Jim Owczarski, 17 November 2018
There must be something to this. While it is neither chronologically nor in absolute terms my first wargaming love, there is something about World War II’s struggle in the desert that appeals.
Jackson Bentley: What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?
T.E. Lawrence: It’s clean.
–Lawrence of Arabia
Monty, Rommel, the “Desert Rats”, the “Afrika Korps”, are all evocative enough, but what is it about the theater itself? A vast expanse of sand and forbidding ground; oppressive heat; and armies sweeping back and forth a space far too great for them ever to command. It had none of the hedgerows, sunken roads, farm fields, and tree-covered hillsides of Normandy. Nor did it play host to the barely-imaginable hordes of the Eastern Front. And yet we have gamed it again and again.
Consider just the best-known games; games that many who read the articles on this site have been playing for years: Afrika Korps, Tobruk, Rommel in the Desert, DAK (1 and 2), and, always good for a cheap laugh, Campaign for North Africa. Combat Mission: Afrika Korps is, for some, the most missed of the series’ first iteration. And newer consims like Revolution Games’ Operation Battleaxe and Gazala: the Cauldron have been very well received.
In this context, the decision of the astonishingly-industrious crew at Wargame Design Studio (WDS) to move its Panzer Battles series to the desert, in a game to be titled Battles for North Africa, 1941, is less surprising than might at first appear. Having now spent a fair amount of time with a near-final release candidate, I can say it does much to remind the player why mechanized warfare in the desert can make a great topic for a wargame.
The team met with success with their first two games — Kursk (Southern Flank) and Normandy — using as a base John Tiller’s Panzer Campaigns engine, but “zooming in” by making platoons and squadrons the base maneuver elements and shrinking each hex to cover only 250 meters (essentially the same scale as the legendary Panzer Blitz/Leader). WDS has done much to improve the look of the user interface created by Dr. Tiller so many years ago and which is, in the eyes of some, desperately in need of an upgrade. They have expanded, color coded, and organized the toolbar necessary for the user to make his or her way around the battlefield, but, in a fine concession for those with diminishing eyesight, provided small, medium, and large versions of it.
They have also put a lot of thought into the design of the unit counters. They have, wisely, I think, resisted putting too much information on the counters themselves, preferring to leave detailed statistics on the familiar unit scroll bar. Instead of abstract counter art, however, they have colorized and then miniaturized a remarkable array of period photographs. They have done this not only with the doughty faces of the British 8th Army and its German foes, but the British Imperial forces and those of the Italian army as well. Those who like matters simpler have the option of switching to NATO symbology which, I must confess, is my preference.
If I were to choose the one thing that impresses me the most about this title, though, it would likely be the maps. The game’s manuals, which, between the player’s guide and campaign notes weigh in at over 250 pages, indicate that Kursk’s maps were automated interpolations of the larger-scale maps from the Panzer Campaigns series. Normandy was a bit of a hybrid with interpolation followed by extensive manual revision. With this latest game they have fashioned all the included maps by hand. While many of these are modestly-sized, the largest master maps — from which sub-map scenarios can be created — is 1.23 million hexes in size, derived from a combination of ordinance survey, sketch maps, and even Google map topographical data. This can lead to some truly remarkable scenario spaces, the most notable of these being the full Operation: Battleaxe, but Operation: Crusader, and the fighting around Tobruk is impressive as well.
The achievement here, however, is not merely about size. In the campaign notes, each scenario is placed in context on a map from which the terrain used in the game was derived. In the case of Operation: Crusader, this can give the player a real sense of how big the action was. Even in some of the smaller scenarios, though, this linking of map to story, especially for people like me who cherish maps as a doorway to the past, can be special.
I should also note that as a technical matter the maps over which the game is played are well drawn. They are not works of art to be sure, but I find them suitably well-defined and even the on-map “extras” like rubble, wire, and mines are understandable at a glance. One very helpful addition to the map interface is the ability via a hotkey to display hex-by-hex elevations as well as the combat modifiers caused by the terrain in each hex. Those interested in a peek behind the curtain of this remarkable process of map design would do well to spend some time reading this article from the WDS blog as well as some of the other articles on offer there.
And then there are the scenarios. The team began with a stated goal of 60. The final release will have 107 ranging from tiny, three-turn engagements to multi-day monsters. Perhaps burying the lede just a bit, not all the scenarios take place in North Africa. Several cover the German parachute landings in Greece and Crete.
The victory conditions for these scenarios will, in some cases, feature one of the biggest departures for the Tiller games in some time: variable victory points. Objectives can now be scored by turn and by side so that what is precious on turn one might not be worth a fraction as much by scenario’s end. Further, how much a particular objective is worth to a given side can be concealed by fog of war making for much harder decisions.
All these scenarios are based on an Order of Battle that the designers claim — with a refreshing lack of false modesty — when taken as a whole, is the most comprehensive ever done of this period at this level. I am in no position to gainsay them. Over the past two decades there has been a substantial new amount of research made available on these campaigns and a glance at the bibliography suggests WDS took advantage of it.
Dr. Tiller’s games have been part of the PC wargaming landscape for a long time now. People like me had begun to wonder what might happen to them as our hair grows ever more grey and computers are available with power unimaginable when the first Battleground game was released. With the help of talented folks like those at WDS, it would seem our hex-and-counter-loving future is in very good hands. They are assuredly not re-inventing the wheel. They are tweaking, poking, and prodding. But in doing so, and by leaning in hard in the areas of research and scenario design, they are creating something that is in its own way new.
Battles of North Africa, 1941 will be available right around Thanksgiving through the store at John Tiller Software.