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Review: Target Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instructional Potential

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

Simulations miscellany, 6 August 2013


Some recent simulation and gaming items that may be of interest to our readers:

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The May/June 2013 issue of the US Department of Defense Modeling and Simulation Coordination Office (M&SCO) M&S Newsletter is now out. You’ll find it here.

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Brian Train (insurgency simulation designer par excellence) has a thoughtful discussion with Tom Grant (of the I’ve Been Diced game blog, whose PhD was on insurgency before he turned to other things) on the challenges of designing counter-insurgency wargames via Brian’s own Ludic Futurism blog.

Brian will be among those presenting at the Connections UK wargaming conference at King’s College London next month.

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According to the Washington Times, US Republican politician Newt Gingrich has growing doubts about the US ability to export democracy:

Mr. Gingrich supported the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but he said he has increasingly doubted the strategy of attempting to export democracy by force to countries where the religion and culture are not hospitable to Western values.

“It may be that our capacity to export democracy is a lot more limited than we thought,” he said.

Mr. Gingrich at times has expressed doubts about the U.S. capacity for nation-building, but he said he now has formed his own conclusions about their failures in light of the experiences of the past decade.

“My worry about all this is not new,” Mr. Gingrich said. “But my willingness to reach a conclusion is new.”

Mr. Gingrich said it is time for Republicans to heed some of the anti-interventionist ideas offered by the libertarian-minded Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, tea party favorite and foreign policy skeptic.

I think it would be healthy to go back and war-game what alternative strategies would have been better...” [emphasis added]

It is nice that Gingrich has such confidence in the ability of professional wargaming to deliver such answers, but here’s the thing: they can’t. It might be possible to use policy games to explore some of the things that might go wrong in democracy-promotion—although you can probably do that even more effectively in a simple seminar-style BOGSAT discussion. We certainly can’t wargame what would definitively “work,” however, because the social science just isn’t there to support unambiguous judgments. On the contrary, both scholars and the intelligence community are still searching for greater clarity as to how complex political processes like regime change and political transition unfold.

Any wargame requires an underlying model of cause and effect. If our knowledge of cause and effect is fuzzy—as it so often is with social and political processes—one needs to treat with considerable caution any predictions derived therefrom.  (h/t Red Team Journal)

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MW7The September/October 2013 issue of Modern War magazine is out. There are articles on the Vietnam War, the Second Congo War, Robert Thompson’s work on counterinsurgency, and the US Army National Training Center, as well as shorter pieces on game design, weapons systems, and other topics.

The  wargames included in this issues are designed by Eric Harvey, and examine two 1967 Vietnam War operations: “Snoopy’s Nose” (riverine action in the Mekong Delta) and “The Iron Triangle” (an offensive against Viet Cong bases and tunnels northwest of Saigon).

Review: Somali Pirates

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

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

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

Overview Piracy Incidents CN 30 Apr 13_Page_1

Source: NATO Shipping Centre (2013).

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Further reading:


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