Pete Belli
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Oil War was published in 1975 by SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.) as part of Strategy & Tactics Magazine #52 entitled Oil War: American Intervention in the Persian Gulf. It was a brigade level depiction of modern conflict in Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula with a heavy emphasis on airpower and logistics. Three short scenarios were included (each estimated to last eight turns with two days per turn) and the complexity of the rules was at the lower end of the SPI wargame scale.

In 2012 Decision Games released an updated and expanded version of the game entitled Oil War: Iran Strikes in Modern War magazine. My original plan was to create a dual review of both games with a comparison of the old and new versions. However, the games are actually quite different. While the concept for the new edition has definite links to the old SPI classic Oil War: Iran Strikes also draws inspiration from more recent titles like Back to Iraq 3. There is so much depth to the Oil War: Iran Strikes design that the new game really deserves its own independent review. For that reason (and others which will be explained later) I decided to expand my Oil War notes into a full analysis.

Like many S&T games from that era Oil War had a thrown-together quality which reflected the flaws in the SPI magazine system. There were obvious errors on the charts. The map had an unfinished look. The rules were OK but they could have been tighter. The notes accompanying the rule booklet indicated that major changes were made halfway through the development process and it appears that a few of these modifications were not adequately playtested. In spite of all this, Oil War was played frequently after the game was released.





By the middle of the 1970s the wargame hobby had seen the publication of a few titles portraying the Arab-Israeli Wars but the primary focus of modern warfare simulations was the Cold War. The oil embargo that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War shifted the attention of the American public to the OPEC nations of the Middle East. The hypothetical conflicts depicted in Oil War were potential conflagrations routinely discussed in the U.S. Congress and the headlines of daily newspapers.

Before the Shah was exiled in 1979 and the Carter administration was overwhelmed by the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 exotic locations like Tehran were places few Americans knew anything about. It might be difficult for younger Geeks already familiar with events leading up to the massive Desert Storm campaign in 1991 and the 2003 conflict in Iraq to understand that names like Basra, Kuwait, Qatar, or Riyadh were just obscure points on the map in those days.

Oil War was the first wargame produced by a major publisher that attempted to simulate a potential conflict in the region which involved a large American force. Everything about the concept was fresh and new, especially for a generation of young pioneers in the hobby who had been inundated with designs about the Bulge and Stalingrad for a decade. I remember playing Oil War during my high school years and thinking about older friends in the military who might be landing at Dhahran or Bushehr. Long lines at gas stations and the economic stagnation which resulted from the 1973 oil shock did not stimulate feelings of goodwill toward the Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf so Oil War included an element of “Take that!” for many players.

Before describing the scenarios included in the game I would like to discuss the frequently forgotten lessons of Task Force Smith. During the period depicted in Oil War similar unrealistic thinking had a negative effect on the decisions made by American leaders… and perhaps a few wargame designers.

Task Force Smith was the name assigned to an American battalion inserted into the chaos of a successful North Korean attack in 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War. These inadequately equipped occupation troops were rushed from Japan and ordered to slow down the Communist soldiers driving south against collapsing resistance by ROK forces. Apparently somebody at headquarters assumed that the appearance of a small number of American troops -- backed up by the full might of the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy -- would have a major impact on the battlefield. A powerful North Korean column rolled over Task Force Smith with little difficulty, and the Communist troops didn’t even know they were facing American soldiers until the battle was over.

I have the greatest respect for the armed forces of the United States. Our troops are highly trained and superbly equipped but they are not supermen. Military planning in the late 1970s and early 1980s often reflected a dangerous overconfidence. Examples include Jimmy Carter’s botched rescue attempt in 1980 and Reagan’s misguided deployment of American troops in Lebanon. In one case a small group of special ops soldiers were expected to perform Herculean tasks while in the other example a detachment of U.S. Marines was expected to exert a major amount of influence upon a complex political and military situation.

