Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Line in the Sand on the mark

There are a lot of reasons to play wargames, but one of them is to get some insight into real-world events.
When I think of a game that's a real "study" of history I usually think of some deeply researched and detailed simulation such as Harpoon 4, The Longest Day or perhaps the Tactical Combat Series games I've been reviewing recently.

But sometimes you don't need a lot of hardware-oriented detail to make a pertinent point with a wargame. A good of example of that is a Line in the Sand, TSR's game about the then-looming Gulf War in 1991. It's clearly no detailed military simulation. Yet despite all the fighting the region's seen over the last 60+ years the conflicts there have very little to do with military tactics or strategy. The Middle East is all about the politics.
Militarily there's no real contest at all between the "West" (U.S., Israeli and European) forces and the forces of the Islamic states (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.). Unlike the combat between great powers in the first half of the 20th century which generally pitted roughly comparable military organizations, fighting in the Middle East has been characterized by an enormous gulf in effectiveness -- the kind more usually seen in colonial warfare. So long as a wargame reflects that vast gulf in effectiveness, the details are unimportant.

A Line in the Sand does have a military game, based on the same system used in Red Storm Rising, but it really comes into its own in the Diplomatic Game where players secretly select goals and conduct diplomatic gestures to affect world opinion and the mood of the "Arab Street." Its an amazingly sophisticated design , especially considering it was designed and published on a tight deadline dictated by fast-moving current events.

While there are some mistakes and typos betraying the haste of the production, the design itself works rather well.

It's not "fair" but it is interesting and it's authentic. Every side doesn't have an equal chance of winning, but any body could win, depending on how cleverly they play.

And despite the passage of more than 17 years, the game still feels very current. Iraq may be occupied, but the Iraqi "player" is clearly not out of the "game," just as A Line in the Sand reflects. Nearly every other Gulf War and Iraq War wargame really missed the point of the conflict, which would NOT be decided on some desert battlefield, but in the political arena.

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