I have read that the Battle of Mosul in 2016-17 saw some of the most intense urban combat since World War II. When you see the pictures of the tight and labyrinthine landscape the fighting took place in, it’s not difficult to believe. I’ve never been particularly attracted to stories of modern conflict, but after thoroughly enjoying Nuts! Publishing’s other terrific block game This War Without An Enemy, I thought I would give their latest one a shot, and I’m glad I did.
The Battle of Mosul was a major military operation that took place in Iraq, primarily between late-2016 to the mid-2017. It was aimed at retaking the city of Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), known also by their Arabic name “Daesh”. Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city, and contains within its borders the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. This area fell under Daesh control in June 2014. Its recapture was a crucial objective in the broader effort to defeat the extremist group.
The operation to liberate Mosul was a joint effort led by Iraqi security forces, including the Iraqi Army, Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), federal police, and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, with support from a United States-led coalition. The coalition provided air support, intelligence, and logistical assistance. The name given to this operation was “We Are Coming, Nineveh!”.
By the end of 2017, the Combined Joint Task Force “Operation Inherent Resolve” (the name given to the US Military’s campaign to eliminate ISIS/ISIL) declared that all ISIS territory was recovered, and a year later US President Trump declared victory over ISIS, though the group continues to create headlines even today.
We Are Coming, Nineveh! is a block wargame from designers Harrison Brewer and Juliette Le Ménahèze, with the assistance of Rex Brynen and Brian Train. It was published by Nuts! Publishing in 2023, and features art and design by Nicolas Roblin. It models the closing stages of the Battle of Mosul in and around the old city in 2017.
If you’re not yet familiar with block wargaming, here is your four sentence primer. Block games are played using wooden blocks (instead of counters or miniatures) with different values printed along each edge. These blocks have information on one side and are blank on the other. They are stood up on the board on their edge, facing away from the opponent so as to create a “fog of war”. The blocks are then revealed to the opposing player when units come in contact, and are rotated on their side during combat to reflect any damage or changes to cohesion.
Most block games work using some variation of this method, but there are a few key features in We Are Coming, Nineveh! that differentiate it somewhat from other block games – at least the ones I’m familiar with. In fact, there are three that stand out to me.
First are the secret Priority cards. We Are Coming, Nineveh! assesses player performance based on three key elements of the campaign. The speed at which the operation is completed, the casualties suffered by Iraqi government forces, and the collateral damage done to Mosul. Obviously one side wants these metrics to be higher, while the other fights to keep them to a minimum. At the beginning of the game, each side secretly selects a Priority card with one of these aspects to prioritize, and that metric will be worth double to them at the end of the game. I like this, because it drives strategy and may result in some unexpected decision-making from you or your opponent during the game.
The second difference of note are the Capability and Additional Units cards. Each player has a deck of these cards and at the beginning of a game you have 30 points to spend “purchasing” from both during setup. These give you access to extra units that may come with special abilities of their own, or operational capabilities that “break” some of the rules of the game, like Heliborne Insertions, or Drones, or Coalition Air Support. I really like these. Each game will end up playing out differently as a result of the cards each side chooses. They can have a fairly dramatic impact on your campaign, even if some of them can only be used once per game.
The optional Event deck is the final bit of newfangledness that I’ve not seen used before in block games. This deck doesn’t really drive gameplay, though. It’s less COIN and more… Crossroads, triggering only under certain circumstances. You’ll have a deck of cards that sits face-down on the board and on the back of every card is a 1 or a 6. If you roll a matching 1 or 6 during a combat phase, you flip the Event card and immediately apply the effects to the best of your ability. Lots of additional collateral damage can occur as a result of these cards, so you’re supposed to offset that by dropping the collateral damage track by 3 at the end of a game that uses the Events deck. I’m unsure how I feel about the Event deck from a balance perspective, but from a narrative perspective it adds an interesting new dimension.
All of these fancy flourishes don’t add a lot of cognitive overhead to the game, but they do add a fair bit of flavour. It’s still a block game at its heart and it plays smoothly, but it can be interrupted by explosive player capabilities, unanticipated units on the battlefield, and unexpected events.
