Is A Reign of Missiles a bad game or a good editorial?

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I bought A Reign of Missiles, a solitaire game, a year or so ago based on a tip from a friend. It didn’t make much an impression at the time, but I admired its attempt to model a very specific situation. Namely, the reaction of Israel to rocket attacks launched out of the Gaza Strip in 2012. That’s not an easy thing to game for various reasons, among them that it’s a very current event, a very divisive current event, and a not very gameworthy divisive current event. But A Reign of Missiles enjoys the unique luxury of small projects no one has heard of. I don’t intend that as an insult. Indie flags fly like no other flags.

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas has escalated over the past month, and now that it has once again re-ignited into an exchange of rockets from Hamas and air strikes from Israel and ground forces poised to raise the stakes even further, I returned to A Reign of Missiles for a closer look (i.e. I actually cut out the counters and played it a few times). What can we learn about the conflict between Israel and Hamas from playing this solitaire tabletop game?

After the jump, are you kidding?

Partly. Not entirely. The answer is that we can’t learn anything from this solitaire tabletop game that we can’t learn more effectively from actually learning about the situation, ideally by reading about it from a variety of sources. Both Al Jazeera and Haaretz, for example. What I’ve mostly learned from A Reign of Missiles is that it’s not a very well made game. If this was just a game review, I would give it one star, citing the terrible interface, the lack of tuning, the poorly written rules, and the meager production values. There. That’s out of the way. But unlike most not very well made games, it’s fascinating for what it chooses to model about the conflict, and how it models it, and the outcomes it will show you. A Reign of Missiles is a gameplay op-ed. Consider the rest of this review a response.

But first, I have to explain the game itself. You start by assigning Israeli attacks on rocket launchers in the Gaza Strip, represented by a stack of chits. But before you roll for an attack, you roll to determine whether there are any civilian casualties that might hurt Israel’s diplomatic standing. Then you roll for the attack itself. If it succeeds, the rocket launcher is damaged or destroyed, and maybe Israel will earn victory points.

Then you roll a bunch of dice for Hamas’ rocket attacks. Each launcher can launch several rockets, which will be variously targeted at random locations around a map of the southern half of Israel. Most of the locations are empty. A few of them have names. Ashdod and Ashkelon will be familiar names if you follow the real-world accounts of the attacks. Dimona might not be a familiar name, but it’s notable as the site of a nuclear power plant. The longer range rockets have a 1 in 20 chance of hitting Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Once a rocket has its target, you roll another die to see what damage it inflicted. Mostly, this is no damage. Sometimes, the damage will be great enough that it nets Hamas victory points. Sometimes it will hurt Hamas’ diplomatic standing.

This continues until Israel and Hamas occupy the same spot on the diplomatic track. As Hamas’ standing degrades from the left and Israel’s standing degrades from the right, their markers will eventually meet and the game ends. The idea is that this is the point when both sides come to the table to negotiate a cease fire. If the markers are at the end of the scale advantageous to one side, and if that side furthermore has the most victory points, it wins. So the first question is which side has better diplomatic standing when the game ends. But the ultimate question is which side has the most victory points. Did Hamas inflict enough casualties? Or did Israel cripple Hamas’ military capability by taking out enough rocket launchers?

First things first. I’d like to look at a couple of ways the game uses language. Just as Labyrinth, Volko Ruhnke’s model of the war on terror, made clear that one side was the jihadists, A Reign of Missiles is mostly careful to single out Hamas as the opposing side. Unfortunately, in a gross bit of oversight, the Palestinian flag is used on the game pieces. Hamas has their own flag, and it belongs on the markers instead of the flag used to identify Palestinians. Hamas is not Palestine any more than the Taliban is Afghanistan or the Tea Party is Minnesota. Kudos to A Reign of Missiles for being mostly careful to represent that fact. Too bad about the markers.

Also, it’s misleading to call this game A Reign of Missiles. When you’re talking about military hardware, a missile is self-propelled ordnance with a guidance system. A missile is a tool for a precision strike. A rocket, on the other hand, is self-propelled ordnance that is aimed, but not guided (a “ballistic missile” is another term for a rocket, but it’s a bit like saying “unguided missile”). Once they’re launched, rockets are dumb. Hamas is not firing missiles at Israel. They are lobbing rockets. They are using indiscriminate terror weapons. As designer Paul Rohrbaugh observes in his designer’s notes and bibliography, there’s a clear analogy to Nazi Germany’s buzz bomb attacks on London.

