Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

“Unstable Gulf” playtest

Annual_Day_Parade_Iran_spy_tank_002Back in November I drew up a set of modified rules for the wargame Oil War—Iran Strikes. In this “Unstable Gulf” variant, the Coalition player must contend not only with Iranian military intervention in a future Iraqi civil war, but also with growing political protests in several Gulf countries. My point in proposing this variant was not only to add more political content to what is otherwise a very traditional, force-on-force boardgame, but also to add a new series of operational challenges and choices that highlighted the fundamental linkages between political objectives and the employment of military force. From the perspective of gameplay, I also wanted to create some action outside the Kuwait bottleneck around which so much of the game otherwise focuses.

This week we finally got a chance to playtest the result. Once again I was playing Iran, while my son David was playing the Coalition.

As usual, we started by determining the contours of the civil war in Iraq. This is what the map looked like, before we tested for the loyalty of Iraqi units and militia:

IMG_5072…and this is what it looked like afterwards, with the green counters indicating pro-Iranian units. The loyalist units near Baghdad were a problem, since I had hoped to capture the city quickly.

IMG_5074As per the variant rules, the Coalition player was also faced with opposition protests in Kuwait, Dahran (Saudi Arabia), and Manama (Bahrain). Those in Bahrain are particularly dangerous: not only are protests more likely to occur there, but they can also escalate rapidly. One of the variant random events even generates a test for a full-scale uprising the country that can topple the monarchy and potentially gain the Iranian player victory points. Consequently—and as in real-life—the GCC needs to think about internal security as much as it does about Iranian troops.


On Turn 1, I decided to stoke the fires of political protest in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia through covert IRGC al-Qods Force destabilization operations, using the revised covert action rules in the game variant. Unfortunately, both attempts went poorly. My teams were captured, and exposure of an Iranian connection caused the demonstrations to fizzle.

My third al-Qods operation was more successful, subverting the loyalist Iraqi militia unit in Baqubah with large offers of cash and causing it to switch sides. This allowed Iranian military forces to approach Baghdad quickly, seizing the Iraqi capital.


To the north, the Kurdish “capital” of Irbil also fell quickly, although the nearby city of Mosul took somewhat longer to secure. Iran now had three of the four victory points it needed to win.

I decided not to deploy Iran’s airborne or marine forces in the first few turns of the game. Under the rules these become much more difficult to use as the game continues, reflecting the growing strength of Coalition sea and airpower. In the regular game of Oil War there is thus a strong incentive to use them early. However, my hope was that the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain might eventually rise up against the regime—at which point, Iranian troops could be landed to “protect” the new government from any GCC counterattack.  Under the modified rules, the Iranian airborne and marine forces would gain a landing bonus under such circumstances.

I also toyed with the idea of landing these Iranian forces near Dahran to slow any GCC efforts to aid the Bahraini government. In retrospect that might have been useful. However, under the variant rules it would have come at the political cost of aborting any further protests in Saudi Arabia, and increasing the level of military commitment to the Coalition.

Sure enough, new protests soon erupted in Bahrain and in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The Coalition diverted three divisions of Saudi troops, plus a contingent from the UAE, to help put these down. To maximize their effectiveness, they often used deliberately brutal tactics. While these made their efforts more successful, the sight of GCC troops firing upon anti-government protesters weakened US support. On several occasions US ground reinforcements were delayed as a result.


Within Iraq, Iranian troops consolidated their control over the Baghdad area, clearing out the last pockets of loyalists. Others moved south, to the Kuwaiti border. I did not attack Kuwait immediately, however. Doing so would have increased US resolve, dampened any protests in Kuwait, and freed up Saudi troops to enter the country. At this point I was still hoping that the protests in Bahrain would rebound in strength. Consequently, al-Qods Force operatives made it a top priority to provide covert assistant to friendly elements of the Bahraini opposition.

The US, however, decided to force my hand. Backed by airstrikes, two US brigade combat teams launched an attack out of Kuwait against Iranian troops in the south, destroying several divisions of Revolutionary Guards. I counterattacked immediately, inflicting heavy casualties on the Americans, and slowly pushing back Kuwaiti and later Saudi troops. One Saudi column entered southern Iraq in an attempt to turn my flank, but was destroyed.

