Game “perfectly embodied the principles I elucidated in The Science of Modern-Day War.” The chief royal spy (who was actually a spy for Lewis’ commonwealth) simply asked “What if The Game is a plant?” Everyone laughed.

Convinced The Game was legitimate, General V____ launched a training program. All general officers were required to be instructed on the workings of The Game within six months, other assignments permitting. Some grumbled, at least initially, but their objections waned when the battles began to turn. The princeling pinned medals on his field marshal and General V____ and issued execution orders for Pablo R____ and the initial investor, both of whom were fairly easy to trace. Through a series of improbable missteps, Lewis’ identity remained hidden, at least for a while….

simulations miscellany, 28 November 2012

As is our periodic habit, PAXsims brings you some recent simulations-related news that might be of interest to readers.

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At the Arms Control and Regional Security for the Middle East blog, Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova recounts the results of a simulated 2012 Conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)-Free Zone in the Middle East:

…a group of 25 United Nations Disarmament Fellows – young diplomats from all over the world – played out the last hours of the planned Middle East conference during a half-day simulation in New York on October 23, 2012. The simulation’s outcome may be too ambitious compared to what the “real” 2012 MEWMDFZ Conference is expected to achieve, considering that many observers still doubt if it would even convene this year (or ever). Certainly, to run a simulation one has to suspend the disbelief, and in this case, we assumed away one of the biggest perceived obstacles: getting all relevant states to attend. The simulation’s scenario thus was that all the Middle Eastern states, including Iran and Israel, showed up and did so in good faith, working toward a meaningful outcome. Unrealistic as they may appear, such exercises help explore what can be achieved if more political will is in place and, at the same time, highlight some of the more problematic aspects of reality.

Negotiating simulations can provide space for greater flexibility, imagination, and compromise. Specifically, by skipping over roadblocks such as lack of political will and direct communication between the major actors, simulations can help look for practical solutions that otherwise seem completely beyond reach. At the same time, simulations can raise new questions and draw attention to challenges that are overlooked or overshadowed by immediate concerns. In the case of the 2012 Middle East Conference simulation, assuming all parties’ participation and goodwill – the most immediate concern about the conference today – brought to the fore a number of other difficult issues. In this sense, the Middle East simulation held up a mirror to a rather harsh reality but did not leave the participants without hope.

For a more detailed report, check out the link above.

* * *

At Foreign Policy, Michael Peck offers readers an opportunity to “launch your own Gaza war” by playtesting a relatively simple boardgame that examines Israel’s response to the threat of rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Readers are then invited to provide feedback via the Foreign Policy website, for possible incorporation into a revised version of the game. The experiment was spurred by an earlier column by Michael, drawing parallels between the 2012 Gaza war and the 1944 V-1 blitz on London via the wargame War with a Vengeance.

I suspect some FP readers may be a little queasy about “gaming” a war so soon after the fact—even as a rather hardened wargamer who doesn’t blanche at  ongoing conflicts, I must admit to a little disquiet at trying to model a conflict in an area I know well, and with the death and destruction still very recent. Still, we’ll try to give the game a try on the weekend and post some thoughts as a way of exploring how design choices might try to capture essential real-life military and political-tradeoffs.

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The PC gaming website Rock, Paper, Shotgun had an interview earlier this month with (past PAXsims contributor) James Sterrett (Digital Leader Development Center, Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth) on professional wargaming. In it he offers some thoughtful reflections on—among other things—the requirements of military simulation and gaming, and the differences between this and most civilian/hobby wargames.

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On the subject of military games/simulations, Defense News (Michael Peck again!) reported on November 26 that TRADOC (Training & Doctrine Command of the US Army) has issued a directive “warn[ing] Army training centers against using unauthorized games, simulators and other training aids.”

TRADOC Policy Letter 21, signed in August by TRADOC commander Gen. Robert Cone, decrees that before any TRADOC organization may acquire or develop any games or training aids, devices, simulators and simulations (TADSS), it must contact the appropriate TRADOC capability manager (TCM) at the Combined Arms Center-Training at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

“The Army cannot afford TADSS that provide singular solutions or cannot be integrated with other TADSS in the integrated training environment,” Cone wrote. “We also cannot afford to have money diverted from other programs to support procurement of non-program of record, school-unique TADSS and high-licensing fees.”

The move has caused some concern:

A captain at an East Coast training installation fears that depriving local commanders of the freedom to procure training aids will stifle creative solutions.

“In the end, the memo will kill innovation and creativity as organizations seek to maintain the status quo within their shrinking budgets. All the letter reinforces is how the higher level managers are out of touch with where education actually takes place,” said the officer.

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BenthamFish’s Game Blog has a report by Alan Paull on a recent two-day workshop on games and systems thinking at the School of Transformative Leadership, Palacky University, in the Czech Republic:

Our focus for the workshop was on the learners learning about systems thinking. We intended to introduce how to play and think about the games through systems thinking techniques and vice versa

We alternated between playing the games and covering the theory illustrated by the games. We started by having plenary sessions for the theory, but found that getting responses from the whole group was difficult, as individuals were reluctant to speak. Therefore we switched to individual and group tasks, followed by discussions in which we could ask individuals to respond for the group. This worked very well.

Essential systems thinking concepts that we covered were:

  • Holism
  • Interconnectedness and relationships
  • Perspective
  • Purpose
  • Boundary
  • Emergent properties
  • Closed mechanical systems vs open living systems

And we introduced the following techniques:

  • Systems maps
  • Sign-graph diagrams
  • Control model diagrams
  • Very basic process model diagram
  • Systems model diagrams
  • Rich pictures

You’ll find more at the blog.

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At McGill University, we take preparedness for the forthcoming zombie apocalypse very seriously—we really do. However, a recent simulation revealed that only 50% of graduate students were likely to survive even basic academic activities like visiting the library should the campus be overrun by cannibalistic hordes of undead abominations. Clearly more practice is needed.

Gaming the Indian nuclear threat

One of the most frequently played political-military simulations of modern times has conclusively demonstrated that India poses an enormous threat to world peace. In particular, it seems that Gahndi is even more likely than Genghis Khan to initiate use of nuclear weapons.

As the Matt Gurney at the National Post reports:

On Thursday, The Globe and Mail‘s editorial board was roundly mocked online for writing an editorial condemning historical inaccuracies in the video game Assassin’s Creed 3. In that game, the player assumes the identity of great native American warrior, who fights British Red Coats to help the 13 Colonies break free of Britain’s rule during the American War of Independence. The Globe was annoyed, because native Americans sided with the British in that conflict. They took the opportunity to provide readers with a historical lecture on what really took place 236 years ago.

Anyone who feels that video games have a duty to be historically accurate should never settle in for a nice game of Civilization II (Civ2), a turn-based strategy game released in 1996. It would totally freak them out the first time Gandhi came along and hit them with a massive, unprovoked nuclear first strike.

But there was one exception to this rule: If I ever made contact with the Indian civilization, I’d marshal all my forces and set out to either conquer or exterminate them. Not because I have anything against India or Indians in real life. But because my (in-game) survival depended on it: Simulated-Gandhi, leader of the Indian civilization, was a nuke-happy psychopath.

It didn’t take long for fans of Civ2 to notice this … oddity. Simulated-Gandhi, known in real life for his peace-loving ways and promotion of non-violent resistance, really seemed to enjoy dropping nuclear bombs on his neighbours’ cities, often without provocation or apparent motive.

Whatever the reason, it made the game really bizarre. You’d spend thousands of “years” building your civilization. You’d build great wonders and found a dozen mighty cities. You’d build farms and roads and forts and send out ships to explore the seas. You’d engage in commerce and diplomacy with your neighbours, including India, perhaps never fighting a war. And then India would discover the technology to build nuclear bombs, and the next thing you know, WHAM. Thermonuclear Pearl Harbor. Without so much as a declaration of war, your biggest cities would go up in mushroom clouds.

It was like clockwork. It didn’t matter if you were friendly with India. It didn’t matter if you were trading partners. It didn’t matter if you were much more powerful, or much weaker, or located around the world. It didn’t even matter if you had your own nuclear stockpile to retaliate with. If India could build nukes, sooner or later, someone was getting vapourized. The only real way to handle this was to hit them first. Even if I encountered India in the game equivalent of the Bronze Age, I’d go after them with everything I had. It was the only way to avoid a nuclear holocaust later….

