Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Arab Spring

Gaming the Arab Spring – more play testing


Setting up the game.

We had another playtest of Corinne Goldberger’s Arab Spring game at ICAMES last night. Once again, I thought it went extremely well, and—more importantly—our group of new players all picked it up very quickly. All of the basic game mechanics worked smoothly, or need only minor tweaking. Next she’ll face the challenge of writing up the rules in a clear and effective way.

In the game, the two opposition players joined forces to successfully “occupying the square” in Yemen in December 2010. The game uses a Freedom in the Galaxy -like domino effect mechanism, so the action there had the effect of generating grievances and activists in other countries, much like the informational cascades which characterized the real Arab Spring.


The meeples represent activists, belonging to either the secular (left half of the box) or Islamist (right half of the box) opposition. The disks in the centre indicate social grievances, colour coded to match the activists: white (or black, we didn’t have enough white) = youth, red = workers, blue = middle class, red = rural farmers. The tanks indicate the repressive power of the state (black = republic, purple = monarchy). The coins represent resources. This is early in the game, and the Yemeni opposition has just  “occupied the square” (indicated here by a yellow disk, although eventually the game will use a purpose designed card or other indicator). [Click to enlarge.]

The republican regime player lacked the card necessary to “clear the square,” and within a month the country tipped into full-scale revolt, causing President Saleh to flee. Closely-fought elections followed a few months later, which the Islamist opposition player won.

At this point, the number of activists and grievances was growing in both Egypt and Sudan. The opposition players decided to focus on Sudan, where they had a slight edge and where the regime had less repressive capability (tanks). They occupied the square too, then overthrew the regime, while an attempted counter-coup by pro-regime forces failed. Efforts by opposition forces to hold quick elections were stymied by conservative judges appointed under the earlier dictatorship.

While the overthrow of two republics in quick succession certainly made the republics feel very vulnerable, it may have been a blessing in disguise. With opposition energies focused on two low-value countries (both Sudan and Yemen are only worth 2 victory points), the republics launched a series of reforms and repression in Egypt (6 VP) intended to reduce grievances and eliminate activists. In the Arab Spring, you need both to successfully challenge regimes: grievances have no effect unless there are activists of a similar kind (youth, workers, middle class, and rural), and activists are of no value if there are no significant social grievances to play upon. Egypt also increased military expenditures, thereby gaining an additional “tank” (signifying the repressive strength of the state).

With the Mubarak regime in Egypt consolidating its position, both opposition players then went after Algeria. The Algerian regime responded by using its oil money to co-opt some opposition activists, and then—in a striking display of the ruthless efficiency of the mukhabarat state (or good dice-rolling) arrested all of the others.  Tunisia clamped down for good measure too, while Libya announced new social programmes designed to address popular discontent.

Through much of the first two-thirds of the game, the monarchical player had felt quite secure. Opposition energies were largely focused on the republics. The Gulf monarchies were awash with resources, in part because of high oil prices. Morocco and Jordan were a little more vulnerable, but generally any growth of activists or grievances there were met by appropriate responses quite quickly.


At this point in the game, the governments of both Yemen and Sudan have been overthrown (we’ve indicated this with a black disk for now, but it will have a proper marker eventually). Egypt is full of Islamist activists, but regime reforms (supported by petrodollar foreign aid) have reduced popular grievances so their appeal is limited. Algeria, with its large number of worker (red) and farmer (green) grievances and activists will thus be the next target of the opposition. The monarchical player has noticed the growing number of grievances in Morocco and Jordan (bottom right), and will soon take steps to address these. [Click to enlarge.]

Then it all started to go wrong. In the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, a combination of sectarian tensions and youth activism was beginning to challenge the regime. Demonstrators occupied Pearl Roundabout. Saudi Arabia sent in massive military forces to help quell the protests. This however, wasn’t enough. As violence mounted, the protestors forced the Khalifa dynasty from power. A revolution in the Gulf! Who would have thought it possible?

The shockwaves were immense. Protestors in Saudi Arabia tried to mobilize, but failed. However, in Oman they were more successful. Moreover, under the game rules the monarchy player, who otherwise would be in contention for first place, automatically loses if a single monarchy is overthrown at the end of the game.

It all came down to the last turn, November 2011. The monarchy player hoped that a “counter-revolution” of royalist officers and foreign mercenaries in the armed forces would be able to turn back the clock in Bahrain—or, if that failed, trigger a civil war which the better-armed royalists might win. They were unable to do so, however.

Thus the game ended with the opposition players neck-and-neck at around a half-dozen victory points each. The royalists had many more, but the loss of Bahrain meant that they automatically lost the game. The republican regimes had 18 VP, and so were the winners.

Despite the apparently large winning margin, the game had been very close—indeed, the republics spend the first half of the game convinced they were a losing cause, the oppositions had been quite buoyant until things began to bog down for them mid-game, and the monarchies went from a strong position to losing in the last few months/turns of the game.  Had Egypt fallen the republican player would have  lost 6 VP, and the opposition players could have gained as many as 10 VP, entirely changing the outcome. Thus the game manages to both reflect real-world dynamics but to give everyone a real chance at “winning.” I’m really impressed with the design.

Gaming the “Arab Spring” – A First Playtest

On Monday, several of us got together for a first play test of Corinne Goldberger’s Arab Spring board game. Corinne is developing the game as part of an undergraduate independent reading course at McGill University, and you’ll find her other posts on the topic here.

I thought the game (in which I played the Islamist opposition) went very well. On the first turn (December 2010) the opposition players, working together, managed to “occupy the square” in Yemen. We overthrew the government there a month later, but  were immediately forced from power by a military coup (“counterrevolution”). Thereafter, state repression decimated the ranks of our activists in the country.

In February, we occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, and then overthrew the Egyptian regime in March. As the Islamist and secular forces jockeyed for position in anticipation of forthcoming elections there, our general level of cooperation declined. The elections were eventually won by the secularists.

In Many and June 2011 we made several attempts to mobilize an uprising in Libya, with no success. However, the general level of violence increased there, placing the country on the verge of civil war.

Efforts to mobilize in Morocco were offset by a great deal of regime patronage, bolstered by Saudi foreign aid. The Jordanian government also took efforts to undercut any opposition. Thereafter, we generally left the monarchical regimes alone, and concentrated on the beleaguered republics. Efforts to mobilize in Algeria were unsuccessful, but as in Libya violence mounted there too. In August, mass protests erupted in the Sudan—but we couldn’t quite topple the regime by the time the game ended in November (turn 12).

The basic game mechanics are solid, and gameplay is exciting. Strategy matters. The rules (notably the move sequence, and the ability to swap cards) produce an interesting combination of cooperation and rivalry between the two oppositions and between the two sets of regimes. While outcomes are certainly not identical to the real events of 2010-11 (it would be a rather dull game if the outcome were preordained), they are certainly similar in tone and type. At this point, what is largely needed is tweaking of the cards. We also decided to add small optional decks from which players can draw if countries are in civil war or once regimes have been overthrow, thereby expanding their range of options.

* * *

Last week I had my long-awaited first playtest of the Arab Spring board game – and I think it was a success! Overall, as far as I can tell, it was a fairly typical first playtest experience in that the general game mechanics worked mostly as anticipated, but some cards, some rules, and some mechanics are in need of varying degrees of overhaul. There were also some markers missing from the game that were mostly an oversight on my part, such as violence markers and ways to denote when a country has its square occupied or has a transitional government.

I was very fortunate to have four people willing to playtest, leaving me free to take many, many pages of notes over the course of the game. My sincere thanks to the four playtesters: Professor Brynen, Tom Fisher, Jason and Kat. Below you will find my summary of this initial playtest and my next steps in the game’s development.

The Board

The board, designed by Tom Fisher, worked extremely well for the game. While we are still changing the details, the board facilitated the game with no major issues.

Arab Spring copy 3

The game board used for the play test.

