Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review of Islamic State: The Syria War

Islamic State: The Syria War. Game designer: Javier Romero. Game developer: Ty Bomba. One Small Step/CounterFact magazine, 2017. USD$32.00 (including magazine).

Islamic State is a two-player game included as part of CounterFact magazine #7. It examines the struggle against Daesh (also known as ISIS or the Islamic State) in Syria. Game play is semi-cooperative, in that the Syrian/Russian/Iranian side and the US/Coalition/SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, including the Syrian Kurds/YPG) side are both fighting against non-player Daesh, and neither can win unless the Islamic State is defeated. However, if Daesh is sufficiently weakened, the game reverts to being full competitive, in that only one of the two players can ultimately triumph. The game is similar in general design to Islamic State: Libya War, published in 2016. The rules can be downloaded for free here.


Image credit: Javier Romero (via BGG).

Islamic State: Syria War uses point-to-point movement, which is appropriate given the geography, population distribution, and transportation network found in Syria. Indeed, a very similar system was used in the Countering ISIL game designed by the rapid prototyping working group at the 2015 MORS special meeting on wargaming. That game was later developed by RAND for use in professional settings.

Players have a number of combat options to choose from each turn, ranging from movement/ground combat to reconnaissance, air/artillery strikes, snatch-and-grab operations, and targeted killings, The actions of Daesh are largely determined by chit draw, and might include military offensives, infiltration, subversion, kidnappings, and smuggling. From time to time, other Syrian rebel factions or Turkey might also take action through a similar mechanism. When combat occurs, Daesh forces are randomly drawn, with some units having particular characteristics such as limited anti-tank or anti-air capability, or use of IEDs and human shields.

Islamic State: The Syria War has some rough edges. Some game mechanisms could be a little more elegant, and the rules have some gaps or areas where they could be clearer. It also very much focuses on Syria through the prism of Daesh, and rather than the struggle between the Syrian opposition and the Asad regime. Nevertheless, for a small magazine game it features some interesting elements, and it nicely captures many key aspects of the conflict. I particularly liked the portrayal of special operations forces, the role that intelligence collection plays in the game, and the way in which Daesh activity can be slowed by eliminating leaders or sealing the northern (Turkish) border.

3 responses to “Review of Islamic State: The Syria War

  1. Javier Romero 21/03/2018 at 3:21 pm

    Thanks. When I designed the simulation, I focused on the game of “three in a row” being fought out by the two warrying coalitions, occupying DAESH controlled areas to block their rivals’ advance. With DAESH gone, now the game has changed, and the war has entered a new phase.

  2. Rex Brynen 18/03/2018 at 2:01 pm

    I think the fight against DAESH was only THE issue for the US/Coalition/SDF. The bulk of Russian/Syrian/Iranian/Hizbullah combat power was directed against the main opposition, who posed a far more serious threat, while Daesh was in control of areas that are relatively unimportant to Asad’s survival (Palmyra being the only partial exception). Certainly the Syrian opposition saw Daesh as an annoying sideshow while the real issue was the struggle for the country. However, there’s no easy way of modelling the multisided complexities of the Syrian civil war, I don’t see a problem doing it they way you have, and you’ve done a good job!

  3. Javier Romero 18/03/2018 at 1:16 pm

    Thanks for the review. About this comment

    “It also very much focuses on Syria through the prism of Daesh, and rather than the struggle between the Syrian opposition and the Asad regime”.

    Keep in mind that this simulation was designed during the spring and summer of 2016, that is, almost two years ago. In that time, the fight against DAESH was THE ISSUE in Syria and Iraq. Now, with DAESH defeated (at least temporarily) the situation has changed.

    IS: Syria has, IMO, resisted well as a “predictive tool” of what happened in Syria post-Russian intervention, with the only exception of the Turkish intervention of the summer of 2016 (this will be covered in a variant to be published in a future issue of CF magazine).

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