Like the buzz bomb attacks, the effectiveness of the rocket attacks is psychological. Since they’re not guided, they tend to land in fields or streets. When they get lucky, they hit buildings and mess up property. They rarely kill people, because the people in Israel who have had rockets fired at them have enough sense, past experience, and early warning infrastructure to hide underground before the rockets land. Over the course of the 2008/2009 conflict between Israel and Hamas, over 2000 rockets were fired into Israel. 15 Israelis were killed. In the 2012 conflict, again, over 2000 rockets were fired into Israel. 6 Israelis were killed. So far, in 2014, Hamas has launched over 700 rockets and the tally might easily reach 2000 again. So far, no Israelis have been killed.

Iron_Dome

One of the often cited reasons for declining effectiveness of the rocket attacks is a US-funded defense program called Iron Dome (pictured). These anti-missile systems track incoming rockets and calculate their trajectories, prioritizing interception for rockets that will land in populated areas or near sensitive military targets. Israeli authorities proudly proclaim their success rates like game publishers proclaim their Metacritic averages. 84%! 93%! When they talk about the proportion of rockets that were intercepted, they’re quick to explain Iron Dome’s prioritization. The idea is that Iron Dome doesn’t bother intercepting rockets that aren’t going to hit anything, so the fact that 43 out of 152 rockets were intercepted is intentional. Iron Dome is just that smart!

In A Reign of Missiles, Iron Dome is among your assets, and a much wiser use of points than the military attacks that will hurt Israel’s diplomatic standing. You buy and distribute Iron Dome counters at the beginning of every day. But the real Iron Dome isn’t like a truck you can just drive around to different locations. It’s an integrated system that consists of a launcher, a command-and-control center, and an array of tracking radars. In Israel, town mayors compete for Iron Domes the way countries compete to host the Olympics. During the 2012 conflict, two were deployed. Now there are eight. A Reign of Missiles includes 20 Iron Dome counters. Presumably each counter represents Iron Dome capability instead of an actual system. But choosing where to put them every day is busywork that doesn’t reflect how the real systems are entirely static.

However, to the game’s credit, it doesn’t share the Israeli military’s assessment of how effective Iron Dome is. An Iron Dome counter has only a 1 in 5 chance of canceling a missile attack in the same location, and a 1 in 10 chance of cancelling a missile attack in an adjacent location. Furthermore, these defenses can easily be saturated by multiple incoming attacks, as every roll has a 1 in 10 chance of depleting the Iron Dome counter. Is this a gameplay concession or a tacit acceptance that Iron Dome has its share of critics, including Richard Lloyd and Theodore Postol, who famously debunked the effectiveness of the US Patriot anti-missile system?

When the warhead on an Iron Dome missile explodes in a spectacular airburst, people on the ground will naturally figure it’s done its job. Perhaps they assume the explosion is the death throe of the rocket rather than the Iron Dome’s warhead. That the rocket probably wasn’t going to hurt anyone is beside the point. Because if Hamas’ rocket attacks are psychological warfare, aren’t Iron Dome systems psychological defenses? Whatever the case, A Reign of Missiles has the presence of mind not to take people at their word who have a vested interest in the continued funding and deployment of the latest military boondoggle. It might cancel missile attacks, but was that attack going to even do anything? Who can say?

But this concern with whether Iron Dome intercepts missiles is an example of how A Reign of Missiles is preoccupied with precisely the wrong things about the current conflict, and the conflict in 2012 that it models, and the conflict in 2008/2009 when Israeli ground forces rolled into the Gaza Strip, something I suspect we might see repeated in coming days. A Reign of Missiles is about the effectiveness of the rocket attacks at inflicting damage and the effect on Israel’s diplomatic standing when they retaliate. But neither of these things is what the actual attacks are about. Neither of these things is a driving force in why or whether the conflict will continue or what the results will be. Hamas doesn’t care about casualties (it’s worth noting that some of the rockets land in Palestinian communities and there are often mishaps when the rockets are launched). Instead, Hamas launches rockets because they want to provoke a military response, because that military response will radicalize the militant elements among the Palestinians, which will strengthen Hamas as a political force. Hamas real power isn’t in its supply of rockets. Their real power is in the anger of Palestinians. The rockets only provoke the Israeli attacks that ignite that anger. Furthermore, Israel has time and again shown it can be uniquely impervious to diplomatic pressure, often because it enjoys unwavering support from the United States.

So I’m not sure why a game wants to model these two factors — the damage inflicted by the rockets and the diplomatic reaction to Israel’s military attacks — as primary determinants of success or failure. It can be an interesting gameplay model. But it’s not an interesting real-world analog.

Or is it?

