Welcome back to the third and final part of my solo campaign with GMT Game’s “The Dark Sands” by designer Ted Raicer. If you missed the first two episodes you can find the second part here, or start from the very beginning. Part two ended in the middle of Turn 14. The allies are in a bit of a “Hail Mary” situation with the Axis hoping to delay any western advance. The game ends at turn 17, and unless the Allied forces can take some combination of Bardia, Sollum or Tobruk it’s going to be an Axis victory.
The Allies had a tough time doing any serious damage this turn. It’s true they have better numbers, but anytime I get them in position to launch a serious attack the Axis managed to pull a “Move” or “1/2 Move” chit out of the mug!
What I Learned
The “88” guns the Axis can attach to a unit during combat are great for a German attack…but their +4 defense makes them absolute world beaters in this situation. Anytime I was able to get the Commonwealth in a good attacking position (and the Axis didn’t scurry one hex back) the attack odds were quickly shifted in favor of the defenders. Seriously those things are wild.
The Commonwealth was able to push the Axis off the East map, but an attempt to turn the Axis flank fell flat.
What I Learned
I haven’t thought about that rail line in a while but as I looked at the situation at the end of the turn I realized how crucial it was going to be to make a “two prong” attack happen. Even if the Axis cut off the rail supply, there’s also the trail system that could be used. That’s another benefit the Commonwealth has over the Axis, because the German and Italian units are not allowed to use the rail line when tracing a supply line.
I pulled the first two chits of Turn 16, and that was enough. The part of my brain playing the Commonwealth turned toward the part of my brain playing the Axis and said “Good show, and good luck once the Americans land”! The British just weren’t able to make any progress, and even with the very bloody Assault CRT that they can use during the last few turns there was no way for them to even reach those VP locations, let alone actually take them. I really had planned to finish this one out. I just wasn’t interested in playing out a game that had become purely academic. But this campaign has been incredible fun to play.
This is (probably) the last North Africa game I’ll buy for a long time. Now to be fair, that’s because I’ve already bought a lot of them. But this game is just so good, and I still have the historic scenarios to check out. I had another North African Campaign game on preorder and I actually canceled the order because I just felt that the Dark Sands campaign checked all the boxes for me.
When I do come back to North Africa I really hope to do a comparison of how certain games systems compare with each other. I have most of the “Battles for North Africa” series as well as “The Legend Begins” on my game shelf.
The “Dark” chit pull system is incredible. I can’t rave enough about it, and I am very curious to see how it works in the upcoming “Dark Summer” D-Day game. There is also a Bulge game in the works. Seriously if you are a solo gamer and you haven’t checked out some of the games that Ted has designed with this system, do yourself a favor and pick one up! I also have “Case Yellow” on my shelf and while it’s not the exact same system my understanding is there’s a lot of similarities.
This is the first time I have ever sat down and read the entire rule book before putting a chit on the map and I’m so glad I did. There’s just a lot of special situations that come up. I don’t think you should try to memorize the whole thing, but that once over really helped jog my memory when things like infiltration and naval movement came up in game.
About a year ago I decided I really wanted to get involved with one of the “heavier ” game systems out there. After reading several posts on BGG that compared GMT’s “East Front Series” and MMP’s “Operational Combat Series” I decided to start with EFS.
The main reason I picked EFS over OCS came down to footprint. I was very impressed with the number of 1 map scenarios that came with each EFS game. I know many people will argue that the “full, 50+ turn Barbarossa campaign over four maps” is the best way to experience this game, and maybe one day I’ll be one of those people. But right now a single map experience with 15 or less turns is my preferred way to play.
Then I realized that the 80th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa was coming up in June. I’ve mentioned before that I tend to gravitate towards “anniversary gaming” and it just seemed like a perfect fit! Over the Christmas holidays I managed to mention the game titles so many times to my family they were literally forced to buy Army Group South and Crimea for me. I was able to pick up Army Group North and Kiev to Rostov on eBay for a steal as well. Army Group Center trends around $200 (too rich for my blood) right now, but I’m hopeful that the reprint will be shipping before the year is up.
I wanted to cut my teeth a little on some of the learning scenarios before June got here and I launched into Army Group North. So where to start? Each boxed game has at least one or two learning scenarios, and some of them have an extensive example of play included in the playbook. The Battle of Sumy from Kiev to Rostov got some high praise on the scenario list, so it seemed like a good entry to the series.
Similar to how I did for my campaign play through for “The Dark Sands” I’ll be using the “What Happened/What Did I Learn” format as I go through each section of the expanded sequence of play. Eventually I’ll move towards a more streamlined approach for this post as I become more comfortable with the rules.
Now Kiev To Rostov already has an example of play using the first two turns of this scenario…so why would I choose to do my own version? Here’s a few reasons:
I feel that if I write down all the steps they will “stick” better as I move to the bigger scenarios.
I’m hoping that people who have never played this system before will discover just how playable this rules system is.
I’m hoping for feedback from the most excellent folks at the ConSim World “EFS Series” folder. Very active group (including people who work on the game and rules) and they are always friendly and willing to help. I’m sure there are a few mistakes I didn’t catch and I’m hopeful this will be helpful documentation when they go to “debug” this AAR.
It’s fun. Like a lot of fun.
Ok so let’s do this! Also fair warning there is going to be a lot of Ivan Drago GIFS. Because those are also fun.