In many ways the conflict portrayed in Oil War ignored the legacy of Task Force Smith. In just two days a single U.S. parachute brigade is expected to seize an airbase in a hostile country, establish a functioning logistics network, then march 30 kilometers across unfamiliar terrain to attack and defeat an enemy formation defending its own capital city. Even with the powerful air support provided to the coalition player in Oil War this task would be daunting on a real battlefield. Similar feats of military prowess are expected of U.S. Marine units landing on hostile shores with no port facilities and coalition mechanized formations hastily airlifted from West German bases to dusty desert airfields.

Perhaps as part of an effort to be fair, the game provides Arab military units with the ability to perform far beyond what might have been considered realistic expectations. More on that later.





The map represents southeastern Iraq, the southwestern corner of Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia. I’ve always been a fan of Redmond Simonsen but this wasn’t his best work. Aside from the bland color scheme (Oil War was one the last S&T games produced without a full-color map) the terrain is poorly depicted and important locations are inadequately marked. Numerous cities and ports were omitted from the board, including Iraq’s outlet to the gulf.

Working within the constraints of the SPI folio system to create three separate scenarios for Oil War must have been a headache. I will briefly discuss each scenario before describing the Oil War play experience. In every scenario victory for the coalition player is based on the seizure of ports and oil production facilities.

Scenario One took place during another round of Arab-Israeli conflict. This might be considered the most interesting scenario because it included the largest number of units and offered the most action for the players. However, the basic premise was (speaking frankly) ridiculous. I say this because Israeli forces were available to join the coalition player -- meaning the USA with a token airborne force from Europe -- in his attack on the Arabs and Iranians.

In the first place, Israel would not have troops to spare for operations in the Persian Gulf region while the country was locked in a death struggle with Egypt and Syria. The appearance of American infidels on the soil of Arabia could ignite a firestorm; the presence of Israeli soldiers would pour gasoline on that inferno. This kind of cooperation was politically impossible anyway; in 1981 a plan to arm a U.S. rapid deployment force with Israeli equipment secretly stockpiled in the Negev Desert was rejected as too provocative so a more aggressive option would obviously be given a thumbs down. I paid scant attention to Scenario One.

Scenario Two was probably the most plausible. Israel did not participate so the forces available to the coalition were reduced considerably. The challenges faced by the coalition player could form a fascinating puzzle as he carefully allocated his supply points and committed his reserve formations. Scenario Two was my favorite. However, the improbable maneuvers typically performed by the Arabs and Iranians in this scenario clearly demonstrated the potential disconnect between OW and any realistic portrayal of a hypothetical conflict in the region.

Tensions were high among the Islamic regimes in the area. Iraq and Iran had fought in a series of border skirmishes in late 1974 and early 1975. Iraq had threatened Kuwait in the 1960s. The clash of cultures between the Iranians and the Arabs was centuries old. Saudi Arabia and the smaller gulf states feared Iran but the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its composite Peninsular Shield Force was nearly useless. No resistance was offered when the Shah seized three islands in the Straits of Hormuz… and I should remind everybody that the Peninsular Shield Force did not react when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

None of that mattered in Scenario Two (or Scenario One, for that matter) because Arab and Persian join together with little regard for political, cultural, or religious differences. Iraqi troops raced through Kuwait to protect Saudi oilfields. Iranian soldiers guarded Iraqi airbase hexes while Saddam’s F-5 fighters refueled. The small Kuwaiti brigades abandoned their homeland to the Persians in order to protect ports on the Saudi Arabian coast. I called the gradual slide of Iranian and Arab forces around the rim of the coastline as each unit leapfrogs into a neighboring country’s territory the Persian Gulf Promenade. This could be fun when viewed from a silly G.I. Joe comic book perspective but there was little simulation value.

Scenario Three depicted an Iranian attack on the Arab nations. There was limited involvement by the United States as we turned our back on the Shah (an American ally in the 1970s) and joined with the Arabs to defeat Iran. This was actually a dream scenario for the Iranian player. Much of the Iraqi ground force was removed from Saddam’s order of battle. The arrival of the U.S. Marines late in the contest on Turn 7 left precious little time for a successful American thrust along the Iranian coastline or in Kuwait. The whole process was largely academic because Iran began the scenario with enough objectives to score a marginal victory.

