My First Real Campaign: The Dark Sands (Part 1)

I have had a recent obsession with North Africa in WWII, and I added The Dark Sands from GMT Games to my shelf a few months ago. After reading through the rules and playbook, I decided I wanted to try and play the full campaign solo. Normally this isn’t how I prefer to game. I’m more of a 3-5 turn scenario guy (which the game also offers) and I just can’t seem to leave any game on the table for more then a few weeks at most. Playing a massive campaign for an “I Go-You Go” game solitaire starts to lose its luster for me after about 10-15 turns max. It is just too hard for me to “self deceive” for that long. I start to second guess if I’m playing both sides fairly…it just isn’t my cuppa. But the chit pull system for unit activation that this game uses made me feel confident I could stick around and play the full 17 turn game. I’m so glad that I decided to give the campaign a try, because this has been an incredibly rewarding and informative gaming experience.

I wanted to document this campaign at a very “zoomed out” level with less focus on things like individual chit pulls or battles and more time spent talking about what I learned about the games mechanics as I moved through the full campaign. It’s an AAR to be sure, but don’t expect an in depth discussion of every battle complete with unit designation. If that’s more your style let me recommend the one done by the game’s designer that is available on the Inside GMT website.

In the campaign game the winner is the side with the most victory points. VP are awarded at the end of each turn. The Axis get one if they hold Marsa Matruh on the East map. The Allies get one of they hold Benghazi on the West map. On the final turn of the game there are also points awarded for control of Tobruk, Bardia and Sollum.

Turn #1

By the end of Turn #1 the British had cut off a major chunk of Italian forces and the games brutal supply rules eliminated more units then the battles.

What Happened

Things looked pretty similar to the extended sequence of play found in the playbook. The British forces were able to take Bardia and Solumn, but two divisions of Italians were able to fall back to the fort at Tobruk.

What I Learned

Honestly I learned a lot because I played this turn two times before starting the actual campaign as way to learn the system basics. During those times I made a few small rules errors, but for the actual campaign turn things went smoothly. It is absolutely lethal being out of supply in this game, and a prime example was on full display at the end of this turn when a large chunk of Italian forces were OOS and then eliminated during the attrition stage.

Turn #2

The Italians don’t get any of the Tobruk fort hex defensive modifiers, which makes holding the port pretty tough.

What Happened

Commonwealth forces were able to push the Italians to the Western edge of the center map. A small garrison is still holding on at the fort in Tobruk. Britain was so close to cheesing an easy VP by using extended movement to capture a (then undefended) Benghazi but the force became disrupted coming across the center map. Turns 1-2 can be played as the standalone scenario for “Operation Compass”. The British player at this point would have earned a marginal victory, but the fact that this many Italian forces are still on the center map is setting the Axis up in a much better position then they would normally have been at the start of the “Operation Sunflower” scenario that starts in Turn 3.

What I Learned

I learned that I should have been way more aggressive with the Brit’s. I should have tried a few more times to send a unit to Benghazi instead of fretting about the situation in Tobruk or worried the unit would become disrupted. Tobruk was gonna fall the next turn anyways, and I would have significantly slowed the German reinforcements that show up at the start of Turn 3 if I had pushed West.

Turn #3

British units can ignore all retreats, and get a significant defense bonus in the Tobruk fort hexes. No ZOC in or out of those hexes makes for some interesting strategic options by both players.

What Happened

The British eliminated the Italian forces at Tobruk and were able to capture the port before the first Panzers were able to get onto the center map. But once Rommel showed up things got lopsided fast!

What I Learned

Oh man…If I had any idea how hard it was going to be to dislodge the British from Tobruk I would have tried much harder here, because once the reinforcements/replacements show up it’s impossible to generate a strong enough attack to do anything! Real quick side note, what happened here is pretty similar to what happened in real life. However, I was not all that familiar with the historic situation. I knew that there was a siege of sorts, but after the turn I read up on the actual battle and it was so immersive to learn about it, and discover how the game had naturally recreated what happened in real life.

Turn #4

I love the yellow color for the Italian units in this game.