You’ll find more on the classic bug/feature at the Civilization Wiki. The AI values table below (for Civ5) is from here (click to enlarge).

Oil War: The “Unstable Gulf” variant

As promised in my recent review of Oil War: Iran Strikes, I have been thinking about ways in which the game might be modified. To be honest, much of the reason for designing variants is the simple geeky pleasure of tinkering with game designs. I’m not the only one who feels that way, either—there is a very active thread on the Consimworld forum discussing new game rules, units, and so forth. As someone who has a particular concern with the politics of the region, it is also interesting to try to to adapt the game so that it more fully reflects current and future political tensions in the region (albeit within the constraints of the game, map, topic, and counter mix). It also provides an opportunity to illustrate how game design necessarily forces one to think about how various military, economic, social, and political dynamics can best be modelled in a parsimonious (and playable) way. The relative simplicity of Oil War makes it more easily modifiable than many others. Hopefully, “(re)designing out loud” here at PAXsims also provides an opportunity to illustrate to a non-boardgaming audience one of the strengths of manual gaming, namely the much greater ease with which such games can be altered compared to their digital counterparts.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps T-72s on exercise (Press TV).

As the originally configured, the game involves Iranian intervention in a renewed Iraqi civil war, followed by a dash down the Arabian peninsula to capture the capital of at least one Gulf Cooperation Council state (as the GCC tries to slow down the Iranian juggernaut enough for powerful US reinforcements to arrive). While I can certainly imagine scenarios where Iraq tips into renewed civil conflict, and even scenarios in which Iran intervenes in Iraq, the GCC part of the war seemed to be rather implausible.

Compounding this “realism” challenge is a parallel game characteristic that might be labelled  the “Kuwait bottleneck” (or “GCC flypaper”) problem. The layout of the map (and geography) and the configuration of victory conditions means that too many games hinge on a slugfest in a small area around Kuwait, while the Coalition player can usually bog down any Iranian advance further south by deploying a checkerboard of weak GCC military units that Iranian forces must fight their way through.

The Scenario

Protests in Bahrain (AFP).

Hence the logic behind this variant, which adds a GCC preoccupation with domestic security in addition to the military confrontation in Iraq. Specifically it imagines a near future where Gulf monarchies look much less stable than today (an argument that has been made by University of Durham political scientist Christopher Davidson in his recent book After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies). In the proposed scenario the current political confrontation between the (Sunni minority) monarchy and (Shiite majority) opposition in Bahrain has reached the point of near civil war. The opposition, whose initial calls for democratic reforms were brutally crushed by Bahraini and GCC security forces in March 2011, are projected to have slowly grown in strength, and now seek to topple the royal family. The scenario also assumes generally rising Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions across the Middle East, aggravated by events in Bahrain and Iraq, systematic discrimination against the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, tensions between Hizbullah and the March 14 movement in Lebanon, as well as by the (future) success of the Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Asad. In Kuwait it is easy to imagine future political protests, especially given the real-life protests that the country has seen in recent weeks. In this case the source of tensions is not a sectarian one (although Kuwait does have a significant Shiite minority), but rather the continuing tug of war between the Emir and the opposition over elections, the role of parliament, and political reform.

In the revised scenario, the Arab Spring has made US policymakers reluctant to be seen too closely tied to authoritarian Gulf monarchies, especially when popular protests erupt. For its part the US public—while alarmed at Iranian intervention—is wary about getting too bogged down in another Gulf or Iraq war.

Finally, the scenario suggests that Iran is far from perfectly stable, the Iranian leadership was not entirely united around the decision to intervene. The Iranian public, which has sombre memories of the human carnage that was the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, isn’t entirely enthusiastic either. The Green Movement opposition—presumed to be still active , if largely underground—is hoping to use anti-war sentiment to mobilize popular support against the regime.

The original Oil War raises the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but leaves uncertain what its status is, and the issue has no real effect on the scenario or gameplay. I’ve maintained that ambiguity. Finally, I’ve added a little more detail on the actual path to war.

The resulting scenario doesn’t eliminate the prospect for an Iranian blitz into the GCC countries. However, it shifts the balance somewhat, with the Coalition player facing new trade-offs between whether to commit military forces to defence or internal security, on crushing the protests versus maintaining maximum US support, and as to how best to balance the external threat to Kuwait against the risk of a popular uprising in Bahrain.

The scenario setting thus ends up looking like this:

1.1 Game Premise

It wasn’t, in the end, the Iran’s nuclear program that brought military confrontation with the United States. Certainly the nuclear issue was a continuing source of tension. Israel continued to utter threats to strike at Iranian facilities. The US and its allies continued to place diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions on Tehran. For their part the Iranians continued to develop their nuclear capacities, but had thus far refrained from moving beyond 20% enrichment to produce weapons-grade uranium that could be used in a nuclear device. The covert campaigns of sabotage, assassination, cyberwarfare, and tit-for-tat retaliation had all continued too.

Instead, it would be a series of local political crises that would tip the Gulf into armed conflict.

Iraq’s August 2014 parliamentary elections had been deeply divisive, marred by sectarian tensions and political violence. While Iyad Allawi and his al-Iraqiyya party had won a narrow plurality by drawing upon both Sunni and Shiite voter support, many other Shiites had voted instead for rival parties: former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s “State of Law” coalition, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or the Sadrists. Prime Minister Allawi thus depended heavily on support from the Kurdish parties to maintain a majority in parliament, which only further angered the opposition. In response, these Shiite parties drew closer to Iran, which was quite willing to offer political support, funding, and even the occasional covert arms supplies.

The new Iraqi Prime Minister also sought to reorient Iraqi policy closer to the United States and Saudi Arabia. Coming so soon after another strategic reverse—namely the overthrow in Syria of former Iranian ally Bashar al-Asad by the predominately Sunni (and vehemently anti-Iranian) opposition—Tehran saw this as deeply threatening.

In Bahrain, the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy had, backed by its Gulf allies, continued its brutal crackdown against the Shiite majority. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and especially Saudi Arabia, were convinced that the reformist movement there was little more than an Iranian-backed plot. Sporadic protests among the long-oppressed Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province only heightened Riyadh’s concerns.

In July 2015, a little over a year after the elections, Iraq’s unstable politics worsened dramatically when a senior Shiite cleric was assassinated in Najaf by unknown gunmen. As each side quickly accused the other of complicity. Angry street protests erupted across the southern part of the country. Some security units mutinied, siding with the protesters. Fighting escalated further as ISCI and Sadrist militias joined with rebellious security forces to battle those loyal to the Allawi government.

On August 12, a powerful car bomb destroyed the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, killing the ambassador and more than a dozen staff. A second, in the southern city of Karbala, killed a visiting a Iranian cleric and several senior ISCI officials. That same day, the Iraqi Minister of Defence flew to Riyadh to discuss a possible defence relationship with the GCC countries. In Washington, the US announced stepped-up military aid to the tottering Iraqi government.

Three days later, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his annual al-Quds Day speech to declare that “the Islamic Republic of Iran could not and would not allow brotherly Iraq to once more fall into the clutches of an evil tyrant or his dark Satanic puppeteer.” Within Iraq  a joint “National Islamic Redemption Council for Iraq” was announced by opposition figures in Basra. It called for a popular uprising against Prime Minister Allawi’s government—and for external support.

Hours later, the first Iranian combat units crossed the border into Iraq. For the fourth time in less than four decades, the Gulf was at war.

Rules Modifications

Below I have listed all of the rules that need to be modified or added to make the scenario work . These should be compared with the original rules for Oil War: Iran Strikes, which can be downloaded via BoardGameGeek. The section numbers are consistent with the original rules, with the P.1 to P.7 sections being completely new.

Overall, I’ve tried to make very few changes to the military combat rules. This isn’t for a lack of possible tweaks—on the contrary, the discussion at the ConSimWorld forum offers all sorts of ideas on how to make the military order-of-battle and combat dynamics of the game more detailed or accurate. However, I wanted to focus attention largely on rules changes necessary for the politics of an “Unstable Gulf.”.

2.14 Other Counters

The uses of the following counters are explained at appropriate points throughout the rest of the rules.