The scenario was dull. There was a grinding land battle along the Iraqi frontier that Iran could not lose. Since most of the Navy jets couldn’t penetrate deep into Iran an ample number of Iranian ground formations could be held in reserve and then rushed forward to block the absolutely predictable amphibious landing zones for the USMC during the proper game turn. Most of the “action” took place in an area about four hexes wide near Abadan. While this did reflect a situation seen in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s it just wasn’t enjoyable. The only viable response by the Arab/U.S. coalition was a risky series of long range air missions by a handful of American fighter squadrons… and about 85% of the map was never used.





The limit of 100 counters mandated by the SPI folio system presented another challenge. Six of these were required as a form of randomizer in place of a standard six-sided die. Something had to be sacrificed, and it was the order of battle for the army formations. A quick glance will show that a large percentage of the units represent aircraft. During many turns Oil War appeared to be a game representing an air campaign with limited ground forces added as an afterthought.

The air rules and the order of battle for the air formations were obviously crafted by somebody with an affection for the subject. Individual aircraft represent each squadron, and the capabilities of each aircraft (F-4 Phantom, Mig21, etc.) were carefully assigned. The importance of proper basing procedures, air-to-air combat, ground attack missions, and (for the coalition player) supply considerations can’t be over emphasized. It took a few turns to develop an effective doctrine for the use of airpower.

The rules are not complicated but I had a difficult time translating the mechanics of airpower in Oil War into a realistic understanding of modern aerial warfare. For example, if an enemy ground formation overran an airbase containing an air unit nothing happened… the aircraft counter was not considered to be on the base hex. Another problem I had was the ability of squadrons from different nations to coordinate mass attacks against American aircraft. In the historical period represented by the Oil War scenarios Iraq and the other Arab regimes had all they could handle simply vectoring their own fighters against approaching enemy jets. The idea of an assortment of aircraft from several Arab countries (or a mix of Arab and Iranian squadrons) swarming in effective combat formations is entirely unacceptable.

This might be a good time to discuss the supply rules. Arab or Iranian ground formations traced supply to any hex their home territory. Supply lines followed the road network but units which are in poor supply simply had their movement and combat factors cut by fifty percent. Arab or Iranian air units must be based in their home territory. Coalition forces were supplied by air. Each turn the coalition player received a specific number of Air Transport Points which were used to supply units already on the map or to bring new formations into play. Coalition supply lines also followed the road network with captured airbases acting as supply depots. In a desperate situation isolated coalition units could be supplied by an air drop but this consumed prodigious amounts of transport points.

The supply rules did not add a heavy burden for the players. In fact, the delicate balance of ATPs and the need to deploy new formations was the best part of the coalition play experience. Because most coalition attacks were conducted at high differentials (Oil War uses a differential CRT with columns for +1, +2, etc.) the results were primarily defender eliminated, leaving little suspense. However, the deployment of coalition forces during the establishment of the beachhead (Bridgehead? Airhead?) might have been more interesting if the classic pattern of smaller battalion-sized units gathering together to form brigades was possible. Unfortunately, the limited number of counters available prevented this.

Fighting battles left me frustrated. Arab forces had no command and control restrictions (in spite of the known problems in this area) and the unit density for everybody was just too low. Sure, the Saudi brigades should be spread out with internal security given a higher priority than military effectiveness… but Iraq and Iran should probably have more counters and the ability to form three-brigade divisions. As I mentioned earlier, the coalition player needed a few smaller airborne battalion formations. Most battles were fought to achieve a DE kill with massive amounts of firepower; maneuver was secondary.

The play experience was often unbalanced. While the coalition player was bringing in new units, dropping supplies, and conducting numerous air missions the Arab/Iranian player was shuttling units around the gulf or counting hexes to cover an oil facility with a ZOC. On some turns the only real action was a bit of air-to-air combat.

I was never particularly enchanted with Oil War back in my golden youth. Now that I’ve played it again after a couple of decades nothing has changed.

I am looking forward to the comparison with Oil War: Iran Strikes.
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Rob Arcangeli
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Fantastic analysis of this game Pete! Thanks a lot.
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Pete Belli
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Glad you enjoyed the review.