Something else that’s different from many block games – We Are Coming, Nineveh! comes with a set of solitaire rules. Players can choose to play solo as the ISF against a deck of Military Council cards which effectively runs Daesh. The game is played normally for ISF, but on Daesh’s turn you flip one of these cards and there are 2-3 instructions that will drive their turn, all while retaining the fog of war. I wouldn’t exactly call it a full automa. The player is still going to be called upon to make occasional “common sense” decisions for Daesh when a situation arises that isn’t covered by the card. It is, however, one of the best and slimmest solitaire rulesets I’ve encountered for a multiplayer wargame, and the first I’ve experienced for a block game.
The rulebook for We Are Coming, Nineveh! is pretty concise as wargame rulebooks go, clocking in at 15 pages, with another 4 pages of optional rules, solitaire rules, and summaries. It’s full colour and glossy and laid out pretty well, but I occasionally had to scratch my head. In one case, I was confused by the difference between “HQ” blocks and by the “HQ Orders” blocks, which look identical except for the numbers on the edge. What I didn’t realize was that one goes on the map as a unit, while the others sit on a card to mark the number of orders each unit has left. It wasn’t until page 12 that I learned the difference, long after setup. Sometimes I was thrown off by phrasing. For example, in the section on Combat Procedure, the wording on how to hit was “The score required to hit is noted on the top edge of a unit block“. It seems clear enough, but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to roll against the number on my own unit block, or on the enemy unit block.
Small ambiguities like these aren’t common in the rulebook, and if you are persistent and willing to make some mental leaps, you can learn the whole game from it. I just like to be “in compliance” as much as possible, so I visited Boardgame Geek once or twice to try and get clarification on these things.
Echoing the real-life campaign, the game is fast and aggressive. Mosul is a big area, but it’s filled with combatants. Every corner is dangerous. Some of the city is undeveloped open area, where armour has an advance, but much of the city is made up of congested lanes. alleyways, and tight roads. This is especially true of the old city, where streets and corridors are so narrow and maze-like that no 9th Armoured units or HQ units may enter. Fighting in here happens door to door and around corners. The game reflects these terrain densities by imposing different block stacking limits on players, depending on whether they are in open terrain, an urban area, or the old city.
There are a few notable special blocks. Daesh has Rumour blocks that are simply removed if revealed, but can also sacrifice itself to absorb a step loss imparted by artillery or air support, which doesn’t reveal enemy blocks. IED blocks detonate immediately when revealed. Some are small, some are large, and some are vehicular borne – and able to move around. Each side also has leaders that they can be used to issue special orders to friendly units within range, improving their movement or combat effectiveness, or helping to rally them by removing Disrupted markers.
Movement is straightforward. This is an area movement game, and units can move to one adjacent area per turn (unless an HQ unit issues a special order allowing them to move two areas). Major road networks depicted in yellow allow players to move freely back and forth as far as they like across the board, unless they hit an adjacent area with an enemy unit – in which case they must halt there and engage (or stop somewhere prior to the enemy units). There might also be tunnels to contend with. Daesh players can pick up small or large tunnel network Capability cards at the beginning of the game, allowing them to move freely between ends of a tunnel.
The end of We Are Coming, Nineveh! is rich with nuance. After some adjustments for the remaining units on the board, there are two ways players may judge victory, and you can opt to use both if you like. There is the “Competing Narratives” method, and the “Victory Points” method. The first measures you against each of the tracks (Time, Casualties, and Collateral Damage). The resulting number gives a little narrative blurb about where you find yourself, using real life examples. The second is a more definitive answer to who won, by adding up all the metrics (double for the one matching your Priority card) and comparing.
Sometimes there’s a clear winner, but sometimes, say the designers, the result may be a little more ambiguous and players are encouraged to argue about which side won. This is a game that provides guidance on the determination of victory but also offers a chance to create conversation, and that’s a fascinating departure from games that regularly end with a clear winner.
The Battle of Mosul had far reaching political and social ramifications that are difficult to fully understand. This game gives players who demand a clear victor an opportunity to calculate one, but it also offers an opportunity to consider the outcome a bit more thoughtfully, and that’s a hallmark of a game that has been designed with care and purpose.
We Are Coming, Nineveh! is an excellent game that adeptly handles a challenging topic – one ripped straight from recent headlines. The designers have created something innovative that explores the topic seriously, but remains fun to play. It doesn’t turn into a parody, and it doesn’t lose sight of its purpose. This is what wargames should aspire to.
Review copy provided by the publisher.