Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Target Iran

modern_war_9_target_iran-388841374220723dTarget: Iran. Decision Games/Modern War magazine/Strategy & Tactics Press, 2014. Designer: Joe Miranda. $30.00 (including magazine).

Unfortunately, this year has seen a growing backlog of games sitting on my shelf that I have not yet had an opportunity to play. Recently, however, I did try out Target: Iran, a solitaire game of near-future US/coalition war against Iran that was included in Modern War magazine in March/April of this year. The game comes with one 22″ x 34″ map depicting Iran and the Persian Gulf, together with 228 counters representing US, Iranian, Iranian rebel, GCC, Israeli, and NATO units. An electronic version of the rules be found here.

The game starts with a random distribution of face-down distribution of both Iranian  military units and sensitive targets, such as WMD sites, Command and Control (C2) facilities, arms depots, missile sites, and training camps. Each strategic turn the Coalition mobilizes military forces and conducts “hyperwar” operations. The latter includes such things as ISR assets, special forces missions, and cyberwarfare. The player rolls a die to determine Iran’s response, and the target of any Iranian hyperwar attacks.

At some point in the game, either random events or the Coalition player may cause the game to shift from strategic to operational turns. At this point, the Coalition player can then use his or her mobilized military units to attack previously-identified Iranian targets. Additional hyperwar assets (cruise missiles) also become available. For the Coalition, it is essential not to trigger the operational phase of the game until the necessary military resources are in place, and intelligence has been collected on the identity of Iranian units and targets. However, there us always a risk of the war starting prematurely, an eventuality one must be prepared for. During the operational phase the actions of Iran are again determined by a die roll, These might include attacks on neutral shipping or even blockading the Straits of Hormuz.

Throughout the game, “oil points” (representing the price of oil) are used to generate military assets. Certain hyperwar actions and military outcomes can affect oil points, as can the destruction or capture of key targets or blockage of the Straits. At the end of the game, the price of oil determines the outcome: anything below $81 a barrel represents a Coalition victory of varying degrees, while Iran wins if the price exceeds $100. If at any point the price goes over $150/barrel, play ends immediately in a global economic meltdown and a humiliating Coalition defeat.

The rules are generally clear, although it would have helped to have had the move sequence printed on the map. There has been some discussion online as to whether the scenario is fully balanced, but this is easily tweaked by adjusting the starting price of oil (indeed, the rules give one the option of using the actual price of oil as a starting point). Random placement of Iranian units and random generation of Iranian strategic and operational actions increases the replayability of the game.

The Coalition begins to mobilize forces, starting with the 5th Fleet and GCC.

Turn 1: The Coalition begins to mobilize forces, starting with the US 5th Fleet and allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

In my own playtest game, the Coalition spent six strategic turns activating forces, mobilizing bases,  identifying Iranian targets and units using ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets, and launching some covert attacks with special forces. As tensions grew, oil prices began to rise to over $100/barrel.

I then shifted to the operational phase. Cruise missile attacks destroyed most of the highest value (WMD) targets and several C2 nodes. These early victories reassured the oil market, and also limited Iranian hyperwar capabilities. In a few cities Iranian rebel units (encouraged by my own special forces) rose up to challenge the regime.

US Marines and a NEST team seize Bandar Abbas and the secret WMD facility there. By this time, most targets in southern Iran have been destroyed by Coalition airpower. However, the 5th Fleet is reluctant to press further into the elf due to the threat of Iranian mines, missiles, and small boat swarms.

It is late in the game, and US Marines and a NEST team have seizes Bandar Abbas and the secret WMD facility there. By this time, most targets in southern Iran have been destroyed by Coalition airpower. However, the 5th Fleet is reluctant to press further into the Gulf due to the threat of Iranian mines, missiles, and IRGC small boat swarms.

US, GCC, and Israeli aircraft struck the remaining targets as a US naval task force pushed its way into the Gulf.  US Marines and a NEST (Nuclear Emergency Support Team) contingent were landed to seize control of the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where a critical Iranian WMD facility was secretly located.

A dense array of mines and anti-ship missiles deterred the US fleet from progressing further into the Gulf, however. The Iranians even temporarily blocked the Straits of Hormuz twice—thereby spiking the price of oil up—but on each occasion US minesweepers were able to deal with the problem.

In the end, most targets in Iran had been destroyed, and the price of oil had settled down to a comfortable $62/barrel. The Coalition had achieved its goals.

Instructional Potential

Target Iran is not a particularly granular or accurate simulation—nor does it claim to be. There is very little in the way of a scenario or politics, and the oil price track is more a composite way of limiting unit mobilization and tracking victory points than an actual representation of oil price dynamics. Military units are abstractions rather than actual units, and the random placement of Iranian forces can result in some very odd deployments. Similarly, the random placement of WMD targets does not necessarily follow their real-world locations. The impact of cyberwarfare is certainly overblown. While it is reasonable to expect that cyberwarfare might degrade air defences or incapacitate command and control capabilities, it certainly would never place an entire US Navy carrier task force or Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps division out of action. One of the random actions that Iran can undertake is setting its own oilfields alight, requiring that Colation petroleum engineers be deployed to bring the fires under control—something that was certainly done by Iraq in 1991 and (to a much lesser extent) in 2003, but which makes little sense in the context of a limited Coalition strike on Iran.

Quite a bit has changed in the real world since the game was first designed too, although that is hardly anything the designer can be blamed for: the US and Iran are in negotiations over the latter’s nuclear capabilities, Iraq is no longer available as a jumping-off point for US attacks (indeed, it is an Iranian quasi-ally), and the US will soon be drawing down its forces in Afghanistan. Because of all this I wouldn’t want to use the game directly for teaching purposes.

Concluding Thoughts

Even if I wouldn’t use it to explore the real-world challenges of a Coalition strike on Iran, I very much enjoyed playing Target Iran. I certainly recommend it to those who want a relatively low complexity modern warfare game designed for solitaire play in under 2 hours or so.

The game is very easy to modify too. Indeed, I’m tempted to develop a variant that better models some of the current strategic realities in the Gulf—if and when I do, I’ll post the results to PAXsims.

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