"...the art of manoeuvering armies...an art which none may master by the light of nature. but to which, if he is to attain success, a man must serve a long apprenticeship." -- G.F.R. Henderson
The "Black Swan" edition of the game
This game had been out for quite a while before I finally got around to play it. Ironically, it was because I got another couple of relatively small and simple to play titles on the Gazala battles and I decided it was high time to figure out which one(s) I liked best. This got me thinking I should play as many Gazala games as I had in my inventory (and I have many of them), but which one should I play first? This one came to mind--it seemed the smallest and quite possibly the fastest to play. A few capsule comments about the components, rules, etc.
Let me begin with my bottom line up front. This is one of those games that are deceptively simple but take a lot of forethought to play well. It also has high amounts of tension given the initiative system, based on card deck draws (red suits are Commonwealth activations, black are Axis) The number on the card is halved, fractions rounded up--that's the number of counters activated. Face cards mean you can activate one stack of units or call in an air/artillery strike (once per turn). If you've played games with such a system, you know what this means; these make for terrific solitaire sessions. But it's also quite possible for one side to get a string of activations--and actions--before the other side can respond. Pre-emption can be a big deal in this game. Setting conditions to create multiple threats and taking maximum advantage of favorable card draw runs is part of the problem for both players.
That said, it doesn't feel much like a typical Africa game. Movement happens generally very slowly for activated units, ordinarily just one hex, save for certain mechanized/motorized units on contiguous roads (+2 more hexes) or trails (+1 more hex). What this means is you don't see the rapid slashing maneuvers happening all at once; everything is slowed down to small increments. Oh, such slashes can--and often do--happen, it's just not all at once. Kind of like watching the battle unfold in slow-motion. That will turn off some players who are looking for rapid, dramatic maneuver.
While maneuvering forces is favored, it merely creates better conditions for the inevitable attrition that will follow. Yes, there's lot of combat here. A lot. The combat system creates no penalties for attacking, so players are encouraged to attack at any and all opportunities when they choose not to move. What this does is provide players a feeling of slow, attritional combat across the map. So, if the movement portrayal doesn't turn some players off, this system of costless attacks just might.
If you can get past all that, what remains is quite an interesting puzzle for both players as they grapple with each other. Once some basics mechanics and operational concepts are mastered, neither player is going to feel comfortable right until the last turn--and often until the last card is drawn--of the game.
So let's talk about what some of the concepts and salient systems are in the game.
Axis Objectives. This would be Rommel's last lunge for Tobruk, which he pulls off historically. The victory conditions reward either the capture of Tobruk, as what happened historically, or the exit of 10 Axis units off the east edge of the board AND having a clear supply path from the east edge on a road and/or trail to the west edge. There's no ZOCs in this game, so an Allied unit needs to be sitting on the road being used as the supply path to deny the Axis victory using the latter condition.
The map at start, before the Axis free setup forces and Rommel are placed
Axis Starting Situation. The majority of the Axis forces must set up in the hexes where they were historically. The Allies have a strong line at start, with many units manning minefields with an open flank to the south. Of course, that's where the German panzers are when the game opens, but they are not yet in contact and Axis players may find they are not ideally deployed for their purposes. Italian units man Axis minefields with a couple of German "stiffeners" in the northern line. The German player has three units and Rommel he can place on the map generally where he wants with some restrictions.
The Axis Problem. Overall, it is pretty clear that the main effort is going to be made in the southern part of the map given the mandatory set up. Trouble is, carrying through that concept is going to be problematic for some of the Axis forces--primarily Italians--manning the Axis defenses opposite their British counterparts. Those southern forces must be brought to bear against the southernmost Allied box at Bir Hacheim and the Allied flank rolled up to facilitate Axis supply for deeper operations. That takes time and activation card draws for movement and for combat. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth player can bang on the opposing Axis defenses--indeed, it is encouraged to--to force the Axis into an operational dilemma. Because there is no penalty for attacking, the Commonwealth will be able to force fall backs and attrition on the Italian defenders, eventually gobbling up survivors backed up to the western edge of the map. These are units the Axis will eventually sorely miss. But the front is simply too far away for the Panzers to redeploy there and try to stop it in time.
The way out of that is to put one of the free setup units with Rommel on the northernmost hex of the Axis defenses to crack through the Allied minefields there and complicate such an Allied concept. Once that problem is handled, then the southern Axis drive can get going. Which one is the best one often depends on the card draws. And so it goes.
The Axis player will often generally decide that the best way to stop this is to get deep into the Allied rear between the front line and Tobruk--and the faster this happens, the better. So maybe this isn't much of an operational dilemma for the Axis after all. Whether this is the best option or not only is judged in hindsight--often the result of the card draws!
But then there's the problem of properly organizing forces and sequencing maneuvers and battles in the south. The Germans are not optimally deployed here. If the answer to the problem above is to attack Bir Hacheim and the northern minefield protected forces at all speed to allow a deep turning movement to draw off Commonwealth forces from attacking Italians, then such attacks must be made "off the cuff" with forces as originally deployed. This means attacks are not optimum in many cases, whereas spending card draw activations to bring up more forces and/or position them better costs precious time. Which concept is better to pursue? There are prospects and perils for both; a lot depends on the turn of a friendly card!
Once this initial dilemma is dealt with, then the Axis must decide whether to make a bid for Tobruk or aim for exiting forces. It's difficult to position forces to threaten both as the game progresses. It soon becomes obvious which path to victory the Axis has chosen. And that predictability is something the Allied player will definitely use. If so many Italians have been taken out of play so that the supply path cannot be adequately guarded across the length of the board, then the Axis will often tend to go for Tobruk. If enough Italians remain, then the Axis player will try to maintain a "fork" positioning of forces at least through the middle of the game, if not longer, that threatens a win either way.