Really nothing doing here. This learning scenario nixed a lot of the stuff that would show up in the campaign or larger scenarios. But that’s ok because it lets me focus on the basics like the turn structure, terrain modifiers and combat procedures…and I still made mistakes so obviously I’m not ready for the whole enchilada just yet anyways.
Axis Player Segment
The Germans are pushing East and Southeast. The 9th Panzer Division is hoping to rout the Soviet force and then move East. Artillery and the 16th Mechanized Divison set up for a battle before crossing the river.
What I Learned
Two big things that I can tell I am going to have to remember. First, for road movement to count as being “on the road” you basically have to start on the road, stay on the road and end on the road. Otherwise you pay the regular terrain cost. Also, some terrain (like forests) are “in addition” to the other terrain cost. Also, most of the time you move one of your units into an enemy zone of control, you have to pay an extra movement point.
Axis Attack Declaration
Uhhh…I attacked the guys I was next to. Well I placed the markers at least.
This learning scenario isn’t really about me implementing some “genius strategy”. I’m just trying to learn the dance steps. That being said my goal here with the Germans is to push southeast and then maybe rush back up the road system to snag those three juicy red stars (Victory Points).
So when I got to the attack phase…I realized I goofed up during my movement regarding a zone of control rule…but I’ll address that in just a bit.
What I Learned
So…at this point I decided that I should probably leave at least one unit behind to defend the town (and victory point location) of Lipovaya Dolina from any Soviet counterattack. So I pulled one out of the declared attack in 1511. Hey it’s my first time! Cut me some slack.
The only eligible Soviet units were the 129th and 1st tank brigades. The 129th moves towards Shtepovka and prepares to defend the town from the advancing Panzers. The 1st joins up with the forces west of the town to (hopefully) stall the German attack and set up for a possible counterattack with the units on the other side of the river. Now, looking back I realized I should have only activated one of those units. Each HQ has that command value in red, and I should only have done one reaction. Oh well.
What I Learned
I really like how this works because it is one (of several) asymmetric parts of the rules that really shows the historical difference between these two armies and their command structure. In short, a Soviet HQ unit has a certain amount of points it can spend to activated motorized units that:
Are within a 4-hex range of the HQ
Are NOT within a 4-hex range of an inoperative HQ.
Are within a 3-hex range of a declared attack.
I had been wondering “why is it so important I label all these declared attacks with these nifty markers?” but I can see why now. You need to keep track of all those attacks so you can see who is eligible for things like reaction. The activated units can use half their movement points, and there are also some restrictions involving where the activated unit can go, but the major idea is:
“If you put it next to an enemy unit it has to be into a hex of friendly units that was already defending a declared attack”
First we handle close air support. The game rules suggest a neat option for solitaire play where you mix the dummy counters in with your actual mission units as a way to keep things interesting. I ended up guessing wrong with the Soviet fighters, so there will be no air combat this round because the German He111 unit was unopposed. That’s going to end up giving the Germans a -1 roll modification when we resolve this combat (low rolls=better attacks). I didn’t get a chance to use AA fire (fewer Russian units have it) but it will come up during the Soviet half of the turn.
Ok now it’s time to start resolving the attack…and that’s where I realized I made a rules whoopsie. Actually two rules whoopsies.
So here’s the deal. I had thought that those small river/canal hex sides stopped the zone of control…but they don’t. First I realized since the Soviet units across the river were projecting a zone of control into 1606, the Panzers in 1606 would have to include those Soviet units in the attack. Then I realized that I shouldn’t have even been allowed to move into hex 1606 because an enemy zone of control forces you to halt!
So here’s the easy fix. All the 9th Panzer Division moved into hex 1506. Happy? Good. Great. Wonderful. Let’s roll some dice.
There’s a decent checklist of things to go over when you are trying to get the final total for these attacks. The most interesting thing (and the thing I’ll have to remember to check) is the combined arms bonus and the Panzer divisional integrity bonus. The rules are available from GMT online if you want the full explanation, but here’s the basics:
Certain combinations of units get an attack bonus, as unless there’s bad weather…or there’s an armored unit…or the defense is in certain types of terrain.
If you have certain combinations of German armor and motorized infantry from the same division there’s an attack bonus.
Got some very good rolls here. Both of the smaller attacks in the southeast totally eliminated the Russian forces with no German step losses. The Russians defending against the 9th Panzer retreat to Shtepovka.
Axis Motorized Movement
I was able to move the 16th Motorized Division almost all the way to Lebedin. In the center of the map elements of the 25th Motorized Division have now surrounded some Soviet cavalry. They won’t be able to escape with infiltration movement, so there’s a chance they will surrender at the end of the Soviet turn if they can’t break out. The surrender rules in this scenario are a little different since there is no supply, but since they are surrounded by uncontested zones of control I still checked. No surrender!
Nothing really applicable in this scenario, so I will be skipping it for the rest of this post.
Soviet Player Segment
Soviet Motorized Movement
First, most of the Soviet reinforcements showed up on the road to Sumy. Pay no attention to the Guards unit hanging out in Sumy. I took the picture and realized they don’t get to come on the board until the movement section. I moved most of the armor and motorized infantry to Viry. I set up an attack in the center of the map by moving the armor units just West of Shtepovka. And you can use those Soviet HQ units to activate one “non motorized” unit in range. Perfect, I feel like I should have a decent counter attack on the 9th Panzer.
