by Avery Abernethy, 1 October 2018
Sandstorm is the eighth addition to the Aristocrats’ Order of Battle WW2 series published by Slitherine/Matrix . Sandstorm starts in 1941 with the formation of the Afrika Corps commanded by Erwin Rommel and concludes with the Tunisian battles of 1943. There are fourteen linked scenarios in its campaign. Players control the combined Axis forces (German and Italian) in their attempt to conquer North Africa. This review is based on twice completing the entire campaign over a month of play at the Lieutenant difficulty level. I purchased the copy of the game used in this review.
Sandstorm is a true combined arms experience. You manage a coalition of Italian and Axis forces. Your troops include armor of varying quality, motorized and foot infantry of varying quality, artillery of varying quality, fighter, bomber and observation aircraft of varying quality plus Italian fleet actions in the Med. You are engaging Allied coalition forces from England, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and France. Your opposition also fields units of highly varying quality.
Due to supply difficulties, there are strict restrictions on the number of troops you can field. Italian forces make up a substantial proportion of your troops and often make up the majority. This DLC adds many Italian units to the Order of Battle WW2 engine. Excepting artillery, German units are substantially stronger and more mobile than Italian units. Let’s look at two specific examples. German fighters carry more fuel, are faster, and are more combat effective. German infantry is better on attack and defense and can also be motorized by halftracks. Italian motorized infantry use trucks leaving troops highly vulnerable when mounted.
Supply difficulties were built into the scenario design. Many scenarios have tight time limits on capturing specific locations. Often these locations are ports or other supply points. Like previous Order of Battle releases, the AI is especially adept in isolating and destroying exposed units. The allies also employ Special Air Service (SAS) and desert raider units which cannot be detected unless an infantry unit moves in a directly adjacent hex. My lead advance units were repeatedly stopped when stumbling unawares on these hard to spot units. These special British units are not powerful combat units but are quite effective in slowing your advance. In practice, these units operate in a fashion similar to Japanese sniper units in the jungle in the US Pacific and US Marines DLCs.
Success in Sandstorm is determined by the troops you choose to field and how well those forces are managed. Deciding which Italian troops to purchase for your core force is a critical strategic decision. These are hard choices. The most difficult choices to me were the composition of my air force. German Stukas are excellent tactical bombers and the Italians do not fly anything comparable for most of the campaign. German fighters are superior to their Italian counterparts, with Italian fighters being at best average compared to the Allies. I ended up using German Stukas as a major part of my air units while relying substantially (and in some scenarios exclusively) on Italian fighters. Because motorized Italian infantry uses trucks, I could never use motorized Italian infantry as long-range scouts. Halftrack carried German Infantry had survivability when encountering concealed enemy units or when counter-attacked while mounted.
North African terrain has a strong influence on battleplans. With large battlefields and small armies your flanks are often unguarded. Supply is very important in the Order of Battle series and encircled units are quite vulnerable. The AI is very effective in using maneuver and attacks to isolate units. Some very sharp ridge lines in Libya and Egypt prevent direct attacks. Land spotting in North Africa is easy compared to other WW2 battlefields because there are very few towns and little vegetation. The developers made a big deal out of “sandstorms” which limit visibility and impact play. The visual representation of sandstorms is well done. But sandstorms occur so infrequently that they are largely irrelevant. Overall, supply difficulty, open flanks, easy spotting and large maps have a strong impact on both strategic choices of force configuration and tactical battle management.
Sandstorm has fourteen scenarios. Eleven focus on land and air action in Libya, Egypt or Tunisia. The game starts with the formation of the Afrika Corps and Rommel’s initial attempt to take Tobruk. This is followed by a series of attacks and counter-attack scenarios near the Libyan/Egyptian border. If successful in these battles, your forces may be able to conquer Alexandria, Cairo, and close the Suez Canal. Regardless of your degree of success in Egypt, the Americans will land in North Africa and the scenarios move to Tunisia. Unlike a lot of wargames (especially Panzer Corps), in Sandstorm if your forces manage to capture Cairo you keep Cairo.
