Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 07/06/2013

Review: Somali Pirates

MW003-2Somali Pirates. Decision Games/Modern War magazine/Strategy & Tactics Press, 2013. Designer: Joe Miranda. $30.00 (including magazine).

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The real-world problem of Somalia-based piracy poses a number of interesting policy challenges. Over the years, the international response to such piracy has included expanded multinational naval patrols, improved communication and coordination, the outfitting commercial ships with anti-boarding devices and pirate-proof citadels (to which a crew can retreat, disable the ship, and await rescue), the deployment of armed private security personnel onboard ships (once the legal issues involved in doing so were resolved); securing the agreement of regional states to prosecute captured pirates; and various other measures. From time to time various naval forces do occasionally open fire on pirate boats or mount rescue operations, but these are comparatively rare.

Such efforts have been increasingly successful. In 2012 Somali pirate attacks dropped to a three-year low, and they are much lower still so far this year (see below).

Overview Piracy Incidents CN 30 Apr 13_Page_1

Source: NATO Shipping Centre (2013).

However, the often rather dull policy initiatives that make for effective anti-pirate measures do not necessarily make for a good game. In an effort to make things more interesting, therefore, the Somali Pirates game included in the January/February 2013 edition of Modern War magazine imagines a near-future in which Somali pirate warlords have grown much more powerful, and the international response is much more muscular. No outfitting freighters with high-pressure hoses or hiding in a safe-room here: instead, the Coalition player employs naval assets, combat aircraft, UAVs, Special Forces, larger ground forces, the CIA, private contractors, oil workers, and even a potentially sizeable Chinese military contingent as s/he competes against the three regional pirate factions (plus al-Qa’ida) controlled by their opponent. The game presumes the continued existence of a weak Somali federal government, but doesn’t separately include the current autonomous governments of Puntland or Somaliland, nor does it permit African Union forces to start the game in Somalia as part of the current AMISOM mission. Oil politics plays a role in the game, with potential oil-producing regions of somewhat greater value—something that has started to be a factor in real Somali politics. By contrast, there is no attention to Somali aid, humanitarian, or development issues beyond a couple of possible AFRICOM Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which simply act as asymmetric combat units.

This isn’t the first time that the Somali pirate issue has been dressed up by someone to make a better game challenge—much the same was done by the Naval Postgraduate School for their 2011 playtest of MMOWGLI.


Military assets from Somali Pirates, indicating kinetic combat, (asymmetric combat), and movement factors respectively.

The game itself features a 22″ x 34″ map of Somalia and the Horn of Africa, depicting a number of linked regional movement zones. Each zone has  a predominate terrain type (clear, rough, urban, or sea), a main box for units that are in the open, and an “underground” box for units that are in hiding. Combat units have both movement values and both kinetic and asymmetric combat ratings. The latter are used when undertaking a range of special actions, including piracy, terrorism, counterinsurgency operations, or attacks on high-value targets. “Netwar” points represent public opinion/political support, and are also used as victory points. They are won and lost through control of territory or  military operations, and can be spent to mobilize forces or purchase random “Netwar chits.” The latter provide a player with intelligence capabilities (essential for targeting underground units) or special game opportunities. The difficulty of coordinating coalition warfare is nicely modelled by requiring a player to generally move and attack with each faction or national contingent separately.

While the game may not model the Somali pirate issue very well, I did like the overall game system which seem adaptable to a variety of settings, and which makes its next appearance in the  Decision Iraq (recently published in the July/August 2013 edition of Modern War magazine). There were a few rules that it would be useful to modify. In particular, it seemed slightly odd that pirate bases could spring up even in areas that the Coalition had garrisoned, provided there was at least one pirate unit underground there. It might also have been appropriate to limit most Coalition use of airpower in urban areas, or at least assign some cost in Netwar points for using it in that way.


Game turn 5. After the Coalition defeat at Mudug, the surviving oil engineers have retreated to Garacao. The stand-off continues in Mogadishu Central, while US special forces conduct operations in Puntland and Coalition naval units hunt covert pirate units at sea.

In our game, pirate units overran part of Mogadishu before US Navy and Marine reinforcements stabilized the situation there. African Union forces advanced north from Kenya, capturing Kismayo (just as they recently did in September 2012).

Units of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa pushed out a little from their base in Djibouti, but al-Qa’ida activity limited their advance. Backed by airpower, units of the Joint Special Operations Task Force seized a number of coastal ports from the pirates, and were then reinforced by follow-on forces from US AFRICOM. When AFRICOM forces pushed inland to relieve besieged oil workers in Mudug, however, they were set upon by a large combined pirate force, suffering heavy casualties and a major political reversal.

At sea, Coalition naval forces had difficult identifying “underground” pirate raiding ships, and so generally concentrated on restricting their movement. The game ended in a draw.

The one serious problem we encountered during our game was the tremendously powerful effect of a few of the Netwar chits, notably “Tactical Edge”:

Do one of the following: (1) Double the Kinetic value of all friendly units in one combat. Or: (2) Add “one” to the Kinetic value of each friendly unit in one combat (including those with a zero value).

Since doubling kinetic strength can dramatically affect the outcome of battles, and since major victories and defeats can have a large effect on the players’ Netwar points, the latter part of our game largely devolved into buying up many (face-down) Netwar chits to guarantee receiving “Tactical Edge,” playing the chit, buying it back again the next turn, and so on. This created a sense that the game largely hinged on possession each turn of one or two key chits, rather than strategic acumen. We would recommend that the chit be reduced in strength, for example by making it a one column shift on the combat results table instead. A few more ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) chits in the counter-mix would be useful too, as would some chits representing the security measures undertaken by commercial shipping. If time allows, I might even put together an optional expanded set of Netwar cards to replace the chit set in the game.

Overall, Somali Pirates is an enjoyable medium-low complexity wargame, playable in about three hours. I wouldn’t recommend it for educational purposes on the Somali piracy issue, given the extent to which its representation of Somali politics, amplified pirate threat, and heavy kinetic focus all diverge from the actual dynamics of contemporary Somali piracy. However, the game system is both easily modified and easily transposed to other situations of mixed regular and irregular warfare, so it would be a useful to use to with students to explore issues of wargame mechanics and design.

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Further reading:


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