I also moved this motorized infantry down near Lebedin, and the plan will be to move the rest of the new forces down there later in the turn.
Soviet Attack Declaration
Here’s that attack I mentioned setting up in the motorized movement phase. Quick note on defending across those river hex sides: you don’t get the defense bonus (+DRM) to the combat unless everyone is attacking across the river. I didn’t really do anything in terms of Axis reaction so let’s skip to combat.
The Soviet mission units had free reign in the skies over the battlefield, but the German AA fire was able to drive them off. I got a “damaged” result so not only is there no close air support for the Soviets, but I won’t be able to use those planes for at least one turn. Phooey.
Yuck….Got a really bad roll here (I want to say 8) and even the CAS support wouldn’t have saved the Soviets. No step losses for either side, but the Soviets have to retreat.
Needing to regroup after the defeat, the Soviets move back to defend Shtepovka. The 2/4 Guards come on the board and race down to Lebedin.
Maybe you are wondering why I didn’t move the 227th Infantry Division? It’s because it was activated and moved during the motorized movement segment so it wasn’t eligible to be moved here.
Only the Soviet cavalry was eligible, and they rolled a 10! No surrender!
Now I can talk a little about the air readiness portion. This is where you roll to see if your “damaged” air units can be moved to the “flown section, and likewise if your “flown” units before “ready”. I was not able to “ready” the He111, but some Bf109 reinforcements have arrived just in time.
Axis Air Interdiction
So the Axis can send mission air units on “interdiction” missions against Soviet HQ’s. Since those HQ units are necessary for things like reaction movement and “no retreat” orders, it really hampers the Russians when they are out of commission.
I again used the solitaire system described in the rules. Looks like we will have air combat! Well…it looked like it for a second. I Rolled on the air initiative chart but got the no combat result. But then, the Soviet HQ AA fire forced a mission abort! Oh those Soviet HQ’s! Is there anything they can’t do!?
FYI there’s a lot they can’t do. Like have a zone of control…or attack…
Movement + Axis Attack Declaration
Condensed some of the decision making here. We have a lot attacks going on! Maybe too many… 🤔
This is why I wanted that interdiction! The motorized infantry was able to move in and support the defense against the 9th Panzer.
Ugggghhhh I got to aggressive and it’s really going to cost the Germans. Every single attack resulted in either a step loss, or a German retreat. Those Russian defenders really pack a punch!
See what I did there? ⬆️ ⬆️ ⬆️ Some “cheese” retreats toward the Southeast will (hopefully) set up another assault towards Sumy.
Axis Motorized Movement
Was able to surround those armor units just outside Vasyevka. But I shouldn’t have moved those Panzers East because it opened up a huge hole for a Soviet counterattack. I thought about backtracking, but I decided to “play it where it lies”.
Soviet Player Segment
Soviet Motorized Movement
I forgot to take a picture here, so I just drew what happened. I actually like how this looked, so I’ll be coming back to the “map doodles” in just a bit.
Soviet Combat Declaration
This could be pretty rough for 20th/10th Motorized here. They are looking at 4-1 odds and there are no Axis fighter units available to oppose that Soviet mission unit.
Finally I get a chance here to talk about how the Germans handle the reaction movement. The rules are similar, but the Axis don’t need an HQ to be in range. I wasn’t able to move the 9th Panzer back far enough to support the defense, but they closed in for a potential counterattack.
Air Support + Combat Resolution
First, the German AA fire forced the air mission to abort. Then a bad roll forces the Soviets to lose a step, while the Germans retreat unscathed. Even at 4-1 odds nothing is guaranteed in this game.
The Defense of Sumy continues to strengthen, as AA reinforcements arrive.
Checked for surrender of the surrounded Soviet tanks. No surrender!
At this point I’m switching the format for the rest of this blog post. I’ll show my plan, maybe make some commentary about rules or what I learned, and then show how things ended up at the end of the Axis/Soviet segment. Green lines show planned movement, red lines show planned movement with a declared combat.
The Axis Plan
The chance for an Axis victory feels like it’s slipping away. I feel like at this plan a direct assault on Sumy. As I’m taking a second look at this movement I’m second guessing if payed the correct movement costs for the force that moved through the woods.
Another valiant Soviet defense! All of the German forces from the Sumy attack were forced to retreat. They later rushed back to the center of the map in the motorized movement segment. The Germans found more success with the battle near Nedrigaylov where an entire Soviet armor regiment was destroyed.
What I Learned
Man the modifiers that Soviets get defending in a city are no joke! Attacking armor gets halved and there’s a +2 DRM. There’s several scenarios in Army Group North that have a lot of urban fighting and I can’t imagine how tough it’s going to be…
Since there were no attacks, there was no reaction or combat. The Soviet plan is to move into those victory point locations. Might get a chance to use some of those “no retreat” markers.
This is it, it all comes down to a desperate German assault to take 3 separate victory point locations. With limited air support, this is a long shot.
Nothing doing. After the first attack failed I knew the scenario was over, but I went ahead and rolled the rest of them just so see what happened. Soviets win.
I feel like I squandered those early Axis successes by trying to be in too many places at once. This CRT really encourages 3-1 odds or higher (which is realistic) and I feel like this scenario really shows how important those air units are when it comes to the DRM shifts.
