Monday, 22 October 2012

Rommel in the Desert

Plays: 2Px2.

I think I have noticed this game since 2004 or so. It's an old classic block wargame, and it has a strong reputation. If I remember correctly it was out of print when I first learned about it, but it was later reprinted. I have never been a proper wargamer. I have played some block games (Hammer of the Scots, Pacific Victory), some card driven games (Successors, Washington's War - new version of We The People, Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage - another older well-known classic wargame), but I have never played a hex-and-counter wargame. I have been thinking about whether to buy Rommel in the Desert on and off over the years, but never decided to do so because I don't play wargames often, and with Wilderness War still unplayed, should I be buying another wargame of about the same complexity that may just sit on the shelf?

But in the end, of course I bought it. I bought it this year, and (sorry Wilderness War) managed to get it to the table about 5 months after receiving the game.

The Game

Rommel in the Desert is about the battles in North Africa during World War II. The star of the show is, of course, the military genius Erwin Rommel. There are no personalities in the game, just military units, but there is one special rule just for him. In scenarios where German units are in play, once per round some German units can move one more hex. And this can be a big deal.

The game is played on a long thin map of North Africa, with the Axis base near the western end and the Allied base (Cairo) near the eastern end. There are a few ways to win, e.g. capturing Tobruk, or having more units than your opponent at the end of the scenario. The game has many scenarios of different lengths and complexities, all reflecting historical situations. Some units are to be set up on the board, and others will arrive as reinforcements at predetermined times. Each round in the game represents a month. Players will draw supply cards, get reinforcements, and get build points to repair units, deploy units and even set up minefields. Then they take turns playing cards and performing actions - moving units and conducting combat. For movement, there is much dependency on the the various types of roads, from highways to trails, because they provide movement bonuses. Units by themselves can move between one to four hexes only. Combat are single round affairs. There are four types of units - infantry, tank, anti-tank and artillery, and each type has a different effectiveness attacking different targets. There are also unit type specific rules, e.g. tanks must attack enemy tanks if any are present, artilleries can only be attacked if not protected by other unit types. Like most block games, each unit (or block) rolls as many dice as its health level, and if hit, it is rotated to reduce its health level.

This is the first scenario. The Allies (red) only have four initial units, and the Axis (black) eight. The month track shows when new units will appear.

The map is long and thin. I suspect most action will be along the Mediterranean coast, because that's where the highway is. It's just too difficult to travel across the desert.

Supply cards are key to the game and present an element of bluffing. You need to spend supply cards for almost all actions. About a third of supply cards are decoys, i.e. they have no value and can't be used for anything other than bluffing. On your turn, you can spend one to three supply cards to do various types of combinations of movement and combat. E.g. a single supply card lets you do one move and then conduct one round of combat in any or all combat hexes. Three supply cards let you do Move, Combat, Move, Combat. What is interesting is you play your supply cards facedown, and you can mix in some decoys. You take your actions, and only reveal the cards after your turn is over. Your opponent won't know how many real supply cards are being played, so when you attack him, he has to decide whether to avoid battle or stay to fight. Are you launching a strong offensive that he should try to avoid? Or are you just bluffing? Supply cards are precious and need to be spent wisely, especially when you get a lousy hand with lots of decoys.

The most crucial concept in the game is supply. You need to ensure every unit is supplied, i.e. they need to be able to trace a supply line all the way to your base. Roads can form supply lines, with different roads supporting different distances. Units can be nodes in supply lines, e.g. a supply line can run from one unit, via a medium road, to another unit two steps away. Where there are no roads, units can only link to other units in the immediate next hex, not unlike children holding hands. Don't let go of your friends! In C programming terms, I think of linked lists.

If your unit becomes out of supply, it may become disrupted, and being disrupted is bad. Disrupted units are basically useless until they recover. They are immediately routed if any enemy unit catches them. They can't form supply lines either. Protecting your supply lines is very important, and so is exploiting opportunities to cut your opponent's supply lines.

