May 22, 2024

A Grognard’s 32-Year Perspective on a Hundred Hours Campaign – Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War

RockyMountainNavy, 2 November 2023

As a Grognard who has played wargames for over 40 years now, including many “Cold War Gone Hot” and other “modern” topic wargames, one might think I have played more than a few games on Operation DESERT STORM, the 1991 war with Iraq. Alas, you would be wrong. Wrong at least until the arrival of Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War by designer Eric Harvey from Accurate Simulations. It took me 32 years to play a DESERT STORM wargame. What I found in Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is an easy to learn, highly playable “traditional” hex & counter wargame with an interesting Campaign Card Draw game mechanism added to emphasize that this war was not just about military success—or failure—on the battlefield. Yet, while Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is easy to learn and somewhat fun to play, I hesitate to call the game a “simulation” of the war as the viewpoint of the game is relatively narrow and the game mechanisms used don’t convey that theme in a powerful manner.

Back in the day

I clearly remember the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. On August 2, 1990 I was home on leave having just finished a basic course following my commissioning in the U.S. Navy. I was supposed to be home for two weeks but it had only been a few days when the news flashed across the TV screens. On August 4 I arrived at my first duty assignment: Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VAQ) 137 ‘Rooks’ flying the EA-6B Prowler assigned to Carrier Airwing One embarked aboard the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66). After four months of busy work-ups we transited the Suez Canal and entered the Red Sea just days before the DESERT STORM kicked off on January 17, 1991.

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1000 total hours with 600 combat hours and 30 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) expended (USS America DESERT STORM Cruise book)

click images to enlarge

 

As a wargamer since 1979 I touched a few wargames about conflicts in the Middle East in the decade before Operation DESERT STORM. The ones I remember best are Central Command: Superpower Confrontation in the Straits of Hormuz by Charles T. Kamps and published in Strategy & Tactics Magazine No. 98 in 1984. I also played lots of the 1988 Desert Falcons expansion for Air Superiority (J.D. Webster, GDW, 1987). Although I had heard of this big monster game called Gulf Strike by Mark Herman for Victory Games in 1984 I owned Aegean Strike (1986) instead.

Pacific pivot

After Operation DESERT STORM and the fall of the Soviet Union I was stationed on the Korean Peninsula which became the focus of my wargaming with titles like Crisis: Korea 1995 by Gene Billingsley from a relatively then-new company called GMT Games in 1992. I didn’t totally ignore the Middle East; I kept my Harpoon Third Edition (GDW, 1987) obsession going with the supplement Troubled Waters from 1992. I touched a bit more on the Middle East with Crisis: Sinai 1973 by designer John Prados for GMT Games in 1995. What I didn’t play then, and all the way up to today, was any wargame on Operation DESERT STORM.

32 years later

A bit earlier this year I saw an interview with designer Eric Harvey over on The Player’s Aid blog regarding a new title Desert Storm: The Hundred Hours War published by Accurate Simulations. Being a bit familiar with some of Eric’s previous work (and if you have played any Strategy & Tactics Press wargames in the past decade you have very likely played at least one—or more—Eric R. Harvey wargames) I took the chance and ordered.

[Desert Storm? More like Desert EXPRESS! A shout out to “Bob” at Accurate Simulations for the unparalleled customer service. I ordered my game around 7:30pm eastern time on a Thursday evening. Within 30 minutes I had several emails that acknowledged the order and then informed me that Bob was able to pack and send the shipment off before the Post Office closed in California. When I got home from shopping with Mrs. RockyMountainNavy at 2pm Saturday I had a box waiting. Even with USPS moving the box it took less time for the game to order, ship, and arrive than the final ground war. That’s awesome customer service. Thanks, Bob!]

Desert Storm comes in a standard 2″-deep bookcase box. When I opened the box I was a bit surprised at how few contents there were inside. What I discovered in play was a relatively small game with a grand objective.

“…a traditional wargame.”

The introduction to Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War describes the game this way:

“Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is a unique wargame that emphasizes the geopolitical events that publicly framed the context of the Persian Gulf War. Unlike any previous war in history, the Persian Gulf War was broadcast worldwide virtually as it unfolded, and so both sides attempted to leverage world opinion towards their own aims. Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, attempted to undermine support for the war by vowing to inflict grievous losses to Coalition forces. But, world leaders insisted that Saddam Hussein must not be permitted to control a fourth of the Middle East’s entire oil reserves.”

