Review: Command LIVE: Black Gold Blitz

Recently, headlines and stories blazed about the failed missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, from somewhere in Yemen. The crux of the issue was that the attack was launched by Iranian-backed rebels in retaliation to the on-going Saudi air war against them. Such action underlines the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia since, after the collapse of Iraq and near-collapse in Syria, those countries are the two major Muslim powers in the Near East. The CMANO LIVE designers have used the situation to develop a hypothetical “hot war” between the two countries, Black Gold Blitz.

Missiles over the Gulf

Terrain is not an issue in this game as combat is airborne, making natural features – with the exception of Iran’s Kharg Island – irrelevant. The relevant area is the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf and southeastern Iran. The territories of the neutral countries, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait are shaded vermilion. The essential features are all man-made. The economic infrastructure of both countries is represented by symbols – blue for friendly and red for enemy – for oil wells, refineries, power plants and underground pipelines. Military installations include air bases, missile sites, mobile missile launchers and radar sites. Some color is provided by rings for radar ranges and communication lines. Aircraft and missiles are shown by NTDS symbols. Animation is limited to starbursts for hits on targets the twirling of radar dishes and movement of aircraft. A scrolling log keeps players informed of events as do pop-up messages. Sound effects include the roar of jets taking off, the crash of detonations and the ripping sound of missiles. A sidebar contains the pictures and capabilities of selected objects.

The desert seems empty until the Gulf is reached.

Two more visual aids play vital roles in this scenario. The detail of where the two combatants’ military resources are is probably not familiar to most gamers. The Order of Battle (OoB) feature takes on a role here. When expanded, the forces and structures of a player’s side are presented in almost painful detail. Collapsing this data into parent organizations like air bases makes the data more manageable and useful. Double clicking on an entry sends the viewer to its location on the map and yields its strategic importance. Clicking on a heading in the sidebar yields the individual elements present. For example, an air force base’s squadrons can be seen complete with aircraft by squadron, type, readiness and loadout.

The data gained from the OoB requires a visit to the Database Viewer to round out the players’ understanding. Most gamers will recognize American and Russian-made aircraft as air superiority, strike or dual-purpose machines. What may be a mystery is the nature of the planes’ loadouts. What is an Aphid, a Paveway or a Shadow Storm? What is the operating range of a F-15S? The database can answer these questions while giving tips as to what kind of targets particular bombs or rockets were made for. The fact that this data comes with a color image of the subject is a nice added value.

The vaunted Patriot missile system is put to the test in this game.

Mutually Assured Bankruptcy

A superficial overview of the two countries’ air inventory would appear that the twenty-four hours-long clash to be uneven. The Saudis’ wealth and diplomatic connections with the West has allowed them access to the most recent export versions of aircraft like several versions of the American F-15 and European Tornado. Support aircraft include the best AWACS planes and tankers. Patriot missile batteries and quality radar systems form the core of the air defense system. On the other hand, the Iranian air force inventory reads like a museum. Pre-Khomeini aircraft includes F-4s, F-5s and some F-14s, refugees from the Iraqi air force’s exodus to Iran during Desert Storm. Other old aircraft are Mirages and Soviet Fitters, Fencers, Fulcrums and Frogfoots. Although some of these have been refurbished, they remain basically the same airframes from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Iran’s biggest assets are its many batteries of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic missiles.


A closer look at the map shows weaknesses in the Saudi position. The goal of both sides’ attacks is the destruction of the other’s oil industry, all of which are clustered around the northern end of the Gulf but some of the Saudi’s best squadrons are stationed in the far west, away from the scene of battle. The Iranians, however, have positioned their bases close to the Gulf so they can get their aircraft in action before their enemy can bring all its forces to bear. In the scenario, Iran also benefits from four “Special Actions” including requesting more the ballistic missiles and executing sabotage attacks on Saudi installations. The only Saudi “Special Action” is to request more ballistic missiles.

Since each sides’ resources are in easy range of enemy weapon, fighting starts early and viciously. Iran launches a barrage of ballistic missiles against Saudi oil assets within minutes of the beginning of hostilities. The Patriots will take many down but even the best defenses will let a few missiles reach their targets and only one hit is required to start an all-consuming fire at a refinery or storage tank. The Saudis can strike back with their few ballistic missiles but their real striking power is with air strikes.  For this to happen, the Saudis must play a long game of first gaining air superiority with F-15s and then large Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) raids. Only then can bombers wreak havoc on Iranian facilities.

Patriots rise to meet a massive missile attack.

This sequence of events inserts a certain asymmetry into the situation. One side and then the other will become desperate. These points are when players ask their governments for permission to execute “Special Actions”. If the request is too early, it will be denied and the action is lost for the game; too late and the point is moot. Timing of these actions as well as air deployment is a major factor in play.

Regardless of who “wins”, each combatant’s economy would be ruined unless the Great Powers put a stop to hostilities within hours. Black Gold Blitz is a nice hypothetical tactical exercise but brings up a point about the true utility of the LIVE series. Which ones of them offer insight into contemporary situations and which ones just show off the versatility of the CMANO system? A litmus test can be derived from a board game of the late 1980s positing an eruption of simmering conflicts after the fall of the Soviet Union. One scenario was a Serb-Croat war. This example was prescient as neither side ever benefited from the other and slaughter broke out. Another scenario was a Belgian civil war along Flemish-Walloon lines.

This concept was cute but absurd because the two sides had been economically integrated for over a century. Nobody would want to go bankrupt over economically unimportant issues like religion or language. Thus, despite the Shia-Sunni split and urges to become the dominate power in the region, a war as this game presents is highly unlikely. Both countries would lose too much. Their struggles will be through proxies and attempted coups, not an exchange of weaponry leading to the destruction of both societies.

This review discusses a game developed and published by members of the Slitherine Group with which we share an affiliation. Please consult the About Us and Review Policy pages for more information.


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