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.
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.