And Iran, Iran So Far Away
Dan Bullock caught my attention with No Motherland Without, an examination of national security bogeyman North Korea that was simultaneously thoughtful, gut-wrenching, and possibly the reddest board game ever inked. What impressed me was Bullock’s insistence on making you stare the victims of your geopoliticking in the face. Rather than seeing its people as geography, crowds, or spy-plane images, here was a game that put its humans front and center as elites, escapees, refugees, and prisoners.
Bullock’s 1979: Revolution in Iran is similarly thoughtful. This time, his target is the barbed nature of political allegiance, temporary allies, and changing leadership.
For those among us who, like me, were never taught the history of the Iranian Revolution with any depth beyond “Iran bad,” here’s the mile-high synopsis.
The event stuck in Western memory is the hostage crisis that began in the game’s titular year of 1979. The exiled Shah of the Imperial State of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, sought treatment for cancer and was permitted entry to the United States. In response, the recently-established Republic of Iran demanded his extradition to stand trial. When extradition wasn’t granted, Iranian college students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, took its staff hostage, and, with the support of Iran’s new Guardian Jurist Ayatollah Khomeini, held them for 444 days despite multiple rescue attempts.
The Republic’s demands weren’t baseless. The Shah had fled Iran earlier that year under the protection of Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar, an appointee meant to appease the Shah’s opponents and transition away from military rule. Bakhtiar’s appointment was too little too late. For decades, the Shah had promoted his White Revolution, a program intended to westernize Iran and preempt a Communist revolution. Land distribution and factory sales, the enfranchisement of women, profit-sharing with laborers, and the expansion of education were its hallmarks. For all their appeal, the Shah’s programs were built atop a shaky foundation. He suppressed his opposition by outlawing rival political parties and through the use of SAVAK, his secret police. Even as the Shah expanded Iran’s working class and intelligentsia, politicians were exiled, unions disbanded, and academics silenced. People disappeared. Protests were fired upon. As Professor Ervand Abrahamian put it, the Shah had successfully suppressed a Red Revolution while paving the way for an Islamic Revolution.
Perhaps the most serious crack in the foundation of the Shah’s White Revolution was oil. The Shah distributed his share of Iran’s oil income among his elite acquaintances, where it was intended to trickle down to the general population in the form of jobs and civic improvements. Instead, the wealth accumulated at the top, further dividing the country’s upper and lower classes.
If that wasn’t bad enough, everybody knew that oil had been the cause behind the coup of 1953. Two years earlier, in 1951, the Shah had been compelled to appoint the enormously popular Mohammad Mossadegh as Prime Minister. Mossadegh had cobbled together a broad coalition of union workers, socialists, clergy, and merchants, and one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company that had been founded all the way back in 1908. The AIOC’s terms had never been favorable, at best granting 16% of their net profits to Iran. When Pahlavi’s father, the shah at the time, negotiated a better deal, the Iranians still lacked any ability to check the Company’s ledgers to ensure they received their proper portion of the profits, take an active role in company leadership, or improve the lot of its workers, who lived in shanty towns without running water or electricity.
The AIOC’s nationalization increased Mossadegh’s popular base, but would also be his eventual downfall. Mossadegh had been a shrewd coalition-builder, but he now found himself trapped between competing interests. Socialists, westernizing liberals, Islamic clergy, and traditional bazaar merchants, to name a few, gradually fell out of his orbit. Worse, by nationalisizing the AOIC, Mossadegh had aligned the interests of the power-deprived Shah, a United States in the midst of the Cold War against the USSR, and the oil concerns of Great Britain. Together, these opponents launched a coup d’etat in the Shah’s name. In the moment of Mossadegh’s greatest need, his allies jumped ship. The clergy in parliament blocked his extension of emergency powers. The Shah was granted renewed power while Mossadegh was placed under house arrest, where he would eventually be buried, away from those who might politicize his death.
It’s a funny thing, power. Over and over again, the Iranian Revolution featured alliances of convenience that eventually fell to infighting and even outright insurrection. Perhaps most notably, the same clergy who broke from Mossadegh’s government would soon be fighting against the Shah.
What’s so remarkable about 1979: Revolution in Iran is Bullock’s ability to express the whats and whys that led to so many changes in regime between 1951 and 1979. Over the course of its seven rounds, both the Coalition and Shah find themselves alternately supporting and resisting the regime in power.
I’ll use the clergy as an example. When the game opens in 1951, Mossadegh has only just taken power. This puts the Coalition player in an interesting position. Under normal circumstances they’d be the “opposition.” Like many protest coalitions throughout history, their actions are built around the idea of disrupting authority to acquire concessions, largely in the form of oil and labor strikes that erode the government’s support. The trouble is that they’ve recently become the government. The Shah, meanwhile, is also in a troublesome place. Now on the outskirts of power, he wants to do what the Coalition excels at by breaking through the Coalition’s facade of stability, but he lacks the popular base to launch strikes or stoppages. Instead, he must jealously guard what little power remains, mostly in the form of his income from the AOIC and his control over the military, and to begin courting the CIA and MI5 for any muck they can rake onto Mossadegh’s regime.
