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Posted on Apr 16, 2022 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Opening a New Front Against the Ottomans. “On to Baghdad: The Campaign in Mesopotamia & Persia, 1914-1918”. Board Game Review

Opening a New Front Against the Ottomans. “On to Baghdad: The Campaign in Mesopotamia & Persia, 1914-1918”. Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

On to Baghdad: The Campaign in Mesopotamia & Persia, 1914-1918. Publisher: Decision Games. Designer: Joseph Miranda. Price $49.99

Passed inspection: An engaging game of an obscure First World War campaign. Attractive hex map that showcases the theater while integrating most of the charts and tables around the perimeter. Large, legible counters.

Failed basic: A handful of minor typos on counters and text, but the majority of these were caught and integrated into the text before the rules were printed.   

Mention a conflict in Iraq and most folks will think of the recent 21st invasion and occupation by the United States and her allies to replace the Iraqi government and nominally secure the flow of oil. But a century earlier, another global power waged a multi-year war to take control of Iraq and Iran (Persia) in order to…secure the flow of oil. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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It’s a campaign that first came to my attention via the book Wings Over Mesopotamia by Mark Lax, Mike O’Connor and Ray Vann. The book detailed the air war in Mesopotamia between 1914-1918 and was a unique view of this largely unknown Imperial campaign through the lens of airpower.

Game designer Joseph Miranda brings the Mesopotamia and Persian campaigns to the table in the recent board game On to Baghdad: The Campaign for Mesopotamia and Persia 1914-1918, published by Decision Games as part of Strategy and Tactics # 331. The magazine itself contains a solid background article on the situation in Mesopotamia and Persia, as well as a recap of how the campaign played out over the course of the war. It’s a good introduction the the theater for those with little prior exposure to these events.

The game consists of a paper map, a rule book and a single counter sheet. You have to supply your own six-sided dice, but seriously, you already have dice, am I right?

The map depicts the theater of operations and includes Basra and the northern Persian Gulf in the south, up through Mosul and the edge of the Caspian Sea in the north. Large portions of Persia (Iran) are included ranging from Tehran through Bandar Abbas. The map is nicely rendered depicting the terrain types, settlements and transportation infrastructure useful to a military campaign.

The rules are well organized and an easy read. The rules booklet is designed to be removed from the magazine. I removed my copy with no issues.

The counters are attractive and well executed. The die cutting is excellent and the chits were easy to remove from the sprues. These counters really hit the sweet spot of good size, legible data and artistic attractiveness. From the perspective of an aging gamer, these both reminded me of counters from the 1980’s but are also a great example of how modern design can delivery a quality ‘minimum viable product’ that feels like a top shelf component.

Game play is a fairly conventional IGO UGO structure. In a game turn, you’ll check for random events, determine your available replacement points and then spend those points on reinforcements, supply depots and maybe some infrastructure projects. With that out of the way, you get on to movement, followed by combat. Get through that, and your opponent goes through the same steps.

Now is when the logistical fun starts. You can take a second turn for movement and combat, but only for units that are in supply. How do you get in supply? Expend a supply depot and remove it from the map! Supply depots can only support units within their supply radius, so if you are running multiple fronts, you will need multiple supply depots. Units that are not in supply cannot move or attack. But wait, there’s more! Even if you don’t move or attack, you may have to check for attrition. Attrition is a simple die roll for each eligible units, but if you fail that roll then that unit is eliminated. The net result is that you really need to bring enough supplies along to support the men in the field.

Movement is standard stuff. Each counter has a movement point rating and will pay movement point costs to traverse the terrain in hexes. There’s an extensive list of terrain types covering everything on the map. It’s interesting that costs will change depending on the season, so in addition to worrying about supply, you have to account for the effects of climate and seasonal weather on your operations.

Combat is fairly conventional. You calculate the odds, though it’s expressed in what percentage the attacker’s combat factors are to the defenders. There’s a good mix of results that yield a reasonable outcome. One key thing here is you should look at the mix of divisions and brigades you bring into battle as the combat results sometimes reward having a mix of units to absorb losses. Conversely, sometimes you’ll have to accept some bloody attritional battle effects that chew through your units. It’s a quick and easy system using a d6 with a handful of modifiers that cover terrain and tactical envelopment by the attacker.

Let’s take the game for a quick spin and step through a possible game turn.

For informational purposes, we’ll throw together a somewhat random set up, to demonstrate how the game plays across a turn. In this example, we’re playing the Summer 1915 turn. The general operational situation has the Ottomans holding Bagdad, with a British cavalry brigade positioned at Al Kut Amara. Clearly 1914 did not go well for the British. Don’t fuss over the lack of garrisons in Basra or Abadan, just assume something is left there holding the cities.

