This discussion of the recent Undeniable Victory megagame is provided by Ben Moores. Ben is a Senior Analyst at IHSMarkit Janes information group responsible for tracking and forecasting military requirements with an expertise in global defence industry, military exports and regional security. He is a sought after defence media commentator and has a BA and MA in War Studies and Defence Analysis respectively.
Undeniable Victory was a recently-run 70 player megagame that explored the military, political and international elements of the Iran-Iraq war over the course of a full day. This article will look at the design considerations and challenges of making a game about a relatively obscure, prolonged, multi-theatre conflict driven by domestic political conflicts and dominated by static warfare.
The base game structure was two teams broken into three core functions and three individual factions. The first function was the council game, the players representing the inner circle of the supreme leader. The second was the HQ game in which players would define strategy for each of their areas of operation. The third function was the operational level wargame. The core game design challenge was to ensure that decision at any one level had a meaningful repercussion at another level. This meant linking together a series of different mechanics and player structures.
This article is going to examine the following challenges and design considerations:
- Relating Council mechanics to a wider game
- Making a factional system relevant
- Integrating domestic politics and morale
- Building a foreign affairs model
- Scaling a procurement model
- Scoping out HQ backseat driving
- Providing operational decisions in a static military environment
- Restricting intelligence for improved decision making process plausibility
- Implementing the evolution of military doctrine and capability
- Connecting an air model to a wider game
- Building a naval game for any eventuality
- Sources and material considerations
- Post game analysis
- What happened on the day
Supreme Leader’s Henchmen: Relating Council Mechanics to a Wider Game
The first challenge was how to represent an imperfect political system led by a leader whose personal goals don’t always match the team goals. The solution was to implement a “Hitlers henchman” structure. This is a game in which the leader is played by control and the team have a sub game to influence the leader to adopt their particular idea via set agenda tokens. The leader gave top level advice and guidance but was quite happy for the various players to get on with their ministerial roles. Each minister role had a “station”, a mechanic that allowed them to make actual decisions.
Rather than having players try to convince the control played supreme leader to adopt their ideas the agenda token system allowed some debate backed up with a mechanical structure. Agendas allowed council players to overrule others, adjust war goals and strategy, replace other players and change the structure of government. This was effectively determined by a bluffing card play mechanic, in which the factions had to figure out how to allocate their hand of cards to which agenda in order to achieve their goals and block others.
Factional Drivers: Making a Factional System Relevant
Another significant challenge was representing the internal politics and the significant changes that occurred during the war. The Tikriti faction replaced the Ba’ath structure in Iraq and the Conservatives pushed out the other ideological wings in Iran. The solution was to group all players into one of three team factions each representing the various political wings of each team. The factions could attempt to change the type of government, control the government branches and change the players within those elements. Furthermore the military structure was also split between various military types; such as the Regular, Popular and Republican Guard for Iraq. Council and HQ players could try to back their particular military wing and ensure that it got the best reinforcements and wasn’t held responsible for battlefield failings. This created significant pressure on the operational level players throughout the day and led to a series of tensions and imperfect strategic decisions that occasionally led to players or a policy being changed.
Image credit: Jim Wallman.
Who Do We Blame This Time? Integrating Domestic Politics and Morale
In both Iran and Iraq there were significant domestic challenges during the era with a number of political groups forming to oppose both sides. Representing this with players or control would have been difficult. Many of these groups would never be able to find common discussion ground with the radical government structures and were too different to fit into the core game structure. The approach I took was to abstract this by having the interior minister choose a major domestic faction (Kurds, political minorities or economic elites) to blame every year, adding resentment chips that could eventually spill over into an incident. Players could reduce the chances of an incident by allocating resources to alleviate the pressure or instead allocate chips to the opposing team to to increase the pressure on them. Each of the domestic factions would have to pass a test at the end of each turn to see if there had been a major incident by rolling a number greater than the resentment chip number. These incidents could either lead to Kurdish forces appearing on the operational level map, Political minorities disrupting various parts of the game by random card draw and economic elites would reduce the long term economic income.