Protest Marker (see 11.10)

Modification and rationale: Adds protest markers to the mix. These will need to be made up to play the “Unstable Gulf”—eight or so should suffice. Any other marker will do, as long as both players know what it means!

4.12  Bahrain

If at the end of the game Manama is under the control of Bahraini protesters, roll a d6. On a score of 3+ the Iranian player gains one VP.

Modification and rationale: A successful anti-government uprising by the (Shi’ite-majority) opposition in Bahrain—while not necessarily pro-Iranian—would nonetheless be seen as a major strategic threat by most (Sunni) GCC countries.

3.9 Protest Set Up

Place  a protest marker in Bahrain, Kuwait City, and any Saudi town or city (selected by the Saudi player). The effects of protest markers are described in 11.10.

Modification and rationale: The Gulf countries are suffering from a degree of political turmoil when the war begins.

5.2 Turn Sequence

The game turn sequence is given below in outline. The rest of the rules are organized, as much as possible, to explain things in the order they’re encountered as you go through each game turn’s sequence.

I. Iranian Player Turn
A. Iranian Combined Movement Phase
B. Iranian Basij Combat Phase
C. Iranian Artesh/RGC/Iraqi Insurgent Combat Phase

II. US/Coalition Player Turn
A. Non-US Coalition Movement Phase
B. Non-US Coalition Combat Phase
C. US Movement or Combat or Airpower Phase
D. US Combat or Movement or Airpower Phase
E. US Airpower or Movement or Combat Phase

III. Random Events and Protest Phase
A. Random Events Phase
B.  Protest Phase

IV. Mutual Replacement & Reinforcement Phase
A. Iranian Basij Replacement & Strategic Reserve Release Step
B. Saudi Reinforcement Step
C. US Reinforcement Step
D. Air Support Availability Step

Modification and rationale: A “Protest Phase” has been added during which time players will determine the eruption and spread of political protests. An “Air Support Availability Step” has also been added.

5.8 Syrian Movement & Combat

If Syria enters play (see 13.2), the movement of and attacks by its units always take place as part of Coalition steps II.A and II.B, respectively, in the outline above.

Modification and rationale: Syrian units enter the war on the Coalition side in this variant.

6.4 US & Coalition Stacking Particulars

On the US/Coalition side, US, Kuwaiti, Saudi, Bahraini, Qatari, UAE, Iraqi loyalist , Kurdish, and Syrian units may freely stack, up to a limit of four per hex. Multinational stacks suffer a one column shift penalty when attacking or defending, however.

Modification and rationale: Simplifies stacking rules, while addressing the command and control problems of multinational operations.

6.6 Syrian Stacking

If Syria enters play (see 13.2), it always does so on the Coalition side. They may free stack with other coalition units as outlined in 6.4.

Modification and rationale: Revises rule to be consistent with 6.4.

7.2 Geographic Restrictions

US units may enter any part of the map.

Iranian units may enter any part of the map except Turkey.

Saudi units are initially confined to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Once Iranian units (but not al-Qods Force missions) enter or attack any GCC country, they may enter all GCC countries as well as Iraqi hexes south of Basra (XX28 or higher). No more than half of all Saudi units may be outside Saudi Arabia at any one time. If this occurs a sufficient number of Saudi units must return to the Kingdom as quickly as possible.

The UAE unit is initially confined to the UAE. Once Iranian units (but not al-Qods Force missions) enter or attack any GCC country, or once there are two or more protest markers in any one GCC country, they may enter all GCC countries.

Kuwaiti, Qatari, and Bahraini units may not leave their own countries.

Turkish and Syrian units may only enter their own countries and Iraq.

Iraqi units may not leave Iraq. Kurdish units may not leave Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG).

Units may attack across the border of the region(s) to which they’re restricted. For example, Kuwaiti units may attack across their nation’s border into Iraq.

Modification and rationale: Adjusts geographic restrictions for simplicity and political plausibility. Situated so close to Iraq and Iran and with the bitter experience of the 1990-91 Gulf War, it seems unlikely that Kuwait would weaken its defences in a crisis by sending troops outside the country. The Bahraini and Qatari militaries are small and largely needed for internal security as well as to defend against the threat of Iranian attack. The Saudis also need to keep sufficient troops in-country to assure domestic security. The UAE “Peninsula Shield” force that is included is designed for joint GCC operations, hence allowing it to deploy elsewhere in the GCC (as it did to some extent in Bahrain in 2011).

11.10 Protests

A protest marker indicates the presence of protests in a given hex. It is not a unit. Protests are static and may never move.

Units of any nationality may be stacked with protests. Protests do not count towards stacking limits. Units may move on or through protests.However, the cost of entering or leaving a protest hex is increased by one for all units. This effect is cumulative, so that three protests would cause a penalty of three movement points.

In the case of the Abu Haddryah road/causeway, units may move normally as per rule 9.8 if there are fewer than two protests in the hex they wish to enter (3709 or 3810). They may not, however, cross if two or more protests are present in that hex.

US units may never voluntarily enter a hex containing a protest, although they may retreat into such a hex, and are not required to leave if a protest erupts in the hex they currently occupy. US reinforcements may not appear in a hex containing a protest.

Combat units in the same hex as protest suffer a 1 column shift penalty when attacking or defending.This effect is cumulative, so that three protests would cause a 3 column shift penalty. This does not affect attempts to suppress protests.

Modification and rationale: This rule introduces the effect of protests, which inhibit movement. The protesters may be anti-regime, but they aren’t necessarily pro-Iranian, so the effect is felt by all sides. Protests will also have some bearing on US reinforcements and random events.


P.1 Protest Phase

During the protest phase, test once each for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, and Iraq, unless the rules below state otherwise.

P.2  Kuwait Protests

Roll 2d6:

  • 2-8: no effect
  • 9-10: place a protest in Kuwait City
  • 11: place a protest in al-Ahmadi
  • 12: place a protest in a-Jahra

Exception: If Iranian forces are in or adjacent Kuwait or attacked Kuwaiti units this turn, do not roll for protests. Instead, the Coalition player may remove one protest from Kuwait.

P.3 Saudi Protests

Roll 2d6:

  • 2-7: no effect
  • 8: place a protest in Dahran
  • 9: place a protest in al-Hafuf
  • 10: place a protest in Ras Tannurah
  • 11: place a protest in al-Jubayl
  • 12: place a protest in Khafji

Exception: If Iranian forces are in Saudi Arabia this turn, do not roll for protests. If there are 10 or fewer Saudi units within Saudi Arabia, add 1 when rolling on this table. Do not place a protest in a Saudi town or city if a Saudi unit is present there.

P.4 Bahrain Protests

Roll 2d6:

  • 2-6: no effect
  • 7-9: place a protest in Manama
  • 10: place a protest in hex 3810
  • 11-12: place a protest in hex 3910

Exception: If Iranian forces are in Bahrain this turn, do not roll for protests.

P.5 Iran Protests

Roll 2d6, and add one for every three Iranian units lost this turn:

  • 2-11: no effect
  • 12+: anti-war protests erupt. Permanently remove one IRGC or Basij unit from the turn track or strategic reserve, as it is committed to internal security duties. If no unit is available, the Iranian player instead loses 1 VP.

P.6 Iraq Protests

Roll 2d6:

  • 2-3: The Coalition player must place a protest marker in Iraq in any town or city.
  • 4-10: no effect
  • 11-12: The Iranian player must place a protest marker in Iraq in any town or city.

P.7 Domino Effects

If a protest phase results in a protest being added to a hex where one or more protests are already present, opposition momentum builds. Place the protest, then roll one additional time to possibly place an additional protest in that same country. This process may be repeated multiple times.

Protests generated by al-Qods Force destabilization (11.1) do not cause domino effects.

Modification and rationale: This entire section is new, and it introduces protests that erupt during the game. Because anti-regime movements are not necessarily pro-Iranian (indeed, even the Shiite opposition in Bahrain has no fondness for the Iranian system), the Iranian player has little influence over where they appear. Protests in Kuwait represent non-revolutionary calls for political reform. Protests in Bahrian represent Shiite opposition efforts to topple the regime. Protests in Saudi Arabia generally represent the pent-up frustrations of the marginalized Shiite minority, although at times they might also be others critical of the regime. Protests in Iran indicated a resurgent Green Movement opposition. Protests in Iraq represent the chaos of the civil war.

