Persian Incursion. Clash of Arms Games, 2010. Designers: Larry Bond, Chris Carlson, Jeff Dougherty. $71.50.
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This is among the games that has been sitting on my shelf for far, far too long, awaiting the opportunity for a proper playtest. I finally got around to it last month—and, as you’ll see in the review below, I found it both to be problematic as a game but insightful as a military simulation.
A Sample Game: OPERATION “LDBICATCSPFAB”
Frustrated by the apparent ineffectiveness of sanctions and viewing Iran’s nuclear program as a growing threat, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave the order: Israel would attack. Operation “Lovingly Detailed but Incredibly Complex and Time-Consuming Strike Planning for a Boardgame” would seek to inflict heavy damage on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and thereby convince the Islamic Republic that there was little point in continuing its nuclear programme into the future.
Not knowing how much time the international community would permit them to complete the task, the Israeli leadership emphasized to IDF planners that first strike needed to be as decisive as possible. Additional tankers were procured to assure that more than 120 Israeli aircraft—F-15s and F-16s, Shavit ELINT platforms, and Eitan drones—would be committed to a long-distance mission via Jordanian and Iraqi airspace. Some aircraft would be allocated to suppressing the air defences that the IAF would encounter en route, and still others to escorting the strike packages. Most, however, were heavily laden with bombs intended for three major targets: the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the heavy water plant and reactor at Arak, and the deeply-buried uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Improved EGBU-28C “bunker-buster” bombs were obtained to facilitate penetration of the underground centrifuge halls at Natanz and Qom. Insufficient aircraft were available to target the uranium conversion facility, zirconium production, and fuel manufacturing plant at Isfahan on this first strike, which would have to await a return visit.
Initially all went well, with an electronic/cyber attack partially disabling Iran’s air defence network. The SEAD missions were partly successful, but one lucky S-200(SA-5) battery escaped damage, and then was even luckier still when it managed—against all odds—to successfully engage an IAF F-15, shooting it down.
For the most part the obsolete Iranian air force could offer little substantial resistance. However, two patrolling Iranian F-14 pilots detected the strike mission headed for Natanz and managed to shoot down one Israeli F-16 with a long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile before they were destroyed. No sooner had they done so than a flight of four Mig-29s took advantage of the distraction to close the range, downing a second F-16 before also being destroyed by the Israeli escorts. One IAF pilot survived and was captured by Iranian troops, providing Tehran with a minor public relations coup that it would later exploit. IAF planners had considered the option of allocating more aircraft to escort and fighter-suppression missions, but had opted to maximize the ordnance that could be delivered on target.
The damage from the Israeli attack at Natanz: heavily damaged, but not quite destroyed.
The air defences at the target sites proved less of a hindrance. While the GPS jammers that Iran had installed at its sensitive sites confused some of the Israeli bombs, most found their marks. The facilities at Qom and Arak were completely destroyed, while Natanz was heavily damaged.
As the Israeli aircraft left Iranian air space, they were once more intercepted, this time by small numbers of F-5Es and F-7M fighters. These were quickly and easily downed long before they had closed to within range of their own much inferior air-to-air missiles.
Although Iranian air defences had been lucky, the bombing was largely successful.
In the court of international opinion, however, the Israeli did less well. Perhaps it was Israel’s refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or open its nuclear facilities to international inspection; perhaps it was the impressive skills of Iranian diplomats; or perhaps it was astute card-play and some very good dice rolls, but within a matter of hours and days it was clear that there was little support for a continuation of military operations. Jordan emphasized that it would not allow its airspace to be used again for an attack, and the northern route (through Turkey) and the southern route (through Saudi Arabia) were equally unavailable. Even the United States seemed unhappy at Netanyahu’s unilateral move.
While domestic support for the government remains (top track), high, the international community is less approving (middle tracks). However, the attack and subsequent Israeli sabotage activities are slowly undermining Iranian resolve (bottom track)
Iranian retaliation was swift but largely ineffectual. Salvos of Shehab-3 missiles were fired at Israel, although only a handful made it past Israel’s Arrow-2 and Patriot PAC-3 ballistic missile defences, and these did little real damage. Twice Iran partially and briefly closed the Straits of Hormuz to signal its displeasure, but these actions only antagonized the international community and were quickly abandoned. Hizbullah and the northern border with Lebanon remained eerily quiet.
For its part Israel—unable to launch another airstrike because of the negative attitude of Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—instead launched a serious of night-time special forces raids against key Iranian economic infrastructure. These had considerable effect over time, aggravating the domestic economic and political problems of a beleaguered Islamic republic already under severe pressure from international sanctions.
In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. The regime remained in power, undeterred, and committed to rebuilding its damaged nuclear infrastructure . Israel’s gambit had failed to win more than a brief respite from the perceived Iranian threat, and at the cost of greater international isolation.
And thus unfolded our playtest game, which was played using a slightly tweaked version of the “real world” scenario in the game. It was unusual in that Israel able to launch only a single attack (most games involve several), largely due to some very lucky Iranian diplomatic dice. The Iranians were lucky too in managing to shoot down any IAF aircraft, let alone three. The overall outcome was actually quite realistic, both in terms of the damage inflicted to Iranian nuclear facilities and the diplomatic challenges to Israel of sustaining an extended unilateral military campaign.
Persian Incursion comprises one 17×22″ map, 280 cardboard counters, two decks of cards, data cards for all major aircraft cards, game rules, a target folders (including satellite photographs of each major site), and a background briefing package, and dice. It really consists of two interlinked games, one modelling an Israeli airstrike, and the other representing the broader diplomatic-political context within which military action occurs.