Each country has one box in which all pieces are played for said country. In the middle of each box is the area for the grievance tokens, surrounded by actvists (or lack thereof). The box for activists is split down the middle, with the secular players’ activists on one side and the Isalmists’ activists on the other. This box with activists represents the “main square” of a major city, like Tahrir Square or Pearl Roundabout. Surrounding this main square with activists are government troops, represented by tanks. There is also an overhang circle on the bottom of each square where each country’s money is held. These are the main sites of gameplay, and no major changes were needed to it after the playtest.

The Arab Spring game board (latest version, as of March 18).

The latest version of the game board.

Some small changes have been made to the board since this particular iteration. The colour scheme has changed, the countries with oil (denoted with an oil derrick) have changed, and the places for the decks have changed to reflect the existence of only two decks, one for the regimes and one for the opposition. Following the playtest we also added a turn tracker, after deciding throughout the course of the game on the number of turns we would have. The last major change to the board at this point is the addition of “contagion” lines on the map, lines that denote geographically touching countries. These are relevant for the placement of demonstration effects following particular actions, such as overthrowing a regime in a country.

The Set-up

One thing I realized I overlooked in the planning of this game was how the game board would be set up asymmetrically at the beginning of the game to reflect differences in levels of discontent and differences in the extent of regimes’ repressive force on the ground. Each country will now start with different numbers of grievances, activists, tanks, and money, in a configuration that is relatively consistent with the realities of the region in December 2010.

The Gameplay

Playing the game.

Playing the game.

Generally the game went much as expected. In particular, I was pleased to watch players interact in the ways I anticipated for the game. One element of the game that facilitated player cooperation was the ability to swap a card with the other player of your type (regime or opposition) in lieu of playing a card. Early on in the game there was a lot of cooperation, with some wariness as to the other player’s intentions, but as the game progressed and victory points got closer, skeptcicism increased and cooperation was more difficult.

The violence aspect of the game was barely relevent to this particular game, with only two instances of double 1’s (which adds violence when rolled during a repression attempts as a result of particularly ineffective repression) being rolled throughout the entirety of the game. Initially there were three levels of violence in the game, with the third level being full civil war, but due to the lack of violence in this game I have changed it to two violence markers is a civil war. I will also be adding a card into each deck that gives a player the ability to escalate violence, to mirror the de-escalate violence cards that already exist.

A lot of tweaking of cards happened throughout the playtest. I think I underestimated how difficult it was to make cards extremely clear in such a small space, without leaving any room for ambiguity as to which countries a card can be played on or when a card could be played. I realized that some assumptions I had made in creating the cards (that regime players could only play cards on their respective countries, for instance) were not assumptions that the players made, thus making some of the card actions confusing. Some cards were overpowered, others were underpowered; some cards needed to exist that did not exist, other cards came up too frequently. And even if the card effects were balanced, other cards needed changes to the flavour text! The bottom line seems to be that adapting the decks is just a constant exercise throughout game development. Now I know.

The Win

The win/loss conditions and victory points system was the other element of the game that still underdeveloped at the time that we played the first game. While some of that was just regular tweaking, we also decided to scrap many of the overly complicated overriding win/loss conditions that existed as of my last blog post. Now the game is far more victory points oriented, with the only overriding conditions being: 1) if any monarchy is overthrown at the end of the game, the monarchical regime player loses; and 2) if all republics are not overthrown at the end of the game, the republican regime player wins. The former is to instil a sense of paranoia in the monarchical player, such that they have clear incentives to maintain the smaller monarchies (such as Bahrain) even at a financial cost to say, Saudi Arabia. The latter is a mirror to the monarchical lose condition, but also provides a concrete reason for the republican player to hold on to their less important republics.

The rest of the scoring relies on victory points. The main component to the victory points system is that each country is worth a designated amount of victory points to the player who controls said country. Therefore while regimes begin with all the victory points of the countries they hold, opposition begins with zero victory points. This too reflects initial assymetries. The result however is that opposition players need more opportunities to gain victory points than regimes do through gameplay.

One way this was dealt with was to give victory points to an opposition player when they successfully occupy a square or overthrow a regime, regardless of if they or the other opposition player ultimately ends up in control of the country and its associated victory points. After the playtest I increased the number of points opposition got for those actions, however I have also added victory points for the regime players when they successfully implement a counter-revolution or clear the square (both the results of a particular card in the regime deck).

The last victory points rule addition goes to affect the monarchical player’s incentive structure, reflecting the monarchies’ interests during the Arab Spring. That is, at the end of the game, the monarchical player gains one victory point if Libya is overthrown, and gains two victory points if Syria is overthrown. However, the monarchical player loses two victory points if Egypt is overthrown at the end of the game.

Plans for the Future

I am currently in the process of making changes to the cards used in the game, as explained above. The next step is a comprehensive list of rules and game mechanics that are sufficient to explain to someone new to the game everything that needs to happen. After that, more playtesting!

Corinne Goldberger 

Gaming the “Arab Spring,” Part 3

Below is the third instalment of Corinne Goldberger’s developer diary for her current “Arab Spring” game project. You’ll find an explanation of the project and the other instalments here and here.

 * * *

If there is one thing I have learned about game design thus far it is that every element of a game needs to be extremely carefully thought out and reasoned. Making sure that the effects of a given action retain fidelity to what has occurred (or might have occurred) in the Arab Spring gets increasingly difficult as mechanics begin to interact with each other and multiple players.

Demotix 24th June 2012

So, with the basics of the game now laid out, I wanted to take some time to explain some of the nuance of the more complex mechanics of the game and the decision-making process behind them.


Repressive force is one of the main tools of the regime players. Though regimes can be overthrown, there is a strongly imbalanced power-dynamic (at least at the outset of the game, and before major protests) between regimes and opposition that is largely due to a regime’s capacity and will to repress.

In this game, regimes place individual repressive force pieces (represented by a tank) in their countries through cardplay. A repressive force on the ground does not automatically mean there is violence, reflecting a phase of generally peaceful protests in that country. To actively repress – that is, to try to remove activists – a regime player must play a “Repression” “, a card that will appear frequently throughout the regime deck.

When a regime plays a “Repression” card, the following takes place:

  1. The regime rolls the same number of dice as they have repression pieces in that country. For example, if they have five repressive force pieces in the country they want to repress in, they will roll five dice.
  2. For every 5 or 6 the regime player rolls, one activist is removed in that country as a result of successful repression.
  3. If the regime player rolls a 1, they must add one grievance, as a result of unsuccessful targeting of protesters.
  4. If the regime player rolls two 1’s, they must add one grievance and the violence level of the country increases by one. (Violence levels explained below.)

At this point the repressive phase is over for the time being. There is a chance that upon play-testing this I change the numbers required to repress effectively, if it seems to be successful infrequently enough that it disincentivizes the regime player from doing it.

“Occupying the Square” and Revolutions

The main goal of the opposition players is to overthrow as many of the regimes as possible. To do so they must generate (utilize) grievances and mobilize activists. Grievances and activists break down into different sectors that represent different sectors of society and their respective issues. Currently the sectors are Youth, Workers, and Rural grievances and activists.

Once an opposition player has an “Occupy the Sqare” card, they may choose to attempt to occupy the square (like Tahrir Square in Egypt, or the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain) to generate mass protests in the capital. The play goes as follows:

1. The opposition player rolls the same number of dice as they have total grievance pieces, less the number of repression pieces in play. For example, if there are seven (7) total grievances and three (3) repressive forces, the opposition player rolls four (4). The opposition player must have the corresponding activist type to count a given sector of grievances. So if it is the Islamist player trying to occupy the square, there must be at least one Islamist student activist to include student grievances in the number of dice to be rolled. The two opposition players may ally and combine their activists if previously agreed to.

Example 1: There is one (1) Islamist student activist, two (2) Islamist worker activists, and one (1) Islamist farmer activist. There are three (3) student grievances, two (2) worker grievances, and two (2) rural grievances. There are three (3) repression pieces in play. The total number of dice rolled by the Islamist player would be four (4), as calculated by [(3+2+2)-3].

Example 2: If during the repressive phase the regime manages to remove the Islamist student activist, those grievances would not count, and as such the number of dice they could roll would only be 1 [(2+2)-1]. Therefore it is in the best interest of the opposition player to wait until they have a substantial number of grievances and activists to attempt to take over the square.