I am realizing after looking back and finalizing this post that I am still trying to master the movement rules as far as terrain costs. You really…really need to pay attention. Even when you are on the roads there’s so many potential modifiers to keep an eye on. And this scenario didn’t even have any nasty weather to worry about!
Normally I stay away from things like “reaction/reserve” movement as a solo gamer. But the way the reaction works in this system is highly conducive to solo play. In fact this whole system feels phenomenally solo friendly.
There is a delicate balance between knowing when to “spread out” your stacks as a way to use ZOC to slow down the enemy, and when to pile ‘em up for better attack/defense odds. I’m obviously still figuring that balance out…
The air system is “just enough” in terms of complexity. It’s not as simple as “put down a plane counter and you get a better CRT result” like some games. But it’s also not such a beast to learn that you feel like it’s a separate game within the main game. I feel like this scenario really gives the player(a) a chance to dig in to the air combat system. If you have played some of the other learning scenarios that don’t have as many air units I would recommend taking this one for a spin as a crash course on how this game handles air combat and support.
I would like to play around with the artillery units some more. I got a taste of how they function, but always as part of an attack, never as a defense.
I was never able to get high enough odds for an overrun, and the community at ConSimWorld has talked a lot about how important it is for the Axis player to use and exploit that as a weapon. Definitely need to work that in for my next scenario if possible.
This scenario “hand waives” both attack and general supply. I’d like to get a little practice with both before I start with the chronological replay, so I’m planning a a modified play of “Rostov Redeemed” with the on map supply units for my next game.
As I mentioned way back at the beginning, the 2nd edition of Army Group Center is (hopefully) going to be published by GMT before the year is out. If you have been on fence about these games, or the high resale prices have kept you away, I HIGHLY encourage you to put in a preorder for the upcoming AGC/AGN/AGS reprints. Go track down a used copy of Crimea or Kiev to Rostov while you are at it. I had so much fun with this, and I can’t wait to share my next learning scenario with anyone who cares to read about it.
I am a lucky fella. Not only does my wife kindly turn the other way when she sees me trying to sneak my latest game purchase into the basement, she also enjoys playing (some of) those games with me!
In the past we’ve played things like Axis and Allies, Dawn Patrol, and Battlecry. I am a big fan of games that simulate a potential naval conflict between NATO and the USSR during the Cold War years, but something like “Harpoon 3rd Edition” or “Blue Water Navy” is not really her style. Thankfully, there’s a few “Rules Lite” gaming options I have on my shelf, and we decided to bust out “The Hunt For Red October” and give it a spin. Neither of us had ever played this one before, so I did read through the rule book a few times just to try and get a feel for the system.
So let’s talk about these rules. One of the key aspects of modern naval wargaming is “You can’t shoot at it until you can detect it with radar/sonar”. This game handles that issue with the use of “detection markers” that each player receives at the start of each turn. The NATO player get’s a lot more, and that makes sense considering the available technology and the SOUSUS nets.
The game also uses a “Attack First/Attack Second” system that allows undetected ships to attack without being fired upon. This was actually the only rules issue that we ran into while playing. The rules made sense to me because (as someone who spends a lot of his free time reading “Proceedings” and Larry Bond novels) I understood what the game was trying to model. My wife doesn’t eat, sleep and breathe naval warfare, so it wasn’t as intuitive to her, but it started to “click” by the end of the game. In short, if you fire first, you get detected by the enemy, so it’s somewhat advantageous to hold your fire till the second phase in a lot of cases.
The game also models the idea of screening ships in a task force with displays that let you assign your ships to the core, AAW and ASW “levels” within the force. That didn’t come into play very much this game since the Soviet player only has submarines.
I had considered Scenario #2 (which is the actual “Hunt for Red October” in which the Soviet player actually uses a separate copy of the map in an attempt to sneak past the other forces) but it doesn’t really give both players a chance to learn the rules. So we went with Scenario #3 for our first game. The NATO player tries to shuttle a convoy and escorts from New York to France, and the USSR tries to inflict as much damage as possible. If this scenario has one flaw, it’s that there is really only one route that the NATO task force can take. There’s a little wiggle room, but the Soviet player knows where you’re heading for the most part.
The strategy for the NATO player in this scenario is to use their submarines as as a sort of “Advance ASW Screen” to clear a path for the convey. The subs are the fullback, and the task force is hoping to find a hole in the defense to scurry through. But if you fail your detection roll, it’s a bust.
The Soviets seemed to find the most success when they were able to make the NATO player “spend” a lot of their detection markers. The Russian subs essentially roll double attacks when they fire on a surface ship, and since each hit is a victory point you’re basically trying to see how much damage you can do before you are (inevitably) sunk by the NATO task force.
The missus jumped out to an early lead, but I ended up winning. I could care less about getting the win, it was just really nice to to play a game with my wife, and have her say “oh yeah I’ll play that again”. I’ll definitely take her up on that, and who knows maybe eventually we can give Harpoon: Captains Edition a shot?
The game board is mounted, and really pretty to look at. And there’s just something about it the folded cardboard pieces and clamps they feels really….good to handle I guess? I just love these components.
This game is never going to get super complicated, but the advanced rules and bigger scenarios should keep most “serious wargamers” (what does that even mean?) interested and engaged.
The second scenario requires the player controlling The Red October to have literally zero understanding of the rules. You are just trying to sneak around the NATO ships. It might not be the most “fun” but I could see it being a great gateway game for a younger kid. There’s also a really interesting 3 player variant I saw on the BGG forum.
