Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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WACN game design video

I did a presentation on We Are Coming, Nineveh! recently for the San Diego Historical Games Convention, discussing both the Battle of Mosul and how it is represented in the wargame design. Here it is for those who might be interested.

We Are Coming, Nineveh! is published by Nuts! Publishing.

Preorders open for We Are Coming, Nineveh!

I am very pleased to announce that preorders are now open for We Are Coming, Nineveh! a tactical/operational-level game of the Iraqi government campaign to liberate the western area of the city of Mosul from the forces of Daesh (ISIS) between 19 February and 9 July 2017. This was one of the largest and most difficult urban operations of the post-WWII era, and marked a major defeat for Daesh and its so-called “Islamic State.” The game should ship in March.

Regular readers of PAXsims will likely have been following the development of this game over the years. It started life in 2018 as one of three student projects in a small undergraduate seminar I ran on conflict simulation design at McGill University. That initial experimental seminar later became my current POLI 452 course on conflict simulation.

The driving force behind We Are Coming, Nineveh! (WACN) was Juliette Le Ménahèze, who at the time was writing her undergraduate thesis on the role of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and who later went on to a MSc in conflict studies at LSE and a career in security and development in the Middle East. She was joined by fellow student Harrison Brewer, who brought greater gaming experience to the mix and who has since gone on to a graduate degree and a career in urban planning.

The game was clearly good enough to be published, so Brian Train and I came on board to help them further develop and refine the design. Brian and I have known each other for four decades (!), having first met when we used to wargame together at the University of Victoria’s “Strategy and Tactics Club.”

The development and playtesting of the game has been detailed in several PAXsims posts.

Our playtesters—most of them hobby wargamers, but many of them military personnel or defence analysts too—were enthusiastic. Indeed, a pre-production copy of the game was evaluated by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (UK Ministry of Defence) to examine its insights into modern urban warfare.

We approached Nuts! Publishing to see whether they would be interested in publishing the game, and after they saw it they answered with a very enthusiastic yes. Although the process was slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic, Florent Coupeau and his team have been an absolute pleasure to work with.

The Design of We Are Coming, Nineveh!

From the outset we wanted WACN to be accessible, playable by newcomers to wargaming and grognards alike. Consequently, we sought to keep the game uncluttered and intuitive, while retaining historical and military accuracy.

Extensive support from both a US-led international coalition and from neighbouring Iran—including weapons, ammunition, training, air strikes, intelligence, and more direct assistance—played a vital part in pushing back Daesh. However, it is worth remembering that over 99.9% of those who fought and died fighting the jihadist challenge in Iraq were members of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) as well as the Kurdish peshmerga (militia) of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Most of them were themselves Muslims. In examining the battle for West Mosul—and, we hope, honouring their sacrifice—this wargame very much focuses on the central role of the ISF.

The game uses area movement rather than some other system (such as hexes) for depicting terrain. The boundaries between the zones are largely drawn along larger roads or the edges of open (or dense) areas. In urban warfare, crossing roads exposes troops to enemy fire, and thus the geography of neighbourhoods and transportation routes tends to shape the spatial ebb and flow of battle. The resulting irregular jigsaw pattern also reflects the layout of actual urban neighbourhoods, and creates a situation where unsupported forces that penetrate too far too quickly are at risk of being cut off and destroyed.

Not all urban space is the same. Accordingly, each district is coded as to its urban density: open areas, medium-density areas, and the narrow streets and alleys of the Old City. This allows us to represent both the difficulty of fighting within dense urban neighborhoods (and the reasons why Daesh made its last stand where it did) as well as the military logic of the encircling tactics used by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Mechanized (9th Armoured Division) units cannot be used in the narrow alleyways of the Old City, leaving much of the fighting to be be done here—as in the actual battle—by Iraqi special forces of the Counter Terrorism Service “Golden Division.” Particular attention needs to be planning lines of attack and retreat, otherwise the ISF might soon suffer disruption as vehicles and personnel find themselves gridlocked in the urban space.

It took months for the ISF to recapture west Mosul. It often took several days, or more, to secure a single city block. Game turns themselves are two weeks long. In theory, however, one can drive from Mosul Airport (on the southern edge of the WACN game map) to the Republican Hospital (on the north edge of the map) in under half an hour—if the route is clear. A system of fast movement on primary roads was developed to represent this. If Daesh is not careful to deploy IEDs and blocking forces, they might find the ISF making rapid advances down major thoroughfares with mechanized forces—mirroring aspects of the battle, where columns of Iraqi Army units pushed onto the city to cut off Daesh from supply and retreat.

We Are Coming, Nineveh uses blocks for two primary reasons. First, they allow us to represent imperfect information, fog of war, and the difficulties of identifying and targeting enemy units within urban environments. A player is able to see the location of a number of enemy units, but not able to identify what these are. Some may not even be units at all, but rather “rumours” (representing poor or false intelligence). For the ISF, identifying and eliminating high level targets, such as the Daesh leader, arms caches, or an IED factory, can be a vital element of a successful operation.

