Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Israeli Independence Review

As part of my attempt to try games from new companies, I picked up four Victory Point Games titles, as well as three Khyber Pass Games titles. This is the first review of the lot, specifically on the solitaire Israeli Independence game from VPG. 

Israeli Independence puts you in the role of overall commander of the Jewish forces trying to carve out a nation in the aftermath of WW2 and the Holocaust. For good or for bad, they did so largely on the backs of the Palestinians, who had lived in the region for centuries and were in the process of obtaining independence of their own from the British, who controlled the mandate in the region following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WW1 ended. I will not go into the political elements of whether this is a "good" game in that sense any further than to say that I would like to see a full treatment on the conflict that attempted to give both sides an equitable say in how things went. Certainly everyone in Western culture has been paying for the instability in the Middle East since the discovery of large oil deposits there, and yet we as Americans really don't have the vaguest idea of how Israel came to be (or, really, why) unless we have a horse in the race. I certainly don't. 

That said, even were this a two-player game, you aren't going to get a lot of insight into the conflict from playing this game, at least not unless you read the flavor text on the cards. To be honest, I don't think of II as so much of a wargame as a history lesson. The game could just as easily be played using a 5x5 grid of squares with some stones and a little artwork to differentiate some spaces. Because the entire game consists of the five Arab armies (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt) trying to invade Palestine/Israel and take West Jerusalem, and they do that simply by moving along five separate tracks, one for each army. If any of the armies make it to Jerusalem, it will be "next year in Brooklyn". Of course, given that you play the Israelis, that would mean you lose. 

Play is astonishingly simple. The game comes with a deck of 24 cards, of which two are reserved for the "advanced" game. You shuffle the 22 cards, put the five armies in their starting locations, and off you go. In a given turn, you turn over a card, which has a title corresponding to a period or event that happened during the war. I recommend if you play that you take the time to read the flavor text describing the period or event, as it's really all the history you'll get. The next section tells you which Arab armies advance (or retreat, in a couple of cases), sometimes based on the shape of the space they currently occupy (round or square). Once you've done this, you can take a set number of Offensives against the armies, in which you roll a d6. If the number you roll is higher than the number on the army, it retreats one space, otherwise it stays in place. There are frequently DRMs against or for this number specific to the card, so occasionally you'll get bonuses against a specific army (or nerfs against all of your offensives). 

Repeat until either an Arab army reaches Jerusalem, or else you work through all of the cards. If you do the latter, you win. And that's it. 

There are also three "Israeli Offensive" counters that go with an optional rule. You can use these each once per game to take an extra offensive (without any of the drms or other unique elements of the card-based offensives). It's a good idea to wait until the Arab army is right at your door to do this, of course. 

Lebanon and Iraq also have situations where they are removed from the game if they are in their initial position after the Offensives. Obviously, you want to try to achieve this if you can. 

There is also an expansion set that adds more cards, gives a couple of extra rules, and lists the cards if you want to play a "historical" game with the events in chronological order. I have not played with the extra cards yet, but did play in historical order (with the basic 22 card deck) for my first game. There are also rules for building a deck based on the degree of difficulty you want, as the card numbers are in three colors based on the smackage they lay down. 

While I wouldn't call this a wargame in most circles, it is a pretty engaging and quick little game. Obviously, your decisions come down solely to when to use your "extra" offensives (I highly recommend that rule) as well as how to divvy up the offensives on the card. There's nothing like rolling against Egypt, who is knocking on the door, three times and coming up empty every time, especially if Syria is right on the other side of the city. As such, there's really no "perfect strategy" other than knowing that Syria and Egypt are the aggressive states attacking, and most of the game will come down to how lucky you get based on the degree of difficulty.

That said, it's pretty fun for a 10-15 minute game. If you take the counters (eight total!), a die, and the cards with you on a plane, you can most certainly play on your tray table if you have a piece of paper to track the Arab advances on (and know which spaces are circular). 