Even though I’m not sure how often I’ll actually put this on my table, I’m really glad I got this one. I think it’s easy enough to teach to middle/high school students and this is definitely a game I would bring to a school club.
Welcome back to my play through of “The Dark Sands”. If you missed the first part of this campaign you can click here to read about it.
Just a few “housekeeping” items before I get to the gameplay. As I was about to start Turn 8 I realized I had completely misinterpreted a rule regarding activation of units using one of the chits and had given the Germans a bit of an unfair advantage during the last turn.
Ok, no big deal. I was able to rewind a little bit and adjust some things at the start of Turn 8. I fiddled with things until I felt like it was “fixed”, and played on. This turn is historically the start of “Operation Crusader” so the Commonwealth is about to get some very powerful activation chits, some armor improvements and a decent amount of reinforcements.
Some good rolls resulted in a mini-breakout from Tobruk that threatens to put a large part of the Axis out of supply if the Commonwealth can keep the momentum going next turn. The Germans were able to take Sollum, but then Commonwealth forces under the 13th Corp HQ (with access to some seriously spicy artilllery!) were able to cut off Halfaya Pass! The Brit’s have priority next turn, and with a full strength attack things could get pretty dire for Rommel and the DAK.
What I Learned
Just because you “can” capture an important objective doesn’t mean you should. I am not sure that the Germans will be able to hold Sollum for long. Also the fact that German and Italian reinforcements slow down significantly is a huge advantage for the Commonwealth. I think the writing may be on the wall for the Germans, but then again the randomness of the chits could swing things back in their favor!
The Axis has surrounded the Fort at Bardia and will try to take it next turn. The 13th and 30th Corps continue to push West. The Commonwealth and Italians keep swapping minor tactical victories at Tobruk. With the arrival of some very tough Free French (7 defense rating!) I’m starting to doubt the fort/port will ever change hands.
What I Learned
These forts…are so tough to take! And (with the exception of Sollum) you can’t just starve them out because they are a supply source! That means you have to concentrate your best units to have a shot at winning one of these battles, and that’s dangerous because of how easy it is for the other side to take advantage and potentially box you in.
It’s really important to take advantage of the “infiltration” that German Panzer units can use. It lets you move from ZOC to ZOC as long as there’s no British tanks around. This was the fist time all game I’ve had a chance to use it, and its pretty useful tool.
Holy cow, things changed fast! So in semi-chronological order here’s what happened to completely turn the tide of this game. Bardia fell, and that opened up a path for me to bring some units down the coastal highway, and rush the Panzers and Motorized infantry that had been at Halfaya Pass over to the trails south of the main road. This was going to put a huge chunk of the Commonwealth out of supply, and the logistics chit fell at the perfect time.
So the Allies were stuck. They couldn’t fight with any real power, and they couldn’t move far enough East to get back in supply. A few units were able to get back and attempt a desperation attack to reopen the rail lines, but it failed. When it was all said and done the majority of the British forces had been pulled off the board during the attrition segment.
As for Tobruk it remains in Allied control, but I’m not sure if I can continue to pump reinforcements into it because the Germans are getting very close to attempting a “Sudden Death” victory (compete control of the coastal road) if they have a little luck in Turn 11.
What I Learned
Three big things I want to mention.
I made a huge mistake with the Commonwealth forces when I pushed them too far West and didn’t leave enough units in reserve behind them. I got too aggressive because of how successful the last few turns had been and I wanted to smash the main German force. You gotta leave some guys behind to guard your rear! Maybe that should have been more obvious to me at this point in the campaign game, but I was so sure that the Axis were done!
Momentum can swing so fast in this game. If I had gotten a few different chit pulls, the Brits could easily have re-taken Sollum, held Bardia and put a large chunk of the German forces out of supply!
Have you ever wondered “how exactly does a much smaller, but more mobile force completely outperform a much larger force?” I know I have, and playing this game has perfectly illustrated that situation for me.
The Germans pushed onto the East map, and are moving fast down the coastal road. Reinforcements for the Commonwealth are rushing to meet them for what’s sure to be a huge battle at Mersa Matruh.
What I Learned
This is the first time all game there’s been significant combat on one of the “zoomed out” maps and I’ve had to remember to “halve” the movement capabilities that I have been using all game. It is nice to be able to use the full stack for combat through.
This was also the first time all game I had used the naval movement. It lets you shuttle units (3 for the Allies, 1 for the Axis) between port hexes as long as they are in supply. I used it here as a way to move some extra units into Tobruk because the reinforcements are a little thin this turn for the Commonwealth. I think I could have used this to better effect a few turns ago when I was attempting the Tobruk breakout.
The Germans took Mersa Matruh with the majority of the 15th Panzer Division. Although the Axis was able to hold that objective for the whole turn, no victory points were awarded because the Commonwealth still holds Tobruk.
What I Learned
The addition of the “Panzerarmee Afrika” HQ counter allows for much more coordinated attacks, and I feel like a few turns of this type of heavy combat could finally result in the capture of Tobruk. This HQ really only has any power on the West and Center map, so it won’t help me much in terms of pushing East.
Tobruk almost falls when a German and Italian attack (supplemented by the amphibious Hecker units) does some serious damage. However, the reinforcements chit was pulled just in time, and some more Commonwealth units were able to come in to the port.