The Mesopotamian Front, Summer 1915.

First up is the random event. The British roll a d6 and score a “1” – attrition. Well, that’s just great. Two British brigades just fell apart. The British elect to remove the two brigades in southern Mesopotamia.

Front? What Front? (Brigadier, I need you to screen aggressively, whilst we bring up some more troops…)

Following this comes the reinforcement phase. A good die roll coupled with the controlled objectives yields 10 reinforcement points. That ‘s an excellent result and allows for the deployment of two divisions, each with a supporting infantry brigade and a supply depot.

British Reinforcements for the turn. Two divisions, two brigades and a pair of supply depots.

The troops deploy to Basra (a friendly controlled port). From there the force splits into two columns which advance along each river. The British cavalry advances out of Al Kut, but stops movement upon entering the zone of control of the Ottoman cavalry brigade. In the west, the British force encounters an Ottoman division blocking the route to Baghdad.

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The British divide their forces and send two columns upriver.

In the combat phase, the British make two attacks. In the east, The division and cavalry attack the Ottoman cavalry brigade. This was a pretty safe bet, but rolling a “1” forces the Ottomans to counterattack against one enemy unit. The chose to go big or go home and attack the British division. It’s an interesting choice as they have a 1 in 6 chance of eliminating the British division through a ‘bloodbath’ result. Unfortunately, the Ottoman cavalry is eliminated with an attacked destroyed result.

The attack at Diwaniyali is not looking good
The Ottoman cavalry was eliminated, but theirstubborn defense prevents the British from advancing after combat.

In the west, that pesky bloodbath result pops up. The Ottoman division is eliminated, but so is the British division. Heavy losses to open up the road to Baghdad! The surviving brigade takes the ground, covering the supply depot located south on the road.

Bloodbath!
The British win the battle, but a what cost?

Now comes the Ottoman first player turn. The random event is – Jihad! A fortuitous turn of event. A random agent is placed on the field and automatically rallies the tribesmen to action. This is very good for the Ottomans

Jihad! The Ottomans get a break with the random event table!
The Ottoman agent in Kerbala is going to incite anti-British feelings amongst the local population.
Kerbala mobilizes with a fast moving insurgent force.

Reinforcements is a different story. A poor die roll of “1” means minimal reinforcements are available. A weak infantry division and two supply depots are the best they can do. These units march onto the board from the west entry area.

The reinforcements – a weak division with two supply depots.

In the west, the T-I-L insurgents go around to the right and fall upon the British supply depot. Meanwhile the reinforcing division marches south down the road and attacks the brigade at Diwaniyah.

Meanwhile in the east, the Ottomans elect to sit tight, knowing they have solid supply lines, while the British must either move or risk an attrition check.

The combat phase is bloody, the British western column is destroyed. The only good news for the British is that the T-I-L insurgents were eliminated through a horrible die roll that caused a blood bath. Apparently looting the British supplies was sufficient to cause the insurgents to head back home.

The Mesopotamian Front at the middle of the Summer 1915 turn.

Now comes the second player turn. It’s similar to the first player turn, but there is no random events and each play must expend supply depots for units to move and/or attack.Complicating things is a attrition check for units which do not have a secure supply line (and being in an enemy ZOC is not secure!).

The British elect to flip their depot in preparation for the attrition phase. They could move, but then they’d be subject to an attrition check if they were not in a town, or in an enemy ZOC.  

Things are looking grim, and the British feel they need a something to show for all the faffing about in the desert in the summer of 1915. But on second thought, there’s no point throwing away the last field army in Mesopotamia on a marginal attack. The British stay put.

Expending the supply depot, both British units avoid their attrition checks.

All Quiet on the Mesopotamian Front.
The Ottoman late summer offensive prepares to kick off.

Now the Ottoman player has a chance to do something. Flipping and then expending one of their supply depots, they put the eastern Ottoman division in supply. It moves out and attacks the British Cavalry division, and eliminates it at 6:1odds.

Securing the Ottoman left flank. The 12th Indian division can almost see Baghdad from the river encampment.

At the end of the turn, the Ottomans pass their attrition checks as all units are in towns and not in enemy ZOC. The game turn is now complete.

In the words of Phillip J Fry “…And that’s how you play the game.” It was not the most brilliant tactical ploy you will find, but the example shows you the basics of how to conduct a game turn. While Baghdad might look uncovered, the Ottoman ZOC and the marshy terrain provide a good defensive barrier. That is unless the random event table unleashes some unexpected result on our players!