I would like to thank...

George Husted
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Leo Zappa
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...for providing information about the U.S. military in the 1970s.

BTW, the decision to include forces from Israel in Oil War might have been a marketing technique. Many years ago I was discussing a "Crisis in the Gulf" prototype with a famous wargame designer at a convention. He suggested that Israeli formations should be added to my scenario because it could increase sales.
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Mike Windsor
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Other than the magazine cover, which I would instantly recognize even if the title were omitted, I can't recall anything about the game. I wouldn't call it a great cover, but it is memorable.
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Darrell Hanning
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I think I actually just spent more time reading your review covering how bad this game was, than I spent playing it myself, when it came out, before realizing how bad it was. (Not counting the rules, mind you, just playing time.)
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Pete Belli
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Speaking of time, the set-up for Oil War could be tedious for a new Arab player (even though the number of units is small) because some analysis is required.

In addition, the lack of specific deployment hexes could lead to a veteran player developing a "perfect plan" and gaining a huge advantage over the coalition commander.
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michael confoy
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Awful lot of work there just to say don't bother assuming you actually are silly enough to by a copy now. The American aircraft are way over rated. F111? Junk. F4s? Until escorted in Vietnam, they were shot down in droves. I am embarrassed that I bought the folio version, but then no one would ever play with me either.
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Tony Watson
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A very insightful and nicely written review.

There's no refuting your points, but I will offer a weak defense of the game, nonetheless, based on my experiences as a high-schooler and S&T subscriber back in the '70s who had a pretty good time playing this one when it came out.

A lot of the appeal of this one was its timeliness, right after the Yom Kippur War and oil embargo. It had an urgent and possible "what if?" aspect, along with, as you noted, a flash of "take that!" thrown in for spice. SPI games at that time were largely historical in subject matter, often WWII, so Oil War was something different--almost ultra-modern--and that made it interesting to play.

I enjoyed the asymmetry between the forces. The American/Coalition player had fewer ground units, but in a way, they were more mobile due to their arrival by air. Plus much of their striking force consisted of their numerous, unlimited-ranged air units, which packed quite a wallop. I remember creating a super-stack based on the F-111s that would eliminate Arab units automatically. There was a speed and mobility to the Western forces that made playing that side fairly fun to play.

But you're correct; the game is almost fatally simplistic, especially in terms of the political aspects of the conflict, which are essentially ignored. The Arab/Iranian side is monolithic and perfectly coordinated, acting as one unified force. And global politics, say reaction from the USSR, China or non-aligned world, is ignored or factored in simplistically (I believe by the scenario length, creating a time limit for US to complete its operations before the rest of the world rose to the aid of the Gulf nations.)

In an even moderately accurate simulation of such an intervention, the political aspects of the situation would have been as, or even more, important than the military operations. Contending with forming a functional coalition would be as much a concern for the Arab/Iranian player as trying to deal with American airpower and Marines.

I really enjoyed your review. Thanks very much.

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Kim Meints
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I was one who really liked the game when it first came out,still do. I must have since I ended up with all 3 versions-S&T,Folio and Collectors.
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Sim Guy
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He played it, so we won't have to. Not just a statement, a recommendation.

Got this in the magazine aeons ago. Dutifully punched the counters, read the rules, and played a game. Bagged the counters, folded the map, and put it away - and there it has remained. Like many of the magazine folios, the magazine was the better of the attractions.

For every gem, like World War I, there was an Oil War. On the whole, it balanced out. But three good folio games a year was not what I expected when I subscribed.
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Lewis Goldberg
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Great review Pete!

One small quibble - there are 5 blank counters on the sheet, so I don't think including the randomizer chits stole any valuable real estate.
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Martin McCleary
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good review.

One of the few games I had absolutley no qualms about parting with, in fact I gave my copy away.

It was simplistic and was little more than a romp for the US player to have fun in the wholesale destruction of Arab armies.
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Joseph Miranda
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Good analysis. Oil War is a snapshot of both wargame design and military thinking in the 1970s.
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