2. If the opposition player rolls a 6, they are successful in creating mass protests with a protest camp in the square.

3. If they are successful, the opposition player adds two activists to the country where they are occupying the square, and may also add an activist to any two adjacent countries, representing the regional anti-regime momentum gained and the demonstration effects on surrounding countries.

Once the square has been occupied, the opposition players may attempt to overthrow the regime on the following turn with a “Revolution!” card. This follows the same process as above in terms of dice rolls and success conditions. If they are successful, the player may add two activists to any two adjacent countries.

Violence Levels

Violence levels will be a fairly simple component to the game. The level of violence can increase in a particular country at a given time, either due to incompetent and/or unsuccessful attempts at repression by the regime (if two 1’s are rolled when repressing, as explained above) or as a result of particular cards. When the violence level increases, one violence marker will be placed on the country. When there are three violence markers, the country enters into a civil war. Certain cards will not be able to be played in times of high violence (more than one violence marker), such as “Civil Society Building”, while other cards may only be played in times of violence or civil war, such as “NATO Intervention.”

If a civil war breaks out, a card containing the rules for civil war is placed on the country in question, denoting which countries are at war. If there is a country in a civil war, each turn there is a civil war phase before regular gameplay in which direct fighting occurs. If there are multiple countries in civil wars, the civil war phase happens country by country.

  1. Regime rolls as many dice as they have repression pieces (tanks). Each 5 or 6 they roll an opposition player loses an activist.
  2. The opposition players with activists in said country roll as many dice as they have activists. For each 6 they roll the opposition loses a repression piece (tank).
  3. The victim of the attack decides what piece to remove. So for example, the opposition player can decide which sector(s) their activist(s) is/are removed from.

 Civil war ends when either side concedes or a side loses all of its activists or repressive forces. There may also be cards that de-escalate violence or end a civil war in some way. I expect civil war to be a relatively rare occurrence, but with a very high cost to all parties involved. 

Win Conditions

The game ends when a certain number of turns have passed (exact number to be determined). The goal of the game for all players is to end the game with the most number of victory points. The main way points are scored is by control of countries. Larger and more politically important countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will be worth six victory points each, countries of medium importance are worth four victory points each, while smaller and less significant countries will be worth two victory points each. Regime players will start with many victory points and will  lose some number of them over the course of the game, whereas opposition players will start with no victory points but gain them over the course of the game. A victory point can also be gained from a few particular actions and cards, such as being the main opposition (most number of activists) responsible for overthrowing a regime.

Beyond this there are a few overriding win and lose conditions:

  • Monarchies: The monarchical regimes player will win if none of the monarchies were overthrown over the course of the game. However they will lose, regardless of victory points, if more than one monarchy is overthrown at the end of the game. This is meant to create a real sense of concern for this player in protecting even the small monarchies that are minimally valuable in terms of points, reflecting the very real concern of the Middle Eastern monarchies for all of the other monarchies.
  • Republics: The republican regimes player will win if two or fewer regimes are overthrown at the end of the game. There is no overriding loss condition for the republics, reflecting the lack of solidarity between the republics as a categorical grouping.
  • Opposition:  If any five countries are overthrown at the end of the game, the opposition wins. The opposition player who controls the most number of regimes wins, and the other opposition player comes second as long as the second opposition player is in control of at least one of the overthrown countries. This would represent a very significant and perhaps lasting political change across the region.

 Plans for the Future

A play-test! A board is in the works (many thanks to Tom Fisher for designing the board for me!), pieces have been ordered, cards are being developed, and a complete rule sheet is also not far off. Things are moving along well, and I could not be more excited to see how the game plays out.

Gaming the “Arab Spring”, Part 2

Thousands of Egyptian supportersBelow you will find the second instalment of Corinne Goldberger’s  developer diary for he current “Arab Spring” game project. You’ll find an explanation of the project and the first instalment here.

* * *

I recently posted my initial thoughts on an Arab Spring board game, a game that aims to simulate some of the dynamics, actions and outcomes of recent events in the Middle East. Many hours of thinking, discussing and planning later, I give you my updated notes on the main elements of the game and mechanics of gameplay.

But first, I just wanted to extend my sincere thanks for the very positive feedback I have received thus far. I greatly appreciate the support, and am so excited to have the opportunity to continue sharing my work on this project as it develops.

Main Game Elements 

After deciding who the players would be, the next challenge was identifying the main tools each player would have to work with. Generally there will be two sets of tools: the regime players will work with money pieces and repressive forces, while the opposition players will work with “grievances” and activists.

For the regime players, money will enable them to pursue certain regime policies but not others and provide a mechanism for co-optation of people, sectors and/or groups. Repressive force pieces will be able to be placed in countries in order to represent the extent of the presence of the regime in a given place. Of course, the monarchical regimes player will only be able to place its forces in monarchical countries, and the republican regimes player will only be able to place its forces in republican countries.

The opposition tools are a bit more varied and reliant upon each other. “Grievance” tokens will be placed to represent issues that arise in a given country that have not been responded to or mitigated yet with a regime policy. Grievance tokens will exist in several colours in order to represent different categories of grievances, such as youth grievances, workers’ grievances, and rural grievances. There is no distinction between a grievance placed by the secular opposition player versus the Islamist opposition player.

In contrast, the secular opposition player may only place “secular activist” pieces while the Islamist opposition player can only place “Islamist activist” pieces. Activists are needed to operationalize the grievance tokens – lots of grievances does very little without a critical mass of activists. There will be situations in which secular and Islamist opposition interests align and alliances will occur, but that coordination will need to happen between the actual players of the game as opposed to it being a given of the game.

Basic Gameplay

As mentioned in the previous post, this game will be a card-driven game. The advantage of this is: (1) it simplifies the game rules by having the cards contain what actions they can/must take and what the impacts of those actions are; and (2) that it allows me to include a wide array of events and personalities without adding too many game elements that would complicate and slow down the game, to the detriment of its educational value.

Each player will hold five cards in their hands, and will be able to play up to two cards each turn under regular circumstances. Some cards will allow players to do alternative things, such as immediate-play cards that can be played on a different player’s turn to some effect, or cards that allow you to play an additional card on your turn. Each card will contain some flavour text, explaining what the card does and why, as well as the game effects of said card. Some cards will be regular gameplay cards and will come up relatively frequently, such as cards that allow the regime to repress opposition (place one repressive force token on a country of choice). Other cards will be one-off events or actions, such as a fatwa card that allows the Islamist player to place one Islamist activist in any two countries where there is a majority of Islamist activists.

The regime’s goal in the game is to maintain control over its countries, through repression, patronage, and a variety of policies or actions. Repression and patronage cards will be frequent cards, while other regime policies may come up infrequently and/or only be possible under certain conditions. Rebel players are attempting to overthrow regimes. To do so they must generate and utilize grievances, placed as a result of opposition and regime actions, and mobilize activists. Opposition players overthrow regimes by playing an “Occupy the Square” card successfully, and on the following turn playing an “Overthrow regime” card successfully. Success is affected by the number of activists, grievances, and repressive forces are in play, and determined by rolling some number of dice. Detailed rules and interactions will be coming in my next post.

One other game element I’ll be including is violence levels. Violence levels can increase in a particular country at a given time, due either to particularly ineffective attempts at repression (determined by rolling two 1s when playing a repression card) or to specific cards and actions. Certain cards may not be played in times of violence, such as the Civil Society Building card, while other cards may only be played in times of high violence, like the NATO Intervention card. Violence levels are denoted by violence markers, and at three markers the country has devolved into civil war. When a country is in a civil war, a card is placed on said country to clearly mark it as such, and each turn there is a civil war phase before regular play that involves some direct fighting with a high likelihood of heavy casualties on both sides. Civil wars generally can end if one side concedes or if a side loses all of their activists or repressive forces. Again, more detailed explanations are forthcoming.

