Battle for Baghdad: Initial Impressions


A Different Mindset: Playing Battle for Baghdad

Having just a handful of Battle for Baghdad sessions under my belt, this article can only provide some initial impressions of the game. I’ll attempt to provide a good summary, mainly useful to someone who has not played the game before, and provide some opinions of game features including examples for clarity. This review will be revised and expanded in the future as my mastery of the game increases and my opinions fluctuate.

Battle for Baghdad Review - Title Graphic

It’s true that Battle for Baghdad is definitely not a standard war game. But it is definitely not a “Euro” game either. It’s extremely interactive and competitive, generating quite a bit of combat each turn. In fact, any time two or more factions end the Recruit/Move phase in the same zone, there MUST be combat until only one faction is left standing.

My first bit of praise for the game stems from the fact that competent play requires a mindset totallly different from any other game that I have played. That’s a good thing, in my opinion. The game comes complete with extended examples of play as well as strategy tips for each faction. The strategy tips were extremely helpful. It probably would have taken hours and hours of game play (and mindset adjustment) to learn those lessons on my own (not that learning from experience is a bad thing…).

FYI: For some reason the downloadable rules on the MCS Group web site are not the final version of the rules that shipped with the game (at least when I last checked the site on 5/29/2010), so be aware of that.

Factions

The game can be played by 3 to 6 players, with each player representing one of the following factions: U.S., Sunni, Shiite, Iraqi Government, Al Qaeda and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). With less than 6 players the NGO, Al Qaeda, and U.S. players (in that order) are ignored. Each faction has strengths and weaknesses. Some have special capabilities. For example the NGO player is exempt from the forced combat rules and may “coexist” in a zone with any other player. As another example of factional differences , the U.S. player is allowed to make 3 “moves” per turn, while the NGO player can only make 1. A big part of the game is knowing the capabilities of your opponents.

Each faction also has unique reinforcement “spawning” location restrictions. Some factions have special movement capabilities (airmobile, tunnel, etc.). In addition to a generic victory condition, each faction retains its own unique victory condition (more about this later).


Cards

It’s not a “card driven game”, in my opinion, because you don’t need cards to move or fight. You could theoretically play the entire game without holding any cards. But you won’t win too many battles without supporting Command Cards and Arms Bazaar Cards. So it’s true that the cards are an extremely important component of the game.

  • Arab Street” cards represent the needs of the city’s inhabitants; a need that should be met by one of the factions, or a power vacuum that must be filled. Each card assigns “political points” to one or more city zones. Each faction that feels capable will then compete to control those zones, thus collecting the political points.
  • Command” cards function much like combat units in that they have a combat strength, but also have a command type (Conventional vs. Unconventional) that,when compared against opponent’s cards, may result in some type of combat benefit or hindrance (more details on this in a forthcoming strategy article).
  • Arms Bazaar” cards may be the most important cards. They are not revealed to other players until used. They can provide offensive or defensive benefits, versus the oponent’s Command card. At times, they represent literal events and other times they represent abstract capabilities. For example, there is a “Desertion” card that could force X number of enemy units to switch factions at the start of combat, and can be played against any player, including the U.S. player. I don’t think it’s meant to represent U.S. units literally defecting to Al Qaeda, but rather a nasty surprise upon discovering that your enemy had capabilities you were not aware of, or that your own units were not as proficient as you anticipated. The Arms Bazaar cards also have secondary functionality that allows them to be played in certain combinations. I’ve only scratched the surface in learning how to best utilize these combinations, but they seems quite interesting (see the “Arms Bazaar Cards” section of the rules where they briefly describe these combinations).

Combat

Combat occurs when more than one faction occupies a zone, and is always a contest between exactly two factions. So, for example, if three factions occupied the same zone, two of them will fight to the death, and then the remaining two will fight a separate combat. The order in which the combats are resolved is determined by the player turn order. In a three way contest between U.S., Sunni and Shiite factions, if the U.S. player goes first in the intiative order he will select either the Sunni or Shiite as his opponent. In any case, there will only be one faction left standing in the zone at the conclusion of the turn. (not considering the special NGO exemption).

