Aaron Danis, 19 October 2023 ~ #UnboxingDay
A Historical Case of Urban Combat in the Levant
BLUF: Small, low-density urban combat game that appears to be strong on the politics of the Middle East but short on the urban warfare aspects. Lessons for Israel today?
click images to enlarge
I sometimes forget that 3W once owned Strategy & Tactics magazine (for issues 112-139)1. Issue #126, published in April-May 1989 when Ty Bomba was editor, is advertised as the second annual “Modern War Issue,” the first probably being #120 Nicaragua!, which I also own. Considering current events with Israel and the Palestinian Islamic group HAMAS, who are engaged in combat after HAMAS’ surprise attack and mass hostage taking across Israel’s western border, I thought it would be worth finally breaking this game out after I picked it up cheaply online. The player commentary on BGG and the CONSIM Forums is mixed on this game, with players either citing it as an example of the decline of S&T under 3W, or thinking it was a hidden gem, albeit an underdeveloped one. The fact that the cover had a fuzzy picture of Fidel Castro on it, which has nothing to do with the game and lead article, certainly was a head-scratcher (there is an article on Cuba’s role in Angola).
I remember Operation Peace for Galilee, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO, aka Fatah), as it later led to the ill-fated introduction of U.S. Marine, French, and Italian peacekeepers in 1983. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) offensive was initiated to drive the Syrian-backed PLO out of Lebanon. Syria occupied Lebanon at the time, and actively supported PLO guerillas in their attacks across Israel’s northern borders. The PLO shelled and launched rockets into Israeli border towns (stop me if this sounds familiar) for several months. On June 6, 1982, the IDF moved north with the intent of clearing a buffer zone, but instead quickly drove the PLO towards Beirut where the group prepared to make a last stand. The game picks up on June 13 with Operation Iron Brain as the IDF lay siege to the city with the help of its Phalange allies, and the PLO has the help of Syria and other local factions.
In Beirut 82 a hex represents 6/10th of a kilometer and each turn is 3 days, with a total of 22 turns going until mid-August. The counters represent both regular and irregular forces, and the rules state that each strength point equals “one battalion of well-equipped infantry or tanks,” yet each regular military unit appears to be a battalion. The numbers on the counters are strength points over movement points, except for irregular units that have a third “dispersion number” in the middle. There are an additional 40 variant counters in S&T 130, but the five pages of rules that went with them were somehow left out and were printed in S&T 132. I used the BGG counter scan in Figure 3 to size and make my own counters and got a copy of the extra rules from S&T 132. Note that the three (3-5) Syrian armor units are equipped with the then-dreaded – but actually overrated – Soviet T-72 tanks.
Victory largely is based on achieving political goals (thanks Uncle Carl), and as the rules clearly state, the object of the game is “to achieve a high score regardless of your opponent’s performance.” As you see on the counter sheet, both sides have their own Victory Point (VP) markers, and the PLO has additional Arab Support markers. Ties are possible, and if neither player earns a minimum of 10 VPs, they can both lose (welcome to the Middle East). Similarly, they could both “win” with 50+ points, or just settle for the usual muddle-through result of 11-49 VPs. Israel has 5 ways to gain/lose points, including for inflicting civilian casualties (its Phalange allies committed massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps). The PLO has 3 ways to score, primarily by surviving and hanging on to its refugee camps (see Figure 4).
I skimmed through the rules looking for those that were unique to urban combat but found little. There are rules for terrorist attacks, for the IDF laying siege to the city by controlling all the highways leaving the map (6 hexes), civilian casualties in cities, manhunting for the Yasir Arafat leader unit, ceasefires, and the battle for the hotels scenario. It is impossible to permanently destroy (“break” in game terms) a unit because broken units can come back as replacements. Because this game was intended to be simple, most of the “chrome” for this game is found in designer’s additional rules in S&T 132. There is a second variant done by James Meldrum in Moves #64 that adds the U.S. Marines arriving earlier than they did historically under the control of either the PLO or IDF depending on the scenario. You need to make 6 units to represent a Marine Amphibious Brigade of three infantry, one armor, one artillery, and one helicopter battalion.
The only other wargame that covers this same event that I could find is the High Flying Dice game Operation Iron Brain released in July 2022. It has the same size map sheet – but without the charts so hexes appear to be bigger – and 140 unmounted counters. The map colors are very similar to Beirut 82, but more abstract. You can also buy an optional card deck for another $10. I haven’t found much buzz on this game yet, so I would appreciate any comments about it.
In the real world, both Israel and the PLO eventually withdrew from Lebanon, the latter going to Tunis where Israel occasionally struck at it from long distance (see also). After the 1990 Persian Gulf War, the two sides signed the Oslo Accords, which have led to the current predicament of a divided Palestinian government, with HAMAS in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. If HAMAS ends up withdrawing from Gaza, don’t be surprised. The question is where would it go?
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- See Boardgame Geek, pages https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/8103/strategy-tactics-112-125 and https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/8104/strategy-tactics-126-139.