Sunday, March 15, 2009

Miles and Miles of Sand and Khaki

The last couple weeks, Mike and I have been playing Shifting Sands. This is a CDG published a few years back by MMP. Mike had never played, and I'd only played a couple times in a PBeM tournament, but had never played face to face. I'd also never played the Axis, so this was a fresh experience for both of us.

Shifting Sands covers WWII in North Africa, but also includes the fighting in the East Africa and Middle East theatres as well. These two areas are ignored in nearly every other North Africa game, but here you must balance your efforts to handle these fronts. The game runs the entire cycle of the North African war from the Italian declaration of war against the British through Operation Torch to the final departure of the Axis from Tunisia in mid-1943.

The game itself is on the simpler end of the CDG spectrum, but there's a fair number of exceptions, mostly involving where reinforcements can appear. It is directly derived from Paths of Glory. It uses three decks of cards per side (though these are 1940, 1941, and 1942 decks and their appearance is turn-based and not tied to a side's progress in the game) and it has both Large and Small combat units. (Divisions and Battlegroups in this game.) Each turn you get six action rounds, though you get increasingly more cards each year to reflect the growing commitment to the theatre. As in Paths of Glory, there's also a rather involved inter-dependency in card play. Many cards are prerequisites for others, and there's a whole side-track of cards played in the effort to take Malta. Knowing what cards are coming when, and what you need to play first, is an important skill in the game.

As this was my first time playing the Axis, I decided to focus on the things that had always given me problems when playing the Allies. Be a pest in East Africa, threaten things in the Middle East, and be opportunistically aggressive in Libya. Then, just hope you've got enough to slow down the Allies when Torch is launched and the Americans arrive.

The game starts with the Axis having 10VP, and the primary mode for the VP track going up and down are key cities being taken. The Allies have to get the score down to 4 by the end to win, or take Tripoli. (Or both Tripoli AND Tunis if it's after Torch being played.) The Axis are trying to get the score up to 14 at the end of a turn, or take Alexandria, Port Said, and the Suez.

During our game, I quickly got the score up to the 12-13 range, but I could never quite do enough to get it higher. Mike was being effective with Malta Convoys (cards that cut the Axis hand size way down) and as a result I was drawing very poor hands. I hardly got a chance to use Rommel in combat at all as we had built up a rather static front in Libya with a no-mans land between. If I crept up to set up an attack, he'd beat back before I could attack. And, as time was mostly on my side, I was content to let that happen. My goal at this point was to create speed bumps in his attempt to get to Tripoli, and hope I was able to fend off the Americans once Torch arrived.

Once we got into 1942, Mike was holding 4 or 5 cards between turns. I surmised he'd drawn Torch early (it can't be played until the 3rd 1942 turn even though you might draw it right off in 1942) and was getting things set up. I was attempting to answer while not compromising my defense in Libya. Hard to do when you can't move anything west of Tripoli until after Torch is played.

At this point, Mike did what I expected in Summer '42. He played Torch, Patton, and Vulcan (the two most important post-Torch cards) in quick succession. This put all the Americans in full supply making his attacks far cheaper. He pushed hard down to Tripoli, and took it in the Fall of '42. I was trying to answer from Tunis to cut off his supply, but couldn't make any significant headway.

It was here that our game got off the rails. I had forgotten that I can't trace supply from Bengazi, and Mike had cut off Tobruk from the rest of my forces. As he now had Tripoli, this meant ALL my units in Libya outside of Tobruk were eliminated during the Attrition phase of the Fall '42 turn for being out of supply. Remembering this would have radically changed how I managed the 2nd half of the Fall '42 turn, but I had certainly goofed. I noticed this a couple action rounds into the next turn, and we backtracked to restart that turn. This eliminated any threat on Mike from the East, as I was going to be able to retake Tripoli rather easily (and likely win the game) had I kept those units, and he was able to just grind down the forces I had in Tunis and Bizerte. I held on as long as I could as Mike wasn't going to be able to win via VP – he had to take Tunis. Eventually, he did in Winter '43 as the last Axis unit on the continent fell.

One of the keys to doing well as the Allies in this game is getting Torch out as soon as possible, and with him being able to follow up immediately with Patton and Vulcan it was a tall order for the Axis to hang on.

The game moves rather quickly, once you get into the flow. There's 13 or 14 turns, and they usually take 20-30 minutes each. It's probably a 6 hour game once you are comfortable with it, unless an auto-victory short circuits things. A very manageable length for a game that covers the entire North African conflict.

We did play with two minor rule changes that were instituted for the first PBeM tournament: Rommel's card gives OPs when you play the event, and Malta is not worth any VPs for either side. In the rules as written, winning Malta is worth 1 VP for the Allies and 2 VP for the Axis. A rather large swing given the threshold for winning is 4/5 VP, and was a source of complaints against the game when it was first released.

The modified rules removed the VP bonus and kept the other effects in place. (This has since been modified again to giving 1VP to the Axis for conquering Malta and none to the Allies. I believe this has found the correct balance given the stats that have come out of the tournament games.)

I'm a big fan of this game. Given that the desert war is also my favorite WWII theatre, I'm probably a tad biased towards liking the game anyway, but I've always had fun with it. I think the rules tweaks they've published since release have tuned the game up nicely. Recommended.

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