We became familiar with the work of Javier Romero when we played his game Lion of Judah: The War for Ethiopia, 1935-1941 from Compass Games in 2017. That game was a solid experience dealing with World War II in Africa and had some really interesting mechanics and tricks as players must work with the local native tribes as well as fight off the opponent. If you are interested, you can read our review of the game at the following link: https://theplayersaid.com/2018/09/20/if-this-is-to-be-the-way-of-our-world-why-make-treaties-at-all-a-review-of-lion-of-judah-the-war-for-ethiopia-1935-1941-from-compass-games/
Recently, I saw where Javier was designing a small pack-in wargame on the Nagorno-Karabakh War during 1992-1994 that was appearing in Modern War Magazine No. 54 called Soviet Fallout: The Nagorno-Karabakh War: 1992-1994. I immediately reached out to Javier and he was more than willing to talk with us.
Grant: What is your game Soviet Fallout: The Nagorno-Karabakh War 1992-1994 about?
Javier: It is the first simulation ever of the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1992-94, one of the bloodiest conflicts fought in the post-Soviet space. The war ended with a crushing Armenian victory. It remained frozen for a quarter of a century until late 2020, when the political, military and diplomatic circumstances favored Azerbaijan. The Azeri attacked and achieved a crushing victory. But, as of 2021, the conflict remains unresolved.
Grant: What inspired you to design a game revolving around war between Azerbaijan and the breakaway province of Nagorno-Karabakh?
Javier: As I commented in an earlier interview, there are plenty of conflicts in the post Cold War era that have never been simulated. With the exception perhaps of the Wars in the Middle East involving US Armed Forces (Iraq, Afghanistan) there are very few simulations on the many conflicts involving non state actors waged in the post-Soviet space, including Africa, Asia and the Americas. Since 1945, for every intrastate conflict fought in the world there have been 10, 12 or more civil war conflicts, depending on how we define them. Wargame publishing, however, is very far from reflecting this situation. We wargamers have been (we still are) fighting WW3 between NATO and the Warsaw Pact again and again. Among the post 1945 wars, only the Arab-Israeli Wars (with the notable exception of the first one, that of 1948, that could be considered a civil war) are well represented in board wargaming.
What I have tried to do is to simulate one of these civil war conflicts using hex and counter mechanisms and mixing irregular and conventional features. In this regard, there is very interesting work on Non State Warfare by Stephen Biddle. The author says that there is a false dichotomy between “conventional” and “irregular” or “guerrilla” warfare. As Biddle puts it, since at least 1900, all warfighting systems, whoever adopts them have had to blend features commonly associated with both “conventional” and “irregular” warfare”. This makes me think that perhaps our conventional wargames ignore these “irregular warfare features” and vice versa: our few “guerrilla” or irregular wargames ignore the conventional element.
In this simulation we have a mix of conventional and irregular features: clashes with infantry, tanks and artillery, but also guerrillas, ethnic cleansing, mass refugees and most important, politics. Winning not only requires defeating the enemy regular forces. It also requires evicting their population from the territory in dispute.
Grant: This war appears to have been motivated by ethnic cleansing. How did you deal with that subject in the design?
Javier: Both sides used ethnic cleansing- in the war, the conquest of the territory was not complete without “cleansing” the land. As Russian revolutionary Victor Serge put it, a civil war does not recognize non belligerents. This was an ethno-civil war, therefore the enemy is not the enemy army it is the enemy population. Ethnic cleansing causes thousands of refugees, people that flee in terror with practically nothing. This in turn destabilizes the other side that loses legitimacy since they are unable to defend their people.
In the game there are both Armenian and Azeri towns. When one side conquers an enemy populated town, it performs ethnic cleansing. This in turn increases the number of refugees that destabilizes the enemy player. When the refugee level reaches a certain level, there is the possibility of the enemy government collapsing, or a possible coup in Azerbaijan.