Future Plans

My next steps involve finalizing the win/loss conditions for each player, as well as determining the method(s) of scoring points. Another big question to answer is what happens to a country once it is overthrown. I have some ideas, but I am concerned it will add too much time to the length of the game, so they’re still a work-in-progress at the moment.

I am also generating the cards that will be used, and the full (first draft) of the rules. Hopefully I will be able to post those shortly, and our first play-test can occur soon after.

Corinne Goldberger 

Gaming the “Arab Spring”, Part 1


Corinne Goldberger, an Honours student in political science at McGill University, has taken on the challenge this term of designing an educational board game that explores the “Arab Spring,”—that is, the wave of protests and uprising that swept the Arab world in 2011, and which continue to have profound ramifications for the region. I will be supervising her work. As part of the project, she has offered to post some periodic reflections to PAXsims on her conceptual ideas for the game, design choices, and revisions. You’ll find her first contribution below.

In our discussion of game mechanics, one of the issues that came through was the need to keep it simple so that the game was accessible to players without much board gaming experience. As you’ll see in future posts, she is leaning in the direction of using  a card-driven game design to address this. In an educational setting, CDGs have the advantage that you can place the relevant rules on each card, so that a player can immediately determine their game options without having to pour through a long, complicated rule book. The cards themselves can also contain some contextual information of educational value, and this can then be expanded upon in additional reference materials.

If this game is to be played in an educational setting, it should ideally not take too long to play either. That will be a consideration she will need to address in future, as she develops her game system.

Game design is about modelling the world by identifying key variables and relationships, and refining that model so that it is simple enough to be represented in playable form. As you’ll see below, the first choice Corinne had to make concerned who would be represented in the game.

In the case of the regimes, she chose to include the monarchies and republics as different players, reflecting a broader debate within the political science literature as to whether monarchical regime type was, or was not, an important factor in shaping the resilience of Arab authoritarian regimes. She opted to include the monarchies as a single player in this case because of the extent to which the royals have stuck together in recent political crises, whether by providing aid or (in the case of Bahrain) even sending military forces to buttress fellow monarchies under threat. The republics, on the other hand, are a more diverse group, a characteristic she hopes to represent in their somewhat victory conditions.

In the case of the opposition, she chose to include both Islamist and secular/liberal players. It would be dangerous to see this as an absolute dichotomy (or, as Egypt has recently shown, to believe that the “liberals” are always all that liberal). However, it is also clear that in both Egypt and Tunisia that differences between the two have deeply affected transitional politics. In game terms, she’ll need to come up with a design that pushes that elicits both cooperative and competitive behaviour from them.


* * *

Post #1: Some initial thoughts

Corinne Goldberger, McGill University

e01_08967231Over the past few years I have had the pleasure of being introduced to the world of gaming, wargaming, and simulations by Professor Brynen. From the hour-long class simulation of class struggle in colonial times, to the infamous week-long Brynania peacebuilding simulation, to play-testing games for fun in my barely existent spare time, it would be fair to say I’ve gotten pretty hooked. Throughout our many game debriefs, we always discuss the difficulty of creating these games in a way that is fun, playable, and yet analytically and historically accurate. Intrigued, I approached Professor Brynen with the idea of creating a board game myself as an independent study course.

My name is Corinne Goldberger, and I am a fourth-year student at McGill University. I am in my last semester of an Honours degree in Political Science, with a strong focus on contemporary Middle East politics. I am also minoring in Middle East Languages, studying both Arabic and Hebrew. I have had an extremely interesting lens into the Middle East the past few years as a university student studying the region; I have written nearly a dozen undergraduate (and some graduate) papers on the Arab Spring and the literature surrounding it. The subject of the game I wanted to create was therefore clear and very exciting.


The board game will attempt to simulate the events of the Arab Spring. I know that this is a huge task, with countless explanations having been posited for every aspect of the revolutions – or lack thereof, and I anticipate many design changes to my current thoughts in the future. Nonetheless, I hope to be able to create a game that is playable for fun, yet also useable in an educational setting. The game is targeted primarily at university students and will hopefully take approximately three hours to play.


Bahrain-protest_1905376bThe first big game-design challenge I have faced was in picking how many players my game would have, and who the players would represent. In my conversations with Professor Brynen we went through a number of possible options: a two-player game in which one player was the monarchical regimes and the other was the republican regimes, to be played against systemic opposition (in a Pandemic-esque way). Another idea was a four-player game in which different opposition groups struggled against the system of authoritarianism. The idea here would be to model that even with the same goal of “overthrowing regimes” priorities and methods varied and cooperation is to some extent necessary but extremely difficult. We briefly forayed into the idea of a five-player game, combining elements of the above two and adding the idea of a third group of “fence-sitters,” or a business-class, that has undetermined allegiance at the beginning of the game.

Ultimately, we decided on a four-player game in which one player is the monarchical regimes, one player is the republican regimes, one player is the secular/liberal opposition, and the final player is the Islamist opposition. With this formulation I hope to be able to show the greatest amount of analytically different factors and how they affect different actors. It differentiates between some opposition ideologies and also distinguishes different goals and methods of the two dominant regime types in the Middle East prior to 2011. The precise ways in which these differences will be played out have yet to be determined. This set-up builds in some necessity for cooperation in order to succeed, but also integrates competition between cooperating players. The game could be easily expanded to include eight students, with each player being played by a team of two-students.

Aspects of the Game

Thus far very few game mechanics have been fleshed out, but there are a number of real-life aspects that I hope to be able to simulate in some way in the game. Each of these aspects will be elaborated upon as I begin to figure out how to represent them, but for now, here is a partial list of elements of the dynamics of the Arab Spring I hope to capture:

  1. Repression
  2. Domino-effects
  3. Challenges of cooperation
  4. Need for activists to mobilize the population based on popular grievances
  5. Need for critical mass of protesters
  6. Ideological differences
  7. Regime policy responses to opposition
  8. Small-scale combat
  9. Role of military
  10. Money/oil
  11. Role of the media
  12. Role of business class
  13. Role of regional actors
  14. Role of external actors
  15. NGOs

Future Plans

The next step will be broadly figuring out the game mechanics and how to include as many of the above elements as possible, while still keeping the game simple enough for students who enter with little knowledge of the Middle East or the Arab Spring.

Corinne Goldberger 

Welcome to Tahrir Square: A classroom simulation of the Egyptian revolution


Ora Szekely (Department of Political Science, Clark University) has passed on to PAXsims a classroom simulation she designed that explores the February 2011 overthrow of the Husni Mubarak regime in Egypt. Ahlen wa sahlen fi Midan Tahrir! (Welcome to Tahrir Square!) takes 60-90 minutes, and is designed for up to ten players: the Egyptian government (2 players), the Egyptian army, the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberal opposition (2 players), the US (two players), Saudi Arabia, and Jordan:

The date is February 2nd, 2011: protests have been ongoing in Egypt for a week

  • For Jordan and Saudi Arabia
    • Will you ignore them? Aid the government? Push for reform?
  • For the US:
    • Will you pressure Mubarak to step down?
  • The Egyptian government and army:
    • What will you do to retain power?  And for the army, how loyal are you, and to whom?
  • For the opposition:
    • How committed are you? Will you use violence? Or will you stick to peaceful methods?
  • There will be five 10 minute rounds.
  • During each round, you must each make a couple of choices, as indicated on your information sheets.
  • The decisions you make will effect what everyone else does, in one way or another.
  • All of the players have certain private information about their own incentives, preference, and what they will be forced to do under what circumstances.
  • Civil war, for the purposes of this simulation, is defined as two consecutive rounds in which both protesters and the army use violence
  • If Mubarak does step down by the end of the fifth round, we will hold elections. Any of the Egyptian players can run in them

The simulation makes clever use of private information to shape game play. Mubarak can be overthrown through particular configurations of either domestic or international pressure, although these may not be clear to everyone at the outset. Uncertainty is introduced via the roll of a die at key junctures, notably in determining whether soldiers open fire on demonstrators or the eventual outcome of possible elections. There are also a selection of random events to use, one per phase. Some actors are two-party teams, thus creating a sense of their internal policy divisions.

