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.
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 CollateralDamage (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.
For those who have been asking—yes, we are getting closer to the publication of We Are Coming, Nineveh!, the tactical-operational game of the 2017 liberation of West Mosul from Daesh (ISIS) control by the Iraqi security forces and their Coalition allies. The game is designed by Juliette Le Ménahèze and Harrison Brewer, with support from Brian Train and myself.
WACN is being published by Nuts! Publishing, and you can see some of the final art and components on their website.
You’ll find several previous posts discussing the design process here at PAXsims.
A few weeks ago I watched the movie Mosul (2019) on Netflix—a fictionalized account of a real-life Iraqi SWAT team that fought against Daesh (ISIS) from the fall of Mosul in 2014 through to the liberation of the city in 2017. It’s an excellent, gritty movie. Filmed entirely in Arabic, it places the Iraqi security forces at the centre of the story: US and coalition support is only mentioned a few times and one Iranian military advisor makes a brief (and memorable) appearance. Indeed, during the actual campaign in Iraq and Syria, 99.5% of those who fought and died against Daesh were Arabs and Kurds.
Not surprisingly, the movie often comes to mind as I’ve been playtesting the optional solitaire rules for We Are Coming, Nineveh! As regular readers of PAXsims will know, WACN is a tactical/operational game of the liberation of West Mosul. It was first developed by two students in my conflict simulation class, Juliette Le Ménahèze and Harrison Brewer. I later joined them as a codesigner, as did Brian Train. While things have been slowed by the pandemic, Nuts! Publishingplan to release it by the end of this year. You’ll find previous reports on the project here and here.
Normally, WACN is a two player game. In the solitaire version, the player assumes control of Iraqi forces against an automated Daesh defender. First, the ISF player decides what additional assets and capabilities they will bring to the battle. The initial deployment of Daesh forces is then randomized, but in a way that reflects the group’s major tactical priorities: a last-ditch defence of the densely-built Old City, with enough units and IEDs elsewhere to preclude rapid encirclement, complicate ISF planning, and promise some difficult fights and tactical surprises. The use of blocks and rumours (dummy counters) means that the ISF player is rarely sure of the enemy’s exact dispositions.
Thereafter, game play alternates, with Daesh actions controlled by a deck of “military council” cards. These usually direct two or three sets of Daesh action each turn, from ambushes and counterattacks, through to indirect fire, quadcopter (drone) attacks, snipers, tunnels, human shields, and so forth. Some of these depend on Daesh’s supply situation, and others seek to identify weak spots in the ISF lines.
For the ISF, it is essential to cut off external supply routes into the Old City and destroy key assets (such as leadership, arms aches, and IED factories). Coalition ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance assets) and precision fires can be very helpful indeed if used carefully. But so too are things like training, improved logistics, casualty evacuation, explosive ordinance disposal, and old-fashioned human intelligence (HUMINT). Indeed, while the battle for Mosul had some key high-tech elements, most of the gruelling, house-to-house fighting would have been familiar to veterans of Stalingrad, Seoul, or Huế—a point that the movie brings out well.
Details from yesterday’s game can be seen below. (Note that this is my rather heavily-used playtesting copy, and not representative of the artwork that will appear in the published version.) The ISF has secured coalition air, artillery, and UAV support, augmented its logistics capabilities, and deployed some Popular Mobilization Forces in addition to the Iraqi Army, police, and Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS).
Military Council cards determined what Daesh did each turn. The initial advance went well, with some Daesh forces brushed aside quickly.
However, Daesh had a few surprises up its sleeve—on top of the challenges of conducting military operations in a major city. Below, veteran Daesh defenders emerge from a hidden tunnel to attack Iraqi police in a rear area.
Things began to bog down. The Iraqi Army severed the enemy’s supply lines, only to see them reestablished for another month after a Daesh counterattack.
Most of the fighting in the Old City was conducted by forces from the elite CTS “Golden Division.” However, one memorable scene from Mosul was replayed as an Iraqi police SWAT team and Iranian-advised PMF forces found themselves together—possibly trading cigarettes for ammunition, as in the movie.
The fighting here was gruelling, with some CTS units suffering over 70% casualties (as they did in real life). The local Daesh commander was ultimately cornered just north of the al-Nuri mosque, but precious weeks were lost taking these final positions.
The collateral damage from the fighting was also heavier than expected. When points were tallied at the end of the game, Daesh had lost control of the city but won a political victory.
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.
Lately we have had a chance to run more playtest games of We Are Coming Nineveh, the tactical/operational-level wargame of the 2017 Mosul campaign being developed by Juliette Le Ménahèze, Harrison Brewer, Brian Train, and myself for Nuts! Publishing. It’s all coming along nicely, and feedback has been very positive indeed.
Playtesting at Connections UK. Juliette looks on as Phil Pournelle advances Iraqi forces towards the Old City. War is thirsty work.
More playtesting at Connections UK.
Counter Terrorism Service and Emergency Response Division troops break into the heavily-defended Old City. To the west and north, units of the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armoured and 16th Infantry Divisions close a circle of steel around their foe.
The (area movement) map and (block-based) combat system are working very well: they are fast and intuitive, and nicely model the tempo of the actual campaign. Consequently, most of our recent tweaks involve Capability cards and Event cards.
A game is about to begin at McGill University. Daesh has deployed most of its veteran units to the Old City, while using a screen of militia and IEDs to slow and disrupt the ISF offensive. If the ISF can cut the roads to the west and north it will hamper Daesh resupply.