10.31 Suppressing Protests

Any GCC unit may attempt to suppress protests within Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. Only Kuwaiti units may attempt to suppress protests within Kuwait. Any units may attempt to suppress protests in Iraq. Units attempting suppression must be in the hex containing the protest. Suppression takes place during the combat phase, in place of regular combat.

Add together the total combat factors suppressing the protests, and subtract the total number of protests in the hex. This gives the suppression differential. There are no column shifts.

Decide on the tactics to be used (brutal, regular, or cautious) then roll a D6. If brutal tactics are used, add one to the total. If cautious tactics are used, subtract 1. Consult the Suppression Table (below) to determine the result.

Suppression Differential
die roll -1 or less 0 +1 +2 or more
2 HR PS 1
3 PS 1 PS 1
4 PS 1 PS 1 PS 1
5 PS 1 PS 1 PS 1 PS 2
6 PC 1 PC 1 PC 1 PC 2
7 PC 1 PC 2 PC 2 PC 2

HR: Humiliating retreat, as protestors force back security forces. Add a second protest marker in the same location.

PS 1 (or 2): Protest suppressed, with little or no loss of life—remove one (or two) protest marker(s).

PC1 (or 2): Protest crushed, with significant loss of life—remove one (or two) protest marker(s). The Coalition player subtracts two when testing for reinforcements during the US Reinforcement Step. Treat this as a PS result instead if the Kuwaiti police unit participated in the suppression.

Modification and rationale: The Coalition player needs to suppress protests, but doing so comes with some risk. Excessive use of force by the authoritarian GCC states could generate a backlash in US and global public opinion, and complicate US reinforcement efforts. The GCC can minimize this risk by adopted cautious tactics, but these are less effective than more brutal ones at crushing dissent.

11.1 Iranian Al-Qods Force Markers

The Iranian player starts the game with three of these in the Turn 1 box, and one in the Turn 2 box. The markers represent covert missions by members of IRGC al-Qods Force.

Each turn the Iranian player must deploy the available Al-Qods Force markers in the current turn box to any of the four missions listed below. This may take place at any point during the Iranian player turn.

al-Qods Force markers that are eliminated are permanently removed from the game. Those that survive their missions, however, are replaced on the turn track during the Basij Replacement step (14.1) as if they were Basij units.

MISSION: Subversion. Place the al-Qods Force marker on on top of any single non-Kurdish militia unit (ie, one that is not stacked with other Coalition forces), and roll immediately:

  • 1-2: The angry locals turn on the Iranian emissaries. The al-Qods Force marker is permanently eliminated.
  • 3-4: No effect. Return the al-Qods Force marker to the turn track in the Basij Replacement Step.
  • 5-6: Iran guns, money, and diplomacy prove effective. The militia is flipped to its pro-Iranian side.  Return the al-Qods Force marker to the turn track in the Basij Replacement Step.

Once an subversion attempt is made against a unit, it may not be repeated for the remainder of the turn.

MISSION: Train and Equip. Place the al-Qods Force marker underneath a pro-Iranian militia. It does not count towards stacking limits. While it is still present, the militia gains a one column shift to the left when defending. In addition, that militia may now conduct attacks against neighboring hexes as if a normal unit, although it still may not move , not even to occupy a hex vacated by the enemy as a result of a successful attack. If at any time the militia is defeated, the al-Qods Force marker is permanently eliminated. Otherwise it may remain in place as long as the Iranian player chooses, or be returned to the turn track during the Basij Replacement Step.

Only one train and equip mission may be active in any given hex at any given time.

MISSION: Destabilization. Assign an available  al-Qods Force marker to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain. Immediately roll two d6:

  • If the total score is 5 or less, the effort backfired—the al-Qods Force marker is eliminated, and the Coalition player may instead remove one protest marker from that country.
  • Otherwise, implement the appropriate results (P.2, P.3, P. 4) as if it were the Protest Phase for that country. Return the al-Qods Force marker to the turn track in the Basij Replacement Step.

Once a destabilization attempt is made in a country, it may not be repeated in that country for the remainder of the turn.

MISSION: Sabotage. Roll a d6:

  • 1-2: The saboteurs are caught by alert sentries. The al-Qods Force marker is permanently eliminated.
  • 3-4: Mission aborted. Return the al-Qods Force marker to the turn track in the Basij Replacement Step.
  • 5-6: Mission successful. The coalition player subtracts two when testing for either reinforcements or airpower availability (Iranian player’s choice) during the US Reinforcement Step.

Once a sabotage attempt in a turn, no further attempts may be made for the remainder of the turn.

Modification and rationale: The rule has been completely rewritten to better reflect the sorts of covert activities undertaken by al-Qods Force, and to link more closely with the protest rules.

11.5 US Base Units

All these units may serve as entry hexes for all US reinforcement units other than MEU (see 14.10). Whenever US units defend in, or attack from, a hex containing a US base unit, their combat factors are doubled; however, that multiplication effect never extends to the combat factor of the base unit itself or to that of any non-US Coalition units that might be present. Also see the last paragraph of 10.27.

The US base indicated for hex 1303 (Irbil) is not placed on the map at the start of the game, but is rather placed in the US reinforcement pool. When drawn it may be placed in or adjacent to any friendly-control capital city, or in Dahran.

Modification and rationale: Resolves the issue of whether there is, or is not, a US base in Irbil (in reality there isn’t; the rules are ambiguous)—now that base unit is deployable, representing the establishment by US military personnel of a new US logistics hub at a regional port or airport. Also eliminates a reference to old stacking rules that have been superseded by revised rule 6.4.

13.2 Random Event 2: Syria Enters the War

Syria sends troops to aid the Coalition side. Each time this event occurs two Syrian units are immediately placed in west-edge hexes between 1001 and 1011, inclusive, by the Coalition player. No placement may occur in enemy-occupied hexes, but placement in EZOC is OK. Because of the negative effects of the Syrian civil war on Syrian military capabilities and logistics, the combat rating of the unit is variable regardless of the number printed on the counter. Roll d6 to determine the unit’s combat factor each time the unit is engaged in combat and halve this, rounding down if attacking and up if defending.

Modification and rationale: By the time the scenario takes place, the current regime of Bashar al-Asad has been overthrown in Damascus by the predominately Sunni opposition. Given Tehran’s previous backing of Asad, the new regime is strongly anti-Iranian.

13.3 Random Event 3: Wahhabi Zeal

Pro-regime clerics exhort Saudi citizens to fight against the Shiite menace. The Coalition player may remove one protest marker in Saudi Arabia. The Coalition side gains a one column shift for all attacks involving Saudi units this turn. All Saudi protest suppression efforts next turn must use brutal tactics.

Modification and rationale: Rule reflects widespread Saudi religious hostility to Shiism.

13.4 Random Event 4: Lebanese Complications

Lebanese politics is complicated, it really is. Roll a d6:

  • 1-4: Hizbullah provides covert assistance to the al-Quds Force. Place an additional al-Quds force marker on the turn track for next turn.
  • 5: Tensions mount between and Hizbullah the anti-Hizbullah “March 14” coalition. Diverting resources to support its Lebanese ally, the Iranian player permanently loses the next available al-Qods Force marker from the turn track (if any).
  • 6: Israel and Hizbullah clash. Move all al-Qods Force markers one turn further along the turn track as Iran waits to see how the Lebanese conflict develops. The US must subtract one from the reinforcement and air availability rolls this turn as it too monitors the situation in the Levant.

Rationale for rule change: Hizbullah works very closely with both the IRGC (including al-Quds Force) and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and likely provides cadres for some external operations. On the other hand, Hizbullah’s position in Lebanon is likely to be weakened by any regime change in Damascus, and the close relations between the new (Sunni-dominated) Syrian government and the (Sunni-led) March 14 coalition in Lebanon. Finally, Israel could take advantage of Iranian intervention in the Gulf to have a go at Hizbullah, or vice-versa.

13.5 Random Event 5: Coalition of the Willing

If there are two or fewer current protests in GCC states, Britain, France and other Western allies send combat aircraft to Gulf to assist US efforts. Add one to all future air support availability rolls. This effect may be rolled more than once during the same game.