In the East, the Panzers are still holding Mersa Matruh, but the British colossus is headed their way fast! Maybe I should have started pulling the Axis forces back now, but if they could just hold out for one more turn I think I can take Tobruk, and get at least one victory point. That single point is actually pretty huge, because this late in the game (with both sides tied at “0” VP) even a single point could decide victory.
What I Learned
Not much in terms of the the mechanics, but I will say I had never heard of the “Hecker” unit before and that led me down a very interesting rabbit hole. Again, that’s what makes playing these games fun for me is the doors they open in terms of new things to learn about.
It finally happened, a coordinated force of German and Italian forces has captured Tobruk. But the time and resources that the Axis had to spend on it makes makes me wonder if it’s really a victory at all. It certainly helps in the short run because the “Tobruk Falls” chits that get added to the cup will give the Axis some more options to move or fight this turn.
However, there will be no victory points for the Axis this turn, because the Germans were pushed out of Mersa Matruh a few chits after Tobruk fell.
And so at this point, I feel like I have found a natural stopping place before I play out the games final turns. I realize that the middle of a turn might seem like a weird place to end at first, but the way this has all played it out I think it’s actually a great “intermission” before we get our “third act”. The Germans simply do not have the manpower to re-take Mersa Matruh. But they may have enough to prevent the British from taking Bardia and Sollum, which at this point in the game is the Commonwealth’s only chance at victory. It’s a classic setup. The Germans and Italians are going to do everything they can to “run out the clock” and delay the advance, while the Brits throw everything they have at the two objectives in a final push to win. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun to play, and I hope you come back and join me for the third and final installment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
I had the pleasure to finally punch and play “Desert Storm: Unfinished Victory” designed by Thomas Honsa a few weeks back. It’s a small footprint game that manages to capture both the military and political struggles of the Gulf War. I played this game not too long after reading Rick Atkinson’s book “Crusade” and I feel like the book and game make for a great combo meal. Several times as I was reading the rules and playing the game I couldn’t help but notice how several of the design choices corresponded to things I had just learned about in Atkinson’s book. For me the biggest example is the in game decision with how to use the incredible force of coalition air units. Do you try to soften up the first wave of defenders? Maybe it’s better to eliminate the Iraq SAM and SCUD sites first? Or just keep it strategic and focus on eliminating their ability to keep units in supply? That real life decision was often a heated issue, and the coalition player will most definitely have a tough choice to make. I went tactical. It worked, but I also had a some hot dice during this game so not sure how repeatable that strategy is.
I’ll go in depth on a few points in this article, but my overall impression of this game is it’s fun, fast and very easy to learn. I think this would be a perfect convention or tournament game because it moves quickly, and you could potentially have both players do one attempt on each side in an evening. There’s plenty of exciting choices for both players to make. I think my favorite for the coalition side is trying to find an excuse to make the USMC storm the beaches in an amphibious landing. FYI, It’s not worth the risk, don’t try it.
War Is Politics
If you read my series of posts on Arabian Nightmare then you are already aware much I enjoyed the political aspect of that game. Unfinished Victory has a similar feel, but it’s presented in a much more condensed way. Unlike Arabian Nightmare, which used separate political and military tracks, DSUV uses a single victory point track, and only the Iraqi player gains VP. There’s no political events for the coalition to attempt, and only about two dozen choices for the Iraqi player to use to snatch up victory points. One of the more interesting ways for the Iraqi player earns VP is through the use of SCUD attacks. The missiles do no damage to any on-map units, but each successful strike nabs you one VP. This to me does a great job of simulating the way that the SCUD attacks on Israel resulted in a major politician situation (despite the low number of casualties) for the US led coalition. The Iraq player also gains victory points equal to the game turn number at the end of every turn just for being in the game, which also simulates the pressure the coalition felt to “get the job done” before any potential conflicts between the participating countries arose.
Where’s the (Friendly) Fire?
If you haven’t noticed by now, I keep things fairly positive on both the blog and podcast because that’s just my style in general. I’m way more likely to talk about part of a game I like than an aspect I didn’t enjoy. But I was really surprised that this game in no way attempted to address the biggest threat the coalition faced during Desert Storm, which was fratricide. I understand why Arabian Nightmare didn’t make it a major issue, because the game was already in the in the works and published right before war broke out. But DSUV was published in 2004, and other games on the topic like Phase Line Smash have addressed the issue, so I just don’t understand why it didn’t make it into this design. I suggest a house rule:
Any time you have a coalition ground force involved in a battle, you roll a d10 and a 1-2 gives the Iraq player a VP.
Subtract 1 from the roll if there was an air unit involved-or-if more then one ground unit participated-or-if more than one coalition nationality was represented in the attacking/supporting forces.
Obviously this is not a game breaker, and there are many other historic issues I feel the game “got right”. I just feel like this was a missed opportunity to include part of what made this particular battle unique.
One of the reasons I decided to pick this game up (aside from the very reasonable price and the fact that the publisher charged no shipping costs for orders directly from them) was the built in solitaire bot. I play almost exclusively solo. While I can handle the required “self deception” required for a standard “I Go, You Go” style game I always appreciate a little guidance for how to run one of the sides. The solitaire system works fine but I would suggest a few tweaks. Mostly just always spend the max amount of points possible on the political maneuvering instead of rolling to check and see if and how much to spend. Also use the military posture track and the other rules as a guide, but don’t be married to it. There’s the potential to send waves of under strength Iraq units crashing into much stronger opponents they have no chance of beating and it doesn’t make for a very competitive solo game…if that makes sense.