For more details, see her powerpoint briefing for students (pptx), the role description sheets (docx), and the random events (docx).

Oil War: The “Unstable Gulf” variant

As promised in my recent review of Oil War: Iran Strikes, I have been thinking about ways in which the game might be modified. To be honest, much of the reason for designing variants is the simple geeky pleasure of tinkering with game designs. I’m not the only one who feels that way, either—there is a very active thread on the Consimworld forum discussing new game rules, units, and so forth. As someone who has a particular concern with the politics of the region, it is also interesting to try to to adapt the game so that it more fully reflects current and future political tensions in the region (albeit within the constraints of the game, map, topic, and counter mix). It also provides an opportunity to illustrate how game design necessarily forces one to think about how various military, economic, social, and political dynamics can best be modelled in a parsimonious (and playable) way. The relative simplicity of Oil War makes it more easily modifiable than many others. Hopefully, “(re)designing out loud” here at PAXsims also provides an opportunity to illustrate to a non-boardgaming audience one of the strengths of manual gaming, namely the much greater ease with which such games can be altered compared to their digital counterparts.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps T-72s on exercise (Press TV).

As the originally configured, the game involves Iranian intervention in a renewed Iraqi civil war, followed by a dash down the Arabian peninsula to capture the capital of at least one Gulf Cooperation Council state (as the GCC tries to slow down the Iranian juggernaut enough for powerful US reinforcements to arrive). While I can certainly imagine scenarios where Iraq tips into renewed civil conflict, and even scenarios in which Iran intervenes in Iraq, the GCC part of the war seemed to be rather implausible.

Compounding this “realism” challenge is a parallel game characteristic that might be labelled  the “Kuwait bottleneck” (or “GCC flypaper”) problem. The layout of the map (and geography) and the configuration of victory conditions means that too many games hinge on a slugfest in a small area around Kuwait, while the Coalition player can usually bog down any Iranian advance further south by deploying a checkerboard of weak GCC military units that Iranian forces must fight their way through.

The Scenario

Protests in Bahrain (AFP).

Hence the logic behind this variant, which adds a GCC preoccupation with domestic security in addition to the military confrontation in Iraq. Specifically it imagines a near future where Gulf monarchies look much less stable than today (an argument that has been made by University of Durham political scientist Christopher Davidson in his recent book After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies). In the proposed scenario the current political confrontation between the (Sunni minority) monarchy and (Shiite majority) opposition in Bahrain has reached the point of near civil war. The opposition, whose initial calls for democratic reforms were brutally crushed by Bahraini and GCC security forces in March 2011, are projected to have slowly grown in strength, and now seek to topple the royal family. The scenario also assumes generally rising Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions across the Middle East, aggravated by events in Bahrain and Iraq, systematic discrimination against the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, tensions between Hizbullah and the March 14 movement in Lebanon, as well as by the (future) success of the Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Asad. In Kuwait it is easy to imagine future political protests, especially given the real-life protests that the country has seen in recent weeks. In this case the source of tensions is not a sectarian one (although Kuwait does have a significant Shiite minority), but rather the continuing tug of war between the Emir and the opposition over elections, the role of parliament, and political reform.

In the revised scenario, the Arab Spring has made US policymakers reluctant to be seen too closely tied to authoritarian Gulf monarchies, especially when popular protests erupt. For its part the US public—while alarmed at Iranian intervention—is wary about getting too bogged down in another Gulf or Iraq war.

Finally, the scenario suggests that Iran is far from perfectly stable, the Iranian leadership was not entirely united around the decision to intervene. The Iranian public, which has sombre memories of the human carnage that was the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, isn’t entirely enthusiastic either. The Green Movement opposition—presumed to be still active , if largely underground—is hoping to use anti-war sentiment to mobilize popular support against the regime.

The original Oil War raises the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but leaves uncertain what its status is, and the issue has no real effect on the scenario or gameplay. I’ve maintained that ambiguity. Finally, I’ve added a little more detail on the actual path to war.

The resulting scenario doesn’t eliminate the prospect for an Iranian blitz into the GCC countries. However, it shifts the balance somewhat, with the Coalition player facing new trade-offs between whether to commit military forces to defence or internal security, on crushing the protests versus maintaining maximum US support, and as to how best to balance the external threat to Kuwait against the risk of a popular uprising in Bahrain.

The scenario setting thus ends up looking like this:

1.1 Game Premise

It wasn’t, in the end, the Iran’s nuclear program that brought military confrontation with the United States. Certainly the nuclear issue was a continuing source of tension. Israel continued to utter threats to strike at Iranian facilities. The US and its allies continued to place diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions on Tehran. For their part the Iranians continued to develop their nuclear capacities, but had thus far refrained from moving beyond 20% enrichment to produce weapons-grade uranium that could be used in a nuclear device. The covert campaigns of sabotage, assassination, cyberwarfare, and tit-for-tat retaliation had all continued too.

Instead, it would be a series of local political crises that would tip the Gulf into armed conflict.

Iraq’s August 2014 parliamentary elections had been deeply divisive, marred by sectarian tensions and political violence. While Iyad Allawi and his al-Iraqiyya party had won a narrow plurality by drawing upon both Sunni and Shiite voter support, many other Shiites had voted instead for rival parties: former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s “State of Law” coalition, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or the Sadrists. Prime Minister Allawi thus depended heavily on support from the Kurdish parties to maintain a majority in parliament, which only further angered the opposition. In response, these Shiite parties drew closer to Iran, which was quite willing to offer political support, funding, and even the occasional covert arms supplies.

The new Iraqi Prime Minister also sought to reorient Iraqi policy closer to the United States and Saudi Arabia. Coming so soon after another strategic reverse—namely the overthrow in Syria of former Iranian ally Bashar al-Asad by the predominately Sunni (and vehemently anti-Iranian) opposition—Tehran saw this as deeply threatening.

In Bahrain, the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy had, backed by its Gulf allies, continued its brutal crackdown against the Shiite majority. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and especially Saudi Arabia, were convinced that the reformist movement there was little more than an Iranian-backed plot. Sporadic protests among the long-oppressed Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province only heightened Riyadh’s concerns.

In July 2015, a little over a year after the elections, Iraq’s unstable politics worsened dramatically when a senior Shiite cleric was assassinated in Najaf by unknown gunmen. As each side quickly accused the other of complicity. Angry street protests erupted across the southern part of the country. Some security units mutinied, siding with the protesters. Fighting escalated further as ISCI and Sadrist militias joined with rebellious security forces to battle those loyal to the Allawi government.

On August 12, a powerful car bomb destroyed the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, killing the ambassador and more than a dozen staff. A second, in the southern city of Karbala, killed a visiting a Iranian cleric and several senior ISCI officials. That same day, the Iraqi Minister of Defence flew to Riyadh to discuss a possible defence relationship with the GCC countries. In Washington, the US announced stepped-up military aid to the tottering Iraqi government.

Three days later, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his annual al-Quds Day speech to declare that “the Islamic Republic of Iran could not and would not allow brotherly Iraq to once more fall into the clutches of an evil tyrant or his dark Satanic puppeteer.” Within Iraq  a joint “National Islamic Redemption Council for Iraq” was announced by opposition figures in Basra. It called for a popular uprising against Prime Minister Allawi’s government—and for external support.

Hours later, the first Iranian combat units crossed the border into Iraq. For the fourth time in less than four decades, the Gulf was at war.

Rules Modifications

Below I have listed all of the rules that need to be modified or added to make the scenario work . These should be compared with the original rules for Oil War: Iran Strikes, which can be downloaded via BoardGameGeek. The section numbers are consistent with the original rules, with the P.1 to P.7 sections being completely new.

Overall, I’ve tried to make very few changes to the military combat rules. This isn’t for a lack of possible tweaks—on the contrary, the discussion at the ConSimWorld forum offers all sorts of ideas on how to make the military order-of-battle and combat dynamics of the game more detailed or accurate. However, I wanted to focus attention largely on rules changes necessary for the politics of an “Unstable Gulf.”.