What we didn’t use here were higher headquarters, riverine gunboats, air support units and mechanized units like armored cars and tanks (which we could not use until 1917 at the earliest). Air support is limited, but can provide a column shift in combat to the attacking or defending player. The riverine units can both fight, as well as transport units up and down the river. The higher headquarters fill the roll of the army support structure and provide some combat power as well as a column shift representing the synergy of a good C3I organization, with additional supporting assets. The armored cars have great mobility, at the cost of limited combat ability. Historically, the armored car units ranged across Mesopotamia and Persia later in the war, supported by the pilots of the RAF.

On to Baghdad is most definitely a wargame, but at its core, it is a game about the importance of logistics. As the British Empire, it’s easy to get caught up in conscripting a large force of troops equipped with armored cars and air support. But if you only focus on the sharp end of the spear you’ll soon find yourself in the same pickle as your historical counterparts – camped out along the Tigris River waiting on supplies.

You need to carefully balance your fighting teeth against your logistical ‘tail’. Like a modern western army, if you want to get more done, make sure that your logistical tail is big enough so the teeth can keep biting. You can have thousands of troops staged on the start line, but without the provisions and munitions that a twentieth century army needs to operate, you are running an expensive summer camp in the desert.

But running a conventional military operation is not your only mission. Both sides have the ability to leverage a number of irregular military forces. They do this by recruiting ‘agents’ who are then sent out across the map and will attempt to have disgruntled locals take up arms against the other side. The most famous of these agents is of course T.E. Lawrence, who convinced the Arabs to rise up against the Ottomans. The counters make clear that Lawrence was not an isolated event, but part of a broader pattern of what now would be termed counter insurgency operations. These agents can operate across both Mesopotamia and Persia. The irregular forces have some traits which make them ideal for interdicting supply lines and blocking retreat routes. But they are a finite resource.

T.E. Lawrence’s Arab irregulars lay siege to the Ottomans at Kut Al-Amara.

Overall, On to Baghdad does a solid job representing the conflict. But what kind of gamer would I be if I didn’t have a few pedantic details to whine about? An unusual kind of gamer, that’s who! So, here are a couple of minor things that I’ll pick on. First up – airpower during the summer. Yes, I know the game turn represents 6 months. But the desert heat made air operations with the early planes almost impossible during the summer. Plus, the environment caused airframes to decay much faster than in Western Europe. Yes, I’m picking at nits here. Given the scale of the game we can wave our hand and say air operations happen around the edges of the worst of the summer heat, but maybe an additional logistic expenditure for using aircraft would be warranted. As I say, it’s really a minor nit to pick. I do like how using their aircraft may result in the unit going down for repair for the rest of the turn. Things like that do capture some of that resource challenge. If it had been tied to the summer heat a little more, I’d be a happy camper.

Now I am going to whine (or is that whinge?). The random event table can be a real pain point. At first glance, we thought the event tables were heavily weighted against the Ottoman’s. But while they seem to tilt towards the British, the tables sure do make for some interesting…randomness, and for both sides. In one game, the Russians never launched any offensives into Persian or Mesopotamia. That absence really simplified the situation for the Ottoman player, while making it much harder on the British player. In another game, the British suffered attrition losses for three straight turns! As you read in the play through description, one random event opened the British western front to being outflanked and destroyed. Von Moltke is known for saying ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy.’ I’d offer the guidance that no plan survives contact with the random events table, so you need to plan for the unexpected happening at the worst possible time.

Also, the random number of replacement points will really make or break the early British offensives. If you are rolling poorly for replacement points, you cannot afford to suffer any losses. It can make for a frustrating game when a couple of die rolls each turn are dictating the strategic tempo of the game.

It’s tough to get inside your opponent’s decision cycle when your own decision cycle feels like a one-legged man in a foot race. It’s an interesting way to capture the uncertainty faced by the commanders on both sides. Their plans – and yours – are subject to a number of external events over which you have little to no control. But then, that’s the friction of war for you! (Stop whining! Clausewitz said everything is easy, but the easy stuff is hard, right?)

During the first few play through, I had the perception that the game was not ‘bloody enough’ for the attacker. Compared to Ted Raicer’s 1918/1919: Storm in the West, the combat results in On to Baghdad seemed like a throwback to an earlier school of game design in which at the higher odds levels, the attacker is unlikely to suffer any losses. It stands in contrast with 1918/1919 where the more troops you commit to a battle, the heavier losses you are likely to suffer.