The former represent what it is each side chooses to bring to the fight, above and beyond their core units. In the case of Daesh (ISIS), this includes such things as:
a media production centre
tunnel networks and “stay behind” forces
primitive chemical weapons
“mouseholes” and fortifications
additional Improvised Explosive Devices of various sort
better infantry training
local spy networks
As for the Iraqi security Forces, they can call upon (amongst other things):
additional military units (16th Infantry Division, Popular Mobilization Forces)
Coalition air and artillery support, as well as UAVs (drones) and forward observers
additional ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets
tighter Rules of Engagement (to reduce collateral damage)
expanded humanitarian assistance operations
airmobile and river-crossing operations
Prior to deployment, Brian considers what additional capabilities he wants for the forthcoming battle.
Each side is given 30 points to spend on such capabilities before the game starts, and they can tailor their expenditure to suit their campaign plan and preferred tactics. This dramatically enhances the replay value of We Are Coming, Nineveh!, since every game can be very different depending on how Daesh has chosen to defend its positions and what assets and capabilities the Iraqi side chooses to deploy.
The ISF gets lucky break: human intelligence (HUMINT) reveals the location of a senior Daesh military commander, who is promptly killed in a daring strike by Iraqi attack helicopters.
The Event cards are triggered by dice tolls during ground combat. Some generate collateral damage, especially when fighting is taking place in the densely-packed Old City. Some reflect the challenges of military operations in urban terrain: troops might get lost, pause to recover casualties, encountered unexploded ordnance, or have other encounters. Others present various tactical vignettes. Do you risk accepting the surrender of Daesh fighters, knowing there might be a suicide bomber amongst them? Do you open fire on the vehicle travelling towards your checkpoint? Does an officer risk death to rescue a child caught in the crossfire? Finally, still other cards reward success or capabilities—if the ISF has invested in improved coordination, for example, they’ll encounter fewer problems when Iraqi Army, Interior Ministry, or Counter Terrorism Service (“Golden Division”) forces attempt joint operations.
Iraqi forces (green) clear the last Daesh units (black) out of the Old City. In this case, the ISF minimized indirect fires and air support, and instead invested in better training and logistics. Their careful campaign was slower than the real one, but kept casualties and collateral damage down.
Victory is determined by three metrics: the time it takes to liberate Mosul, the casualties taken by the ISF, and the collateral damage (both physical and political) inflicted on the city. At the start of the game, each side secretly nominates the metric that it wishes to emphasize in its political messaging. We have also built in a system of narrative description, allowing players to gauge their progress against the real military campaign.
Juliette, Brian, Rex, and Harrison.
We hope to have the main game finalized by the end of December, at which point we will deliver it to Nuts! for further development We are also developing a solitaire system to allow solo play, but that will take a few months more of work. Keep your eye on PAXsims for further details!
We Are Coming, Nineveh!is 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 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 was first designed by (PAXsims research associates) Juliette Le Ménahèze and Harrison Brewer as their project for a conflict simulation design course at McGill University. Subsequently, (renowned counter-insurgency game designer) Brian Train and (PAXsims senior editor and Middle East scholar) Rex Brynen joined the team too. A commercial publisher has already expressed strong interest, and we plan to have a final prototype of the game to them by the end of 2018.
The zonal map depicts the major areas of west Mosul, including the densely-built Old City where Daesh forces made their last stand. Units each represent 100 or so Daesh fighters, or and battalion-sized units of the Iraqi Army, Ministry of the Interior, and elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS). Cards are used to indicate defensive preparations, air and indirect fire support, special weapons, and various other capabilities. Each turn represents approximately two weeks of gruelling combat.
The use of blocks maintains uncertainty and the “fog of war.” The game combines a simple, intuitive, but highly effective system for movement and combat with a number of innovative game elements:
Before the operation starts, players choose a number of special capability cards—reflecting their planning and preparations for this long-awaited battle. Should Iraqi government forces deploy large amounts of air and artillery support, or might this cause excessive destruction in Iraq’s second largest city? Should they bring in additional ground forces, or invest in better training for those they have? What about the volunteer Shi’ite militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces—will these be used in the largely Sunni city? Will Daesh invest in more and larger improvised explosive devices? Will they pre-position bomb factories and arms caches, or perhaps a media production facility to publicize their accomplishments? What surprises might they have in store: home-made drones, primitive chemical weapons, or a network of tunnels under the city? No two games will be the same.
During each turn, event cards can be triggered at any time by either player. Some of these indicate the growing collateral damage done to the city and its people. Others generate tactical vignettes. Troops can get lost in the maze of small streets, communications can break down, and commanders can be faced with difficult moral and operational choices.
Unlike most wargames where there is a single measure for victory or loss, We Are Coming Nineveh assesses three key aspectsof the campaign: the speed at which the operation is completed, the casualties suffered by Iraqi government forces, and the collateral damage done to Mosul. One might outperform the historical case, capturing the Old City faster—but at a terrible civilian cost.
The game is thus able to combine low complexity (and hence be accessible to even neophyte wargamers) with a rich and detailed treatment of this important battle. A typical game lasts approximately 3 hours.
Playtesting the current version of the game, with a revised map, event, and capability cards. Units of the Iraqi Army’s 9th division (brown) have advanced to the west (right above), cutting off the remaining supply route for Daesh. The latter has largely retreated to the Old City, where the narrow alleys and dense urban terrain offers tactical advantages. To the south (top), Daesh veterans have counterattacked, throwing back some Federal Police and Emergency Response Division troops in disarray. Meanwhile, elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) forces prepare to advance into the Old City itself. A Daesh IED factory there provides a constant supply of Improvised Explosive Devices for the defenders, while a prepositioned Arms Cache has reduced the effects of supply lines being severed. Coalition air and artillery support has been important in supporting the Iraqi advance so far, but is unlikely to be available for fire support missions in heavily-populated urban areas.