Modification and rationale: Replaces previous rules that doubled or eliminated US air attacks for a turn, shifts this dynamic into the air availability roll, and makes European support contingent on the political context.

13.6 Random Event 6: Kuwaiti Political Crisis

If there are three or more protests in Kuwait, roll a d6:

  • 1-2: The Emir suspends parliament and declares martial law. Remove any one protest in Kuwait (Coalition player’s choice). Subtract one from all future US reinforcement rolls. Treat this as “No Event” if Kuwait Political Crisis rolled again during the same game.
  • 3-5: The crisis drags on. Subtract one from the US reinforcement roll this turn.
  • 6: The Emir announces major political reforms. Remove all protests. Add three to the US reinforcement roll this turn. Non-Kuwaiti GCC units must leave Kuwait as soon as possible, and may not reenter. Treat this as “No Event” if Kuwait Political Crisis rolled again during the same game.

Modification and rationale: Raises the possibility of the war contributing to political changs in Kuwait, which in turn affects US commitment.

13.7 Random Event 7: Bahrain Erupts

Place a protest marker in Manama.

Roll a d6. Add the number of protests in Bahrain, and subtract the total combat value of GCC units in the country.

  • 3 or less: The regime remains in control. One protest is removed (Coalition player’s choice).
  • 4: Heavy fighting breaks out. One protest and one GCC unit are removed (Coalition player’s choice).
  • 5 or more:  The royal family is toppled. Treat this as “No Event” if Bahrain Erupts again during the same game.

If the regime is overthrown, place the flipped Bahraini unit on Manama to represent a Bahrain opposition militia unit, having retreated any other Coalition units from Manama to make room. Neither Iranian nor Coalition troops may enter Manama while it is under opposition militia control. GCC and Iranian (but not US) units may attack it.Iranian al-Qods Force missions may be used to try to influence the militia to become Iranian-controlled.

If Manama comes under Iranian control, Iranian ASR and NDC units in strategic reserve attempting to land in Bahrain add two to their rolls on the Iranian Airborne and Amphibious Movement Table (11.4), Iranian Airborne units may move within the country as if they were regular Iranian units, and Iranian units in Bahrain count as in supply (7.4).

Regardless of outcome, television coverage of the Bahraini crisis weakens Western support for the GCC. Subtract two from the US reinforcement roll this turn.

Modification and rationale: the scenario envisages a Bahrain with an increasingly radicalized Shiite opposition, on the brink of civil war. The GCC will need to reinforce the Bahraini security forces, or risk losing it. This is an important random effect, and fear of it is likely to significantly shape Coalition behaviour.

13.8 Random Event 8: Social Media

Images and reports of Gulf protests go viral, shaping regional and international opinion. If there are three or more protests currently on the map, subtract one from the US reinforcement roll this turn during the US Reinforcement Step, and add one to all protest rolls (P.2 – P.6) during the Protest Phase.

Modification and rationale: Suggests that post-Arab Spring US support for Gulf States may be affected by human rights concerns. This rule also attempts to replicate the impact of satellite television and the internet during the Arab Spring of 2011. While in this case it seems unlikely that the two main Arabic satellite news channels, Al Jazeera and al-Arabiyya, would be reporting on Gulf protests given that they are Qatari- and Saudi-owned respectively, this could be offset by the high rates of internet penetration and social media use in the Gulf region.

13.9 Random Event 9: UN Ceasefire

The UN Security Council considers a ceasefire resolution. The US player may choose to veto this resolution, in which case it counts as “No Event.” Otherwise:

  • If the Coalition player attacks this turn, the number of VP the Iranian player needs to win at the end of the game is decreased by one.
  • If the Iranian player attacks this turn,  the number of VP the Iranian player needs to win at the end of the game is increased by one.
  • Players may move and suppress protests as normal, and al-Qods Force missions may continue without restriction.

Modification and rationale: Modifies the UN random events in the original rules to more accurately reflect US strength (and Iranian weakness) in the United Nations Security Council.

13.10 Random Event 10: Major Sandstorm

The US player should immediately make a second die roll. On a one through three, he immediately places the Sandstorm marker in any hex on the map; on a result of four through six, the Iranian player places it. The effect of the marker lasts until the start of the next Random Events Phase: there may be no combat (including airstrikes) in its hex or in any hexes within two hexes of it, and movement costs within this area are doubled.

Modification and rationale: Reduces the frequency and severity of sandstorms.

13.11 Revolutionary Fervour

Inspired by exhortations from the Supreme Leader, the Iranian side gains a one column shift for all attacks involving the IRGC or Basij next turn. Alarmed by this, all GCC units must opt for brutal tactics when suppressing protests next turn (10.31).

Modification and rationale: Modifies the original Event #11 which called for Iranians to rally around the reappearance of the 12th (Hidden) Imam—an effect that seemed somewhat akin to giving US combat forces a shift because someone had declared themselves the second coming of Jesus Christ.

13.12 Random Event 12: Turkey Enters the War

Turkey enters the war on the Coalition side—immediately deploy all Turkish units in hexes of that country (EZOC OK). If rolled again during the same game, Turkey gets cold feet about intervention—immediately remove all Turkish units from the game. In the unlikely event that this event is rolled a third time, Turkey enters the war once again on the Coalition side (and so forth).

Modification and rationale: The original rules allow for Turkey to intervene on the Iranian side, which seems completely implausible.

14.5 US Reinforcements Step

At the start of the US Reinforcements Step the Coalition player rolls 2d6 to determine the arrival of US ground combat units. Add and subtract any modifiers arising from al-Qods Force sabotage (11.1), protest suppression (10.31), or Random Events (13.2-13.12). Subtract one if no Iranian units have yet entered a GCC country. Add one if it is game turn 5 or later:

  • 4 or less: No US reinforcements are drawn.
  • 5-9: One reinforcement chit is randomly drawn from the reinforcement pool.
  • 10 or more: Two reinforcement chits are randomly drawn from the reinforcement pool.

Such reinforcements are immediately entered into play as described in 14.6 – 14.10 (and also see 14.3 and 11.7). Normal stacking limits apply during all such placements and arrival in hexes containing EZOC is OK.

Modification and rationale: US “boots on the ground” are now affected by conditions in GCC countries, both for logistical reasons (protests might hamper transportation) and political reasons (protests and repression might undermine US and Western public support for the GCC states).

14.11 Air Support Availability Step

At the start of the Air Availability Step the Coalition player rolls 2d6 to determine the availability of air attacks next turn. Add and subtract any modifiers arising from al-Qods Force sabotage (11.1) or Random Events (13.2-13.12). Subtract one if no Iranian units have yet entered a GCC country. Add one if it is game turn 5 or later:

  • 4 or less: No US air attacks next turn.
  • 5-9: One US air attack next turn.
  • 10 or more: Two US air attacks next turn.

The US does not receive an airstrike for the first game turn.

Modification and rationale: The build-up and employment  of US airpower is now affected by political conditions in GCC countries, although much less so than the deployment of ground combat units.

* * *

Note that while the game revisions above still envisage a two player game, it could be easily played as three by splitting the Coalition side in two. This would give you Iran versus the US (including Iraqi loyalists and possibly Turkey) and GCC (including possibly Syria). One can even imagine some squabbling between the US and GCC players over appropriate strategy. Further rules revisions might even involve slightly differing victory conditions for the two Coalition players to encourage some dissension.

* * *

Update: I’ve now playtested the “Unstable Gulf” variant rules. You’ll find the results here. The rules can also be downloaded as a pdf (minus the explanations for each modification) here.

Israel vs Iran: The first 48 hours

In September the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel conducted a large-scale wargame/crisis simulation of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yesterday they issued their summary report on the exercise.:

After midnight on November 9, al-Jazeera reports that Israeli airplanes have attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities in three waves of attack. As reports multiply, Israel officially announces it has attacked Iran’s nuclear sites because it had no other choice. According to the scenario, Israel did not coordinate the attack with the United States in advance, and only informed the US once the planes were already en route to the Iranian targets. Initial assessments estimate that the Iranian nuclear program has been set back by nearly three years.

