Last week Foreign Policy magazine posted for comments “A Reign of Missiles,” a draft print-and-play solo conflict simulation of the 2012 Gaza war designed by Paul Rohrbaugh. Not surprisingly both the timing and the topic of the game generated a little online controversy, coming so soon after the war itself.
Nevertheless, my son David and I printed it out and give it a try this weekend. We used the map version originally posted at FP—a much nicer quality version has since been posted at ConSimWorld which you can see above.
In the game the player assumes the role of Israel, attempting to strike at Hamas’ missile capabilities (and win “military victory points”) while at the same time keeping a wary eye on the potential civilian casualties caused by your strikes, and the negative effects this can have on Israel’s diplomatic standing (indicated on a “diplomacy track”). As the Israeli player you deploy Iron Dome anti-missile systems, aircraft, drones, a naval units, and (potentially) special forces. After you have finished conducting military operations each phase the surviving Hamas rocket launchers fire missiles in random directions. If you are unlucky some might slip past your defences and strike populated areas. Random events also affect game play.
Since the game is still in draft form, parts of it are still a bit rough, and the rules certainly need a good edit. There are very few design notes to let you know what the designer was hoping to achieve in the various game rules.
What about the actual gameplay, though? Here we divide our comments into three categories: player choices, representations and realism, and game mechanics/play.
Games are all about choices and trade-offs. In A Reign of Missiles the Israeli player’s primary choices revolve around:
- Which targets to attack. Typically this is an obvious choice, since the longer-range Fajr-5 are both easier to suppress and are more dangerous. Hamas leadership and supply targets can also be attacked once per turn. It is rarely seems worth attacking the short-range Qassam rocket units.
- How to attack. Aircraft and drones can attack separately, but if they combine their efforts into a single attack they are more likely to succeed and less likely to cause collateral damage.
- How to defend. The Israeli player may deploy and redeploy Iron Dome defences, the availability of which can vary from turn to turn. As noted below, this is a bit odd—Iron Dome interceptors are rarely if ever moved during the conflict, and they are used to protect particular urban areas. Once these are deployed at the start of the game there shouldn’t be many more decisions for the Israeli player to make.
Overall, we didn’t think there were enough interesting choices to make the game particularly interesting. This might be addressed by allowing the Israeli player to make some pre-war resource allocation decisions about whether to, say, invest in more Iron Dome batteries, more drones, better intelligence, or other military capabilities. The intelligence collection part of the game could also be enhanced through using dummy markers. If markers were face down, for example, dummies/decoys were also used, and civilians were scattered among them, the Israeli player would face the dilemma of having to decide whether to attack the target on suspicion, or use drones or other intelligence to confirm its identity.
Representations and Realism
We very much liked that the game tracks both diplomatic and military dimensions, and that you need to do well on both to win the game. This accurately reflects a situation whereby Israel could maximize the damage and destruction it causes (in game terms, this is largely achieved by using drones and aircraft separately), but at the cost of civilian casualties, alienating world opinion, and handing Hamas a diplomatic victory. On the other hand, the game doesn’t model at all the important domestic element of the conflict: in reality, both Hamas and Israel are playing to domestic as well as international audiences.
In the game, the level of diplomatic support each side receives affects the level of military resources available to it each turn. The logic for this isn’t entirely clear—especially since it means that successful Hamas rocket attacks, which can have the effect of weakening Israeli diplomatic standing, also decrease the level of available Israeli military assets in future. In the actual conflict, I would think the reverse is true: particularly devastating Hamas attacks create Israeli domestic pressures for expanded military operations.
The Iron Dome anti-missile system could be better portrayed in the game. In A Reign of Missiles, Israel has up to ten Iron Dome batteries, whereas in real life it only deployed four in the initial stages of the Gaza war, with a fifth being rushed into service to defend Tel Aviv. Iron Dome batteries aren’t moved much, if at all, once a conflict has started (since they would be unable to conduct interceptions while being relocated), whereas in the game their number and deployment usually varies from day to day. The game also seems to reflect a common misunderstanding that Iran Dome has an interception range of 5-75km. While this number is often reported in the press, it actually refers to the types of missiles that can be intercepted: missiles fired from less than 5km don’t leave the system enough reaction time, while those fired from further than 75km away are travelling too fast for the system to intercept. One Iron Dome battery provides protection for about 150km2 around the battery—that is to say, only one city (or square in game terms). The game also suggests that Iran Dome batteries can become depleted, presumably when they run out of missiles. There’s no evidence this ever occurred in 2012, although if it had it might well have been withheld from the public. In the game, Iron Dome seems to have an interception rate of 20%, whereas in 2012 it appears to have been closer to 85%.
Strangely, Sderot—the Israeli town of 24,000 most associated with rocket attacks from Gaza—is not depicted on the map.
Fajr-5 units fire the most rockets in a turn (4) of any rocket launcher type, while in practice these larger rockets were fired singly or in smaller numbers.
We thought the random events could have been much more diverse interesting. During the 2012 war, for example, the presence of visiting dignitaries in Gaza (such as the Egyptian prime minister) sometimes forced Israel to halt certain military operations.
On a minor note, while in the game all Israeli aircraft are depicted as F-15s, the IAF actually has far more F-16s.
Game Mechanics and Play
Overall, we found the first few phases interesting. After that, however, the multiple die rolling for each rocket coming out of Gaza grew rather tedious: a single Grad rocket launcher firing 3 rockets will require roughly 15 dice to resolve (up to 3 dice for movement, 1-2 dice for Iron Dome interceptions, 1-2 dice for each surviving rocket striking the ground). One wonders if this couldn’t all be much simplified into a smaller number of card draws or chit pulls. Overall the game play seemed less engaging than the often rather tense draw of a card in the “State of Siege” series of solo games published by Victory Point Games. A card would also be able to address the effect of the strike, and contain some flavour text.
It seems impossible to hit Ashkelon. Qassam missiles (which can only reach the green boxes) will fall short. Grad missiles (which start on the last black box) will overshoot it, as will Fajr-5s (which carry on to the final boxes).
There seemed to be little incentive to hold back military resources to the second and third impulse of each turn, when instead you could suppress or destroy missile launchers on the first impulse and prevent them from firing for the rest of the turn.
In the game, the Israeli player has perfect intelligence about Hamas assets and their deployment. As suggested above, some sort of blind system would be more interesting. Hamas units might then be revealed either by firing, surveillance (drones), or intelligence collection. Senior leadership figures, civilians, SAMs, and the press could be treated in the same way. As the game goes on, the ratio of military to civilian targets could further shift towards the latter, this modelling the latter parts of the war when Israel’s intelligence existing target list began to run short, and greater collateral damage began to accrue.
The game counts a 0 on a d10 as a zero, rather than (as is more conventionally the case) as a ten. I have no idea why.
The game ends immediately when the Israeli and Hamas diplomatic markers reach the same point on the diplomatic track. I’m not quite sure what the political logic is for this.
Finally, it would be interesting to add a two player option. While Hamas might have only a limited number of decisions to make once the game started, it would have many to make beforehand (for example, whether to invest in fewer long-range Fajr 5s or more shorter-range Qassams and Grads, how much to invest in ground defences, command and control, camouflage/decoys/deception, and so forth).