We really like the art and graphic design prowess of Nils Johannson who has done several games for High Flying Dice Games including the Battles of the Old Northwest Series (here is a recent link to an unboxing for Tippecanoe and River Raisin in that series). When I noticed that he had signed on to do the art for an upcoming game called Guards and Martyrs: The Battle for Basra, December 1986-April 1987, and the fact that the game covers a historical period that I don’t know all that much about and have not played any games on I was very curious. I reached out to the designer of the game Paul Rohrbaugh and as usual he was very willing to discuss the design.
Grant: What is the historical background for your new game Guards and Martyrs?
Paul: Guards and Martyrs is one of the largest and longest (December 1986-April 1987) battles of the Iran-Iraq War, that for the city and port of Basra. The Iranians knew if they could take this city Iraq would be unable to sell any of its oil, essentially ending that nation’s ability to fight. Of course, this was an absolutely vital battle for the Iraqis to win with no retreat.
Grant: I understand this is Volume 1 in a new series covering the Iran-Iraq War. What are the plans for the series?
Paul: There is one other game using the same scale and rules on Operation Karbala 6. It is entitled Shadows of Hell. This was an Iranian offensive far to the north of the area shown on the Guards and Martyrs game map. The Iranians had hoped to draw away Iraqi reserve formations from the Basra front to deal with their Karbala 6 offensive.
Unfortunately for them the US shared spy satellite and other intelligence with the Iraqis that tipped them off to the Iranian’s plans. The result was a huge defeat for the Iranians in Karbala 6.
Grant: What battle does this entry in the series cover and why did you want it to be the first game?
Paul: This was the “main event” and establishes the context for the follow up Shadows of Hell game.
Few gamers are aware of the history of the Iran-Iraq War, some may know of the significance of the battle of Basra, but I doubt many would know at all about Karbala 6. It makes more sense to “lead” with Guards and Martyrs from both marketing as well as educational.
Grant: Why was the City of Basra strategically important to the Iranians?
Paul: For the Iranians it was deemed the quickest and shortest route to their emerging victorious in the war. Up to this point their offensives were primarily reactive and/or limited in nature as they had far more difficulty in obtaining arms and funds. They had also been involved in purging the ranks of their regular army and establishing a more politically and ideologically reliable “parallel military”, the Pasdaran. Basra marked the first time both Iranian branches of their military worked together in a large scale, and what they hoped would be a war-winning offensive.
Grant: I know there was a quote that said “The Battle of Basra will be the mother of all battles”. Why was this statement true?
Paul: It was very much a “winner take all” battle for this war,and both sides poured in nearly everything they had. It was truly an epic fight for both sides. The winner would be able to set the pace and direction of the war while the loser would be set back on their heels and would be more on the defensive from that point forward.
Grant: What did you feel was most important to model from the Iran-Iraq War?
Paul: The violence and level of carnage were horrid. The combat system captures this with rules for human wave attacks, which are basically all out charges with little chance of strategic victory, conventional fire and overrun assault combats, as well as air and artillery strikes. Units can be disrupted, reduced or eliminated and if one is not careful, or lucky, things can go “pear shaped” rather quickly here.
Grant: The game uses a Chit Pull Activation method. What advantage does this activation method give the design?
Paul: The Chit Pull Activation adds in a great deal of uncertainty about what units will be activated and when. It makes it very challenging to plan to do anything as you just never know what is going to happen. It also creates a lot of interaction and it very easy to learn/teach.
Grant: How many different type of Activation Markers are there?
Paul: Units are activated primarily by formation; Armored and Mechanized divisions and infantry Corps for the Iraqi player and mostly Corps and one armored division for the Iranian player. However, players can only activate a limited number of formations for full activation each turn, so choosing which ones that will do the “heavy lifting” is key and can result in some “interesting” match ups as the game progresses. There is also a Fortunes of War marker that when drawn can trigger some random events that allow more units to activate, or others that already activated or will activate later to be activated as a bonus.
Grant: What happens if a formation’s chit is not pulled by round’s end?
Paul: All Formations that are put into the opaque container for activation will eventually get to activate fully when drawn during the course of the turn. Those units that were not activated because their formation wasn’t among those chosen (“ordered) to do so will get to activate for a limited number of activations. These units cannot conduct overrun attacks, human wave attacks, and can only move or fire (not both). They also cannot entrench or attempt to rally/recover. Players take turns activating a unit or stack until all those that are desired to be activated are finished.
Grant: What chits are put into the cup at what points of the game?
Paul: All chits for Formation Activation Markers (FAM) and the Fortunes of War marker are placed in the opaque container at the outset of the round. I did consider a staggered approach to model the late arrivals of certain formations but it became overly complex and disjointed and took away from the generally fast playing nature of the design.
