Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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.

* * *

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).

4 responses to “Review: Oil War—Iran Strikes

  1. Rex Brynen 29/07/2019 at 9:53 pm

    Many commercial printers are able to do this.

  2. Matthew Sinn 27/07/2019 at 6:13 pm

    Who produces the counters for these types of games?

  3. Rex Brynen 06/11/2012 at 12:16 pm

    I hadn’t seen that (excellent) discussion, Mike–thanks for pointing it out.

  4. Mike 06/11/2012 at 11:01 am

    Good review. You should check out the CSW folder for some interesting varient ideas Richard and Lance are kicking around. The game certainly does lend itself to such experimenting.

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