Experience also shows that neophyte wargamers find blocks less fiddly to use than stacks of chits. Block rotations are easily used to record combat losses and attrition, with the number required to inflict damage on the enemy becoming higher as a unit declines in combat effectiveness. 

WACN highlights the various tactics, weapons, and technologies that characterize modern, asymmetrical urban combat. Some of these, such as the use of UAVs and precision fires, are relatively new. Others, such as IEDs and mouseholing buildings, would have been completely familiar to soldiers at Stalingrad or any other major urban operation of the previous century. We also wanted to recognize the less visible but no less critical contribution that combat support, logistics, and training make.

This is achieved in the game through the use of Capability Cards. These allow Daesh and the ISF to customize their defensive and offensive strategies, and assure that—despite the constants of geography—no two wargames are alike, thereby contributing to the game’s replay value. In the months leading up to the battle, will Daesh invest its resources on recruiting more troops (Ashbal, Technicals, Mortars), or prepositioning other capabilities (such as Arms Caches and IED Factories)? Will it hunker down behind prepared positions (using Fortifications and Mouseholes), focus on disrupting ISF operations (using Snipers and Makeshift Drones), or assume a mobile defence of constant hit-and run attacks (with capabilities like Guerilla Training, Stay Behind Forces, and Tunnel Networks)? Should the ISF invest in additional training and Improved Logistics, or simply throw more personnel into the battle? How much of a role will intelligence play (HUMINT, EW/SIGINT, Improved ISR)? Will the ISF blast its way into the city with air and artillery support, or seek to minimize casualties and collateral damage (Rules of Engagement, Field Hospital, Humanitarian Assistance)? The game can be fought in the historical manner, with Iraqi forces advancing from the south to cut off the Old City and then capture it, but the ISF can also adopt other approaches—an earlier assault, flanking operations, or even major amphibious or heliborne insertions. All of these represent choices faced by the actual commanders on the ground.

If a player does not invest in a particular capability, it does not mean it is completely absent. It can be assumed there is always some air and artillery support, sniper fire, or fortifications present in the battle. Instead, investing in a Capability Card indicates that a special effort has been made to acquire and deploy additional assets of this type.

The various event cards used in WACN serve four different functions. Some introduce additional uncertainty into tactical operations. Others reward players for investing in certain capabilities. Still others are used to generate collateral damage effects from combat operations. 

Finally, the cards are also used to immerse the player in some of the small-unit tactical decisions and even moral dilemmas faced by battlefield commanders. Military operations in heavily populated urban areas generate many difficult choices, and we wanted to make sure the game adequately conveyed these sorts of challenges.

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said that war is a fundamentally political act, the “continuation of policy by other means.” In planning Operation We Are Coming, Nineveh, Iraqi political and military leaders had to consider the political goals and ramifications of tactical and strategic choices. What does it mean to “win” against Daesh? Is it enough to eliminate their immediate military capabilities—even if doing so leaves behind so much destruction that the local population grows even more alienated from Baghdad? How important is it to secure a rapid victory—thereby denying Daesh the grounds to boast about its prolonged resistance—if this increases the cost in ISF casualties? 

Similarly, Daesh—like all insurgent movements, and especially one that sees itself religiously destined to triumph—was playing a long game. If it could not hold Mosul, it could project an image of strength and resilience and heroic martyrdom by lasting as long as possible. If it could further aggravate sectarian and political tensions in doing so, so much the better.

In order to represent these competing narratives of the battle,  WACN uses a system of multiple victory conditions. Three different metrics are assessed: Time (how long it takes the ISF to clear West Mosul), Casualties (casualties suffered by the ISF), and Collateral Damage (civilian casualties and destruction caused by the operation, as well as political alienation of the local population). Before the battle begins, players choose which they will emphasize. They should then deploy capabilities and develop their tactical plans to support this. 

It is even possible for the game to end without a clear victor. While the points score might favour one player, extreme outcomes on any of the three dimensions can give the other player the basis on which to claim a moral-political victory. The metrics can also be used to compare the players’ performance with the historical results obtained by the Iraqi Security Forces.

The game includes an option for solo play. Here the player assumes the role of the ISF, while Daesh deployment and actions are determined by a series of die rolls and card draws.

Nuts! Publishing endorses the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in wargaming

We’re happy to announce that Nuts! Publishing is the latest gaming company or organization to endorse the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming.

On a personal note, I’m especially happy to welcome Nuts! on board. I use their games (notably Urban Operations) in teaching wargame design. Moreover, they will be publishing We Are Coming Nineveh!, a game exploring the liberation of Mosul from ISIS control in 2017.

I am one of the codesigners of WACN, along with Juliette Le Ménahèze, Harrison Brewer and Brian Train. It was Juliette who first launched the project and drove it forward. Florent Coupeau at Nuts! has been really supportive and encouraging of her efforts as a new, female wargame designer. The Serious Games Network – France, another Derby House Principles signatory, has also been very encouraging to her.

Finally, for those who are wondering: while the pandemic has slowed down the publication schedule, WACN is still on track to be published next year.

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