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ROMMEL IN THE DESERT

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Columbia Games, 2 players, ages 12 and up, 3-8 hours; $59.99)

 

About 20 years ago, Craig Besinque came up with an interesting and challenging design that zeroed in on the North African campaign of World War II. Long out of print, the game has now returned in a new edition, destined to warm the hearts of wargamers everywhere (just as the African sun warmed the bodies of those combatants) with Columbia Games’ new release of Rommel in the Desert.rommeldesbox

As a Columbia Games release, you would expect lots of wooden blocks – and you’d be right. There are plenty of them. 100 blocks are used to represent the embattled forces including Allied brigades (red), German regiments and battalions along with Italian divisions (black) and a few composite support units. As is typical with “block” games, units are played so that their “identities” remain hidden and are only revealed once combat begins. There is also a laminated hex-gridded map of North Africa covering the area from Libya to Egypt, 42 Supply Cards and a 36 page rulebook with eight different scenarios.

Each player starts the game with a specified number of Supply Cards, receiving additional cards every turn. Supply Cards come in two basic types: real and dummy (and fully one-third of the deck are dummy cards with NO real value). While there have been a few minor modifications to the map for clarity and ease of play, roads remain the fastest mode of travel. Three types of road appear on the map: highway (the fastest of the trio), tracks, and trails (the slowest). Roads are extremely important because they make the formation of supply lines easier and, in Rommel in the Desert, supply is the name of the game.

Each player has one base: the Axis in El Agheila and the Allies at Alexandria. Bases serve as each side’s supply center where new units enter the fray and damaged ones may be rebuilt. Bases must be protected. Lose your base and you lose the game! Fortresses (at Benghazi, Tobruk and Bardia) have multiple facets. They can serve as asupply source (for a limited number of units), act as ports, and give a significant combat advantage in defense. It’s easy to see why capturing an enemy fortress is a worthwhile goal. But there’s more to it. Such a capture gives that player an additional Supply Card.

Each game turn represents a month of activity and a turn consists of three phases: Buildup, Initiative and a variable number of alternating Player-Turns.

Buildup is generally the first action. This is when players check to see that their units are in supply and to bring in reinforcements. The reinforcement procedure is quite clever.

Both players roll two dice and the four dice values are added. The total indicates how many Building Points (BPs) BOTH players get! The player rolling the lower total builds first. BPs may be spent on redeployment, replacements, minefields and even extra Supply Cards (at a cost of 10 BPs per card). There may be a temptation to stock up on Supply Cards but there is a hand limit of 16 cards. BPs may be saved (up to 20 of them) for future use.rommelpcs

The Axis player normally has initiative but the Allied player may challenge this by playing a Supply Card face down. If the Allied Supply Card is a real one and has not been matched by a card from the Axis, the Allied player seizes the initiative for that turn. (Regardless of the result, used Supply Cards are discarded!) Now, each player embarks on a series of actions.

A number of options are possible during a player turn. Each player secretly selects and commits supply for one of them. The options include:

1. Basic Turn – Costs 1 Supply Card. This allows one move and one round of combat.

2. Offensive Turn – Costs 2 Supply Cards and allows TWO moves during the same movement phase.

3. Assault Turn – Costs 2 Supply Cards and allows one Move and one Assault Combat (a more intensive style of fighting)

4. Blitz Turn – Costs 3 Supply Cards. This allows a player to conduct TWO Basic Turns back to back.

5. Pass Turn – Costs NO Supply Cards. This allows a player to conserve his supply as well as make one withdrawal of forces (if he wishes).

Now units may move or regroup or withdraw. Movement ability of units range from 1 to 4 hexes (with exclusive travel on roads increasing the range). The Axis player may make a “Rommel” move each turn which adds +1 to all Axis units involved in the move. Should units of opposing forces find themselves in the same hex, combat ensues.

Combat involves setting up your units in a Battle Line and then revealing the identities of the combatants. Battles are resolved via dice roll. In cases of Assault Combat, units roll TWICE the number of normal dice. Cross-referencing the firing unit-class and the target class on the Fire Table (found on the map) determines hits. Retreats (and even partial retreats) are possible. With all combat resolved, supply is checked.

A Supply Line is a continuous line of hexes leading from a unit to a friendly supply source, such as each side’s main base. Units that cannot trace a supply line are considered “unsupplied”. If they remain in that condition for the entire next turn, they become “disrupted”. Disrupted units are virtually paralyzed; among their weaknesses are the inability to move, fire or block enemy supply lines!

Play continues until a Victory Condition, varying depending on which scenario is being played, is met.

The beauty of this simulation is evident on several fronts. The familiar block design of Columbia’s games, by their very nature, establishes “limited intelligence” as you know where enemy forces are but are never quite sure of their precise strengths and capabilities. This “fog of war” adds a realistic sense of uncertainty. In Rommel in the Desert, the uncertainly escalates because of the essential and critical nature of supply.

Managing your supply is key. Supply propels movement, enables attacks, affects initiative. And, once again, you’re dealing with limited intelligence. Each side has Supply Cards and you know how many Supply Cards your enemy has. What you don’t know is how many of those cards are real and how many are “dummy” cards.

Rommel in the Desert is a welcome reappearance for gamers intrigued by the African theater of World War II. It is certainly a demanding game (the rulebook runs 36 pages and scenarios require a significant time commitment). But separating this wargame from others on this topic is its deft handling of supply and its effects. Most wargames concentrate on “slugging it out”. In Rommel in the Desert, the emphasis shifts to the less “glorious” but very critical aspect of warfare: supply. Rommel in the Desert is an excellent challenge for the armchair general. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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