“Nevertheless, Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is a traditional wargame. Players must position their forces, plan their maneuvers, and then undertake combat operations. However, both sides possess advantages and disadvantages: the Coalition’s technological superiority is offset by the necessity to avoid heavy losses, and Iraq’s numerical superiority is offset by an inadequate air force. To win, both players must develop a comprehensive strategy that balances’s every dimension of warfare, and yet achieve victory on the battlefield.”

When Accurate Simulations says Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is a “traditional wargame” they really aren’t kidding. The game is very hex & counter with stacking rules (two friendly units max, see 4.1 Land Stacking and 4.3 Air Stacking) and a turn sequence including a very traditional Air Phase (Mission-Return to Base)-Move-Fight-Advance-Refit sequence (see 5.0 Sequence of Play). Air combat is a simple roll-under-or-equal to hit (7.1 Resolving Air-to-Air Combat) which is the same basic one-die resolution mechanism used for Bombing (see 8.1 Resolving a Bombing Attempt). Land movement pays different movement cost per the terrain (9.0 Land Movement and 9.1 Road Movement). There is a rule for Zones of Control (see 9.2 Zones of Control). Amphibious and airmobile units are also accounted for (9.4 Sea Hexes and Amphibious Units; 9.5 Airmobile Movement).

Land combat in Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War uses traditional wargame mechanisms, albeit without the use of a Combat Results Table (CRT). Instead of a CRT, land units again use the roll-under-or-equal mechanism with terrain die roll modifiers to hit (11.2 Land Combat Attack Procedure). Importantly, a unit that is hit gets a Defense Roll and a chance to reduce the attacking unit (11.3 Land Combat Defense Procedure). There are also rules for retreat (11.4 Retreating from Land Combat) and advance after combat (11.5 Advance after Combat).

The traditional wargame of Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is very easy to learn, to teach, and fast to play. In some ways the rules are excellent for playing with gamers who are maybe still exploring or even just thinking about playing wargames.

Suits of Victory

Where Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is decidedly NOT a traditional wargame is in determining victory. Instead of accumulating victory points, players play for suits. No, not flight suits or camouflage suits but suits on playing cards which are called Event cards in Desert Storm.

Suits of Glory

I don’t know if the designer intentionally was trying to riff off the famous 1991 Topps Desert Storm Trading Cards but the event cards in Desert Storm are certainly evocative of the older set.

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Old Topps (uncredited)
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New Accurate Sims (photo by RMN)

Each player’s turn in Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War starts with an Events Phase where each player plays one of their event cards. For each turn in the game, players have three double-sided event cards of which two are randomly drawn. The player must decide which two of the four events will be played in each player’s turn of the game turn.

“The Event cards represent national an geopolitical influences upon the course of the war. Each event is an actual historical incident that either negatively or positively impacted public perception of the war. All of the various events are represented as card suits (Joker, Spade, Club, Heart, or Diamond) to symbolize a unique dimensions of the war.” (6.1 Event card suits)

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Turn 7 Event cards side A (photo by RMN)
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Turn 7 Event cards side B (photo by RMN)

 

As the design note to rule 6.1 states: “The representative theme of these events has no specific effect on game play; they merely serve to provide players with a realistic sense of the five dimensions of war in the 20th Century, particularly during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.” [Hang onto that thought…]

When playing an Event card in Desert Storm, players roll a single die; if the roll is within the designated range on the card they advance that suit track one box. The second note in rule 6.4 The Effect of an Event explains why:

“Note: The suit track is essentially a race amongst both side’s suit markers. Each player must try to win the game by having the most of his suit markers farthest along the suit track (towards each “End” box) before the last game turn is completed. No particular type of suit is more valuable than any other type of suit because the goal is to have the most suit markers with the highest position. Of the five different suit markers for each player (Joker, Space, Heart, Club, and Diamond), whichever player has at least three if his own markers closest to the end of the suit track at the conclusion of the last game turn has achieved a victory and won the game.” (Second Note, 6.4 The Effect of an Event)

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Zoot suits (photo by RMN)

 

The Event cards in Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War are not the only way to move the suit track. In addition to the Event cards there are four (4) ways to move a marker on the suit track as defined in rule 13.1 Suit Markers:

  • “When an Event card is played, if that event’s die roll is successful (see 6.3).”
  • “When any map objective hex is captured by a land unit (see 13.2).”
  • “When any map objective hex is successfully bombed (see 13.3).”
  • “When any Coalition game piece is reduced or eliminated (see 13.4).”