The only alternative to placing domestic resentment chips was to galvanize the country in a “Grand Offensive”, publically announcing an enemy target that they would take and hold or suffer morale damage.
No One Likes Us And We Don’t Care: Building a Foreign Affairs Model
The challenge for foreign powers with a stake in the war was that there wasn’t enough of a game for players to play the various other countries that were associated with the war without seriously increasing the scope of an already complicated game. It was decided that external countries would be played by dedicated control; we were fortunate in that we had a number of regional and subject matter experts who were available to support this. I had considered running a parallel club level discussion game covering all the other countries to provide material and a decision tree but recent publications had closely examined the international considerations and provided in-depth material to draw from.
Foreign relations were tracked by a chart that showed the relative relations for both Iran and Iraq with each of the nations the game tracked. A significant design decision was selecting the countries. Firstly all the major potential arms suppliers with an international interest in the region were represented and divided into two groups; imperialists (USA, USSR) and colonialists (UK, France, Italy and Germany). Then the immediate regional countries with a direct interest in the conflict were represented and grouped together (Syria, Saudi, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey). Finally, Israel was also included.
The status of each relationship gave a particular benefit or disadvantage. For example; Turkish relations impacted Kurdish stability, USSR could supply equipment and Saudi Arabia could lend money. Furthermore relative relations with each group allowed both Iran and Iraq to claim leadership in opposing Imperialism, Colonialism, Zionism and wider regional support which gave a benefit to domestic morale. The mechanic was that there was a trade-off between morale and various political advantages/disadvantages and arms procurement.
Having control generate each and every country relationship wasn’t possible due to time, player and information pressures. Instead approximately 80 pre-prepared events were introduced into the council game with various optional responses that impacted relations, morale and domestic resentment. Whilst these were resolved by the council teams on an annual basis the plan was that the foreign affairs control would interject as the narrative evolved. So there was a structure from which emerging narratives would emerge that the foreign control could handle in more depth such as the hostage crisis, arms deals with Israel or Lebanon complexities.
Drinking the Cup of Poison: End Game Considerations
The end game was challenging as planning for the unknown in a particularly mechanical fashion wasn’t possible. Therefore the driver for peace was a collapse in domestic morale. As the game progressed the oil price fell dramatically which creates a guns versus butter decision. Once one team’s morale hit rock bottom they could suffer desertions, reach accommodation with the enemy or appeal for international intervention to end the conflict. Using the metrics we had of morale, international relations and the military situation we were able to use experienced control facilitators to start to place pressure on the teams to bring the conflict to a ceasefire. It wasn’t possible to fully explore a negotiated settlement as it would have included only a small number of players.
Image credit: Jim Wallman.
Arms Dealers Paradise: Scaling a Procurement Model
The challenge for procurement was capturing a level of arms sourcing granularity that interfaced with the operational level game but was simple enough to keep track of with limited control to oversee it. The game had to be able to capture procurement and the impact that foreign policy had on this. Whilst radical foreign policy led to increased domestic morale it increasingly cut players off from advanced arms supplies and, crucially, spare parts. Advanced weapons and specialist capabilities could only be acquired from Europe, USA or the USSR. As relations degraded countries would be reluctant to sell arms and then increasingly spare parts for existing weapons degrading their capability further. China and North Korea would sell to either country regardless of the political situation and, although their equipment tended to be of very poor quality, this meant that neither team was ever entirely cut off from arms supply.
Another problem I initially had was trying to connect the right amount of money for procurement. To make the council financial game manageable within the time limits I made the cubes USD3 billion a piece but this was a large sum for the procurement system so they broke that money down into units of USD100 million which worked well when buying equipment at a brigade and squadron level.