2.14 Other Counters

The uses of the following counters are explained at appropriate points throughout the rest of the rules.

Protest Marker (see 11.10)

Modification and rationale: Adds protest markers to the mix. These will need to be made up to play the “Unstable Gulf”—eight or so should suffice. Any other marker will do, as long as both players know what it means!

4.12  Bahrain

If at the end of the game Manama is under the control of Bahraini protesters, roll a d6. On a score of 3+ the Iranian player gains one VP.

Modification and rationale: A successful anti-government uprising by the (Shi’ite-majority) opposition in Bahrain—while not necessarily pro-Iranian—would nonetheless be seen as a major strategic threat by most (Sunni) GCC countries.

3.9 Protest Set Up

Place  a protest marker in Bahrain, Kuwait City, and any Saudi town or city (selected by the Saudi player). The effects of protest markers are described in 11.10.

Modification and rationale: The Gulf countries are suffering from a degree of political turmoil when the war begins.

5.2 Turn Sequence

The game turn sequence is given below in outline. The rest of the rules are organized, as much as possible, to explain things in the order they’re encountered as you go through each game turn’s sequence.

I. Iranian Player Turn
A. Iranian Combined Movement Phase
B. Iranian Basij Combat Phase
C. Iranian Artesh/RGC/Iraqi Insurgent Combat Phase

II. US/Coalition Player Turn
A. Non-US Coalition Movement Phase
B. Non-US Coalition Combat Phase
C. US Movement or Combat or Airpower Phase
D. US Combat or Movement or Airpower Phase
E. US Airpower or Movement or Combat Phase

III. Random Events and Protest Phase
A. Random Events Phase
B.  Protest Phase

IV. Mutual Replacement & Reinforcement Phase
A. Iranian Basij Replacement & Strategic Reserve Release Step
B. Saudi Reinforcement Step
C. US Reinforcement Step
D. Air Support Availability Step

Modification and rationale: A “Protest Phase” has been added during which time players will determine the eruption and spread of political protests. An “Air Support Availability Step” has also been added.

5.8 Syrian Movement & Combat

If Syria enters play (see 13.2), the movement of and attacks by its units always take place as part of Coalition steps II.A and II.B, respectively, in the outline above.

Modification and rationale: Syrian units enter the war on the Coalition side in this variant.

6.4 US & Coalition Stacking Particulars

On the US/Coalition side, US, Kuwaiti, Saudi, Bahraini, Qatari, UAE, Iraqi loyalist , Kurdish, and Syrian units may freely stack, up to a limit of four per hex. Multinational stacks suffer a one column shift penalty when attacking or defending, however.

Modification and rationale: Simplifies stacking rules, while addressing the command and control problems of multinational operations.

6.6 Syrian Stacking

If Syria enters play (see 13.2), it always does so on the Coalition side. They may free stack with other coalition units as outlined in 6.4.

Modification and rationale: Revises rule to be consistent with 6.4.

7.2 Geographic Restrictions

US units may enter any part of the map.

Iranian units may enter any part of the map except Turkey.

Saudi units are initially confined to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Once Iranian units (but not al-Qods Force missions) enter or attack any GCC country, they may enter all GCC countries as well as Iraqi hexes south of Basra (XX28 or higher). No more than half of all Saudi units may be outside Saudi Arabia at any one time. If this occurs a sufficient number of Saudi units must return to the Kingdom as quickly as possible.

The UAE unit is initially confined to the UAE. Once Iranian units (but not al-Qods Force missions) enter or attack any GCC country, or once there are two or more protest markers in any one GCC country, they may enter all GCC countries.

Kuwaiti, Qatari, and Bahraini units may not leave their own countries.

Turkish and Syrian units may only enter their own countries and Iraq.

Iraqi units may not leave Iraq. Kurdish units may not leave Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG).

Units may attack across the border of the region(s) to which they’re restricted. For example, Kuwaiti units may attack across their nation’s border into Iraq.

Modification and rationale: Adjusts geographic restrictions for simplicity and political plausibility. Situated so close to Iraq and Iran and with the bitter experience of the 1990-91 Gulf War, it seems unlikely that Kuwait would weaken its defences in a crisis by sending troops outside the country. The Bahraini and Qatari militaries are small and largely needed for internal security as well as to defend against the threat of Iranian attack. The Saudis also need to keep sufficient troops in-country to assure domestic security. The UAE “Peninsula Shield” force that is included is designed for joint GCC operations, hence allowing it to deploy elsewhere in the GCC (as it did to some extent in Bahrain in 2011).

11.10 Protests

A protest marker indicates the presence of protests in a given hex. It is not a unit. Protests are static and may never move.

Units of any nationality may be stacked with protests. Protests do not count towards stacking limits. Units may move on or through protests.However, the cost of entering or leaving a protest hex is increased by one for all units. This effect is cumulative, so that three protests would cause a penalty of three movement points.

In the case of the Abu Haddryah road/causeway, units may move normally as per rule 9.8 if there are fewer than two protests in the hex they wish to enter (3709 or 3810). They may not, however, cross if two or more protests are present in that hex.

US units may never voluntarily enter a hex containing a protest, although they may retreat into such a hex, and are not required to leave if a protest erupts in the hex they currently occupy. US reinforcements may not appear in a hex containing a protest.

Combat units in the same hex as protest suffer a 1 column shift penalty when attacking or defending.This effect is cumulative, so that three protests would cause a 3 column shift penalty. This does not affect attempts to suppress protests.

Modification and rationale: This rule introduces the effect of protests, which inhibit movement. The protesters may be anti-regime, but they aren’t necessarily pro-Iranian, so the effect is felt by all sides. Protests will also have some bearing on US reinforcements and random events.


P.1 Protest Phase

During the protest phase, test once each for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, and Iraq, unless the rules below state otherwise.

P.2  Kuwait Protests

Roll 2d6:

  • 2-8: no effect
  • 9-10: place a protest in Kuwait City
  • 11: place a protest in al-Ahmadi
  • 12: place a protest in a-Jahra

Exception: If Iranian forces are in or adjacent Kuwait or attacked Kuwaiti units this turn, do not roll for protests. Instead, the Coalition player may remove one protest from Kuwait.

P.3 Saudi Protests

Roll 2d6:

  • 2-7: no effect
  • 8: place a protest in Dahran
  • 9: place a protest in al-Hafuf
  • 10: place a protest in Ras Tannurah
  • 11: place a protest in al-Jubayl
  • 12: place a protest in Khafji

Exception: If Iranian forces are in Saudi Arabia this turn, do not roll for protests. If there are 10 or fewer Saudi units within Saudi Arabia, add 1 when rolling on this table. Do not place a protest in a Saudi town or city if a Saudi unit is present there.

P.4 Bahrain Protests

Roll 2d6:

  • 2-6: no effect
  • 7-9: place a protest in Manama
  • 10: place a protest in hex 3810
  • 11-12: place a protest in hex 3910

Exception: If Iranian forces are in Bahrain this turn, do not roll for protests.

P.5 Iran Protests

Roll 2d6, and add one for every three Iranian units lost this turn:

  • 2-11: no effect
  • 12+: anti-war protests erupt. Permanently remove one IRGC or Basij unit from the turn track or strategic reserve, as it is committed to internal security duties. If no unit is available, the Iranian player instead loses 1 VP.

P.6 Iraq Protests

Roll 2d6:

  • 2-3: The Coalition player must place a protest marker in Iraq in any town or city.
  • 4-10: no effect
  • 11-12: The Iranian player must place a protest marker in Iraq in any town or city.

P.7 Domino Effects

If a protest phase results in a protest being added to a hex where one or more protests are already present, opposition momentum builds. Place the protest, then roll one additional time to possibly place an additional protest in that same country. This process may be repeated multiple times.

Protests generated by al-Qods Force destabilization (11.1) do not cause domino effects.