But the more times we ran through the game, the more I’ve come to believe that the CRT is not unbalanced. What we learned is that the combat results table forces the attacker to anticipate some of the possible results and to then tailor your ‘mission package’ to allow for the worst-case outcome. Failing that, do what you can to minimize your risk of heavy losses through direct combat. If you are attacking an 8-point defender, do what you can to have troops that can match those 8 points without going over by much. You’ll thank me when you don’t have to remove a 15-point division due to an bloodbath result. 

On to Baghdad does work as a solitaire game. While it lacks dedicated rules that direct one side’s actions (What we commonly refer to as a ‘bot), the game does work as a solitaire game in which you have to play ‘two-fisted’ and swap hats to play both the Allied and Ottoman players. Yeah, yeah, I hear you, “But, how can that be, I’m having to play both sides, where is the strategic challenge in that?”

Well there is a good amount of unpredictability in the game thanks to things like the aforementioned random event tables, resource point generation as well as the activation rolls for partisan formations. These elements will keep the game fairly dynamic and force you to adjust strategies for each side throughout the turns. Couple those randomizing elements with the combat results outcomes plus the logistics model and you’ll generate an engaging narrative that surprise you multiple times over the course of the game.

My opponent for the play throughs, Eric offered some thoughts on the game. Most track with my own perceptions of the game. Eric found the components well made, with the counters of good thickness and easily seperating from the sprues. He plans to unless his corner rounder on the counters, though they had minimal tags to worry about. Eric also found the map to be well executed. He liked the subdued sheen to the surface that suggests the map as a layer of microplastic that might render if, it not waterproof, then water resistant. Eric noted that the rules were laid out well, but the magazine paper is not as durable as a heavier weight of paper. He suggested that you sleeve your rules to protect their shelf life.

Eric (on left) and Matt during one of our games of On to Baghdad. You get a sense of the compact foot print as everything fits on a single table.

On to Baghdad is a solid game. The game components are well executed, the rules are solid and the game play is engaging.  It’s small size and low counter density will give a relatively quick playing game that can be played to a conclusion in an afternoon.

Thematically, this is a game covering one of the more obscure campaigns of the First World War. The Iraq conflict of the past twenty years stand in contrast to the four-year fought between Imperial Britain and the Ottoman Empire. You will see a number of familiar place names and gain some insights into the landscape of Iraq that in many ways has not changed in the intervening century.

Once the players master the rules, the game gives fairly historical results. After a couple of games, the players will have a good sense of how the geography and climate influenced the pace of the campaigns. At the same time the random events and random replacement points ensure that no two games will play out the same way. Eric and I have yet to find a blueprint to victory that would guarantee success for either side. 

If you want a good introductory hex and counter wargame that plays is a few hours, or if have an interest in the Mesopotamian theater, check out On to Baghdad and Strategy and Tactics magazine. This game is a solid addition to my collection and I expect to see this on the table on a regular basis. Now if only Joe would design “On to Jerusalem!” covering the Palestine front!

Armchair General Score: 90%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  3

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of hobby magazines.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the thorough review.

    One of the central concepts for the On to Baghdad design was to put the players in the place of the original theater commanders. You are running a sideshow of the proverbial sideshow, the main sideshow being the Suez to Damascus and Caucasus campaigns, off the map. This is where random events come in.

    Take two of the more critical random events: Russian Reinforcement and Russian Revolution. The way the Allied Events table is set up they will happen around the turns corresponding to their historical timing. But it’s not a sure thing. Neither side can plan their strategy based on getting those Russian reinforcements or, later, seeing them march home.

    Same thing with the die rolls for Recruitment Points (RP). Essentially, you are getting whatever reinforcements your high commands located back in London, Delhi, Petrograd or Constantinople decide to allocate to the theater after dealing with other fronts in the Great War. You can improve the situation somewhat by taking objective hexes and building infrastructure, bringing some order to the situation.

    As for the CRT: “CA” (Counterattack) causes the defender to attack one originally attacking hex with a combat shift bonus. This is where it gets sneaky. If the original attacker has units in several different hexes, then the defender can select the weakest enemy force and potentially inflict some real losses. This is useful for fighting your way out of an encirclement.

    And yes, this means no two games will be the same. You are going to find chaotic goings on that road to Baghdad!

  2. Greetings Joe,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond! I appreciate your comments regarding the ‘counterattack’ result. In my example, I chose to tempt fate with a low probability outcome. Using the CA result to allow the defender to possibly fight their way out of the encirclement is something I should have mentioned.

    Have you given any thought to doing a Suez / Palestine version of this game. I’d enjoy the chance to see the Australian Light Horse in action.

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