So what happens? Mostly, the Coalition player tries to see through Mossadegh’s ambitions to nationalize the AOIC while the Shah starts trouble across the country. Both also try to disrupt or block their opponent’s goals. Both of these tasks require support. Lots of support.
Up to this point, 1979 has seemed like your usual card-driven game, albeit one where your hand of cards is drafted rather than simply dealt and cards are often sources of entirely new actions, much as they were in No Motherland Without. The basics are are all there. Events are associated with one side or the other. Playing your own card lets you choose between using its points to take actions or its event. Using a rival card gives you the action points but lets your opponent trigger the event. It’s the same system that’s been used dozens of times since Twilight Struggle, and it asks many of the same questions about timing and mitigation. When you’re in power, you can bury one event each turn. Dangerous opposing events can often be played at some opportune moment to minimize their impact. And then there are CIA/MI5 events, which are incredibly powerful for the Shah, only to stick around in a pile unless he ponies up the effort to shred the documentation and make his rule not look like such a catastrophe.
When it comes to support, Bullock breaks from the norm. In other card-driven games, support is often portrayed as a binary between two sides: red and blue in Twilight Struggle, support and opposition in the COIN Series — you get the idea. Support in 1979 is more dynamic. Both sides have their own tokens: white military cubes for the Shah, green National Front discs for the Coalition. But there are other tokens as well. Red Tudeh Party discs representing socialist interests. Gray Toilers and orange Bazaari for unions and merchants. Black Ulama for Iran’s clergy.
Crucially, you’ll watch as these various forms of support shift in significance across a single play. Early on, the Shah may have the option to deploy Ulama support to his cities. This is a wise move, as Mossadegh’s regime (and therefore the Coalition player’s) gradually erodes when the sum of the Shah’s military and these neutral support tokens exceeds that of his own political base. When that regime falls, Mossadegh’s replacement represents the Shah’s interests. The game you were playing is turned upside down. Now the Coalition are back to using their strikes, demonstrations, and eventually insurgent warfare to disrupt the Shah, while the Shah returns to his “original” position as the ruler of Iran — along with all the problems and quarrels that entails. Such as, say, being pestered by the very same Ulama, Bazaari, and other neutral support tokens he placed on the map to disrupt the Coalition.
It takes a while to see what exactly Bullock is doing, in part because the rulebook is sometimes ambiguous. Over the course of one or two plays, however, the story takes shape where Bullock refuses to spell it out.
Much like how No Motherland Without examined how world-spanning events impact the workings of nations and the day-to-day lives of individuals, 1979: Revolution in Iran is preoccupied with the fraught path of coalition-building, political alliances, and the consequences of yesterday’s expediency. Throughout the game, actions have ramifications that can linger across regimes.
The easy example is those CIA/MI5 cards. These give the Shah significant boosts, but also stick around as closeted skeletons to eventually subtract from his final score. The Shah can spend action points to purge his records, but that’s a costly option when he’s trying to maintain his precious oil allowance or deploy his secret police to eliminate ringleaders before they can launch a strike. Eventually he can also funnel resources into royal estates, increasing his score through the patronage and prestige they bring and offering an additional way to bury painful Coalition events. But the Coalition player can strike back by forcing land reforms — and trigger any buried event they happen to uncover.
Meanwhile, the map itself soon becomes a morass of competing interests and hotspots. There will be military strongholds, oil drilling locations that are secure or under threat of strike, guerrillas threatening security or SAVAK units ready to put down civilian demonstrations, plus the many factions that may or may not support you depending on who’s in charge or even which event has been played. It’s political power as a dynamic rather than a teeter-totter.
So many smart details went into 1979. By casting players as both rulers and ruled, agitators and the state, it takes a long view of revolution and social change. This allows it to look at its subject matter more holistically, not only as a list of events printed onto cards, but as causes and effects.
This isn’t to say it’s a perfect rendition. Unlike Bullock’s previous game, 1979 stumbles when it comes to examining those dynamics that exist beyond measurable shows of support. Although the state of the Shah’s oil supply is represented, the population is regarded only at a distance. Any representation of how Iran went through periods of liberalism, monarchism, and Islamism, sometimes within the same span of time, is more remote. Without the benefit of the playbook or some sense for the history, one might stumble into the supposition that Khomeini’s tenure carries identical import to that of Mossadegh, or the assumption that a Coalition victory means the same thing in 1979 that it would have in the ’50s. Bullock never offers such facile takes. But absent some way to codify or visualize the changing moral center of Iran across the years, the gaps can be filled according to the players’ knowledge or ignorance.
It’s a small thing. I only bring it up because of Bullock’s careful work in No Motherland Without. That aside, 1979: Revolution in Iran is a sublimely clever card-driven game, preoccupied with the tenuous nature of both authority and resistance. Dan Bullock proves that he’s a designer to keep an eye on.
A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on December 13, 2021, in Board Game and tagged 1979: Revolution in Iran, Board Games, Daniel Bullock, Dual Powers: Revolution 1917, The Fruits of Kickstarter. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.