Following the successful attack, Iran decides to react with maximal force, launching missiles from within its borders and urging its proxies – Hizbollah, Hamas, and other radical elements – to attack Israel. Nonetheless, it is careful to avoid attacking American targets. Israel attempts to contain the attacks and works to attain a state of calm as rapidly as possible. The international community is paralyzed, largely because Russia tries to exploit the situation for its own strategic objectives. At the end of the first 48 hours, Iran continues to attack Israel, as do their proxies, albeit to a lesser extent. At this point in the simulation, the crisis does not seem to be close to a resolution.

What is unusual about this Israel-Iran wargame is, as we noted a few days ago, that the simulation was also filmed by the UK Channel 4 current affairs show Dispatches. The resulting 27 minute documentary aired tonight in the UK. (UK viewers that missed it can still watch the video via the Channel 4 website, but those elsewhere are out of luck unless they know how to use a proxy server.)

According to the Channel 4 production team, they were rather taken aback by how easy the Israelis thought it would all be:

And that seemed to sum up the game: ‘Israel’ doing pretty much what it wanted – with little or no consequences. By the end of the proceedings, the picture of almost total ‘Israeli’ victory was clear: ‘Iranian’ retaliation had been limited; ‘Irans’ attempts to get others to enter the conflict on its behalf had largely failed, as had its attempts to get ‘Egypt’ to cancel its peace accord with ‘Israel’.

‘Tehran’ failed to have the sanctions on it removed and also failed to have sanctions passed on ‘Israel’ in the Security Council. A strike against ‘Iran’, it seemed, could be an almost unqualified success.

While it is possible to read the simulation in this way, it seems to me that the INSS wargame actually pointed to some rather complex and important issues related to Iranian retaliation.

  1. Iran has only a limited capacity to inflict direct damage on Israel, largely through its ballistic missile force (which would have to penetrate Israel’s dual-layer Arrow and Patriot ABM defences.)
  2. Iran could press its Hizbullah client in Lebanon to attack Israel with shorter-range rockets (of which it has tens of thousands) and other methods, but Hizbullah might be reluctant to do so for fear of sparking a major Israeli military campaign in Lebanon, especially at a time that its Syrian ally is engulfed in civil war. Dragging Lebanon into war at Iran’s behest would also damage Hizbullah’s domestic and regional political standing. The Iranians know this too, so much would depend on whether they wanted to take the risk, and how hard they were prepared to push Hizbullah to act.
  3. On the Palestinian side, Hamas has a much more distant relationship-of-convenience with Tehran, and would be even less likely to want to risk an unpopular major war on Iran’s behalf. Iran would have rather more influence over the very much smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which might fire off some rockets until Hamas decided to intervene.
  4. Iran could target Arab Gulf states, US facilities in the Gulf, or oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz. This would risk dragging the US into a shooting war, however—with even greater costs to the Iranians.
  5. In the longer term the Iranians have a number of other indirect retaliatory options, including attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and stepping up their involvement in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere. However these largely lay outside the 48 hour timeframe of the game

One needs to be very careful about that “48 hours timeframe,” therefore, in assessing the policy implications of the game. The game does not assess whether the Iranians choose to rebuild their nuclear facilities after the attack, much less whether they might decide to develop a much more serious nuclear weapons program than the one they have at present. The game does not assess possible Iranian retaliatory actions in the weeks and months ahead, and the potential for escalatory tit-for-tat. Indeed, the concern that while a war with Iran would be easy to start it would be much harder to end seems to underpin much of the opposition that the Israeli national security establishment has shown to the idea of an attack.

Needless to say, this game has been added to the fourteen others now listed at the Israel vs Iran Wargame Compendium.

h/t Charles Cameron

Peck on “Washington’s War on Wargaming”

Pentagon budget-cutters descend upon NDU.

At Kotaku today, Michael Peck decries the Pentagon decision to cut funding for National Defense University, and especially the Centre for Applied Strategic Learning:

The only thing that’s cheap about war is the gaming. The US military services and their assorted war colleges, the Department of Defense and various thinktanks do quite a bit of wargaming of potential conflicts such as Iran. Compared to a billion-dollar aircraft carrier, wargaming isn’t terribly expensive (all you really need is a table, chairs, coffee and danish, and PowerPoint). It’s a lot less expensive than learning the hard way in war.

Now, to the military, wargaming doesn’t mean games. It’s actually an analytical technique in the Military Decision Making Process, which essentially means analysing the likely outcomes of various choices and then making the best one. Nonetheless, what Joe Gamer thinks of as wargames — simulations involving players, maps, playing pieces and goals — is done by the military.

But one bastion of military wargaming is under assault. National defence University, at Fort McNair in Washington DC, is the Pentagon’s flagship for joint professional military education. It’s where officers leave the cloistered world of their individual service and come together to study joint high-level strategy and operations. “Jointness” is a fuzzy word but an important concept. Though sometimes the American military services seem to be at war with each other, modern warfare is a combined endeavour; the army needs ships and planes to get overseas, the navy needs the army because ships can’t occupy territory, and the air force provides an umbrella for both (and needs both to protect its airfields).

A vital part of that training is the centre for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL), which conducts wargames for military and civilian personnel, Congressional staffers, and even a journalist like me, who had a chance to play the Gemstone counterinsurgency game.

But NDU’s budget is being slashed by Pentagon staffers who believe that the college is too expensive, wasteful and is doing too much namby-pamby intellectual education instead of focusing on real military education. CASL is being chopped by half, which means a much less robust wargaming capability. Though all of the military is feeling the pain of budget cuts, what is happening to NDU and CASL is an example of the military mind at its narrow worst….

Michael has weighed in on this before, in a piece back in August at Foreign Policy. We agree with him, too—see our earlier take on the situation at NDU.

Picture above: The Gamer’s Table blog.

Review: Oil War—Iran Strikes

Oil War—Iran Strikes. Decision Games/Modern War magazine/Strategy & Tactics Press, 2012. Designer: Ty Bomba. $30.00 (including magazine).

Iraq’s 2014 parliamentary elections had been deeply divisive, marred by sectarian tensions and political violence. While the winning al-Iraqiyya party had drawn on both Sunni and Shiite voter support, many Shiites had voted instead for al-Dawa, the Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq, or the Sadrists. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had thus depended heavily on support from the Kurdish parties to maintain a majority in parliament, which only further angered the Shi’ite opposition parties. His relations with neighbouring Iran were marked by mounting tension too, as Tehran grew increasingly concerned at the new government’s efforts to strengthen ties to the United States. 

A little over a year after the elections, Iraq’s unstable politics tipped into crisis when a senior Shiite cleric was assassinated in Najaf by unknown gunmen. As each side accused the other of complicity, angry street protests erupted in the southern part of the country. Some security units mutinied, siding with the protesters. Fighting broke out as ISCI and Sadr militias joined with rebellious security forces to battle those loyal to the Baghdad government. Iran threw its political weight behind the opposition, providing them with weapons and money.

Washington hurriedly dispatched US military personnel to Irbil at the request of the Kurdish Regional Government, hoping that such a deployment would deter further Iranian interference.

In Tehran, however, the move was seen as a further provocation. On 17 August 2015, the Supreme Leader announced during his al-Quds Day speech that Iran “could not and would not allow brotherly Iraq to once more fall into the clutches of an evil tyrant and his Satanic puppeteer.” The following day, a “Popular Provisional Government of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq” was announced in Basra. It called for both a popular uprising against Prime Minister Allawi’s government, and for  “support for the people’s Islamic revolution in Iraq.”

Hours later, the first Iranian combat units crossed the border into Iraq. For the fourth time in less than four decades, the Gulf was at war.

And so it was (and with very considerable political embellishment on our part of the game’s otherwise very brief scenario description) that we began our first game of Oil War: Iran Strikes, included in issue #2 of Modern War magazine. I was playing Iran and its Iraqi allies, whereas my son David was playing the US, Iraqi loyalists, KRG, and Gulf Cooperation Council countries. While random events make it possible that Syria or Turkey might enter the war too, that didn’t happen in our game.

The game comprises of a 22×34″ map, 228 counters, and a 16 page rulebook. It bills itself as “an update and expansion of the classic old-SPI Oil War game from the mid-1970s,” and while there are very significant differences in game mechanics (notably with regard to air power and airlift/logistics), it nonetheless does very much have that classic 1970s wargame look-and-feel. Iran wins if they can capture four capital city hexes (Baghdad counts as two), while the US wins if it can hold the Iranians to only two—although these victory point requirements can change as the game progresses. Unites represent fairly generic brigade, divisional, or even corps formations, while each turn represents three days of real time.