If the war was a hundred hours why did we fly combat missions for nearly 50 days?

As interesting as the gameplay of Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War might be, I cannot call it a definitive wargame on the subject. For me, the game is highly focused on the ground war with only a light touch of the air war.  The naval aspects of DESERT STORM are for the most part abstracted out and other warfighting domains like information operations are supposedly—dare I say poorly—portrayed though Event cards.

What’s in a name? In the Player’s Aid interview, designer Eric Harvey talked about the hundred hours in the title and how it really doesn’t really mean what is says:

Grant: What did you want the subtitle of “The Hundred Hour War” to say to players about the game?

Eric: Though the game actually covers the months leading up to the war (and then the war itself, of course), I thought that the subtitle “The Hundred Hour War” sounded interestingly contradictory, as if to say, “How could a war only last a hundred hours?” The fact that the war only lasted a hundred hours says something about the conflict, it seems.  

While I totally understand that many people try to focus on the final ground war that lasted 100 hours, my perspective starts the war nearly seven months earlier when Operation DESERT SHIELD started. Even when the war ended, USS America was “last in, last out” so we didn’t get home until May…months AFTER the “hundred hours.” The title is all the more not understandable when the designer themself admits the game is about more than the last hundred hours.

Poorly tailored suits. While I sincerely appreciate the design effort behind the Event cards in Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War but I am not sure the design objective (“provide players with a realistic sense of the five dimensions of war”) is achieved. Part of my difficulty is the graphics which are more game than theme. While the different suits are mapped to a dimension of warfare the only place the “key” is written is in the rulebook. The suit track on the game map has the suit and graphic but no dimension of warfare name. Maybe I assume too much of players because I know a spade from club from a diamond from a heart. Further, the designers mapping of suit to warfare dimension clashes with my preconceived notions. Every time I look at the suit track I see the Diamond as “Econ” and Heart as “Diplomacy” and Spade as “Moral” along with the Club as “Military” and the Joker as “Political.” But no, I need to remember a different association.

Suit Game Me
Joker Political Political
Spade Moral Military
Heart Diplomatic Moral
Club Military Diplomatic
Diamond Economic Economic
My Suit Dissonance

Suits without theme. The Event cards in Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War are, to be frank, kind of dull in play. In the Event phase when picking which cards to keep, players tend to look at the suit track and choose the card with the suit they need. Two obvious strategies are possible; keep cards for tracks you are behind on to catch up or keep cards in tracks you are well ahead on to stay ahead. Neither strategy is particularly thematic as players look at suits and die rolls—the actual event text is inconsequential and can actually be ignored. The only real saving grace of the suit track is the need to consider it with regards to objective hexes to be captured or bombed. I have not done a deep look to see if the objective hexes are balanced amongst suits—I am almost afraid to see what I would find.

While I am personally confused, and maybe even a bit disappointed by, the suits and Event cards, I can also see some value if one leans into the simple “traditional” wargame approach. The Event cards form another “game” over the combat game in the design of Desert Storm. I can find contentment in the design if I remember to tell myself this is an easy-to-play, easy-to-teach, game that is evocative—not a simulation but evocative—of the many dimension of war.

Time to play a card. Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is a heavily abstracted game. One area of abstraction that leaves me scratching my head is the timescale of the game. A distance scale is given – 10 miles per hex, as well as a unit scale (“Division-scale”) but there is no time scale for a given turn. The rulebook itself is nebulous:

  • “The game simulates a war between two sides, the Iraqi side versus the Coalition side.” (2.0, p. 3).
  • “Event cards represent the historically newsworthy events of the war as they unfolded before and throughout the war…” (2.0, p. 3).
  • “Each of the ten game turns is divided into two distinct player turns.” (5.0, p. 9).

Rule 9.7 of Desert Storm is the Coalition reinforcement schedule. Given the game starts with Coalition units already deployed game turn 1 can safely be assumed to be sometime after August 2, 1990. My own USS America which is in the reinforcement schedule for Game Turn 2 arrived on January 15, 1991.

The Event cards in Desert Storm also give hints. One of the Coalition Game Turn 3 cards is “Coalition Begins Day Bombing” which was January 17, 1991. I note, however, the Iraqi Turn 4 Event card “Intense AAA Over Baghdad” seems out of sync. “Bush Declares Saddam Defeated” is a Coalition Turn 8 card but “Powell Proposes a Ceasefire” is an Iraqi Turn 9 card.