The Play

Allen and I played two games, but the first one took probably 20 minutes including setup. The rules explanation probably took longer. We played the first scenario (when Rommel is not in North Africa yet). The unit count was low. He played the Allies (British), which had fewer units but they were more mobile units. I played the Axis (Italians only in this scenario), which had more units, but most were slow-moving infantry. In history, the Italians suffered a loss despite their greater numbers. In our first game, we hesitantly approached each other initially, then Allen pounced at a weak point with all his units. I used some unengaged units to go behind him to cut his supply line, while the engaged units tried not to get killed too quickly. This move basically ended the game. All four of his units would become disrupted, and his reinforcements were not coming soon enough, so he conceded defeat. That was quite an abrupt and unexpected end to our game. We decided to go again.

Allen (Allies, red) attacked some of my units (Axis, black). I used a motorised infantry unit (the one on the left) to circle around the battle hex to cut his supply line. He was quite screwed now, with all units engaged.

This time we were much more careful with our supply lines. This time, it was my turn to have my supply line cut by Allen. I bunched up my huge group of units, and he spread himself thin to surround me. He had to spread his units very thinly because they needed to hold hands to maintain a supply line all the way to that lone unit which would cut my supply line. He needed to have units in an uninterrupted chain of hexes because there were no roads to help form his supply line. He cut my supply line, and this was very dangerous for me. I had precious little time to reestablish my supply line, and if I failed, all my units would be disrupted with no one to rescue them. Thankfully I had enough (real) supply cards to launch a Blitz attack (which required 3 supply cards). I had a big group of 8 units. I split them up, with four going backwards to attack the lone Allied unit which had cut off my supply line, and four going forwards to attack two Allied units, which if defeated would in turn break Allen's supply line. Sending four units to attack Allen's lone unit was only possible using Blitz, because I could only move two units into that battle hex per Movement. Blitz is Move + Combat + Move + Combat. Thankfully I managed to kill Allen's lone unit and reestablish my supply line. That was quite a scary moment. Not that I hadn't foreseen the possibility of having my supply line cut. I knew I could have responded this way, but in hindsight I was making a gamble. If my die rolls were unlucky, it would mean game over for me.

This was our second game. I had bunched up my units (mostly infantry), and Allen sent a quick recon unit (the one to the right of my army) to cut my supply line.

I split my army into two groups. One group of four went backward (to the right) to attack the lone Allied unit that had cut my supply line, and had now managed to eliminate it. The other group went forward (to the left) to engage two Allied units.

After that initial skirmish, Allen and I continued to carefully manoeuvre our units. My card draws were poor, and I played defensively to conserve my supply cards. I told him that since I was projected to have a higher unit count by game end (which meant I would win a small victory, unless he captured Tobruk), I could just sit tight and force him to attack. That was actually just half the reason. The other half was my shortage of supply cards. I passed and did Withdraw a few times, which was the only action that didn't need any supply cards. I found that even Withdrawing was tricky. I needed to continue to protect my supply lines. I needed to spread out my units enough so that supply lines were protected, and yet at the same time I couldn't leave them too dispersed because they would get easily defeated if attacked. I needed to leave them close enough so that in case one group was attacked, others could quickly come to help and at the same time protect my supply line.

Some of my infantry units were quite badly worn down. Allen had more tanks than I did, and they were effective against infantry. My infantry units needed to be recalled to my base to heal, before being sent to the front line again. As I continued my defensive play, Allen came under time pressure to attack. The first scenario was a short 6-month scenario, with not many cards drawn every month. He engaged one of my groups, and fighting started. At one point I made a rather cruel decision of letting some of my infantry units die. I decided not to commit more units to that battle, and instead used them for manoeuvring around the battle hex. I guess I could tell those poor souls waiting desperately for reinforcements that it was for the greater good. I was sacrificing pawns for better strategic positioning. Allen won that battle, massacring a few of my units, but I still had greater numbers, and was better positioned for the next even bigger battles. Time was running out, so Allen was forced to take a risk and attack. It was not to be. I had numerical superiority, and by that time I had some tanks of my own too. The Axis (Italians) won.