I was careful not to cross the border into Saudi Arabia itself—under the modified rules, doing so would have brought to an end any new protests in the country. In the “Unstable Gulf” variant, such political calculations often shape military strategy.


A sandstorm struck, slowing Coalition efforts to reinforce their positions. I also used my al-Qods Force teams (reinforced by an additional team from Hizbullah via the Lebanese Complications event) to try to sabotage transportation facilities and thus slow the arrival of US troops. On one occasion the team was detected by an alert sentry and killed, but a few days later another enjoyed somewhat greater success.


GCC troops continued to play whack-a-mole with protesters in and around Bahrain. Motivated by the Wahhabi zeal random event, Saudi troops again used brutal tactics against Shi’ite protestors to slowly regain the upper hand. Once again, this didn’t help US efforts to build political support at home for an expanded American military commitment.


However, the GCC gamble paid off. When a full-scale uprising did eventually come via the Bahrain Erupts random event, it was weak and quickly crushed. My hopes of a Shi’ite liberation (and Iranian intervention) were dashed. With so few protests still active, not even the Social Media random event could reenergize the opposition.

Things were going rather better for me around Kuwait, where I continued to push back Kuwaiti and Saudi troops. American reinforcements continued to trickle in only slowly. I was certainly glad that so many GCC troops were tied up suppressing protests to the south.

At this point I still had two Revolutionary Guards divisions in reserve. I was reluctant to commit these to operations—under the variant rules, they might be needed to suppress any demonstrations at home should there be a political backlash against the war.

IMG_5083US air power was taking its toll, however. Iranian movement was increasingly interdicted, and slowed to a crawl. In Kuwait, US airstrikes inflicted heavy damage on my formations as they approached Kuwait City.

As if that wasn’t enough, a Marine Expeditionary Unit launched an amphibious attack to the north of Kuwait City. It pushed back several Iranian divisions, and pinned others to prevent them from moving south.

IMG_5084Between this and the defence-in-depth offered by newly-arrived Saudi troops it seemed unlikely that my troops would break through before the game ended. In desperation, I ordered my Iranian airborne and marine units to make landings south of Kuwait City.

The result was expected, given coalition air and naval power. My forces were destroyed before ever reaching their assigned landing zones.

And so the game ended. Iranian troops had reached the very gates of Kuwait City. However, they clearly lacked the firepower to dislodge the two US brigade combat teams that defended it, while additional US reinforcements continued to arrive. It was a draw.


How did the “Unstable Gulf” variant play? I have since made a few small rule tweaks and clarifications based on the playtest, but in general we were both pleased with how well it worked. The addition of a political overlay to the game added a whole new series of strategic and operational trade-offs for both players. Much more of the map was at play in this version compared to the standard game, with GCC troops having to contain political protests across a wide area. The game modifications somewhat tilted play in favour of Iran  during our game, compared to the original rules. However, this is offset by the fact that, in the variant, any potential Turkish and (post-Asad) Syrian intervention arising from the random events phase is always on the Coalition side—unlike the original rules where the Turks can come in on either side, and the Syrians always join the war as Iranian allies. Finally, the Iranian player can potentially lose victory points by suffering heavy casualties, and then having insufficient forces on hand in their strategic reserve to deal with any subsequent anti-war protests by the opposition.

In addition to the link at the top of this page, a pdf copy of the variant rules (minus the development notes in the original blogpost) can be downloaded here.

2 responses to ““Unstable Gulf” playtest

  1. Rex Brynen 07/01/2013 at 4:38 pm

    I think in this this case it is partly a function of my rushed picture-taking too (especially when the Coalition keeps complaining “Dad, hurry up and take your turn..”)

  2. brtrain 07/01/2013 at 3:35 pm

    Thanks Rex! Fascinating variant. Though I rather wish DG would go to matte-finish counters and maps as SPI did; the latter’s tests showed that shiny counters and coated stock did not stand up to handling any better or worse. It would make taking pictures of games easier, and woudl certanly be easier on my pebble-like eyes.

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