Bear with me while I explain the outcome when you actually play A Reign of Missiles. Because there is so much die rolling, the overwhelming sensation while playing is that you have very little control. This is an odd way to simulate Israel’s relative care as a military power (they literally call ahead before launching air strikes at some targets, warning people to leave the premises). In the game, you can’t prevent civilian casualties, you can’t use the full force of your military without destroying your diplomatic standing, and the effectiveness of whatever attacks you launch is dependent on lucky rolls. For each Israeli attack, you roll a d6 to see how many civilian casualties you inflict. On a 1-2, there is no effect from civilian casualties. On a 3-5, the civilian casualties are severe enough that you lose a point of diplomatic standing. On a 6, the civilian casualties are severe enough that you lose the point of diplomatic standing and furthermore give Hamas a victory point. There is no way to modify this roll. This means two out of three attacks will drop your standing in the world.

As the rockets are launched, something similar happens to Hamas’ diplomatic standing. But for every rocket attack, there’s only a 10% chance of Hamas losing diplomatic standing (there is, additionally, a chance that Israel will lose diplomatic standing if a city is hit). Furthermore, there’s a 15% chance that Hamas will earn victory points.

So the fundamental structure of the game is that Israel’s diplomatic standing plummets faster than Hamas’ if you fully use your military assets to try to mitigate the rocket attacks. But you might not realize this when you first play. So you use all your military strikes, dropping your diplomatic standing considerably. Then Hamas fires all their missiles, dropping their military standing and earning victory points. When the two markers meet, probably on the morning of the first day, the game is over. You have lost before completing even a single turn.

So you try it again by managing the strikes carefully, using only a couple of them, waiting for Hamas to let loose with their opening volley of about 100 missiles on the first day (there is a lot of die rolling in this game). This will drop their diplomatic standing, but it will also earn them victory points. You could easily let their diplomatic marker work its way to you, but unless you do something to earn victory points, you won’t win. You need some way to earn enough victory points to keep up with their gains.

So how do you get more victory points than Hamas while letting them lob their rockets into Israel? The bottom line is that you have to attack missile launchers to earn victory points. But remember that the civilian casualties roll for every attack has a 4 out of 6 chance of driving down Israeli diplomatic standing, and a 1 in 6 chance of giving Hamas a victory point. The actual attack, rolled on a d10, has a 20% chance of giving Israel a victory point by taking out the missile launcher. But there’s risk beyond the civilian casualties. Higher rolls can fail badly enough that you have to choose among 1) decreased Israeli diplomatic standing, 2) increased Hamas diplomatic standing, or 3) giving Hamas a victory point. Depending on the target, the chance of having to choose one of these detrimental effects can be as high as 30%. But if you restrict your attacks to the long-range Fajr-5 Iranian-made launchers, if you always use drones to guide your air strikes, and if you never attack at night, you’ll never have to take this penalty. So by being very careful, a strike that will have a 20% chance of earning you a victory point still has a 40% chance of hurting your diplomatic standing, bringing you that much closer to ending the game when your marker meets the rapidly plummeting Hamas marker on the diplomacy track. Unless I’m missing something, math is against Israel in this game.

And maybe that’s the point. Whether it’s a corollary of being a not very good game, or an intentional message, I’m convinced that A Reign of Missiles is a no-win situation.

The current root of the problem, the sticking point we cannot get past, is that Hamas refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Until that happens, there will be no long-term resolution. Until that happens, the Palestinians in Gaza Strip will suffer apartheid at best and devastating military attacks at worst. You can choose where to lay blame from a long list of grievances and injustices across thousands of years of history. But in terms of the most immediate blame, you need look no further than Hamas’ refusal to coexist with Israel. Until they unequivocally and institutionally recognize Israel’s right to exist, this is a problem without a solution.

But as long as Hamas is a militant organization, that’s never going to happen. Israel’s dramatic and disproportionate retaliation — the most memorable images of explosions and raging infernos are the result of Israeli air strikes — is a short-term and short-sighted response. They might stop the rocket attacks and deplete the supply of weapons, but they will also renew the resolve of the people who want to launch the rockets. The most immediate tragedy is the loss of life (entirely Palestinian at this point), but the longer-term tragedy is the setback to the overtures being made between Fatah and Hamas in the past year, brokered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. All of that is gone.

This conflict, like 2012 and like 2008/2009, is a victory for both the hardliners in Israel and Hamas. It’s up to Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist. But Israel’s responsibility as the more powerful and more rational player, as the perspective that represents the rule of law and sanctity of life, as the side with more to lose, is to allow Hamas the conditions that will empower their more moderate elements. A Reign of Missiles, which is not a very good game, strikes me as an accidentally clever gameplay editorial that Israel can’t win if they let rocket attacks escalate into all-out warfare. To paraphrase another no-win situation, the only way to win is not to play.

  • A Reign of Missiles

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • A Reign of Missiles is a low-complexity, solitaire simulation game of the Gaza Missile Crisis of November 2012. The player takes on the role of the Israeli military high command as it attempts to fend off the missile strikes launched by Hamas from Gaza.
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