Needless to say, we are not trying here to turn into a “game” something as sinister as ethnic warfare. We are just trying to provide a learning tool that players can use to learn about civil wars in particular because since 1945 almost all wars fought out in the world had been civil wars, not intrastate wars pitting the armed forces of two or more nation states. A Civil War, as Javier Rodrigo and David Alegre say in their book Comunidades Rotas, is always a fight for the future form of society, and therefore it always implies some sort of “purification” of “foreign elements” contaminating our land. Armenians and Azeri claim that Nagorno-Karabakh has always been Armenian or Azeri, and that “the other” is an invader, a colonizer put there by a foreign power to “steal” their land. This is why all civil war narratives are always terribly biased, more so than “conventional” conflicts.
Grant: What is the purpose of the Ethnic Cleansing and Resettlement markers?
Javier: By resettling some of your refugees in areas taken or recovered to the enemy, players can reduce their Refugee level, thus stabilizing their respective governments. These become somewhat of a pawn that is used to create additional difficulties for the opposing side and cause them to change their plans.
Grant: What from the history of the conflict did you need to make sure to include in the design?
Javier: From a military point of view, the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1992-94 was a clash between quality and morale versus numbers. The Armenians were outnumbered but had a major advantage: better leadership and a clear purpose. The Azeri army was divided by political infighting, poor morale, and an army based on militias, not on professionals. The results were telling. The Armenian population and government perceived that their national survival was at stake, while the Azeri did not have that perception. Their morale was poor, particularly because ethnic minorities within Azerbaijan were used as cannon fodder.
Grant: Being a magazine wargame how does that effect your design approach?
Javier: Not at all. There is an advantage in magazine games. There are certain subjects that, when published by larger companies, can be rather controversial. Magazine games allow designers to be more experimental in their designs. They can cover obscure or controversial themes such as non state actors or 21st century counterinsurgency warfare.
Grant: What is the scale of the game and the force structure of units?
Javier: Units are battalions and regiments. Players begin the game with a handful of local militias and former Soviet guns for hire. As the war goes on, they begin to deploy regular regiments and brigades.
Grant: What are each of the playable sides? What typifies the disposition of each and their main advantages?
Javier: There are two sides: Armenians and Azeri. The Armenians in turn are divided between Nagorno-Karabakh forces and the Republic of Armenia forces. The latter can only intervene under certain conditions to keep the illusion of an “internal conflict” between the Armenian minority in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azeri government. The Republic of Armenia forces, for instance, can be used to hold terrain, but if the Armenian player wants to use them to attack he must roll a die. Depending on the result they can attack normally, at half strength, or not at all.
Grant: What area does the map cover? What significant challenges does the terrain offer?
Javier: The map covers the former Soviet oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjoining areas. The terrain, as the region’s name suggests (Nagorno means “mountainous” in Russian) is basically mountain, with the exception of the region to the south, near the Iran border, that is less rough. The roads are poor and scarce, so control of the only road communicating Armenia proper and Nagorno-Karabakh (the Lachin corridor) is key in the game. Control of that corridor allows the Armenians to improve supply of the Nagorno-Karabakh forces providing them with arms, ammunition and volunteers.
Grant: Who is the artist? How does their style effect the theme and feeling of the game?
Javier: The map is a fine effort by Joe Youst. The counters were designed by Dariusz Buraczewski. I think that he used the right mix of NATO symbols and aircraft and weapon profiles that give the game a proper feel.
Grant: What is the anatomy of the counters?
Javier: NATO symbols, with attack-defense-movement ratings for the regulars. Militias use an AK47 symbol. Support units (helicopters, aircraft, artillery, tanks) use icons depicting Soviet era weaponry such as T-72s or Su-25 assault aircraft.
Grant: What sources did you consult for the OOB, tactics and makeup of each side?
Javier: Finding sources for this conflict is difficult. There is online information but most of it is in Armenian and Azeri. Armenian is a difficult language and Azeri, a Turkic language, is even harder. However, Russian is the lingua franca of the Caucasus, so you can find online OOB information in that language. On the other hand, most local sources (Armenian and Azeri) are terribly biased. Like most civil wars, one might add. For general histories of the conflict, there are Spanish and English language books available.