As suggested in the account above, the airstrike part of the game is extremely detailed, with the Israeli player having to quite literally decide on the precise loadout and target of every single aircraft in every single strike, escort, or SEAD package. Since many buildings are individually profiled, some sites include more than thirty different aim-points. The range and probability to hit of every type of air-to-air missile, surface-to-air missile, anti-radiation missile, and guided bomb used by the combatants is rated, as is the effectiveness of each aircraft type. Planning a single attack can take the Israeli player up to an hour—during which time the Iranian player has little do besides practice his rhetorical condemnations of Zionist aggression. Once an Israeli strike arrives on target, the effects must be determined by rolling dice for every single bomb. Since this could conceivable involve a few hundred rolls, it provides another extended period when the Iranian player watches while uttering angry Farsi threats of revenge.
Conversely, the political-diplomatic component of Persian Incursion is a highly abstracted. The changing political position of the various international actors determines how many political, military, and intelligence points a player collects at the start of each turn. These in turn are expended to conduct military operations or to attempt to influence domestic opinion of key regional and international states. Attempts at political influence are carried out through the play of cards, each of which has general labels like “collateral damage,” “spin control, ” or “careful planning,” and each of which affects different target countries to different degrees. Unlike airstrikes, the card play runs proceeds at a rapid pace.
Our play test game was quite exciting in the end, with Israeli special forces raids bring the Iranians perilously close to the point of political defeat before the game ended. However, the ponderously slow airstrike process is problematic from a game design point of view since it exclusively engages only the Israeli player most of the time. Some of this detail is unnecessary too: I’m not convinced there is a real need to have separate aim points for every single building (although it does highlight the need for some targeting redundancy in real-life strike planning with pre-programmed GPS-guided weapons), while the rules of anti-aircraft guns are entirely superfluous given that the IAF almost invariably drops its guided bombs well outside the AAA engagement envelope. Indeed, had our game included the usual several Israeli airstrikes instead of just one, I have a sneaking hunch my opponent would have called it a day before the game ever finished. In an attempt to speed both strike planning and adjudication, the game designers have released several rules modifications that simplify targeting and allow for faster resolution of bombing effects. In similar fashion I also put together my own revised set of target sheets targets that I will likely use in future games, and there are some useful player-made spreadsheets and record sheets available at BoardGameGeek.
The other military options available to players—Iranian ballistic missiles, Israeli special forces operations, terrorist attacks, closing the Straits of Hormuz—are much less complex. The game does not, however, include any option for Iran’s close Lebanese ally Hizbullah to launch major attacks against Israel in retaliation for Israeli attacks on Iran. Indeed, Hizbullah is only briefly mentioned in the background briefing package, where it is peculiarly placed in the section on the Palestinians. While I don’t believe Hizbullah would necessarily become involved in the fighting after a single Israeli strike, the chances of it doing so would increase if Israel were to launch a sustained campaign. From a game perspective, it certainly would be more interesting for the Iranian player if there were some sort of substantial Hizbullah option that forces Israel to divert its air assets to hunting Hizbullah rocket launchers, but risks a weakening Hizbullah’s military and political status in Lebanon.
Persian Incursion as a Serious Game
How useful might this game be in educational or other “serious game” settings? It certainly has considerable potential, but only if used in certain ways.
This is not a game that can be easily played by students. It is far too long and complicated for neophytes. The asymmetry in role demands and the long delays while Israel plans strikes also would render it highly unsuitable.
On the other hand, the core airstrike game “engine” is excellent, covering everything from the effectiveness of various weapons platforms and ordnance to electronic counter measures, aircraft readiness rates and maintenance, ground control interception, Iranian air defence zones, decoys, and the hardening of targets. The game engine is easily tweaked too, in most cases by simply changing certain ratings or percentages. Playing through a strike or a full game offers considerable insight into the complexities of mission planning, as well as the capabilities and limits of the two militaries. One could even use it to model a potential future “Syrian” route to Iran, predicated on the declining effectiveness of Syrian air defences as the civil war there intensifies.
Given this, the best way of using Persian Incursion in a serious game setting would be with multiple players and an assigned division of labour, some focused on the political side of the conflict and others wholly devoted to military staff planning. One wouldn’t need to use the diplomatic-political subgame that the designers have developed—a standard negotiations role-play or seminar crisis game format could do equally well, or even better if the major international community actors were included too (although this could conceivably also be handled by the game controllers/white cell). The Israeli military staff planners would need to keep detailed tasking orders ready to go for when their political leadership required it, updating this as developments and resources changed. This would also generate some interesting internal dynamics between the political/diplomatic and military components of the Israeli (and Iranian) teams, especially when the politicians wanted more than the military could deliver, or when military hubris might cause it to over-promise mission results, leaving diplomats to make the best of a bad situation. Throughout, only the game controller would really need to know all of the rules, using these to adjudicate the effects of each strike.
An implementation of the game something like this (but exclusively weighted towards the military element) was undertaken by the folks at the “War College” at the 2011 Origins Game Fair—you can see a sample of this in the videos above and below.
If you are a serious gamer interested in this era and issue, Persian Incursion is certainly worth buying, but probably best played with the quick strike rules unless the Iranian player has enormous patience and/or something else to busy themselves with while the Israeli plots plots targets, strike packages, and weapons loads. If you’re an inexperienced wargamer, this is not the best game for you. If you are an instructor thinking of using it in the classroom to examine the challenges of airstrikes and preemption and have enough gaming experience to handle its complexity, the game could be very useful—provided you are willing to put in quite a bit of effort in to modify it for your particular needs, and provided you do so in a way that keeps much of the complexity “under the (adjudication) hood” and away from the participants.
If time allows, I plan to give the game a try with students (and possibly a Middle East intelligence analyst or two) in the coming months. If so, I’ll report the results here at PAXsims.