How Tough are These Guys?
One of the things that made my solo play through a little more exciting was the unknown strength of Iraq units until the first combat occurs. Again, I feel like this models the historical situation true to form. My understanding is that the US greatly overestimated the ground forces, and I rolled a “1” for my game’s check so that gave the coalition a pretty easy time. The elite armor units of the Republicans Guard could potentially give the Coalition a major headache if a “6” is rolled.
Attacking in this game is a lot of fun. There’s the standard advance after combat, and then all the units that moved after combat get a second attack.
The air war will be a very one sided affair. The Coalition player can easily wipe out the Iraqi Air Force in the first turn and still have plenty of birds left to go SCUD hunting or for ground support.
I love the rule that says you can’t eliminate ground forces through air strikes alone. Gotta put boots on the ground!
Because the historic result was such a one sided affair, I feel that most Desert Storm games benefit from the inclusion of “What if…” scenarios. This game offers several that the player(s) can use to create a more balanced game.
Got a double feature for you just in time for Halloween! Me and Ryan Pendergast sat down and talked about two games from Modern War Magazine that deal with two different military campaigns in Afghanistan: The USSR in the 1980’s and the USA lead coalition in the 2000’s. I also want to mention that if you are interested in learning more about the Soviet-Afghan War here are some of the books I have on my shelf about the subject.
One last note, Compass games has a new solitaire game “Operation Storm-333” on pre-order that deals with the initial 1979 Soviet Coup in Afghanistan that started the war. I know that I can’t wait for it to come out, and added it to my pre-order list a while back.
I’m not going to lie, I’m obsessed with getting something fun/useful for little or no money. Since moving into our current neighborhood I have “rescued” the following items from my neighbors trash pile at the curb:
A set of multiple filing cabinets
Some metal shelves for the garage
A complete Fisher stereo system WITH A WORKING 8 TRACK!
So it should be no surprise when I tell you that when I see a magazine game listed for 15 bucks or less I tend to pounce on it pretty quick. I’ve unearthed some real gems (see my glowing review of the cheap yet awesome Target Libya). And the way I see it, even if the game stinks sometimes it’s a way for me to experience a setting or game mechanic that I’ve been curious about on the cheap.
This was my mindset when shelled out $14 and picked up a copy of Strategy and Tactics number 132 with Iron Cross inside. It’s a WW2 East front tactical game that is zoomed in as close as you can get: individual soldiers.
Now I have almost no experience playing games at the tactical level. No Squad Leader (advanced or otherwise), none of the Lock and Load offerings, no Panzer Grenadier, not even Fire Team! In fact the only game I’ve ever played regularly that comes close to this scale is probably Classic Battletech. I’ve always wanted to check out SL/ASL, but it’s a little expensive and honestly I just don’t know how much fun I’m going to have playing it solo. So Iron Cross was a way for me to sort of dip my toe into this style of game and see how things went.
First I set up a very small game of my own design that was nothing more then a German machine gun crew and a few riflemen in a building versus a few Russian soldiers and a leader spotting for a mortar crew. It was just a way for me to learn the system and then jot down the following thoughts on the game:
Individual soldiers makes for a really narrative gaming experience. I mean they have their names right there on the counter! I know that a lot of games that use the squad/half squad size units still have individual leaders with names. But having all the names on the board really drew me in.
Individual soldiers makes for a lot of bookkeeping. In the standard rules you are mostly keeping track of the soldiers UP/DOWN status, if they are pinned down and if they have moved or fired. The optional rules allow for things like extended machine gun bursts and ammo tracking. Yuck. I know this is some folks jam, but tracking grenades and bullets every time a soldier fires is just too much work for too little payoff in a solitaire game. Playing face to face I might do it because it’s half the work and it creates a tension of “do I waste my ammo on this long range shot?”
The simple UP/DOWN setting for the soldiers taking cover makes a lot of sense to me as a first time player and seemed to work well.
There was justttttt enough page flipping and chart checking. Again, I can’t compare this to the more popular tactical games. But I felt like this this game was on the high end of my rules tolerance, while never crossing the threshold where I felt it wasn’t fun anymore. I mean, I’ve played (and enjoyed) Air Cav multiple times and that’s got a ton of charts. Actually, I guess that game is a tactical game…maybe I’m more of a tac-gamer then I thought! Getting back to Iron Cross, these rules are very simple and straight forward, and I felt they were laid out in a way that makes sense. But there’s just a lot of potential interactions that you need to remember to check depending on the situation.
Can we just talk about how awesome this hand drawn map looks?
After I got comfortable with the rules I set up scenario #7 that was included in Moves #45. It’s perfect for solitaire play because it’s only six turns with a very small unit count. A handful of German soldiers (with the help of some landmines) are dug in and holding a hilltop against a Russian squad with mortar support. One side playing offense, one side playing defense is always a great solo play. I wanted to give a real impression of how this game plays, so here’s a breakdown of how the first Russian turn went down.