On the other hand, if your politics in the situation leans toward the Arabs, or if you're expecting a game rather than a diversion, it's probably not a good purchase for you. The price is right - I think the whole thing, expansion and all, was less than $15. The art is very nice, and the rules are very clear (how could they not be?), and there's even a little dissertation in the package on designing and playing wargames, as this is part of VPGs Battlesson series, intended for novices to the hobby. 

Me, I'm glad I got it. If nothing else, there will come a day when I play it on an airplane sitting next to an Arab and I'll have an extremely interesting conversation as a result. 


Ken said...

Doug -

Can you recommend a good book on the Arab-Israeli wars and how Israel's independence came to be? I confess that it is all very confusing to me, with Jewish emigration from an anti-Semitic Europe, British rule, UN attempts to make both an Arab and a Jewish state, etc. From what little I understand, things were pretty much the same 60+ years ago as they are today, that is, the Arabs were deadset against a Jewish state in Palestine while almost all of the rest of the world was supportive.

I'm fortunate to have close friendships with both Palestinians and Israelis, but this is a topic we've never discussed. I'd like a non-slanted book, if such a thing exists, to get some background before I launch into a conversation...

Dug said...

I have a woefully small percentage of my library devoted to this topic, I'm afraid. However, I think you can get a fairly good overview in a small package in Karen Armstrong's book "Holy War: The Crusades And Their Impact On Today's World". While most of the book is devoted to the Crusades, about fifty pages are devoted to "The Present Conflict" and gives a fairly compressed timeline of events of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.

While these books contain even less focused information, they cover the overarching ideas behind the conflict in different ways. Armstrong's "The Battle For God" covers not only Zionism and Jihadism, but also the Protestant evangelical movement in a fundamentalist light, and in fact the book is expressly about fundamentalism. As you can imagine, she's not a big fan, but she does do her research I can also recommend Albert Hourani's "A History Of The Arab Peoples" which covers quite a bit of history in a small package.

I've also been recommended Edward Said as an Arab author, and Amos Oz as an Israeli author, although both seem to be interested in finding a peaceful solution to the problem and that fanaticism is at the root of the continuing struggle on both sides.

As you can tell, I tend to agree with all of these authors that were the leaders in the region not so willing to demonize and hate the other side that we would have found a solution long ago. However, religious leaders on both sides continue to preach that the other side is nothing more than animals, filth in the sight of God/Allah, and every time a moderate comes along they are driven out of office, prevented from pursuing rational solutions, or out and out killed.

Good luck both in your search for understanding and your efforts to engage people in dialog. Until we can have rational and relatively low-emotion discussions on issues like this, we have no hope of moving forward. Other than just killing everyone on the other side, which seems to be the preferred method.

Darin Leviloff said...

If you don't mind the author of the game interjecting, I think Benny Morris' "1948" is the best on the initial war covered by the game.

Regarding the whole conflict, sources tend toward bias. I tend to read those with a pro-Israeli bend such as "Myths and Facts" and Dershowitz's "The case for Israel", but there are plenty on the other side. For a more objective look, I recommend Shlomo Ben Ami's "Scars of War, Wounds of Peace" which is written by an Israeli negotiator in the "peace camp". A great look at the whole conflict, the prospects for peace, and the failure of the Camp David process.

Dug said...

Thanks, Darin. No question that we're talking about a region which is difficult to get objective information about. Both sides have legitimate grievances, but both sides also have their share of fanatics bent on holy war and unconcerned how they get to their goals.

It's a microcosm of why I have little hope for humanity long term on a crowded planet. This week in particular I start to wonder if we're approaching that perfect storm of disease, economic collapse, and civil/social upheaval that will set us back decades if not centuries or even millennia.

On a cheerier note, I sure liked Soviet Dawn and am looking forward to trying out Zulus on the Ramparts at some point. Both a fun game and a good teaching tool as well.

Aleksander R. Rødner said...

Thanks for an informative post. I ordered the game a few weeks back, and am looking forward to getting it.

Dug said...

It's a great system, and the way it's been adapted to four other conflicts (and at widely varying levels, from that of individuals fighting off Zulus to the American Civil War) shows that the system has legs.

BTW, these would make awesome iPad apps...