Grant: What is the scale of the game?
Paul: Units are mostly regiments (the only exception is the Iraqi Republican Guard Special Forces armored unit that is a reinforced battalion). Each turn represents one week of time. A hex on the map is about 2.5 miles across.
Grant: What force structure is used for the units?
Paul: Iraqi formations are Mechanized and Armored divisions and the 3rd and 7th Infantry Corps, Iranian formations are mostly Corps (Karbala, Najaf, Quds) and the 92nd Armored Division.
Grant: What is the anatomy of a counter? Can you please show us a few different type of units?
Paul: Ground units have a NATO icon for type (infantry, armor, mechanized infantry, artillery) with historical unit IDs and size indicators. The left-most number of the three on the bottom of the unit is its armor attack factor, the middle number its infantry attack factor and the one on the right its movement factor. Air units have their aircraft type shown and the attack factor (same for attacking any type of ground unit).
Grant: What different units are available to each player?
Paul: Infantry, Mech Infantry, Armor, Artillery and Air Support. The Iranians also have Special Operations Forces (assault infantry).
Grant: What special units are included and what abilities do they have?
Paul: The Iranian infantry units can launch human wave assaults that can be very powerful, but can also leave the attacking units devastated (a DR check to see if they emerge unscathed or suffer additional step losses in addition to any incurred during the combat is made after their attacks are resolved). Armor and Mech Infantry have better abilities to conduct overrun attacks due to their higher movement factors, and can also launch “combined arms” attacks with their highest combat factor regardless of what type of unit attacks. The Iranian Special Ops units can perform amphibious assaults; something that can be very useful given the many rivers, marshes and Fish Lake’s presence in the middle of the battlefield.
Grant: Who is the artist for the map and counters?
Paul: Nils Johansson did the very stunning graphics for the game.
Grant: What is the basic Sequence of Play?
Paul: First is a Formation Marker Phase during which players place the FAM for the formations they want to fully activate into an opaque container, along with the Fortunes of War marker, for drawing during the Operations Phase. After the Formation Marker Phase is when the number of air support units received by the players is determined (except during a Refit turn). Next is the “meat” of a turn, the Operations.
During this phase players (we take turns doing this) drawing a FAM at random from the opaque container to see which units can activate. Once all of the FAM are drawn, and any Random Event that occurred is implemented, then players can perform limited activations with those units whose FAM were not chosen/used. Next is the Recovery phase to see if reduced units can be restored to normal status with DR checks. After that is the End Phase when all Disrupted markers are removed, victory point awards calculated, and if this is not the last turn then the game turn marker is advanced and play proceeds to the next turn.
Grant: What occurs during a Refit Turn? How is the refit determined?
Paul: The Refit turn represents a pause in the fighting during which there are fewer FAM in play, combat and movement is limited, reduced units have enhanced chances of recovering to full strength and air support is not available. The timing of the first Refit turn, and any thereafter, is determined by a DR. Historically there were a number of “pauses” in this five months long battle, and the “unscheduled” aspect of Refit turns does help capture this. The turns before a Refit turn can also be rather stressful, as they are ideal times for the Iranian player to launch his Pasdaran human wave assaults since there is greater chance any units that are reduced can be quickly built back up by the newly arrived cannon fodder fresh from the training camps (this was brutal and hellish in many ways).
Grant: How are the number of activations determined? Why did you feel this was the best way to determine this?
Paul: By Chit Pull. Again, I think this mechanism is easy to learn/teach and very interactive. It also is an easy way for players to plan and implement their offensives via the FAM and not have strict “hand tying” rules that limit player’s decisions. The FAM selection process is another set of difficult decisions that players must make, and live with, every turn.
Grant: What occurs during the Air Unit Determination Phase?
Paul: During non-refit turns players roll dice to determine how many air units they receive. These units can be used to attack enemy units via Air Support or to Interdict enemy units in a particular hex. Air interdiction can adversely affect the opposing player’s artillery support determination DR’s that are made when a FAM is drawn, and for the Iraqi, provide adverse DR modifiers for Iranian Special Forces units that trace supply over Fish Lake, or any Iranian unit that traces supply across a river/canal hex side. Air units represent dozens of sorties by aircraft over the course of a turn (a week).
Grant: How does Opportunity Fire work and under what conditions is it triggered?
Paul: Opportunity Fire can occur when an enemy unit moves from one hex adjacent to an undisrupted friendly unit to another hex (whether it is the same or different friendly unit, it doesn’t matter). This “shot” is free and does use an activation. As such it can be a very useful tool, and often requires a player to first disrupt enemy units that could use Opportunity Fire so as to allow friendly units to advance and infiltrate an enemy’s line/position.