The Game

The game starts by determining the loyalty of Iraqi military and militia units: will they side with the government, or join the Iranian-backed revolt?

In the Baghdad area, to the west, and in Kurdish areas to the north most units refuse to join the uprising. In the south, the revolution was more fortunate, with many of the red militia counters flipping to their green, pro-Iran, side.

The Supreme Leader has approved my war plan. One column of our forces would cross into Kurdistan and secure Irbil. Our main force will liberate Baghdad on behalf of the Popular Provisional Government of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. A third force will take up positions along the Kuwait frontier. Finally, in a daring move, Iranian paratroops and marines will land in Qatar, in a risky attempt to destroy the CENTCOM forward headquarters at al-Udeid Air Base. If successful the assault will throw American reinforcement plans into chaos—and secure us additional victory points both for Doha and destroying the American facility.

DAY 1: Iranian forces, lead by elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) units, soon reach the outskirts of Irbil and launch a successful assault in Baghdad. Units headed towards the Kuwait border are slowed, however, by the stubborn resistance of a single loyalist brigade of Iraqi troops. (Picture right: Iran’s opening move—note the one red counter in the south blocking the black IRGC units).

Iranian airborne troops en route to Qatar are intercepted and shot down. Iranian marines to make it ashore, but are eliminated by Qatari and US troops after a bloody battle.

The US sends elements of an airborne Brigade Combat Team to Irbil to reinforce the city’s Kurdish defenders.

DAY 4: An Iranian assault captures Irbil, eliminating US troops there. Iranian offensive actions along the Kuwaiti border achieve little, however. A US Marine Expeditionary Unit arrives to reinforce Kuwait.

The US heavy Brigade Combat Team based in Kuwait begins localized counterattacks, inflicting heavy casualties. Iraqi loyalist troops regroup west of Baghdad.

DAY 7: Coalition airpower begins to make itself felt in a substantial way, slowing Iranian movement. Mosul falls to Iranian troops. However, a surprise counter-offensive by Iraqi loyalist troops retakes northern Baghdad. Saudi troops begin to reinforce Kuwait positions along the frontier, and threaten to turn the western flank of the Iranian advance.

We forgot, at this point, that the rules don’t permit Saudi troops to enter Iraq. Oops.

DAY 10: Iranian forces, including mass human-wave assaults by Basij reservists, once more recapture Baghdad. A strong force of Iranian mechanized troops counterattacks against the Saudis, pushing them back. US airborne elements deploy to strengthen Saudi positions.

DAY 13: Iranian troops continue to move south to reinforce their faltering attack against Kuwait. However, a second US MEU arrives as the build-up of US forces continues.

DAY 16: A major assault by US troops against IRGC forces in southern Iraq is unsuccessful. However, with their movement interdicted and their supply lines under growing US air attack, the combat effectiveness of Iranian troops is declining. A US medium BCT arrives in Kuwait.

DAY 19: A call by the United Nations Security Council for a ceasefire is briefly observed by both sides, who use the lull to reinforce their positions.

DAY 22: Supported by airstrikes, US forces lead a major counter-attack. While Marines, airborne forces, the medium BCT and allied troops eliminate IRGC forces west of Kuwait, the heavy BCT cuts through the Iranian frontline to the north. (Picture, right: IRGC forces west of Kuwait surrounded and near elimination, while US forces also push on to Basra. Strictly speaking the small Bahraini, UAE, and Qatari contingents fighting in the area shouldn’t be there, but at this point we had decided to further relax the geographic restrictions rules in order to see some real Gulf Cooperation Council cooperation.)

DAY 25: Iranian Basij reinforcements deploy to protect Basra, but it is too little, too late: the US heavy BCT fights its way into the city, capturing it. Other US forces move north to join the American spearhead.

DAY 28: As the Iranians draw up a new defensive line south of Baghdad, the Americans push northwards. With their movement and supply lines under constant US air attack , however, Iranian units can only move slowly. For their part, US forces find their progress northwards slowed by both the terrain of southeastern Iraq and various pro-Iranian militia units along the way.

And thus the game ended with the end of Turn 10.. With Iran holding three victory points (Baghdad x2, Irbil) but needing four, the result was a draw.

The Game Review

Oil War—Iran Strikes offers a very general and easy-to-play representation of a future strategic environment, and certainly doesn’t make any claim to offer the much finer-grained military detail of, for example, Gulf Strike (3rd edition, 1990) or the intricate airstrike targeting of Persian Incursion (2010). Airpower is modelled through the simple but effective expedient of gradually reducing the mobility and combat effectiveness of Iranian units as the game progresses, although the US/coalition player is also allowed to conduct one air strike per turn against a stack of enemy units. Supply rules are simple too, depending on a combination of geographic restriction (for the Coalition) and control of key transportation nodes (for Iran), rather than any requirement to trace lines of supply back to a supply source.  To represent the superior command, control, intelligence, flexibility and maneuverability of US forces, American units are allowed to ignore enemy zones of control and freely maneuver around them. US units may also choose to act at any point in the game sequence, including part way through the Iranian player’s movement or combat.

The scenario is also far vaguer than I’ve painted above, simply suggesting either a “near future—2013 through 2017—in which the Iranians may indeed have developed some kind of military nuclear capability” and harbours regional hegemonic ambitions, while the US has fallen back into a more isolationist posture, or, alternatively, a “possible Iranian reply to a US and/or Israeli precision aerial campaign against their nuclear facilities.” Oil War rather overestimates, in my view, the ability of the Iranian military to launch major offensive ground operations much beyond its borders, and especially Iran’s ability to mount airborne and seaborne operations across the Gulf. Then again, if it didn’t do this it really wouldn’t make for much of a game.

As a game, I certainly enjoyed it. The themselves rules are brief and straight-forward, although in a few places they could be more clearly written. (There are also a few errors in the rules or on the tables printed on the map, so be sure to check the errata). Since some aspects of the military campaign become rather predictable—Baghdad always falls to Iran, Kuwait always becomes a critical objective and choke-point, Iran usually tries a surprise amphibious/airborne operation against Qatar or Bahrain at the start of the war— so I’m not sure how well it would stand up to too much repeat play. A game takes about two hours.

The accompanying Modern War magazine contains a short game design commentary, a backgrounder article on Iran and the military balance in the Gulf, and unrelated articles on the fighting at Fire Support Base Mary (during the Vietnam war), the Israeli order of battle at the Battle of Chinese Farm (during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war), and profile pieces on various weapons systems.

Useful in the Classroom?

There are some insights that might be gleaned from student play of Oil War, especially with regard to the security concerns of the GCC countries—although the game’s abstraction of air and naval power might be rather limiting in that regard. It does highlight the challenges facing the US in rapidly reinforcing Gulf allies with ground forces, and why Washington has chosen to pre-position American military equipment in the region. The game doesn’t really have much political element at all, besides randomly-generated events.

Where I think the game would be most useful, however, is not so much in whatever specific strategic insights it might or might not offer, but in how easily students could learn the basic game mechanics, play it, and then be invited to modify Oil War to reflect more detailed scenarios or highlight particular operational and strategic challenges in the Gulf. For example:

  • Some of political and alliance assumptions could be rewritten. It is hard to imagine the Turks entering the conflict on the Iranian side, for example, as the present rules allow. Similarly,  a future post-Asad Syria would likely lean heavily towards the anti-Iran coalition, and have much less in the way of military forces to contribute.
  • The random events could be changed. (Random event #11—“The 12th Imam Appears”—is a particularly problematic rendering of both Shi’ite religious belief and Iranian politics.)
  • The game could be transformed from a two player game into a three player game, with the separate but allied players controlling US and Gulf Cooperation Council forces. If combined with slightly differing victory conditions, this could lead to some quite interesting coalition challenges.
  • The political setting could be changed to imagine a somewhat less stable Gulf—with pro-democracy protesters in Kuwait, and a restive Shi’ite population in Bahrain and the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia. Protests might erupt in towns and cities, requiring the GCC player to divert military resources to quickly quell them. In turn, violent repression of reformist protests might adversely affect US willingness to assist its Gulf allies.
  • The current randomly-generated system of US reinforcements could be changed, so that it requires more of the preplanning associated with current US security guarantees for the region.
  • Finally, elements of the movement, combat and supply system could be changed.

