This is a series of posts on the Suez Crisis. See here for the first regular post in the series, here for the previous post, and here to go back to the master index.
I take on the Independence period using three different games, in historical order.
Arab Israeli Wars
The Operational Art of War 3
The first of the games is Divided Ground, which has a scenario created for the Nebi Daniel Convoy. On March 27th, 1948, a convoy made the trip from Jerusalem to the besieged village of Kfar Etzion bringing reinforcements as well as 120 tons of supplies, equipment, and ammunition. The trip was only slightly delayed, arriving without casualties or losses. However, the preparations for the return trip resulted in additional delay that allowed Arab irregulars to set an ambush along the route.
The prime culprit in the return-trip delay has been cited as one Zimri, a prized stud bull being sent to Jerusalem for safe-keeping during the fighting. Zimri, apparently, was very reluctant to climb aboard his designated transport and his reluctance was a major factor in the several-hours delay. Less often mentioned was the difficulties in loading the fuselage of a damaged Piper Cub aboard a truck, which to me sounds like it would be even harder than getting a recalcitrant bull loaded.
Whomever is ultimately to blame, the result was disastrous for the convoy. Outside of Bethlehem, an ambush was set. A series of roadblocks halted and disabled portions of the convoy, and the Arab fighters closed in to block the retreat.
The convoy departs for the return trip to Jerusalem from Kfar Etzion.
This game, and the level of focus within this game, provide an excellent simulation portraying the nature of this conflict. The fighting, especially before Israel’s declaration of independence, was primarily a series of small unit actions, often between irregulars. I don’t know how accurately this scenario depicts, or is intended to depict, the battle in question. It may be that it is simply meant to represent an ambush of a convoy heading toward Jerusalem rather than get at the details of this particular encounter.
The real engagement, as I said, was a disaster for the Israelis. The convoy was isolated and trapped along the roadside where they were eventually extracted by British forces, but at the cost of the loss of all their equipment and weapons.
In game, I won a “Major Victory,” finding myself in control of the ambush site and the end of the scenario. Given that the scenario length is a little more than a hour, this is not entirely inconsistent with the historical outcome. Likely, simply maintaining control of the battlefield would have ultimately ended the same for the Israelis, regardless of any temporary shifting of the tide. Given my final situation, a breakout through to Jerusalem may or may not have been possible, subject to the difficulties of modeling small-unit action outside of a hour or so scenario. Unfortunately (but as is to be expected from games of this vintage) the credit for the victory may be due the enemy AI. Towards the end of the battle, I was occasionally able to observe Arab units headed back down the road toward Kfar Etzion, perhaps drooling over the juicy victory location shown in the above screenshot. Should they have concentrated their full resources on isolating my convoy, they may well have scored a victory, either in points or from a practical standpoint by pinning me down.
I have just taken Mount Zion and I’m preparing to breach the walls of the old city.
There is also a scenario that covers, albeit abstractly, the events during the night of May 18-19, when a mixed group of Israeli militia attempted to relieve the besieged Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem in advance of Arab reinforcements in the form of the British-led Arab Legion. Again, it is a nice level of gaming to cover this kind of battle. The individual soldier level, such as in a game like Squad Battles, would fail to cover enough of this battle to give a good feel, without further abstracting the scope. At the other end of the spectrum, a battle like this is just to small to try to use the hex-and-counter operational scale of games like TOAW.
Should one have an itch for any pre-Declaration gaming, or as above, similarly-sized engagements during the 1948 War, a game that models the tactical scale makes a lot of sense.
Keep It Simple, No Bull
Which brings me to another game, intended to model the war from the highest level. The game is called Arab Israeli Wars, and it is simply a set of rules published (for free) on the Warp Spawn Games website*. I came across the game in Google while searching for tactical-level scenarios for the 1948 War, which this game is not. See also this work-in-progress computer translation of the same, discovered after I wrote this post.
Arab Israeli Wars is a solitaire game and has no provision for two-player. As I said, the game is a strategic-level model of the war where the player fights as the Israelis from start to finish. It is highly abstracted. Or maybe to put it another way, it is a simple mechanic with “Arab Israeli” chrome laid upon it. These things don’t always work, but in the case I really think it does.
The game is designed to be played with cards, although the rules could be applied to a map-and-counter format as well. In fact, I prefer to think of that way, and will describe it as such, although not necessarily consistently. In the design, each player has a “deck” of unit cards, which are deployed among three “fronts.” One might also imagine that the units are represented by unit counters, and played upon a map. In addition, there is a deck of “event” cards, which drive the historical flavor of the game by randomly conveying advantage to one side or the other.
Combat in the game is deterministic. The winner is the side with the greater total force strength, after bonuses, within the front in question. That is not to say this is a “diceless” game. Some amount of random selection, such as which unit to eliminate in combat, is still used and, of course, drawing cards from a shuffled deck means the game is heavily determined by luck.
Play is by turns. In each turn, the Arab units are drawn and placed into one of three fronts. It is the “chrome” that makes this game far more interesting that it’s simple mechanic, and with unit placement that chrome starts to become evident. Placement is determined by unit nationality. The Syrian and Lebanese units are placed into the Northern Front, near Galilee. Jordanian, Iraqi, and Palestinian forces are deployed to the Central Front, in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Egyptian, Saudi, and Moslem Brotherhood forces deploy on the Southern Front (the Negev). Some generic forces, such as armor, artillery, or air, are deployed to a random front.
Next, the event for the turn is drawn. The different events have different advantages, which may mean extra units, one-time extra (or reduced) strength for existing units, as well as some special modifiers.
