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Posted on Jul 5, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Saddam Hussein versus The Ayatollah. Bloody Dawns: The Iran Iraq War. Board Game Review.

Saddam Hussein versus The Ayatollah. Bloody Dawns: The Iran Iraq War. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Bloody Dawns. 2017. Publisher: High Flying Dice Games.  Designer: Pierre Razoux. Developer: Paul Rohrbaugh. Price: $45.00

Passed inspection: Game provided insight into the little covered Iran-Iraq War. Rules were easy to digest and focused on speed of play and player experience. Great introduction to card driven games. Die-cut counters!

Failed basic: A few minor bits of errata you need to integrate into the rulebook, but that errata are included with the game.

Mention the Iran-Iraq war to most American’s and they’ll likely focus on either the first gulf war in 1990-91 or the post-9/11 events of the past 18 years. Those that do remember the conflict often view it through the lens of Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory, the end of the Iranian hostage crisis and a more militant, interventionist United States foreign policy. What’s often lost in this view are the details of an eight-year war that pitted two intractable competitors engaged in total war. While it’s easy to view this as a proxy war between cold war adversaries, the war was much more personal to the participants as it was driven by old territorial grievances with a side dish of cultural animosity and religious fervor.

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Pierre  Razoux brings these factors to the table in his 2017 game Bloody Dawns: The Iran-Iraq War.  If I had to give you an elevator pitch of this game, I’d start with saying it’s like Frank Chadwick’s ‘A House Divided’ meets Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews ‘Twilight Struggle’.

More coarsely, it’s like if A House Divided and Twilight Struggle had a baby and named it Bloody Dawns. The mechanics are clean, simple and quick, leveraging a point to point movement system like in ‘A House Divided’. Integrated with these traditional mechanics are the exciting randomness and flavor you get with a card driven game (CDG) such as ‘Twilight Struggle’.  The CDG deck is loaded with historical events and presents the players with the constant pressure of deciding when and how to play a card to maximum effect.

The game arrives in the clear plastic bag that is standard for most of HFDG products. Inside the bag is the fun. There’s a game board (you know, the ‘map’), a 12-page rulebook, a player aid chart, a page of errata, a sheet of die cut color counters, a deck of event cards and one (1) six-sided die.

The game board is a piece of satellite imagery depicting the landforms of the region. Superimposed on this image is a game board graphic that features a point to point movement network depicting the major lines of communication between the areas along the Iraqi-Iranian border. Each area contains a defensive terrain modifier (think of this as the terrain effect, without having to worry about the terrain type). Areas may also have indicators that depict their status as an oil producing area. An objective city, a religious city, a swamp, a mountainous area or that if it is part of the area referred to as Kurdistan. 

The rulebook clocks in at a slim 12 pages that includes the front and back of the cover as well as the designers notes and the four scenarios. It’s a solid effort with the rulebook. Printed in color the text is pretty clear and the book also includes some examples of play to help educate the players. A few oddball questions and issues are addressed with the one page of errata (which is really only a half-page – the other half is variant rules).

The player aid card consists of three major sections – the combat results table, the terrain key and a unit key. It’s all done very well. The combat results are well defined as are the usual modifiers.

The counters are a quality production from HFDG. I actually like these counters, in part because the minimal data they need to carry makes them uncluttered and easy to read. The colors are vibrant and stand out from drab desert background of the gameboard. As you might expect in a Middle Eastern game, the dominant colors are red (Iraq) and green (Iran).  The die-cut job on these counters was first rate with sharp corners. There was a total of two – yes, count them TWO – tabs of cardboard with which I had to deal. The corners are so sharp I really debated whether or not I needed to use the corner rounders on them. (The jury is still out – I rounded a couple just to see how the counters looked. While the round corners look good, they existing sharp corners are perfectly servicable.)

Moving on to the last component – the cards, we’ve got a real treat. These are cards exactly like you’d expect to find in a card driven game. Artist Bruce Yearian did a great job with the depictions of these cards.

The deck contains a variety of events drawn from the actual conflict. Many of them jarred memories of Peter Jennings breaking stories on ABC’s World News Tonight. Other events provide details of participants like former Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz, or the series military campaigns that helped Iran drive the Iraqi’s off Iranian territory.  Some cards feel like they could have been ripped from today’s headlines (‘US and Saudi Arabia agree on a strategy to ruin the Iranian economy…’). Each card contains an event, an OPS point value and a replacement point value.  