Modification and rationale: This entire section is new, and it introduces protests that erupt during the game. Because anti-regime movements are not necessarily pro-Iranian (indeed, even the Shiite opposition in Bahrain has no fondness for the Iranian system), the Iranian player has little influence over where they appear. Protests in Kuwait represent non-revolutionary calls for political reform. Protests in Bahrian represent Shiite opposition efforts to topple the regime. Protests in Saudi Arabia generally represent the pent-up frustrations of the marginalized Shiite minority, although at times they might also be others critical of the regime. Protests in Iran indicated a resurgent Green Movement opposition. Protests in Iraq represent the chaos of the civil war.

10.31 Suppressing Protests

Any GCC unit may attempt to suppress protests within Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. Only Kuwaiti units may attempt to suppress protests within Kuwait. Any units may attempt to suppress protests in Iraq. Units attempting suppression must be in the hex containing the protest. Suppression takes place during the combat phase, in place of regular combat.

Add together the total combat factors suppressing the protests, and subtract the total number of protests in the hex. This gives the suppression differential. There are no column shifts.

Decide on the tactics to be used (brutal, regular, or cautious) then roll a D6. If brutal tactics are used, add one to the total. If cautious tactics are used, subtract 1. Consult the Suppression Table (below) to determine the result.

Suppression Differential
die roll -1 or less 0 +1 +2 or more
2 HR PS 1
3 PS 1 PS 1
4 PS 1 PS 1 PS 1
5 PS 1 PS 1 PS 1 PS 2
6 PC 1 PC 1 PC 1 PC 2
7 PC 1 PC 2 PC 2 PC 2

HR: Humiliating retreat, as protestors force back security forces. Add a second protest marker in the same location.

PS 1 (or 2): Protest suppressed, with little or no loss of life—remove one (or two) protest marker(s).

PC1 (or 2): Protest crushed, with significant loss of life—remove one (or two) protest marker(s). The Coalition player subtracts two when testing for reinforcements during the US Reinforcement Step. Treat this as a PS result instead if the Kuwaiti police unit participated in the suppression.

Modification and rationale: The Coalition player needs to suppress protests, but doing so comes with some risk. Excessive use of force by the authoritarian GCC states could generate a backlash in US and global public opinion, and complicate US reinforcement efforts. The GCC can minimize this risk by adopted cautious tactics, but these are less effective than more brutal ones at crushing dissent.

11.1 Iranian Al-Qods Force Markers

The Iranian player starts the game with three of these in the Turn 1 box, and one in the Turn 2 box. The markers represent covert missions by members of IRGC al-Qods Force.

Each turn the Iranian player must deploy the available Al-Qods Force markers in the current turn box to any of the four missions listed below. This may take place at any point during the Iranian player turn.

al-Qods Force markers that are eliminated are permanently removed from the game. Those that survive their missions, however, are replaced on the turn track during the Basij Replacement step (14.1) as if they were Basij units.

MISSION: Subversion. Place the al-Qods Force marker on on top of any single non-Kurdish militia unit (ie, one that is not stacked with other Coalition forces), and roll immediately:

  • 1-2: The angry locals turn on the Iranian emissaries. The al-Qods Force marker is permanently eliminated.
  • 3-4: No effect. Return the al-Qods Force marker to the turn track in the Basij Replacement Step.
  • 5-6: Iran guns, money, and diplomacy prove effective. The militia is flipped to its pro-Iranian side.  Return the al-Qods Force marker to the turn track in the Basij Replacement Step.

Once an subversion attempt is made against a unit, it may not be repeated for the remainder of the turn.

MISSION: Train and Equip. Place the al-Qods Force marker underneath a pro-Iranian militia. It does not count towards stacking limits. While it is still present, the militia gains a one column shift to the left when defending. In addition, that militia may now conduct attacks against neighboring hexes as if a normal unit, although it still may not move , not even to occupy a hex vacated by the enemy as a result of a successful attack. If at any time the militia is defeated, the al-Qods Force marker is permanently eliminated. Otherwise it may remain in place as long as the Iranian player chooses, or be returned to the turn track during the Basij Replacement Step.

Only one train and equip mission may be active in any given hex at any given time.

MISSION: Destabilization. Assign an available  al-Qods Force marker to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain. Immediately roll two d6:

  • If the total score is 5 or less, the effort backfired—the al-Qods Force marker is eliminated, and the Coalition player may instead remove one protest marker from that country.
  • Otherwise, implement the appropriate results (P.2, P.3, P. 4) as if it were the Protest Phase for that country. Return the al-Qods Force marker to the turn track in the Basij Replacement Step.

Once a destabilization attempt is made in a country, it may not be repeated in that country for the remainder of the turn.

MISSION: Sabotage. Roll a d6:

  • 1-2: The saboteurs are caught by alert sentries. The al-Qods Force marker is permanently eliminated.
  • 3-4: Mission aborted. Return the al-Qods Force marker to the turn track in the Basij Replacement Step.
  • 5-6: Mission successful. The coalition player subtracts two when testing for either reinforcements or airpower availability (Iranian player’s choice) during the US Reinforcement Step.

Once a sabotage attempt in a turn, no further attempts may be made for the remainder of the turn.

Modification and rationale: The rule has been completely rewritten to better reflect the sorts of covert activities undertaken by al-Qods Force, and to link more closely with the protest rules.

11.5 US Base Units

All these units may serve as entry hexes for all US reinforcement units other than MEU (see 14.10). Whenever US units defend in, or attack from, a hex containing a US base unit, their combat factors are doubled; however, that multiplication effect never extends to the combat factor of the base unit itself or to that of any non-US Coalition units that might be present. Also see the last paragraph of 10.27.

The US base indicated for hex 1303 (Irbil) is not placed on the map at the start of the game, but is rather placed in the US reinforcement pool. When drawn it may be placed in or adjacent to any friendly-control capital city, or in Dahran.

Modification and rationale: Resolves the issue of whether there is, or is not, a US base in Irbil (in reality there isn’t; the rules are ambiguous)—now that base unit is deployable, representing the establishment by US military personnel of a new US logistics hub at a regional port or airport. Also eliminates a reference to old stacking rules that have been superseded by revised rule 6.4.

13.2 Random Event 2: Syria Enters the War

Syria sends troops to aid the Coalition side. Each time this event occurs two Syrian units are immediately placed in west-edge hexes between 1001 and 1011, inclusive, by the Coalition player. No placement may occur in enemy-occupied hexes, but placement in EZOC is OK. Because of the negative effects of the Syrian civil war on Syrian military capabilities and logistics, the combat rating of the unit is variable regardless of the number printed on the counter. Roll d6 to determine the unit’s combat factor each time the unit is engaged in combat and halve this, rounding down if attacking and up if defending.

Modification and rationale: By the time the scenario takes place, the current regime of Bashar al-Asad has been overthrown in Damascus by the predominately Sunni opposition. Given Tehran’s previous backing of Asad, the new regime is strongly anti-Iranian.

13.3 Random Event 3: Wahhabi Zeal

Pro-regime clerics exhort Saudi citizens to fight against the Shiite menace. The Coalition player may remove one protest marker in Saudi Arabia. The Coalition side gains a one column shift for all attacks involving Saudi units this turn. All Saudi protest suppression efforts next turn must use brutal tactics.

Modification and rationale: Rule reflects widespread Saudi religious hostility to Shiism.

13.4 Random Event 4: Lebanese Complications

Lebanese politics is complicated, it really is. Roll a d6:

  • 1-4: Hizbullah provides covert assistance to the al-Quds Force. Place an additional al-Quds force marker on the turn track for next turn.
  • 5: Tensions mount between and Hizbullah the anti-Hizbullah “March 14” coalition. Diverting resources to support its Lebanese ally, the Iranian player permanently loses the next available al-Qods Force marker from the turn track (if any).
  • 6: Israel and Hizbullah clash. Move all al-Qods Force markers one turn further along the turn track as Iran waits to see how the Lebanese conflict develops. The US must subtract one from the reinforcement and air availability rolls this turn as it too monitors the situation in the Levant.