Finally, Israeli units are drawn which the player is allowed to freely place. In addition, one or more of the units already in play (depending on several factors) are moved between fronts. Again, the historical connection to this simple mechanic is notable. Israel fought with, essentially, the advantage of interior lines. While beset on all sides, they were able to redeploy forces between major areas of operation during the war to gain a local advantage. Their enemy, by contrast, were independent nationalities, meaning cooperation between fronts was greatly reduced (if not impossible).
As I mentioned above, once all units are place, combat consists of totaling all forces (each unit type has a single force number) for each front, and comparing. The side with the highest value wins and removes one enemy unit (at random) and then gains one increment of territory. Each front has six territorial steps. The Israeli player loses by losing all six steps in any of the three fronts. He wins by winning battles on all three fronts two turns in a row, or by simply holding out until the Arab unit “deck” is depleted.
I’ve played through a number of games, and the design seems pretty well balanced. It feels like there is a slight advantage to the Arab player (perhaps necessary to keep a solitaire game interesting), but games do go either way. I strongly suspect the design was borrowed and modified from another game, perhaps an ancients or medieval tactical game. There are references in the rules to “flanks,” as well as unit attributes not used within the game. I haven’t tried to search to find the “parent” rules, but I’d gamble on them being out there. Assuming I’m right, this probably accounts for a play balance that seems just about right.
There is a huge amount of luck involved, but the design relates it back to historical events. For example, the key event for an Israeli victory is often one of the two U.N Truces. In game terms, that halts battles for one turn and gives the Israeli two extra units. It may well be that the timing of the ceasefires, along with Israel’s ability to rearm during that lull, were the key to Israel’s ultimate victory in the war.
Of course, it does take a little imagination to relate the simple mechanics back to a historical “simulation.” But is that a bad thing? Does a simple game like this give enough combination of flavor and challenge to satisfy, or would more detail make a better game? Take a look at the Victory Point Games release Israeli Independence**. In many ways, a very similar construction with tracks for territorial gains and an event deck to drive the game. But it amps up the complexity a bit. There are five tracks instead of three. Israeli combat is now event driven, rather than unit driven, and there is just a bit more variability to it. I don’t know that it is any more historic, however. Events determine whether Arabs (automatic) or Israelis (by die roll) advance, rather than a building of units. The result is that turns are more independent than in Arab Israeli Wars, which again could be good or bad. Bad, that is if adding more simply adds complexity.
I also wonder if this basic framework provides a “generic” way of simulating wars at the modern level. For example, if we go back to Korea, we find a war that might benefit from similar treatment. The linear map and triggered events could probably easily describe the battle, as well as the turn-by-turn adding of fighting units to the game. I’ve noticed a growing use of linear representation for strategic-level warfare. Israeli Independence was the first game of Victory Point Games’ States of Siege Series, which has grown substantially in production value and sophistication. I was also recently looking at Churchill, dealing with the defeat of Nazi Germany, which uses multiple linear fronts to represent the combat portion of the game.
All of this is to say that, conceptually, the simplified, linear tracks seems to be a mechanic that works in wargames and I’m sure I’ll be back with it. Getting back to the game at hand, it certainly provides a way to cover this conflict. To actually address the breadth of this conflict over its entire length using more conventional methods would probably take a far, far more complicated gaming system.
Baffle them with Bull
So what about the more traditional approach? One of the original Operational Art of War scenarios covers Israel’s October offensives in the 1948 war. These took place after the pair of UN cease fires, which in reality served to allow the Israeli military to reorganize and rearm. When the conflict resumed again, Israel not only had the initiative, but the fighting was moving away from the small unit, irregular action more towards conventional warfare forces and operations.
Nevertheless, at least to my uneducated eye, the game system has to take substantial liberties to squeeze this war into the Operational Art of War box.
The scenario, itself, is not a terrible one. The scale is 5 km hexes, which is the same as the Czechoslovakia and Fulda Gap scenarios played earlier. The unit scale, counter-intuitively, is larger. Each counter is a brigade rather than a company. This probably makes sense. This was not a war of maneuver, and reducing the counter-count probably helps with that. Turns are 1 turn per day. The scale is such that the entirety of Israel is covered on the map, and the uniqueness of the terrain and geography are clearly portrayed.
My IDF forces capture Jerusalem’s old city and Gaza, while pushing the Egyptians south. I think, historically, that brigade (Givati) just to the right of the map’s center may have been directed south as well.
Even with the major offensives of October, operations were still conducted dancing around various cease fires and truces. The game will naturally play out as a more conventional operation, with a fairly consistent pace of attack and maneuver through the scenario’s 31 day duration. For the actual confict, several of the “fronts” had operations limited to a couple of days or, in the case of Operation Yekev south of Jerusalem, a single day.
As I say, it’s not a terrible scenario. It is probably a little more enjoyable to play than those NATO versus Warsaw Pact scenarios, due both to the unit scale and the more interesting locality. It also is yet another interesting demonstration of the versatility of TOAW covering the ad hoc order -of-battle of this war. But as a simulation of the conflict, I think it does demonstrate that more isn’t necessarily better.
Return to the master post or go on to the next article.
*I’ve just got to say, because it has to be said. That black text on Cyan background absolutely fries my eyeballs. This site has wonderful information but it is almost literally painful to look at. After a week or two of suffering, I finally broke down and made a Greasemonkey script to get rid of the color scheme. Much better now.
**Note, I don’t have this game and have never played it. However, the rule book is freely available from the publishers website to allow a comparison simply on the rules themselves.