The combat sequence requires a bit of adaptive thinking. Each player secretly chooses a “Command” Card (if he still has one) and secretly commits zero or more of his combat units that are currently present in the zone. This constitutes the players’ “force” for the combat. In addition, he may assign one Offensive and one Defensive “Arms Bazaar” card to the battle. After comparing cards and applying the effects (players may be able to “neutralize”, or eliminate, the opponent’s Command card), which ever side has the largest force remaining, wins. Here’s the unusual part: The loser of the battle loses EVERY ONE of his combat units, but the winner only loses the number of units he secretly committed. So, if you commit zero units, you don’t lose anything! Here’s a practical example:

U.S. Combat vs Sunni Player

  • U.S. player has a 6 point Command card and 6 units in the zone.
  • Sunni player has a 2 point Command card and 3 units in the zone.
  • The U.S. player could take a gamble and commit ZERO combat units and just rely on his 6 point Command card to win the battle.
  • Assuming the Sunni player commits all 3 of his combat units and cannot neutralize the U.S. Command card, the U.S. player would win the battle since his 6-point Command card is greater than the sum of the Sunni Command card (2) + combat units (3).
  • The Sunni player would lose all 3 of his combat units and the U.S. player would lose none.
  • The winner is entitled to a variable number of Political Points.

Of course, the unpredictability of the “Arms Bazaar” cards could turn this battle completely in favor of the Sunni player, and it could end up being the U.S. player who loses his entire force. To completely turn things upside down, there is a “Collateral Damage” Arms Bazaar card that takes the Politcal Points away from the winner and grants them to the loser instead!

As interesting as it is, I’m still not convinced that this combat system will stand the test of time. It seems to heavily favor the U.S. player, which makes perfect sense. But if there’s just no possibility of defeating the U.S. in combat, then why even have the combat sequence? Why not just abstract it out and make the game a purely political strategy game? At this point, I’m perfectly willing to concede that this is just a side effect of my inexperience with the game. For now.

Review Update: I have seen the U.S. player defeated in battle on more than one occasion, so it is possible. Add the “Terror Spectacular” and “WMD Attack” Arms Bazaar cards into the mix and any of the factions is capable of clearing any zone on the map, including zones occupied by powerful U.S. forces. These two cards cause ALL units, both friendly and enemy, in the zone to be eliminated, with the player who played the card awarded the Political Points for enemy units killed. Makes the U.S. player quite cautious almost to the point of being paranoid. Although I have to agree that it’s is a bit unnerving to see a single Sunni unit just march into the Green Zone while it’s chock full of U.S. units. Of course he could be bluffing…….


Winning the Game

The game ends in one of two ways:

  • The last Arms Bazaar card is drawn.
  • One of the factions meet the general or specific victory conditions.

I particularly like the way Victory conditions drive player behavior. There’s a universal victory condition (120 political points, I think) that represents total dominance of the city. So far, in the few games we’ve played, only the U.S. player has come close to that.

In addition, each player has a unique victory condition, which makes the game truly interesting. For example, the Iraqi Government player’s unique victory condition is to create a situation where no Sunni and Shiite units are in adjacent zones. That’s it. Just separate the kids so they can’t fight… and he wins! Of course that’s easier said than done. I actually pulled it off in the first game I played, but that was because none of the other players were sufficiently familiar with the victory conditions to see it coming. Not likely to happen that easily again…

It’s still too soon to tell if the victory conditions are balanced or not. I’m just dying to see a game where the NGO player wins! The designers have given this some thought, apparently, since the rules state that if no one meets their victory conditions by the time the Arms Bazaar deck is depleted, then the NGO player wins. If there’s no NGO player, the Al Qaeda player wins by default. So, these players have the most incentive to insure that no other factions succeed.


Player Interaction

There are no restrictions on player negotiation and overt or covert deal-making. As is common in multi-player games, everyone tends to gang up on the current front-runner. If a player can control the initiative and set himself up to be the last player in a given turn, he can arrange a sequence of combat actions and events that can decide the game in his favor quite quickly. In other words, it does not appear to be one of those multi-player games that just goes on forever.


Summary

Battle for Baghdad has all the elements of a great game. Now it’s up to the gaming community to determine if all the element mesh into a coherent whole. So far, this game has completely grabbed my interest and I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent playing. I also suspect that the replay value will be off the charts, which is super important nowadays when games like this are quite pricey.

Some gamers have a problem with some of the game mechanics, like the aforementioned case where U.S. troops could “defect” to Al Qaeda, or just the general concept that an NGO might actually have “troops” and engage in combat with other factions. I have no problem at all with these abstract representations and don’t think they detract from the game at all. I recommend you give this game a try.

After a few more sessions, I’ll update this review where I think it necessary.