Timing is everything, whether you’re bombing Iran’s nuclear sites, or just making a game of it. Persian Incursion is a timely board game. It is a detailed, high-fidelity simulation of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The game was published in 2010, just as tensions over nuclear facilities were beginning to rise between the two countries (and the U.S.).
It has already been purchased by the U.S. Army, the Office of Naval Research, and various universities, according to Ed Wimble, president of Clash of Arms, which publishes the game.
Persian’s Incursion’s chief designer is techno-thriller writer Larry Bond, and aptly so. The current Iran crisis, with its assassinations, military posturing, and spontaneously combusting missile factories, might as well be straight from the pages of a thriller. How much more can life imitate art?
Persian Incursion is a complex war game with an awkwardly overlaid political system. On the political side, both the Israeli and Iranian players attempt to sway various powers that are abstractly represented in the game, including the U.S., Russia, China, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. By rolling dice and playing various cards from a deck of random events, both players can shift the political loyalty of these powers, with the payoff being a reward of, or the ability to deprive your opponent of, political, military, and intelligence points.
These points fund the military aspect of the game, where actions such as launching airstrikes or covert operations cost various amounts of points. Persian Incursion assumes that the Iranian nuclear program is so vast that any Israeli attack would have to be a multi-day air campaign. There will not be a quick, in-and-out strike like the 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. The Iranians set up their anti-aircraft defenses, then scramble their interceptors (many of which won’t end up flying because of failed maintenance dice rolls), and last but not least, fling missiles at Israel. There isn’t much Iran can do militarily in the game, except get bombed and try to take down a few Israeli pilots and civilians with them. Tehran’s preferred battlefield is political.
It’s the Israelis who have the most options and the most work. Their most important decision is which route to fly over. Persian Incursion assumes that one of Iran’s neighbors, namely Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or a U.S.-influenced Iraq, will have to tacitly or explicitly allow Israeli aircraft into their airspace (the game was published in 2010, before the Israel-Turkey spat). Every route has advantages and disadvantages in terms of range to various nuclear sites. Once the route is selected, there is a rather dice-intensive combat system that means the Israeli strike can get through, but may or may not destroy the targets or lose aircraft in the process. Too many losses, and Iran wins.
This only scratches the surface of gameplay, which is more difficult than it should be because the rules are a bear to learn. But Persian Incursion isn’t just a game. It’s an encyclopedia with dice. The game comes with a briefing booklet and target folder bulging with background information, down to the physical dimensions and air defenses of most every Iranian nuclear site. Bond swears the info all came from unclassified sources, but even if true, this is a game where reading all the enclosed materials makes you tired, but smarter.
I suspect that anyone playing this game as a serious simulation will want to add some house rules, such as the effects of Hezbollah — whose rocket barrages on Haifa might divert and distract Israeli air power from Iran — or a more detailed treatment of an Iranian closure of the Strait of Hormuz, which is simulated abstractly. But at least there is a game to work with. This is the ultimate reason why I support board games in the computer age: no video game publisher is going to sink $40 million into a realistic simulation of a Middle Eastern war, but a paper game designer can make it happen with hard work instead of cash.
In the end, only the people with the tippity-top-secret clearances can judge how accurate Persian Incursion is. But whether Persian Incursion is totally realistic is almost irrelevant, because it is not as if anyone else is producing commercially available games on Israel bombing Iran. Persian Incursion is interesting to play, but it’s also interesting to consider who is buying the game.
In addition to purchases by the U.S. military, Wimble said it also caught his eye when the game was purchased by a man named Ali and mailed to a forwarding box located near JFK airport. It’s possible the game doesn’t just help us visualize war against Iran, but could also help Iran visualize war against us.
Wimble also said that during a conversation with the U.S. embassy at a nation in Southwest Asia , he suggested they look at Persian Incursion. He said the embassy staffer “audibly recoiled in mock horror and said, ‘that’s a nightmare we don’t want to contemplate.’ ”
Many of us would prefer not to contemplate such a war. But it must be contemplated, because it could happen tomorrow. A game like Persian Incursion can stir our reason and stimulate our imagination into the course and consequences of an Israel-Iran conflict. Perhaps it will keep simulation from becoming reality.