There were 107 different types of procurement choices in the game ranging from chemical weapons, T-72s, MANPADS, improved shipyards, MiG-19s and hovercraft and this tied in with the squadron/ brigade/ ship level operational level game. Each piece of equipment or capability could only be sourced from a particular country and some elements only in limited numbers. Each piece was tracked for initial purchase cost, a generic spares cost and a specific origin source. This was manageable at a player level and worked well.
Image credit: Jim Wallman
The structure meant that the dedicated procurement player arguably had too much power, the council minister who was jointly responsible was often too busy with factional matters. This meant that there was often too little oversight which led to some unexpected but interesting procurements, including some very interesting back room arms deals as the game progressed resulting force structures and arms sources changing in fascinating and plausible ways. Maybe involving the wider HQ player base in the decision making process would have been useful.
Implementing The Unimplementable: Scoping out HQ Backseat Driving
The HQ game challenge was not having them as back seat drivers for the operational level game but as strategic goal setters. I addressed this by having them unable to visit the operational maps for most of the game and issuing geographic maps without the movement areas on them. This meant that the orders they gave and the information they received were not always perfect. This was compounded as air support worked through a slightly different HQ channel. The downside was that the HQ players were reliant on the operational players providing them with information and if that information was not provided they had a limited game.
If I were to run it again then I would need to look at involving the HQ players in the procurement game or having a simple logistics game that they could resolve between themselves that impacted the operational level and perhaps the opposing HQ. This could impact the operational level players in such a way that the players were keen to come to the HQ. Although part of the problem was the success of the factional system, operational players were very reluctant to share any bad news for fear of being demoted or removed by the council as part of a factional dispute.
Image credit: Jim Wallman
Image credit: Jim Wallman
Delusions of Manoeuvre: Providing Operational Decisions in a Static Military Environment
There were a number of challenges in creating an operational level wargame that was dominated by static warfare, with imperfect, evolving military capabilities over an extended time frame.
I decided very early on that I would not capture exact formation nomenclature as over the course of the war there was a huge amount of change and the effort required to capture the exact nature of each formation nomenclature wouldn’t provide any increase in plausibility (the audience not being experts) or realism (due to the protracted nature of the conflict).
In regards to time relative to action I had to consider that there multiple game domains in each team including; a council game (seven players representing the inner trusted circle), a joint military headquarters game (seven players representing the various theatre commanders, procurement team) and the joint chief of staff. The three military games (land, sea and air) had to be on a similar timeline but the HQ game and the Council game could run on looser timelines that coincided at certain points.
Image credit: Jim Wallman
It is neither realistic nor engaging that military stalemate and lack of operational manoeuvre options in a game design mean there is nothing for players to do or plan for. This is a particular challenge in a strategic trench warfare environment. So when it came to handling time I wanted to create a design that kept players engaged in a decision making process even when there were no options for manoeuvre or attack.
For the military games I initially decided that I didn’t want fixed turns I wanted activations determined by logistics driven at an HQ level. The concept being that the various front players would be at various stages of “readiness” and that the long periods of historic inaction could be skipped through until a particular front was able to activate because the logistic resources were in place to enable them to do so. The problem was I couldn’t mesh that idea with the opening stages of the conflict or with the air game. It also meant that I still had to have some sort of turn system at an HQ level to determine when logistics became available. This still left me with the time challenge so I reverted to a proven process of drawing random player activation chits. This worked very well on the day because it provides definitive clarity on who can act and when but I will continue to investigate the initial idea.
Image credit: Jim Wallman
Dancing In the Dark: Restricting Intelligence for Improved Decision-making Process Plausibility
When it came to the operational design in a static trench warfare situation it was important that intelligence was very limited. Traditional closed map games create a much more realistic military intelligence challenge but they also tend to require lots of control, can be slow and can create confusion for player options. So the challenge was to capture imperfect intelligence information that could be managed by the players in an easy manner.