We were in Month 4 of 6. I had slightly more units at the frontline, and two new units would be coming on board as reinforcement the following month.

Blocks in block games provide fog of war. You won't know exactly which units are what until you engage them in battle, during which all battling units are revealed. After a battle concludes, blocks stand up again. You will try to remember the units that you have seen, but sometimes you won't be able to remember the exact details, like how much damage an enemy unit has taken.

I rarely play wargames, so I am not familiar with the standard icons. Crosses are infantry. Crosses with two dots are motorised infantry (i.e. men with cars, or lorries or motorcycles). Crosses with ovals are mechanised infantry (i.e. men with armoured vehicles). Ovals represent tank tracks, and units with ovals are usually tanks. The single big dots are artillery.

This was the final big battles of our second game. I made good use of my superior numbers and Allen was unable to turn the tide.

The Thoughts

When I read the rules and made a rules summary, I found the game quite daunting. There are so many details in how movement is done, how supply lines work, and how combat works. There are many possible combat situations, and there are rules for each of them. Chris Farrell has said before that this is a true wargame, and I fully agree. This is not an introductory wargame, or a wargame with many Euro-ish elements which make it more accessible to Eurogame players. I have not played many wargames, so Rommel in the Desert is a fresh experience for me in many ways. The need to constantly watch your supply line is one. There is much consideration behind every manoeuvre - protecting your own supply line, threatening your opponent's supply line, and even tempting your opponent to make risky probes at your supply line. This aspect may become second nature after you get used to the concept, but it really defines the feel of the game and the mindset when playing the game.

The bluffing and psychological play is another key feature of the game. This is partly caused by the scarcity of resources. You never quite know how many real supply cards your opponent has. You also want to mislead your opponent when he is trying to guess how many supply cards you have. Playing three cards on your turn may scare your opponent into withdrawing when you advance to engage his units, when you actually only have one real supply card among them, i.e. you are only making a basic Move + Combat action, not anything fancy like Assault or Blitz. I have not really experienced much of this yet though, since the scenario that I played was quite simple.

Conserving your supply cards and making the most effective use of them is very crucial. The game requires careful manoeuvring and planning. Combat lasts one round only, so units can get stuck in battle for quite a number of rounds. It is usually important to maintain some mobility, be it to exploit new opportunities, to cut off enemy supply lines or to support already-engaged comrades.

I quite enjoyed Rommel in the Desert. It's something different for me. I don't know for sure whether I'm liking it for what it is or I'm liking it because I wanted to. I hope it's the former. I'm eager to play again, this time trying other more challenging scenarios, and with Rommel in play. There are quite many scenarios that come with the game, so there is plenty of replayability.


Aik Yong said...

OMG, Hiew, do you know the significance of this event? You have officially transistioned from eurogamer to wargamer in the boardgamer lifecycle! :P

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Ha ha... Just being omnivorous and widening my exposure a bit. Hopefully not too long before Paths of Glory.

Greg Aleknevicus said...

Rommel in the Desert is among my favourite wargames, but it's not one I would recommend as a first "real" wargame. It sounds as if you did quite well though, especially once you learned its most basic lesson: maintain a reserve (of both supply and troops).

I'm often disappointed by games that encourage players to group all their forces into one huge, all-powerful pile. RitD does an excellent job of demonstrating why that's a very bad idea.

The mistakes you and your opponent made are quite common for new players (especially those from a Euro-gaming background). I'd encourage you to play again -- wargames tend to reward expertise much more than eurogames. (The downside to this, is that games are more lop-sided with players of
differing levels of experience.)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Greg, Indeed I hope play again and explore the game system further. The first scenario is quite simple, with not many units to juggle with. I think things will be much more interesting with the more complex scenarios.

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