Perhaps it is best just to say Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is a game with ten turns and leave it at that. Like so much of this game, it is perhaps better to try not to read too much into the design.

Saddam’s Nukes. There is an interesting map note just below the suit track on the game map for Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War. The note reads: “Map Note: Nuclear weapons production facilities (e.g Facility 190, Facility 416, etc.) that were not known to U.S. intelligence in 1990 are not included on this map.”

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What’s intel hiding this time?

 

Iraq’s WMD program had its nuclear portion reduced after the 1981 Israeli air strike on the Osirak reactor. Yet, as would be publicly disclosed on the 2004 WMD Commission Report, Iraq had a serious nuclear weapons program during DESERT STORM:

“Post-Gulf War. Following the Gulf War, based on a variety of sources of intelligence including reporting from defectors, the Intelligence Community learned that Iraq’s nuclear weapons program went “far beyond what had been assessed by any intelligence organization” in 1990-1991.10 Before the Gulf War, in November 1990, the Community had assessed that, because analysts had not detected a formal, coordinated nuclear weapons program, Iraq likely would not have a nuclear weapon until the late 1990s.11 Thus after the war the Intelligence Community was surprised to discover the breadth of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, including the wide range of technologies Iraq had been pursuing for uranium enrichment, which in turn indicated that Iraq “had been much closer to a weapon than virtually anyone expected.”12 This humbling discovery that Iraq had successfully concealed a sophisticated nuclear program from the U.S. Intelligence Community exercised a major influence on the Intelligence Community’s assessments throughout the early 1990s and afterwards.” (Unclassified Version of the Report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, 53-54)

I really don’t like being that wargamer who comes across as a snide person that always tells game designers “I could have done this better” but I have to wonder why mention the “unknown” facilities and then do nothing with them? Maybe give the Iraqi player two facilities that are hidden somewhere on the map? As it is, the map note is Chekhov’s gun…but without a bang before the end of the game.

Where are the carriers? I totally understand the naval aspects of Operation DESERT STORM are not necessarily conducive to exciting wargaming. Given the degree of abstraction, I guess I am lucky that USS America is in the game even if it is as a single F-18 counter (Wha? No A-6 love?!). That single counter was very busy in ways not portrayed in the game. During the first part of the war USS America one of three aircraft carriers in Battle Force Yankee in the Red Sea. We usually did a six-day rotation; two days of daylight Alpha Strikes (most of the airwing), 2 nights of Alpha Strikes, then two days in “Gas Alley” to get more fuel, beans, and bullets. For most flight crews this meant one major mission each day. For Prowler squadrons even “down days” in Gas Alley saw us flying combat missions in support of our allies (like the RAF) that didn’t have dedicated electronic warfare strike support. Just before the “Hundred Hours” kicked off America transited to the Arabian Gulf to be the fourth carrier in Battle Force Zulu. When the ground war started we flew “cyclic ops” where the deck basically operated in a 45-minute (later 1 hour 15 minute) cycle each of which consisted of ready, launch, and recovery of aircraft. Here the flight crews might fly multiple times in a given day for the focus was on sortie generation. None of that, of course, is reflected in the Desert Storm game.

Grognard expectations

As a Grognard who is a veteran of the Gulf War and a wargamer for over 40 years now, perhaps I am expecting too much from Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War. I don’t know who wrote the ad copy for the publisher’s blurb on the Accurate Simulations website, nor who submitted the subtitle for the BoardGameGeek entry, but Desert Storm is not “A comprehensive simulation of Desert Storm based on newly declassified documentation.” Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War IS an easy-to-learn, easy-to-teach, relatively simple war game themed around the Gulf War. That game is a very “traditional” hex & counter wargame with a simple roll-under-or-equal to hit combat mechanism and a “gimmick” Campaign Card Draw layer which is nothing more than a track racing mechanism obscured by thematic text on the cards. Grognards looking for deep meaning and a comprehensive view of the war will likely be disappointed, but those looking for a war game that can be set up, taught, and played in an evening—even to relative newbies in the wargaming hobby—that touches on dimensions of war beyond simple combat may find Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War very enjoyable.

…while Desert Storm: The Hundred Hour War is easy to learn and somewhat fun to play, I hesitate to call the game a “simulation” of the war as the viewpoint of the game is relatively narrow and the game mechanisms used don’t convey that theme in a powerful manner.

RockyMountainNavy, September 2023

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“…and I was there.” (photo by RMN)

 


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