Grant: How does Combat work? What DRM’s are used?
Paul: Combat does not use a CRT. The attacking player designates the attacking unit and target unit in an adjacent hex (same hex if this is an overrun attack) and rolls a die. The DR can be modified by the target unit’s hex terrain, whether this is a move/fire attack, human wave or concentric attack (optional rule). If the DR result is less than or equal to the attacking unit’s combat factor (armor or infantry depending upon the target or if this is a combined-arms attack overrun) then the target unit is marked as Disrupted. If the target is already marked as Disrupted then it is Reduced (or eliminated if already Reduced). If the DR is greater than the attacking unit’s combat factor then the attack failed and the target unit is unaffected.
Grant: What is overrun combat? What advantage does it offer strategically?
Paul: These are “fights to the finish” and resolved in the defender’s hex. The player declares the intention to conduct this type of attack and moves all attacking units (up to the stacking limit) into the defender’s hex. Defensive fire is then resolved by the target units. After that combat is resolved in rounds until only one side is “left standing” in the hex. Since Disrupted units must retreat so one side or the other is going to definitely emerge victorious here. These can be very costly to fight, but can also be decisive if used properly. Since the Iraqi player has more armor and mech units, that player will most likely be conducting these types of attacks, often out of necessity to retake vital ground lost to the Iranians.
Grant: What artillery assets are available and how are they used?
Paul: Artillery support is determined when a FAM is drawn by a DR check. Like air support, artillery support can attack enemy units or impose interdiction on a hex. Artillery interdiction imposes a movement penalty for enemy units to move into or out of the hex, an adverse supply check DR modifier, as well as adverse DR modifiers for any enemy units attacking from the hex (think suppressive fire support missions here).
Grant: What is the purpose of air interdiction?
Paul: Air interdiction apply an adverse DR modifier for enemy artillery support determination as well as supply check DR’s.
Grant: What are the victory conditions?
Paul: Players win the game by earning Victory Points (VP). VP are scored for reducing or eliminating enemy units, taking and holding town and city hexes at the end of the game, having enemy units out of supply at the end of the game (which means they’re very likely to be surrendering soon). The Iranian player also has Hawk AA units that can “shoot down” Iraqi aircraft and provide VP awards (the Iraqi air units are not actually eliminated). During the turns of December, January and February the Iranian player can also lose, or award the Iraqi player, VP if a number of attacks determined by a DR made at the start of each non-refit turn in those months due to the “Ayatollah’s Impatience” rule. Both players have a lot of opportunities to win or lose in this game, with difficult decisions awaiting in order to best earn VP or avoid losing them.
Grant: What optional rules are included and why did you make them optional?
Paul: Rules for Concentric (surrounded target) attacks, Direct fire attacks against hexes with more than 2 units (think “target rich environment” here), and “double hit” results by armor units against enemy armor and mech infantry units. These add another level of intensity and violence to the combats occurring here.
Grant: What are some points of strategy to keep in mind when playing both sides?
Paul: The Iranian has to really plan ahead and time his attacks well. Trying to do everything all of the time will lead to a catastrophic defeat in just a few turns. As I mentioned above, that player needs to “work with” the Refit turn timing, but that can be at a VP cost due to the Ayatollah’s impatience. The Iraqi player has very little strategic depth here, but trying to hold everything can lead to being over stretched and defending nothing. Having armor and mech divisions well positioned and able to deliver powerful counter-attacks are key, but these “fire brigades” will likely be facing multi-alarm blazes at multiple locations throughout the game if the Iranian player is competent, especially in the wake of powerful human wave assaults. Both players have to plan well, but be prepared when those plans come into contact with the enemy.
Grant: What has been the experience of the playtesters?
Paul: Like the other games that use the Blood and Steel System design, they really enjoyed working on Guards and Martyrs (and Shadows of Hell). Given how easy it is to learn, and interactive to play, we often had folks passing by our gaming table to stop and play a turn or two (those were the pre-pandemic days which I sorely miss!). It was very gratifying for many of them to say they really wanted to learn more about the Iran-Iraq War as few knew about it or its significance. For me, that is the greatest feedback a game designer can receive!
Grant: When can we expect the next entry in the series?
Paul: Shadows of Hell should be released sometime in the middle of 2021. Nils has several other games he’s working on he’d like to do first. That is OK with me as he’s worth any wait!
Thank you for your time in answering our questions Paul. I really look forward to tabling this one as I love Chit Pull and the strategic decisions here really interest me.
If you are interested in Guards and Martyrs you can order a copy from the High Flying Dice Games website for $20.95 at the following link: http://www.hfdgames.com/gam.html