The point here is that because of its topical contemporary focus and ease of play, Oil Strike could work rather well as an “introductory” strategic game intended to get students thinking about game design in general, as well as how best to represent the contours of possible future security challenges in the Gulf. If time allows, I might even post a three player/Gulf protests variant to PAXsims.

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Update: You’ll find my “Unstable Gulf” variant of the game posted here. It is still a two player game, but could easily be played with three (Iran, US+Turkey, GCC+Syria).

IR theory and virtual worlds

At the Bretterblog, Felix Haas asks (in the original German, or in English via Google Translate) a very good question—why haven’t more political scientists used interaction within massive multiplayer online games to study theories of international relations?

I’m certainly aware of very little work in this area, although one of our recent PhD graduates in psychology, Michael King, did use my annual civil war simulation at McGill to examine possible relationships between personality type and the use of violence. You’ll find a few of his findings here (there’s more in his actual PhD thesis).

For one attempt to connect IR theory and multiplayer online simulation, have a look at the Teaching with Statecraft blog, which discusses how to teach international relations using Statecraft. Statecraft is a multiplayer strategy-and-resource game for classroom use, with a rather Civilization look-and-feel: players develop productive assets, trade, build (and use) military forces, engage in espionage and terrorism, research technologies, and so forth. In many ways, therefore, it is similar to Brock Tessman’s International Relations in Action manual/book-based simulation, but with the greater complexity that a computer enables. It is also different from the Open Simulation Platform in that it is much, much less scriptable, and has most interactions automated through programmed algorithms (rather than having these determined by the moderator). The Statecraft website contains a number of useful suggestions as to how classroom game play can be used to illustrate key theories in international relations, as well examples of course outlines, class lectures, and assignments that integrate the simulation.

While Statecraft is configured as a teaching tool, it seems to me that—provided data is collected from player interactions appropriately—it could also be used as a research tool. Statecraft and similar simulations could thus be used to generate data on patterns of strategic behaviour drawn from repeated play (for example, when do players “balance” or “bandwagon“?) and also used for experimental methods (how, over large numbers of plays, does altering key variables or relations affect behaviours and outcomes?)

At some point—when time allows—we’ll arrange for a trial of Statecraft so that we can report back our impressions.

Zombies and stabilization operations

A distant village in a war-affected country. The Visiting Foreign Official meets with village elders, as his nervous personal security detail scans for threats.

Then it happens. An IED explodes. Moments later the village is assaulted by ravenous hordes of hungry undead….

Yes, that’s how it unfolded at the recent HALO Counter-terrorism summit in San Diego, with the zombie action provided by Strategic Operations, Inc., which specializes in “provides Hyper-Realistic™ training environments for military, law enforcement and other organizations, using state-of-the-art movie industry special effects, role players, proprietary techniques, training scenarios, facilities, mobile structures, sets, props, and equipment.” All that was missing was for FOX News to blame the Obama Administration for security lapses and a “craven willingness to compromise with radical undeadism” in what it what its commentators would soon dub the “Zombiegate scandal.”

Remember folks: head shots. Use gunfire sparingly—it attracts herds of walkers. An armoured SUV may be expensive at the gas pump, but it can be a very effective counter-zombie weapon, used properly. And always, ALWAYS double-tap.

h/t: Michael Peck, “Zombies Battle Navy SEALs for Afghan Village,” Forbes, 1 November 2012.

Mirror imaging and wargame design

A couple of weeks ago at Defense News, Michael Peck asked “Can We Simulate Non-American Wars?” raising the problem of mirror-imaging in policy and planning wargames:

The cardinal mistake in military history has always been mirror-imaging: the assumption, often colored by wishful thinking, that your enemy will conveniently devise the same goals, strategy and tactics as you do. But this doesn’t just apply to enemies. Even allies frequently misperceive each other.

This came to mind last month, when I read an article in Foreign Policy Magazine that described how Pentagon planners predict three possible Israeli options for destroying Iran’s nuclear program: air strikes, a commando raid, or wiping out Iran’s senior leadership. The article troubled me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why – until I realized that the Pentagon expects the Israelis to fight in the same way that the Pentagon itself might fight if it targets Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

It’s not totally illogical; the Israelis fight American-style (or Americans fight Israeli-style), so perhaps there’s a commonality of approach that enables accurate forecasting. But an Israel-Iran war would be a conflict between two foreign nations, with their own domestic agendas, cultural traditions and military methods. If Israel attacks Iran, it may employ technologies and tactics that the U.S. hasn’t thought of. Armies aren’t cloned like Dolly the Sheep.

Michael is absolutely right, of course—that’s why the dangers of mirror-imaging are pretty much in every Intelligence 101 course that trainee government analysts ever take. However, while being aware of the problem is part of the solution, it doesn’t in and of itself resolve it. Methodologically, there are variety of tools that one can use to get a sense of typical behaviours by “the other,” including examination of past military campaigns, published doctrine (fortunately, militaries love to publish doctrine), engagement of subject matter experts, and so forth. Equally important, however, may be the recruitment of personnel with the cognitive abilities and styles that allow them the empathize with the perceptions and motivations of others.

Yet focussing solely on the mirror-image part of the problem leads to another possible deficiency—namely the countervailing risk of viewing an actor’s responses as excessively determined by doctrine or cultural and organizational constraints. A study of pre-war Commonwealth military doctrine, for example, would have given you few grounds on which to have predicted the innovations of the 1942-44 Burma campaign under General William “Bill” Slim. Similarly, the performance of United Nations and mediation and peace operations has varied substantially depending on the personal attributes and styles of senior mission personnel. Trying to understand the behaviour of Hizbullah solely through the cultural lens of Shi’ism or Islamist movements would tend to obscure the almost Google-like innovation the organization has shown at times (but not always).

But do you want to allow game players full flexibility to do whatever they want? Much depends, of course, on the purpose of the wargame. How does one balance exploring the most probable response of an actor with the possible (but less likely) response? Can one do this in a single game (or, for that matter, is a wargame even the best way of exploring all of these contingent possibilities?)

Part of the answer, I think, is to view the behaviour of parties in a conflict (or, for that matter, peace process) as being distributed along a normal curve. Certainly, some types of behaviours or responses may be more common than others, but less doctrinaire or more innovative approaches (of greater or lesser effectiveness) should also have a non-zero probability of appearing. Game rules can variously permit less orthodox behaviours (but at an additional cost in time, energy, or resources), assign probabilities to approval of more innovative approaches (to reflect that less conventional response may be less likely to receive endorsement from the powers-that-be), or have doctrinal responses being the “default” setting which participants must actively decide to alter.

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For more on the subject of simulating the behaviour of adversaries, have a look at the always-excellent Red Team Journal.

Barker on methodical scenario development

The Center for Applied Strategic learning has now posted the video (above) of the most recent on their lectures on strategic gaming: Alec Barker on “Fight the Scenario! A Battle Cry for Methodical Scenario Development.”

At the CASL website you’ll also find the videos from two prior lectures in the series: Peter Perla on “The Way of the Wargamer” and Philip Sabin on “The Continuing Merits of Manual Gaming.”

Simulation & Gaming (October 2012)

A new issue of Simulation & Gaming 43, 5 (October 2012) is now available online:


Unreliable Information in Infantry Situation Awareness: Improvement Through Game-Based Training

  • Eric T. Chancey and James P. Bliss

Gaming Research in Policy and Organization: An Assessment From the Netherlands

  • Leon de Caluwé, Jac Geurts, and Wouter Jan Kleinlugtenbelt

Goals, Success Factors, and Barriers for Simulation-Based Learning: A Qualitative Interview Study in Health Care

  • Peter Dieckmann, Susanne Molin Friis, Anne Lippert, and Doris Østergaard

The Coaching Cycle: A Coaching-by-Gaming Approach in Serious Games

  • Anna-Sofia Alklind Taylor, Per Backlund, and Lars Niklasson

Ready-to-use simulations

BUILDING TIES IN A STRATIFIED SOCIETY: A Social Networking Simulation Game

  • An Ansoms and Sara Geenen


  • Cecile N. Gerwel and Shamim Bodhanya


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