Grant: What type of different units are available?
Javier: The game begins with mostly militias on the map. As the war goes on, both armies begin to deploy regular regiments and brigades. Armenian militias can be converted into regular motorized rifle regiments (Soviet style) which are far more solid than the early war militias.
Grant: What is the purpose of the Armenian Destabilization Marker? How do actions destabilize the situation?
Javier: Both sides can be destabilized by the refugee level. The more hexes cleansed by the enemy, the more refugees. This in turn causes destabilization: the refugees have to be fed and housed, and arrive to countries already impoverished by a major economic crisis. As I said earlier, in an ethno-civil war the enemy population is not a collateral damage-the enemy population is the target. Therefore, to win it is not only necessary to conquer territory, or to defeat the enemy military-it is necessary to deport or eliminate the enemy population.
Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play?
Javier: There is a joint resource and random events phase where players receive resources, purchase support and combat units, and determine random events. This is followed by the Armenian player turn (movement-combat-ethnic cleansing can be part of the movement action, or can be performed by bombarding enemy populations). After that comes the Azeri player turns, also movement-combat.
Grant: What does the Soviet Chaos Phase represent?
Javier: In 1992, when the USSR collapsed, cash starved former Soviet units in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Southern Russia began to serve the Armenian and Azeri militias in exchange of cash, food and/or vodka. During the Soviet Chaos Segment, each player consults the Post-Soviet Chaos Table. The Azeri player and then the Armenian player each roll 1d6 to determine the number of Soviet ground and support markers they receive for the current game turn. As one Armenian officer put it, “The Russian bases in Transcaucasia became enormous gun-for-hire centers, selling or renting weapons and soldiers…the Russians would sell tanks to the Azeri while selling us rockets with which to destroy their tanks”.
Grant: What different events can occur during the Random Event Phase?
Javier: Random Events basically cover politics, in particular in Azerbaijan (Armenia was pretty stable in that regard during the entire war). Azerbaijan Coup, for instance, simulates a military coup in Azerbaijan. The current refugee level can increase the chances of a coup taking place in Baku (thus simulating disagreement with the current political-military operations). Other events are the Talish-Mugan Republic (an Azeri minority declares independence), incident in Nakhichevan (the Azeri enclave in Southern Armenia) or arrival of support from Turkey or the Armenian Diaspora in the form of Replacement Points.
Grant: How are replacements determined during the Replacement Determination Phase?
Javier: Replacements arrive by die roll or by Random Events. Armenian control of the Lachin corridor greatly influences the number of replacements received by the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. (Before controlling that road, they could only receive arms and ammunition by helicopter).
Grant: How does Combat work in the design?
Javier: It is an odds-based CRT. However, the Azeri units are affected by the Azeri political table, which can affect the combat effectiveness of the Azeri regular and militia forces.
Grant: What was your goal in the creation of the CRT? Any interesting odds?
Javier: The CRT, as I said, is odds based CRT. In can be rather bloody at low odds, something that the Azeri player will suffer most due to the Azeri Political Table that can add up to -2 odds shifts on Azeri attacks.
Grant: What is the Check for Political Infighting portion of combat and what does it represent?
Javier: Azeri units must roll on the Political Table before attacking. This simulates the fact that Azeri forces were formed by political militias raised by Patriotic oligarchs-the Azeri government avoided a strong, professional military to prevent military coups. This was a rather bad decision, for they had a poor military performance and suffered several coups anyway. Since all military units represent political factions in the power struggle in the capital, having the better armed unit was a political asset, so risking them in combat was often out of the question. This is what happened, for instance, with the 709 Brigade of the Azeri Army. The units of the 709th Brigade were the better equipped formations of the Azeri army, and therefore a valuable political asset whose commander was extremely reluctant to commit to battle. In the game, before determining the odds of each attack or defense, but after all support markers have been allocated, the Azeri player follows the below procedure. Whenever any unit of the 709th Brigade participates in an attack, the Azeri player rolls 1d6. If the result is a 5 or 6, remove the unit from the map.