The solution was to hide force structures. Each operational player controlled a small corps, with divisions represented on the table but with the brigades (the smallest game element captured) within stacked on player’s individual command sheet. These were hidden behind a foam board that was on the map table. This allowed control and players to quickly reveal information when requested, resolve missions in short order and worked enormously well on the day with lots of imperfect decisions being made.
Image credit: Jim Wallman
Learning Lessons The Hard Way: Implementing the Evolution of Military Doctrine and Capability
Addressing evolving military doctrinal capabilities, as opposed to technical or force capabilities, over an extended conflict was another challenge. The solution I adopted was to implement a learning curve system called combat lessons. Combat lessons were effectively rules exceptions that were awarded primarily for failing in a combat. To avoid unnecessary complexity the control would give out a sticker that that would adhere to the command sheet. Combat lessons didn’t give bonuses but evolved the rules giving players new capabilities; changing how the various types of forces performed in different periods of the game. Players were only aware of the type of lessons as they learnt them, creating an evolving dynamic.
Finally, ensuring that players had actions even when they couldn’t manoeuvre was critically important to both realism and player enjoyment. Doing nothing couldn’t be an option. So each player had a list of various missions and postures that they could adopt on a divisional basis that would give them combat and intelligence advantages relative to the opposition in the short and long term.
The Air Blame Game: Connecting an Air Model to a Wider Game
The air war had to be fairly abstract considering the duration of the conflict. I wanted to capture strategic operations, ground support, air defence, air superiority and maritime operations. As the turns (called seasons) were effectively six months each this meant that the air war had to represent a series of engagements and support missions.
Representing air fields in the game was difficult, there were many of them and it added a level of detail and complexity to the maps that related to range. The problem with range is that it’s not a fixed amount; it’s relative to the mission and load out. However, air field attacks did play a notable element during the war so eventually I introduced them as a holding box in which air defences could be placed.
I also made the air force responsible for air defence in all rear areas for two reasons. Firstly, whilst not entirely accurate it did mean that the game had someone who was responsible for allocating air and ground based assets to defend infrastructure. This also meant that players were largely distracted by the operational air war and repeated the historic errors of the conflict in failing to allocate resources to strategic assets.
Image credit: Jim Wallman
Image credit: John Mizon
Carrier Death Ride: Building a Naval game for any Eventuality
The naval game challenge was to capture operations over an extended period that meshed with air power and created interesting decisions. In addition it had to capture the internationalization of the war if one side were to start successfully blockading the enemy and disrupting regional trade. Finally the system had to be detailed enough to represent combat between individual missile boats, evolving maritime air power and a potential death ride against modern carrier groups. It also had to represent hidden movement and imperfect force structures.
I resolved the imperfect force structure requirement by having a refit system that meant that a certain fraction of the previously deployed ships had to be put aside at the end of each season. Furthermore deploying forces into an area didn’t always guarantee that they were able to enter combat, they had to roll to enter combat reflecting what forces might have been available in a particular battle.
The naval part of the game arguably failed to be engaging enough, whilst it functioned and provided a very realistic result it didn’t provide enough player decisions, rather just a lot of dice rolling. Fundamentally the map needed to be bigger to allow more areas for manoeuvre.
Books and Games: Sources and Material Considerations
The Iran-Iraq war has been relatively well covered by a number of books in recent years after an absence of much published material over the past twenty years. We now have a much better understanding of the internal dynamics of the Iraqi military command (thanks to Kevin Woods) and the Iranian political infighting (thanks to Pierre Razoux). However, there are only two commercially available games on the era; Ignorant Armies, an old school hex game and the very recent Bloody Dawns, a more modern abstracted card driven game written by Pierre Razoux. Neither game was suitable for adaption or inspiration for a megagame. This game was a culmination of a twenty year interest in the war and trips to the region to understand more. Unfortunately political tensions and sensitivities continue to make it challenging to access and understand the conflict in more depth.