Those are the component parts of the game. While they are very pretty, you are likely asking yourself – can they fight? Great question! Let’s break down a game turn in Bloody Dawns. A game turn consists of two identical player turns. Each player turn consists of the following phases;

  • Event phase:  Both players may play cards for their events. Execute the event text.
  • Supply: Check to determine the supply status of every unit.
  • Oil Revenue: Generate your oil revenue then use that revenue to strengthen your army.
  • Regular Movement: Move units are the map for OPS points.
  • Offensives: Launch attacks using any remaining OPS points
  • Infantry Replacements: Replacement infantry losses (Note that the game is specific – these are only infantry losses being replaced, not armored formations!)
  • Strategic Movement: Shift some units around to firm up your lines
  • Adjust Cards: Draw your card hand back to full strength and get ready for your opponents’ riposte!

Let’s test the system out. Here’s a possible Iraqi game turn.  We’re basing this on a point in the early phase of the war. The Iraqis have done well and pushed the Iranians back a bit and have marshalled two armies for offensive purposes.

First up is the Event phase and the Iraqi player plunks down the ‘Kurds Revolt in Iran’ event. This is good as it ties down Iranian troops in Kurdistan and adds three Kurdish units as Iraqi-controlled units. These can be used to disrupt Iranian plans in northwestern Iran. Playing this card is not without costs as this was also the Iraqi players highest OPS point card and a good card for Infantry replacements.  The Iranian player elects not to play an event as his cards only help the Iraqi player. 

Next up is the supply phase. This is an easy check as all units on both sides are currently in supply. While Tabriz in the north is of little use due to the interdicting Kurdish rebels, the other supply sources are accessible to all Iranian units. All Iraqi units are in supply.

Now comes the Oil Revenue phase. The phasing player counts the oil wells they control and receives that many oil revenue points. The Iraqi player controls six points. Perusing his options, he elects to purchase two (2) additional event cards in an effort to gain more offensive operations points, or combat actions that will improve the offensive. Unfortunately, his two cards are mediocre 3 op point cards and the event text benefits the Iranians, so no real help there.

It’s movement time! The good news is that the Iraqi player already has his units in the right areas, so no movement is necessary. If movement was required, an event card would be played for Ops points and one unit could be moved per Ops point expended. 

Now it time for offensives. The best Ops point card the Iraqi have in their hand grants four (4) Ops point. Technically, the Iraqi player could play a second card for more Ops points, but this would only gain three more points and the Iranian player thinks that would over extend his troops.  He starts with an attack on Susangerd from the Manjin Islands area. It would be an attack on the +9 column, but the Iranians choose to play a card from their hand and unleash a Katyusha barrage on the attackers. Unfortunately, the barrage has little effect and the attackers are driven back (Defender retreats, with losses)

The second attack sees the same Iraqi troops continue their offensive from newly captured Susangerd and striking at DEZFUL. This very favorable attack results in the Iranian defenders being eliminated.  This breakthrough is followed by ANOTHER attack by the same force now striking at the oil fields around AVHAZ. The Iraqi player expends two cards to gain a +1-column shift. Despite the expenditure of resources in the form of the cards, the die roll come to the defender’s aid and the result is an exchange. While the defender is wiped out, the Iraqi losses mean the end of the offensive drive.

Stymied on this front, the Iraqi play expends his last offensive Ops point to send the troops at Kernamshah on the offensive against the Iranians defending Hamden. The die roll again favors the Iranians with a result of ‘1’ resulting in the attackers getting a bloody nose, losing some tanks and retreating back to their start line.

The next phase would be infantry replacements, but with light infantry losses, there is no need to expend a card for infantry replacement points.  Skipping ahead we reach the strategic movement phase. After staring at the board, the Iraqi player elects not to move any troops.

Rounding out the player turn; the Iraqi player draws cards to bring his hand back up to four cards. This is also the point at which the players determine if the automatic victory conditions have been met by either side or will the game continue with the next player phase. In this case, the Iraqi player has not met the automatic victory conditions and play will continue with the Iranian players turn.

Victory is based on the number and quality of the objectives you control. These fall into the category of objective cities, religious cities and oil fields. Getting a critical number can be difficult as the battles tend to see control see-sawing back and forth. But there’s one more path to victory – break your opponents morale. This is similar to the expression of national will that you find in games like We the People, but a bit streamlined. If you can knock your opponent’s morale down far enough you can trigger a political collapse that will hand you victory as your opponent deals with an angry situation on the home front.

Bloody Dawn does a number of things well. Several of these items help to capture the feel of the period. I’ m thinking of the OPS points, the Oil Revenue Points, the Kurdish revolts and the supply rules.

The OPS points work in terms of allocating resources to move units around the region or to launch major assaults. You can’t plan too far in advance as to how many points will be available in your phase. You have to master the logistics of your hand of cards. Events are nice. OPS points are nice. Infantry replacement points are nice too. You know what’s not nice? You usually won’t have enough cards to do all the things you want to do! This nicely captures the real-world challenge of having to prioritize your actions and place them in a context of what is the expected ‘return’ on your action’s ‘investment’ as well as the opportunity cost of NOT doing something else with that card. Yes, these are pretty standard card driven game features, but game designer Pierre Razoux and developer Paul Rohrbaugh have done solid work on Bloody Dawns. 