Grant: How can either side hire Former Soviet units? How does this change the situation?
Javier: On game turns 1 to 3, both players can hire Former Soviet units. They just roll on the Soviet Chaos Table and apply results. The result is the number of Soviet units that can be pulled at random from a pool. The units hired can range from tank, helicopter or air support to interior ministry units or powerful motor rifle regiments. The player lucky enough to get a 8-6-14 motor rifle regiment can do some real damage, because early in the war all units are militias with weak attack and defense factors.
Grant: How are units upgraded? How does this change the unit’s statistics?
Javier: Armenian units can be upgraded by removing one militia unit and replacing it by a regular motor rifle regiment. Militia units are used as cadres fleshed out by weapons and troops. Upgrading is a key mechanism in the game, for it allows the Armenians to trade a one step militia for a two step 4-5-14 motor rifle battalion.
Grant: How do population numbers shown on the map effect the players objectives?
Javier: In this game, human geography, rather than physical geography, affects how to fight the war. That is, protecting friendly population centers and opening corridors between enemy populated areas is a key factor in the game.
Grant: How do players go about the Resettlement of Refugees?
Javier: Refugees can be resettled in areas conquered by the enemy to reduce the number of refugees in the respective mother countries. By reducing the current refugee level, countries reduce their destabilization level.
Grant: What is the role of Bombardment? What is the Bombardment Table?
Javier: Bombardment is used to harass enemy populations. When one side does not have enough forces to take physically an enemy population town, or they had (as in the case of the Azeri) unreliable forces, it is useful to use bombardment to increase the number of refugees of the other side. This is what happened, for instance, in certain Armenian towns, that were subjected to harassing bombardment by the Azeri forces during the war.
Grant: How is victory achieved?
Javier: By a combination of conventional elements (conquering towns and territory) and unconventional elements (ethnic cleansing, causing the collapse of the enemy government with refugees). At the end of any game turn, during the End of Game Turn Phase, if the Armenian refugee level is 16 or greater the Azeri player may have won an automatic victory.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the outcome of the design?
Javier: I think the game makes the right mix of conventional and unconventional elements, introducing politics into the combat systems without making it too complex. I tried to design a useful learning tool on a rather obscure conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh.
Grant: What type of experience does the game create for players?
Javier: For the Azeri player it can be frustrating, but if he uses wisely their assets they have a chance, in particular early in the game. I want the game to show how sordid and brutal ethnic wars can be. As someone said about Brian Train’s games, I want this game to leave players impoverished and angry. The Nagorno Karabakh Wars (there have been two so far, and there is the possibility of more in the not so distant future) show that ethnic civil wars can go on for decades. The example of post war Bosnia, hardly a functional country 25 years after the end of the conflict, is another sobering example of where ethno-Nationalism leads.
Grant: What other designs are you currently working on?
Javier: In 2021, Snafu Team [https://snafustore.com/es/content/9-snafu-design] will publish Santander 1937, a “reimagining” of the game published by Parabellum Magazine of Italy in 2018.
Later in 2021, World at War Magazine (published by Decision Games) will release my Balkans ’44, another game combining conventional and unconventional elements, this time in the Southern front of the Soviet-German War in 1944. Balkans ’44 covers the invasion (or liberation, depending on who you ask) of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Yugoslavia, from late August to November 1944. The Allied player controls both conventional forces (Soviet and their allies) and unconventional elements (the Yugoslav and Albanese Partisans).
Finally, I am working on 1942: Battle for the Mediterranean, a simulation of the air-naval campaign in the Mediterranean from January to October 1942, just before Operation Torch. It is an “operational naval game” where players have to manage fleet assets as well as keeping their respective fronts supplied and accomplishing many different missions.
Thanks for your time Javier in answering our questions. I am very interested in this one and appreciate your approach, especially with dealing with the more controversial and difficult portions of the conflict.
If you are interested in Soviet Fallout: The Nagorno-Karabakh War: 1992-1994 you can order a copy for $39.99 from the Strategy & Tactics Press website at the following link: https://shop.strategyandtacticspress.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=MW54