Post Game Analysis
The game was largely successful with players being engaged enough to be arguing about who had won two days later and what if things had been done differently. The game was run with 68 people who didn’t know anything about the conflict but the war but the briefing materials and the game chrome (provided by control roleplaying and the events) meant that the participants made era appropriate decisions and considerations. Many of the players were megagmers, not war gamers, and some of them, including me, don’t enjoy traditional wargames. So part of the game consideration and design process was to figure out how to make a wargame interesting to someone who isn’t interested in traditional wargames. Part of that was relatively easy as we cast people according to their interest as we knew it but providing interesting, stressful, time pressurized dilemmas is harder.
Over the past decade I’ve increasingly drifted away from most commercial wargames because I don’t believe that actually resemble or simulate conflict in any meaningful manner. In part the design of this game incorporated the core ingredients that I believe are missing from games that claim to be about war, primarily imperfect intelligence and strategic directives that conflict with operational necessities.
I’ve been ribbed for observing that both sides made major strategic errors but in reflection I’m now very pleased about this because the game was designed to induce imperfect strategic decision making and in that I clearly succeeded without forcing poor decisions making upon players.
The History Of A Ball? What Happened on the Day
The game followed a plausibly historical pattern with Iraq striking out to take the Southern Iranian oil infrastructure and central and northern border regions. Caution left the Iraqi’s fairly short of their objectives but failing to guard the Iraqi Al Faw area almost trapped the navy and led to a series of extremely costly counter attack to regain it from Revolutionary Guard forces. By 1983 Iran had gone on the offensive in the Northern and central regions and a series of battle of attrition slowly pushed back Iraqi forces. Meanwhile in the South, after the initial confusion and repeated leadership changes, Iraqi forces had captured the key border cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan and even briefly took the key oil hub city of Ahwaz.
The Iranians initially got the better of things at sea damaging Iraqi off shore terminals but Iraqi procurements of Airborne ASuW assets in the form of Mirage’s, Super Frelons and Exocets wreaked havoc amongst Iranian platforms. An unapproved Iranian blockade of the Hormuz Straits dramatically escalated the international presence in the region drawing in large US naval forces that formed a critical end game component. Iran naval forces were building “kamikaze” speed boat forces by the end whilst the Iraqi navy had effectively ceased to exist as a fighting force.
By 1982 the Iranians had largely established air superiority and began to attack prestige targets in Iraq including Saddam’s Dam in Mosul and Saddam’s Palace which caused political chaos as an increasingly enraged Saddam lashed out at his council who in turn sought scape goats in the form of the air ministry which increasingly resembled a revolving door. However, large scale procurements in an extremely wide range of air platforms meant the air war continued unabated right until the end when a large successful Iraqi raid on the main Iranian exporting terminal at Kharg was a decisive moment in pushing the Iranians to consider a cease fire.
Both sides had focused on high end procurements over social subsidies which by 1986 began to draw both sides into a morale end game. Furthermore Kurdish forces were able to establish themselves on the Turkish border and around Mosul and caused significant disruption to Iraqi forces and oil fields.
By 1987 the Iranians had been able to break out of the mountains to the outskirts of the Northern Iraqi oil towns of Kirkuk and Mosul, had an armoured division within a season of Baghdad and had stabilized, but not recaptured the Southern border areas. (although they had no immediate chance of retaking them). However, by this point the Iraqi council had realized that they were not able to stabilize the front or domestic morale and had made major political concessions in exchange for US political patronage and around USD21 billion to keep them in the war.
A successful US strike on Kharg followed by the dramatic second Iraqi air strike and a general decline in Iranian morale led to Iran reluctantly accepting the unacceptable in a ceasefire at the end of 1987. Immediate stabbed in-the-back theories began to circulate amongst front line commanders.
Slightly stunned Iranian players hear that Iraq has taken US patronage. Image credit: Becky Ladley