What Happened

The Germans tried, but were not able to take Tobruk. Both of the Panzer units lost a step…yikes. I feel like I’ve got a decent “wave” of Italian forces lined up to start moving through the desert.

What I Learned

Well I messed up big time here with the Axis! I should have just rushed East and taken Bardia and Solumn when they were easy pickings instead of focusing on trying to recapture Tobruk. Part of the reason I had such a tough go of things with the attacks on Tobruk has to do with the “combat stacking” limit that prevents more than two divisions of units in each hex from attacking or defending. Even when I was able to add in some of the Italian forces it’s so tough to make any headway because the British can ignore a retreat result in those fort hexes.

Turn #5

If you can’t beat em…just surround em and wait I guess?

What Happened

Instead of trying to fight at Tobruk, I just surrounded the fort with Italians, and dug in. That should prevent any sort of break out, and it lets the stronger and more mobile German’s head East. It also let me finish the bypass road that goes around Tobruk. The Commonwealth is rushing up reinforcements from the East, and fighting a sort of delaying action on the desert trails South of the main road.

What I Learned

I realized made a bit of a “rules whoopsie” here. I forgot that the German’s get an extra “step” of Panzer reinforcements during Turn 5. That would end up having an impact on the battles in Turn 6. Unfortunately I didn’t realize my mess up until Turn 7. It’s all good, like I tell my math students, a mistake is only “bad” if we don’t learn anything from it. The best remedy seemed to be to give the missing replacement steps in Turn 7.

Turn #6

Looking back at this picture now I think I’m not sure I was aggressive enough with the British here…

What Happened

The Panzers on the coastal road got manhandled. I am not normally a superstitious guy but I rolled so many “1”s and “6”s during this campaign I switched dice TWICE. I now had to move some Italian forces away from Tobruk to help make up for those lost Panzers. I had been planning on playing the Brits defensively, but since things had taken a weird turn I had them try a small tank assault out of Tobruk that failed miserably.

What I Learned

That the situation in Tobruk is the biggest strategic problem for both sides in the first half of this campaign. I may have made a mistake by moving some of the Italians, but I feel like with the loss of those Panzers my hand was forced.

I’m starting to realize the importance of “looking ahead” to what chits each side is going to have available to them. At this point in the campaign things have slowed down, because the “Full Move” counters aren’t in the cup. Turn 7 has the same chits, so I expect it to also be a “slow” turn. But in Turn 8 things will take a serious turn in favor of the British forces as they get some HQ units that will give them a lot more mobility and punching power.

Turn #7

The Germans put a lot of enemy forces out of supply but I’m a little worried they got spread too thin.

What Happened

The British side pulled back-to-back half movement/-1 combat chits to start this turn and it was brutal to have to commit where they were on the map so early. The Germans were able to take advantage and put several units out of supply and they were eliminated at the end of the turn because they couldn’t move back into a supplied position. Reinforcements keep coming into Tobruk, and I think there’s a good chance that the commonwealth might be able to launch a breakout in the coming turns.

What I Learned

No Sup for you!

I feel like a lot of North Africa games use some variation of the phase “sweeping maneuvers” in their description, but this was the first time I’ve ever really “felt” that momentum in a game. It is so hard to guard anything in the desert when your opponent can literally just go around you!

Also I am coming to realize what a huge advantage the Allies have because of their ability to “bank” replacements. The Axis have to “use it or lose it” and I felt like that forces them to be a little more conservative with how/when they fight.

This feels like a good place to stop for now because Turn 8 is the start of Operation Crusader. Things should get pretty interesting the next few turns! I hope you enjoyed the first half and please check out the conclusion once I get it posted!

6 thoughts on “My First Real Campaign: The Dark Sands (Part 1)

    1. Couldn’t agree more! I love “going down the rabbit hole” with a game and learning about the history behind it. I think that’s why I especially enjoy games with historical notes and designers notes about how the game design choices reflect the real world situation.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You know I have gotten a lot of positive feedback about that happened/learned format and I’m really glad that so many people have enjoyed it! It’s a good way for me to organize my thoughts after each turn, and I feel like it’s doing a good job of explaining “how this game works” but in a way that’s not just restating the rule book.

      Like

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