Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sand in the toes

Another session, and another game off the burn-down list. This time it was the turn of Shifting Sands, the CDG from MMP of the campaign in North Africa. Whilst I've been aware of this one for some time, it's only recently that it's jumped onto my 'to buy' list as my interest in CDGs in general (and the desert campaign, as a lesser factor) has ramped up.

Having played a little of WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin, Shifting Sands was very familiar, and the mechanisms were mostly in my head. There are lots of special rules that allows for a fair amount of chrome relevant to the theater and its special circumstances and situations, but I never felt overwhelmed at any point.

In our game I played the Allies, and pressed forward smartly. An early play of Poor Morale was useful, although I was very short of Reinforcement cards. By the time the Germans entered, I had captured Tobruk, and was clearing out East Africa after a slow start. I was fortunate to get a couple of good results when the Axis attacked towards Tobruk, repulsing both attacks with even results, although I was down a column in each combat.

In 1941, Tobruk fell to a large Axis attacking force, as my spoiling attack failed, despite a +2 drm. After that the front went quiet, as I was able to move a couple of divisions around from the empty East Africa. Eric did make one attempt on my line, advancing Italian units adjacent in two spaces, but I was able to remove both of them in my turn with Crusader, leaving him no platform to attack.

1942 saw the Torch, Patton, and Vulcan cards all come into my hand on the first turn. With another couple of Torch-specific cards being dealt in the next turn, I went into the Spring 1942 turn with only a few usable cards. Fortunately I was able to hold on to my existing position, and Summer 1942 saw the Americans land in Tunisia. Throughout the year I was running close to the limit of VPs for an automatic Axis victory, but Eric was never able to grab that all-important final VP space.

From this point on I pretty much focused on Tunisia, ignoring the rest of the map unless I had spare operations points I couldn't use in Tunisia. I drove towards Tripoli with infantry and armored divisions, and towards Tunis on two axes with both US and British divisions. However, while the former was successful, Eric mounted a spirited defense of Tunis, shuffling units in from Libya with a succession of well co-ordinated card plays. Combined with a seemingly endless supply of combat cards, some good rolls on his part, and some weak die rolling on my part, I was unable to winkle him out. This despite several attacks, and also a combined attack rolling on the max. column.

Two card plays into the Winter 1943 (and penultimate) turn things were looking bleak for me, as he'd managed to break the US assault into Tunis, and forced me out of Tripoli by abandoning the Libyan/Egptian front and transferring pretty much every available German unit to Tunisia. It was at this point that the game became a total bogey, as Eric spotted that the whole of his Libyan/Egyptian front was unable to trace supply, and should have been removed from the game at the end of the Fall 1942 turn.

This had come about because I'd taken Tripoli, and he'd stripped his line so bare of units (moving some to Tunis and the others towards Tripoli) that I was able to advance and isolate Tobruk in the Fall 1942 turn. This left Benghazi as the only remaining port, and it's not a supply source for the Axis. Of course, if Eric had been aware of this I'm sure he would have put more effort into either defending Tripoli in the first place, or ensuring a line to Tobruk was maintained, preventing me from putting his units out of supply. The other side is that if he had done that, then he possibly wouldn't have had the units to defend Tunis so successfully, and would have ended up losing that instead.

Anyway, we back-tracked to the start of the Winter 1943 turn as best we could, and then re-dealt. (As we'd each played two cards plus combat cards we knew half the cards in each others' hands.) Now that I had no pressure from the east, I was able to release the armored division from the defense of Tripoli to aid in the attack on Tunis, and with the rolls finally swinging in my favor (or even just matching the percentages) I was able to grind him down and take Tunis for the automatic victory. (It requires owning both Tunis and Tripoli.)

OK, the end left a rather tainted victory in my lap, but overall I really enjoyed the game. It went back and fore a bit, and there were lots of areas to be considered. The game mechanisms introduce just the right balance between complexity and chrome, and the variations in the deal of the cards ensures good replayability.

I can see there are a few critical factors. When Torch comes out is the biggest; if it's into 1943 before the Allied player gets to play it, then that could be a game killer for them. Still, I'd look forward to playing this one again.


Dug said...

In my first couple of plays, I found this game to be very engaging and exciting, but then noticed that I seemed to need to play every event possible in order to get through the entire deck each year (you add new cards every year, starting on turn 3). If you hold cards, or don't use cards as events, then you stand a chance of not getting the important cards you need for Malta, Barbarossa, etc. By our fourth game, we considered the game hopelessly broken, as at the time there was no alternate rule for Malta (it was a 4VP swing regardless).

There have been many "optional" rules added to the game since that time, and I'm interested in giving it another try. However, we noticed that at a certain point, the CW had enough strength in Egypt that there was no point in attacking with the Axis, even with Rommel's bennie, as the odds of success were slim and all of those Italian units made much better speedbumps later in the game. As such, from early 1941 through to Torch, most of the game was taken up by the sideshows.

I'll have to give it another try now that there are optional rules addressing most of the issues I had before, although the fact remains that if there is a single card that you *must* play in order to have a chance to win, you still must play as many events as possible because otherwise you'll have a deck that reaches to the moon by 1942 and no chance of getting through even 75% of it.

Eric said...

SS is really no different than any other game in the PoG tree - you MUST manage your deck. It's simply part of the skillset needed in games from that family.

I know you like Paths of Glory - if you can handle the deck management there, you shouldn't have a problem with it here...