With enough victories in Egypt, you gain paratrooper forces for an air assault on Malta. If the paratroopers seize enough airfields and knock out some shore batteries you are rewarded with substantial reinforcements. This scenario is a complex mix of initial paratrooper drops which may be followed by a full-blown assault by your core force on Malta. Simultaneously, large naval actions are fought as the British strive to contest the landings. In Malta the game engine really shows its capabilities. You have paratroopers with limited supplies making a straightforward airborne assault. If those tiny paratrooper forces succeed, you gain substantial infantry, armor, and air force reinforcements. The reinforcements come with an Italian Fleet and a substantial British Naval counter-attack.
Two scenarios give players a feel for the substantial battles to keep the Axis armies in supply in North Africa. In the first supply scenario you manage an Italian Fleet attempting to land supplies in Africa supported by land-based aircraft. Simultaneously the player is attempting to destroy British naval units, aircraft, and sink the British supply convoy. The second scenario was an air battle where the Axis planes must shoot up British supply trucks before they exit the map. The Fleet and Air action battle was an outstanding scenario which utilizes the strong Naval and Air capabilities of the Order of Battle WW2 Engine. The “shoot up the Brit Trucks scenario” was laughably easy and was the weakest of the fourteen scenarios.
Like previous Order of Battle games, commanders may be acquired and attached to specific units. Depending on the commander, the unit becomes more powerful and can potentially increase the combat effectiveness of units within a limited range. The Germans start with Rommel who is understandably the best commander in the game. Each scenario has primary and secondary objectives. Advancing to the next scenario requires completing all primary objectives. Completing secondary objectives either unlocks additional units, gives you another commander, or provides strategic points which improve the technology of your overall force pool. Thus, your successes (or failures) build on each other as you work through the campaign.
Every DLC added to Order of Battle WW2 requires another download of the revamped core engine. The developers keep improving the core engine to add features, new units, and AI improvements. This is wonderful. But these core engine upgrades are very large. Downloading the patch upgrading the core engine took several hours. Overall, I don’t mind the time to download a really big file if the core game engine continues to be upgraded. But if you have not already downloaded the core system upgrade Sandstorm is not immediately playable out of the box.
Three developer fixes are needed. The Axis managed to capture Tobruk in the first scenario. In a subsequent scenario the British counter-attacked with all forces in a low supply situation. The default seems to be Allies control of Tobruk and in full supply. Unless my memory is faulty, the Allies were never in a severe supply shortage in North Africa. The scenario should be adjusted so the Allies initial attacks are in full supply. The Malta scenario also needs adjustment. If the Axis succeeds in Libya and Egypt there is a German airborne assault on Malta. If initial victory conditions in Malta are met, huge numbers of core ground forces arrive as reinforcements. Weirdly, I could place those reinforcing land units adjacent to German controlled Malta towns instead of needing seaborne reinforcements. The Axis lacked the airlift capacity to move entire infantry divisions, much less medium battle tanks or artillery. Last, German Heavy Tanks (Panthers and Tigers) have severe supply and organization problems when moved (much less attack or defend). These problems were so bad that I never upgraded my German armor beyond Panzer IVs in my second playthrough. Perhaps this is historically accurate representing a spare parts problem, but as it stands players are harmed if they purchase these upgraded tanks. This either needs to be explained in the documentation on the unit purchase screen or fixed by the developers.
Based on other reviews, AARs and forum posts, Sandstorm sharply ramps up in difficulty as you go up the difficulty play scale. I think that all wargamers from beginners to the most experienced will find a challenging play level. However, both of my playthroughs were on the Lieutenant difficulty level so I cannot attest to this first hand. I’m not the fastest reviewer since I almost always play a game to completion before writing a review. Playing through on multiple difficulty levels would substantially slow down my reviews.
Overall, this was an outstanding additional content package for Order of Battle WW2. The developers came up with some well balanced, challenging scenarios. Successes and failures during the campaign will either open new windows of opportunity or doom the Afrika Corps to failure. The Malta scenario was especially well done. Only one scenario was weak or boring. I have played everything in the Order of Battle WW2 series and this ties with Morning Sun (Japanese War in China) as my second favorite download. My favorite remains Burma Road but only because it covers a set of battles so seldom addressed in computer wargames. For $14.99 you get excellent scenarios wrapped into an outstanding campaign. Because of the AI Improvements, thirteen excellent scenarios (one was weak) and the solid campaign structure, I’d highly recommend this one for gamers.
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