Rationale for rule change: Hizbullah works very closely with both the IRGC (including al-Quds Force) and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and likely provides cadres for some external operations. On the other hand, Hizbullah’s position in Lebanon is likely to be weakened by any regime change in Damascus, and the close relations between the new (Sunni-dominated) Syrian government and the (Sunni-led) March 14 coalition in Lebanon. Finally, Israel could take advantage of Iranian intervention in the Gulf to have a go at Hizbullah, or vice-versa.

13.5 Random Event 5: Coalition of the Willing

If there are two or fewer current protests in GCC states, Britain, France and other Western allies send combat aircraft to Gulf to assist US efforts. Add one to all future air support availability rolls. This effect may be rolled more than once during the same game.

Modification and rationale: Replaces previous rules that doubled or eliminated US air attacks for a turn, shifts this dynamic into the air availability roll, and makes European support contingent on the political context.

13.6 Random Event 6: Kuwaiti Political Crisis

If there are three or more protests in Kuwait, roll a d6:

  • 1-2: The Emir suspends parliament and declares martial law. Remove any one protest in Kuwait (Coalition player’s choice). Subtract one from all future US reinforcement rolls. Treat this as “No Event” if Kuwait Political Crisis rolled again during the same game.
  • 3-5: The crisis drags on. Subtract one from the US reinforcement roll this turn.
  • 6: The Emir announces major political reforms. Remove all protests. Add three to the US reinforcement roll this turn. Non-Kuwaiti GCC units must leave Kuwait as soon as possible, and may not reenter. Treat this as “No Event” if Kuwait Political Crisis rolled again during the same game.

Modification and rationale: Raises the possibility of the war contributing to political changs in Kuwait, which in turn affects US commitment.

13.7 Random Event 7: Bahrain Erupts

Place a protest marker in Manama.

Roll a d6. Add the number of protests in Bahrain, and subtract the total combat value of GCC units in the country.

  • 3 or less: The regime remains in control. One protest is removed (Coalition player’s choice).
  • 4: Heavy fighting breaks out. One protest and one GCC unit are removed (Coalition player’s choice).
  • 5 or more:  The royal family is toppled. Treat this as “No Event” if Bahrain Erupts again during the same game.

If the regime is overthrown, place the flipped Bahraini unit on Manama to represent a Bahrain opposition militia unit, having retreated any other Coalition units from Manama to make room. Neither Iranian nor Coalition troops may enter Manama while it is under opposition militia control. GCC and Iranian (but not US) units may attack it.Iranian al-Qods Force missions may be used to try to influence the militia to become Iranian-controlled.

If Manama comes under Iranian control, Iranian ASR and NDC units in strategic reserve attempting to land in Bahrain add two to their rolls on the Iranian Airborne and Amphibious Movement Table (11.4), Iranian Airborne units may move within the country as if they were regular Iranian units, and Iranian units in Bahrain count as in supply (7.4).

Regardless of outcome, television coverage of the Bahraini crisis weakens Western support for the GCC. Subtract two from the US reinforcement roll this turn.

Modification and rationale: the scenario envisages a Bahrain with an increasingly radicalized Shiite opposition, on the brink of civil war. The GCC will need to reinforce the Bahraini security forces, or risk losing it. This is an important random effect, and fear of it is likely to significantly shape Coalition behaviour.

13.8 Random Event 8: Social Media

Images and reports of Gulf protests go viral, shaping regional and international opinion. If there are three or more protests currently on the map, subtract one from the US reinforcement roll this turn during the US Reinforcement Step, and add one to all protest rolls (P.2 – P.6) during the Protest Phase.

Modification and rationale: Suggests that post-Arab Spring US support for Gulf States may be affected by human rights concerns. This rule also attempts to replicate the impact of satellite television and the internet during the Arab Spring of 2011. While in this case it seems unlikely that the two main Arabic satellite news channels, Al Jazeera and al-Arabiyya, would be reporting on Gulf protests given that they are Qatari- and Saudi-owned respectively, this could be offset by the high rates of internet penetration and social media use in the Gulf region.

13.9 Random Event 9: UN Ceasefire

The UN Security Council considers a ceasefire resolution. The US player may choose to veto this resolution, in which case it counts as “No Event.” Otherwise:

  • If the Coalition player attacks this turn, the number of VP the Iranian player needs to win at the end of the game is decreased by one.
  • If the Iranian player attacks this turn,  the number of VP the Iranian player needs to win at the end of the game is increased by one.
  • Players may move and suppress protests as normal, and al-Qods Force missions may continue without restriction.

Modification and rationale: Modifies the UN random events in the original rules to more accurately reflect US strength (and Iranian weakness) in the United Nations Security Council.

13.10 Random Event 10: Major Sandstorm

The US player should immediately make a second die roll. On a one through three, he immediately places the Sandstorm marker in any hex on the map; on a result of four through six, the Iranian player places it. The effect of the marker lasts until the start of the next Random Events Phase: there may be no combat (including airstrikes) in its hex or in any hexes within two hexes of it, and movement costs within this area are doubled.

Modification and rationale: Reduces the frequency and severity of sandstorms.

13.11 Revolutionary Fervour

Inspired by exhortations from the Supreme Leader, the Iranian side gains a one column shift for all attacks involving the IRGC or Basij next turn. Alarmed by this, all GCC units must opt for brutal tactics when suppressing protests next turn (10.31).

Modification and rationale: Modifies the original Event #11 which called for Iranians to rally around the reappearance of the 12th (Hidden) Imam—an effect that seemed somewhat akin to giving US combat forces a shift because someone had declared themselves the second coming of Jesus Christ.

13.12 Random Event 12: Turkey Enters the War

Turkey enters the war on the Coalition side—immediately deploy all Turkish units in hexes of that country (EZOC OK). If rolled again during the same game, Turkey gets cold feet about intervention—immediately remove all Turkish units from the game. In the unlikely event that this event is rolled a third time, Turkey enters the war once again on the Coalition side (and so forth).

Modification and rationale: The original rules allow for Turkey to intervene on the Iranian side, which seems completely implausible.

14.5 US Reinforcements Step

At the start of the US Reinforcements Step the Coalition player rolls 2d6 to determine the arrival of US ground combat units. Add and subtract any modifiers arising from al-Qods Force sabotage (11.1), protest suppression (10.31), or Random Events (13.2-13.12). Subtract one if no Iranian units have yet entered a GCC country. Add one if it is game turn 5 or later:

  • 4 or less: No US reinforcements are drawn.
  • 5-9: One reinforcement chit is randomly drawn from the reinforcement pool.
  • 10 or more: Two reinforcement chits are randomly drawn from the reinforcement pool.

Such reinforcements are immediately entered into play as described in 14.6 – 14.10 (and also see 14.3 and 11.7). Normal stacking limits apply during all such placements and arrival in hexes containing EZOC is OK.

Modification and rationale: US “boots on the ground” are now affected by conditions in GCC countries, both for logistical reasons (protests might hamper transportation) and political reasons (protests and repression might undermine US and Western public support for the GCC states).

14.11 Air Support Availability Step

At the start of the Air Availability Step the Coalition player rolls 2d6 to determine the availability of air attacks next turn. Add and subtract any modifiers arising from al-Qods Force sabotage (11.1) or Random Events (13.2-13.12). Subtract one if no Iranian units have yet entered a GCC country. Add one if it is game turn 5 or later:

  • 4 or less: No US air attacks next turn.
  • 5-9: One US air attack next turn.
  • 10 or more: Two US air attacks next turn.

The US does not receive an airstrike for the first game turn.

Modification and rationale: The build-up and employment  of US airpower is now affected by political conditions in GCC countries, although much less so than the deployment of ground combat units.

* * *

Note that while the game revisions above still envisage a two player game, it could be easily played as three by splitting the Coalition side in two. This would give you Iran versus the US (including Iraqi loyalists and possibly Turkey) and GCC (including possibly Syria). One can even imagine some squabbling between the US and GCC players over appropriate strategy. Further rules revisions might even involve slightly differing victory conditions for the two Coalition players to encourage some dissension.

* * *

Update: I’ve now playtested the “Unstable Gulf” variant rules. You’ll find the results here. The rules can also be downloaded as a pdf (minus the explanations for each modification) here.

%d bloggers like this: