Aaron Danis, 18 January 2024 ~ #UnboxingDay
Urban Combat Against ISIS in 2017
BLUF: An urban combat wargame for liberating Mosul in 2017 that faithfully recreates the heavy combat that occurred there. The system is transferrable to the ongoing fighting in Gaza.
click images to enlarge
I have coveted this game since it was released by Nuts! Publishing, but I only picked it up recently at a discounted price from Boardlandia. This is my 3rd consecutive unboxing/review of an urban combat wargame, and to date this is the only one that has a system that is potentially applicable to the fighting in Gaza (one of the co-designers even has a rough and ready scenario to do so…more on that later). When I opened it, I was not disappointed. The box was chock-full of goodness, including 96 mostly square wooden blocks, 163 cards of various types, 24 round or square thick counters, a large (23.5 x 33 inch) mounted area-movement map of West Mosul and its environs, and 2 dice. The rules and separate designer notes booklets are printed on that odd (for Americans) A4 8.25 x 11.7-inch glossy paper. The box and the booklets display the striking cover art shown above, which matches the panoramic shots in the excellent 2019 movie Mosul.
The game portrays the final phase of the pivotal 8-month long battle (Operation We are Coming, Ninevah!) for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to retake Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city – from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from February – July 2017, focusing on the old city. The units are in block form with initial strength and steps on each side as you rotate it.
The ISF consists of 3 infantry and 1 armored ground force divisions, the Federal Police, the Emergency Response Division (ERD), and Iraq’s best but overstretched unit, the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS). They are supported by the never-popular (at least with the U.S. advisors) predominantly Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
ISIS has a leader unit, Veterans, Militia, Ashbal (child soldiers), Technicals (gun trucks), Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs), mortars, and stay-behind units that are all mobile. There are immobile units representing IED factories, large IEDs, arms caches, and the Media Center.
Finally, there are “unit” markers representing Rumors, or Fog of War. The use of one-sided blocks and intelligence capability cards adds to the fog of war, accurately representing the cat-and-mouse nature of urban warfare.
The game has a great design and development team, led by veterans Rex Brynen and Brian Train, and an equally august team of playtesters. This team did their collective homework (reflected by the well-cited 10 pages of historical and design notes) and wisely built the heart of the system into the event and capabilities cards. The 70 events cards would be more than enough for most games, but the team through threw in a couple of extra cards that allow players to add their own events based on their research and knowledge of the battle.
What is most interesting to me are the ISIS capability cards. They allow for the use of the type of insurgent tactics used in today’s urban combat. As seen in Gaza, tunnels play a large role in urban areas (these can be hand dug or by leveraging underground sewer and conduit networks). The game has cards for so-called mouseholes, and both small and large tunnel networks, which allow the ISIS player to shift forces from one area to another in an elegant way without laboriously sketching out a tunnel network in 3 dimensions. Instead, when the ISIS player draws the card, they place two tunnel entrance counters on the map in sectors they control, 2-3 sectors away. These remain until the ISF takes control of the area. Other cards include spy and smuggling networks, snipers, drones, suicide vests, and human shields, among many choices.
ISF capabilities cards provide for Coalition (American) air and artillery support (without which most ISF units would not engage in combat during the actual battle)1, forward observers, and drones without the need for having U.S. force blocks on the map. There are additional intelligence and Iraqi air and artillery support available, Iranian advisors, as well as rules of engagement cards for Iraqi units. All in all, they provide elegant solutions to sometimes sticky urban combat issues without increasing rules or unit density. The victory conditions are equally elegant and provide for asymmetric gameplay. Players can either select straight victory points, or a “competing narratives” victory condition, both of which rely on tracking three victory metrics: time, casualties, or collateral damage. Each player secretly draws a card of the metric they want to prioritize. There are three tracks on the map where players can track their progress and compare it to the historical outcome. While it’s a little too detailed to explain here in a short review, take my word for it that it is a novel idea and should lend itself to rewarding gameplay whether you play the historical or hasty attack (early start) scenario. There is also a solitaire game which uses a deck of ISIS Military Council cards to control ISIS play.
There appears to be no real errata as of yet, which is what one would expect of a well-playtested game from a veteran team. In the heat of early Gaza combat in October 2023, co-designer Brian Train produced a scenario with a small map using the rules and counters for this game, and posted it to his website. While his Gaza scenario, as he states, has been “undercut by events,” it shows the applicability of this system to other situations. There is only one other wargame on the Mosul battle, designed by Joe Miranda, but it is for a hypothetical battle for the city that was released in the now-defunct Modern War magazine just as the real preparatory battle for Mosul got underway. The Coalition order of battle is different, and its map includes the whole city.
If you are looking for updated readings on the battle, the U.S. Army recently published the article in Army History footnoted below; it probably the best single article on the battle to date. The U.S. Army also released a longer study titled The Conflict with ISIS: Operation Inherent Resolve, June 2014–January 2020, in which the fight for Mosul is key part of the narrative. There are also two comprehensive Rand studies on Operation Inherent Resolve, one on the air campaign and one on U.S. ground contributions. These publications can be downloaded for free.
Up next month: The Second Battle for Fallujah.
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- Mason W. Watson “We Are Coming, Nineveh,” The Liberation of Mosul, 2016–2017, Army History, Fall 2023, pp. 24-25.