Oil Revenue Points keep the focus on controlling the refinery fields without being purely a victory condition – you are are properly motivated to control the oil as this is the cash that fuels your military campaign. Run out of oil and you’ll quickly run out of supplies, tanks and options. This focus on the oil fields is reinforced by several of the event cards which impact when or if you can sell your oil on the market.  It’s also a great way of tying the event cards into the broader engagement that defines foreign involvement around the periphery of the war. The game places those events into a context that shines a light on how events undertaken by the United States, Russia and others impacted the war and were perceived by each combatant. This game could easily have been sub-titled “Battle for Oil”

The Kurdish Independence movement is very well handled by the game as several card driven events. I might say the approach is inspired. Bloody Dawns captures not just the abilities and yearning for freedom that motivated the Kurds, but places it in the context of how the Kurds were pawns within the larger context of the war. Each side encouraged Kurdish separatists – but only in their enemy’s country. This is not just a low-level war of guerilla strikes and civil disobedience. The Kurds have bodies of formed troops in the field and will hold territory. More than an annoyance, a Kurdish revolt can de-rail your plans or possibly cost you the game.  

The way the game depicts the Kurdish independence movement captures the tragic, cold calculus that has been summed by governments across the region ever since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. It’s also sobering as you see cards with events that were ripped from the headlines of the newspapers in the 1980’s.

Supply is straightforward. You are either in or out of supply. There are multiple sources of supply for each side. The effects of being out of supply are clearly defined. This is really well done. The game strikes a great balance with these rules. Yes, you have to worry about your supply lines, but you don’t have to expend a lot of time managing your armies logistical train.

One of the things I struggled with at first was the ability to conduct repeated attacks with the same army in a single player phase. Yes, I get that the turns represent a multi-month time frame. But you get a sense of what it’s like from the earlier description of play when you put all your OPS points into an attack by the same ‘killer army’.  A stack of two corps and a division could technically make up to six attacks. It feels out of balance for one army to drive deep and repeatedly. On the other hand, it does nicely model the speed and power of the well planned modern mechanized offensive. You could explain the US 2003 invasion of Iraq using this mechanism. I would envision this as a similar operation with two powerful army corps units, an event card of air support and a LOT of OPS points doing a massive ‘Thunder Run’ north into Bagdad, smashing everything in its way.

But the powerful mechanized offensive feels off as a representation of the conflict. Much of this is due to the common perception that the Iran-Iraq war was ‘World War One with automatic rifles and jets. But that’s as much a stereotyped perception as anything, and it overlooks the repeated efforts on both sides to break the stalemate. While it is true that there were periods of time when the front did stabilize into a near trench warfare metaphor, both sides repeatedly tried to muster the troops and resources to break through the front lines and drive into their opponent’s territory. (See High Flying Dice’s ‘An Undeniable Victory’ for an example of one such effort.) While the mechanism may seem overpowering, there are counter strategies to this killer army that are hinted at in the rules, but I leave it to you to find the appropriate solution.  After all, that’s part of the fun of playing, right?

A lot of folks play their games alone, either due to lack of opponents or a lack of time. For those players, a key metric in buying a game is how well it supports solitaire play. The bad news here is that Bloody Dawns does not included dedicated rules to automate the play of one side (commonly referred to as a ‘bot’). While it’s true that the game lacks a ‘bot, it does not mean you can’t do what many of us do and play both sides.  This is certainly a solution, but bear in mind that this solution comes with its own costs. Specifically, you are going to lose some of the fog of war and surprises that will occur if you were playing with two people. I’m not talking about having a thinking opponent that may act unpredictably (though that’s a valid point). What I’m talking about is you having access to the detail of the cards held by each side. That perfect intelligence will creep into your planning and can allow bias to slip into your game experience. That’s not a heinous evil – heck it’s the same experience you’d get if solo playing ‘Pursuit of Glory’, ‘We the People’ or any other card-driven game (CDG). But it does diminish the nature of the surprise and mis-direction that are part what makes CDG so much fun to play.

My experiences playing the game lead me to the conclusion that Bloody Dawns is a solid game. It’s a great introductory wargame that is both accessible and fun. It’s also a great window into a conflict that is mostly known for a few stereotyped news bites and the random times that the United States intervened in events.  Order a copy and get it on the table. You’ll have an engaging challenge with your opponent. You are also likely to get a new perspective on the events that shaped that past forty years of Middle Eastern history. 

Armchair General Score: 93%

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 ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a Product Owner in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

cover of the game
The map
Kurds Iraq
close up of game board
sample cards

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