Per the rules in the scenario, the German side sets up on the hill first. The guys with machine pistols and flamethrowers are dug in using the improved position markers. At the center of that ring of fire is a peak where a machine gun crew, a leader and three riflemen are perched. The Red Army is spread out a little more. Inside a small building is machine gun crew and a rifleman to spot for a mortar crew located behind the structure. The force hoping to take the hill is two six man squads broken into three person fire teams.
Nothing going on here for the first turn, but normally this is where the you would attempt to get rid of any pinned or suppressed markers that have been placed on your units.
SUPPORT FIRE PHASE
First I tried firing the machine gun crew in the building, but they failed their performance check so nothing doing. I used the rifleman (acting as a leader, anyone with a PC rating of at least 9 can “call their own number” so to speak) in the building to spot for the nearby mortar crew. The key mechanic in this game is the performance check of two dice versus the performance rating (far right digit on the counters) to see if the unit does anything. You have to check for movement, firing a weapon and almost anything else. The mortar crew passed their PC, but the two rounds scattered. One landed on an empty part of the hill, but the second drifted over to the group of riflemen and leader.
The way this (and most attacks in the game) works is you make a separate attack for each unit in the hex. Three pinned and one suppressed was the final result.
One of my fire teams in the north attempted to fire on the flamethrower unit on the north side of the hill. Two of them failed their PC and the third fired to no effect. I don’t want to waste the fact that the rifle crew and leader up top are pinned down…guess we’re gonna have to get in close.
The game rules suggest making markers to keep track of units that have moved, fired or both. I just keep track with how I have turned the unit counters. Going clockwise, it’s moved, fired, moved and fired.
I was able to move Leader Pavlov and his fire team only one hex before they were pinned down by machine pistol fire. Any “non phasing” player unit that hasn’t fired can take a potshot in this phase with a small penalty. I forgot to flip them before I took the picture but the Russians should now be in the “down” position.
Another one of the fire teams managed to move a few hexes before being pinned down by the machine gun crew on the hill crest. Unlike the infantry, machine gun crews do not have a penalty during opportunity fire, which resulted in two suppressed and one pinned Russian units.
Finally, I attempted to move my last remaining fire team towards the center of the hill. Rudenko failed his PC, and refused to budge. Bobkin and Govorov moved on without him all the way to the start of the hill. This scenario allows for the Germans to have four landmines. The way I simulated this was just a 1/4 chance of any hex being mined. The roll showed the hex was clean, so no mine attack. I placed one of the assault markers (arrow) to show that I was planning on launching an assault later in the turn.
REACTION MOVEMENT PHASE
This is where non-phasing (German) units can make a reduced movement as long as they didn’t use opportunity fire. Apparently the only phasing (Russian) units that can attempt opportunity fire during this phase are anti-tank units or in the advanced rules (which I am not using here) some machine gun crews. Since the Germans can now see the assault is concentrated on one side, Roseler grabs his machine pistol and scurries into the foxhole where Hoffmann is prepping his flamethrower.
DEFENSIVE FIRE PHASE
Most of the German units at this point have already fired, but the flamethrower on the south side of the hill is eligible here. Flamethrowers only have a range of two hexes, but they either suppress or eliminate any unit they attack! Yikes! Both of the Russians survive the attack, but they hit the deck! That’s going to prevent them from attempting an assault because pinned/suppressed units aren’t allowed to do that.
MOVING FIRE PHASE
This is the part where any of the phasing units that have moved but not fired get to shoot. But after carefully scanning the map…I don’t have any eligible units. The only group that had moved but not fired is pinned down.
I had planned on assaulting with the two soldiers that made it to the edge of the hill, but the flamethrower attack nixed that idea real quick. Nothing to see here folks! It’s really interesting how fast these turns are moving. I’m not sure how this would play out against a real opponent, but it seems most of the moving and shooting happens in those early steps. But I’m sure it depends on the situation.
If the assault had happened, it would have gone something like this:
The assaulting units move into the hex
You move all of the units (both sides) off the board to make it easier to track
Normal status defenders fire first
Pinned defenders and all attackers fire
Suppressed defenders fire
Take all the status markers off
Lather, Rise and Repeat if necessary, but now all fire is simultaneous.
This looks to be a pretty lethal interaction, so I don’t see many assaults lasting more then one additional round after the initial clash
FREE UP/DOWN STATE CHANGE
At this point any unit can move to either the UP or DOWN position. And that’s it, one (half) turn in the books!
I have to say that while this type of game really doesn’t do much for me as a solitaire exercise, I really appreciate the rules set. With the exception of one area on the charts that makes it unclear about how many of the attack die should be rolled for targets on a hill, I found these rules to be very easy to follow. My gut feeling is I could teach these to a newbie during a few learning turns, and then be playing a “real” game later that evening. The sequence of play in these rules is so helpful. It includes all of the “did you remember to check…” issues and really kept me on track.
And if anyone reading this is a real old school ASL grognard (or a new-school LnL grognard) PLEASE holler at me in the comments or on Twitter about how this game compares to those “industry standards”. One of these days I really hope to go to a convention and sit down with a crusty old gamer who’s got a lot of experience with ASL and beg them to teach me the basics. But for now, I feel like this is scratching my itch to play WW2 squad/individual soldier level combat. Not bad for less then a Pizza right?
Final thought: Designer Mark Sprock looks like the kind of guy who would be more likely to drag race an IROC with Master of Puppets blaring on the speakers then design a war game in 1990. Rock on Mark! Your game (and easy to follow rules!) still holds up 30 years later!