The hidden Axis problem is one of time. The Allied player is going to do whatever it takes to run through the card deck just as fast as he can. All the Joker face cards save one are removed from the deck--once it's drawn at the beginning of the turn, the card deck is reshuffled and the turn continues. Once it's drawn a second time, that turn is over and a new turn begins. It's in the Allied player's interest to run down the card deck clock at any and all times--that governs his operations and tactics. Onboard Allied actions are often to mount diversions that the Axis simply must respond to, distracting activations from his main effort, else he ignores these to his ultimate peril and demise (usually because of an interdicted supply path). It's often the case that the Axis runs out of time on game turn 10--he is just a few card activations short of taking Tobruk or exiting forces/counterattacking to restore his supply path.
Another view of the setup situation, this time with one of the AT units and Rommel placed with the northern-most German units.
Allied Starting Situation. It sure looks dire at start, given the Axis threat in the south. But it takes a while to materialize. The Commonwealth enjoys two major advantages and a minor one. The first advantage is that Allied forces get a +4 card draw defensive bonus for forces in friendly minefields. Since the way the combat system works is for Axis attacking units must total up attack factors that EXCEEDS the combat card draw and any defensive modifiers, one can see that it will take overwhelming force to take these places. That means the German has to have those forces adjacent to the defending hex AND draw a large enough number in his card draw to activate enough forces to attack with a reasonable prospect of success. The second major advantage is that these Allied forces stay in supply inside these minefields/boxes. Sooner or later, the Axis is going to have to attack them. The minor advantage is that the Commonwealth is likely to have enough of a delay to cause the Axis to lose his northern defenses to Commonwealth attacks, with quite a number of Italian units lost to boot. Either the Axis spends card draws to organize his force to maximize combat power against the Commonwealth minefield defenses, or he tries "off the cuff" attacks and risks the occasional failure, also costing time. Either way works in favor of the Commonwealth. However, if the Axis chooses to organize his force well, it will be better positioned to follow up success and maintain operational momentum in future turns.
The Allied Problem. Here, the Commonwealth is forced to dance to the Axis tune. In the first half of the game, most of the effort is to damage the Axis defenders in their minefields as much as possible. These means taking every kind of attack that can be had by the card draw. Lower number and face cards can be used to reposition forces in response to the Axis blows in the south. Higher number cards are best used to mount attacks against the Italians manning the Axis minefields with their +2 to the card draw defenses. Sure, the Allied player won't always win, but at least unsuccessful attacks help run through the card deck and the clock.
Another view of the German setup, with the initial main effort with Rommel in the north
As things develop toward the mid-game, the Allied player has to be ready to respond to either Axis threat...towards Tobruk or towards the eastern edge of the map. Hopefully Italian units (and the two German ones) have been eradicated at this point, having run out of places to fall back and taking losses instead. It's often productive to threaten the Axis trail supply lines and force an Axis diversion of some kind to slow the mechanized drives.
Attacks that have no chance of succeeding should still be made, if nothing else than to cycle through the card deck. Even low-strength attacks force the Axis to pick a card for his defensive value. Once the Italians have fallen back out of the defensive minefields, they are often easy meat for the Commonwealth. A lot of units can be taken off the map this way. These are units that the Axis will wish he had later on in the game to guard his supply path against potential Commonwealth threats.
By the late mid-game to end game, the Allies must decide on activations to either position his forces for a defense of Tobruk or the eastern map edge and maintain a threat to the Axis supply path. If the Axis have lost a lot of units, the Allies may succeed in making the exit victory condition seem out of reach and force a costly and time-consuming assault on Tobruk instead. The key here is whether there are enough units left in the Commonwealth OOB to make this work. Some Axis players will aim to bang down as many Allied units as they can, getting them off the board. That strategy can work well, especially if the Axis exits one unit off the east edge to prevent regrouped forces from coming back onto the map.
Tactical Dilemmas in the System. There are many, many agonizing choices to be made when playing the game. When drawing low number cards, is it better to reinforce a tenuous gain or make a threat somewhere else on the map? Should one attack or move with such cards?
It's tough enough when deciding which units to move when activated by a low number card or face card. It's worse when getting a high number card, especially for the Axis who sees so many things that could be done. One thing to be said about this system is that there is no advance after combat. Taking ground means one needs a high numbered card for activation; attack with some and then move into the hex if you have forced a fall back or elimination of the target. But there aren't that many high numbered cards in the deck! So, it's not surprising that the mechanized forces move when there are high numbered cards, or attack with them. Ideally, stacks of three mechanized/panzers are positioned adjacent to each other, with Rommel atop one of them. Those stacks are also moved when face cards activate them! The Axis player will want to move in such a way that high number cards allow him to attack with two or three units--with Rommel--and force a fall back result or removal of a unit, leaving a hex open to be exploited by one or two units before the Commonwealth can react.
This won't often be a tactic the Commonwealth can afford, spread out as the Allied units will be. But getting a high value card has great value in the beginning of the game as effective attacks can be mounted against the Italians in their minefield defenses. Later on, when these have been sufficiently banged down, the Commonwealth can use high numbers to generate an equal number of attacks, none of which may stand a high chance of success but force the German to draw defensive cards, running out the deck and the clock! Of course some of those defensive draws might cause a fall back or even a step loss--always a welcome event for the Commonwealth player!
And then there's the problem of using air or artillery strikes when a face card is drawn. Much depends on the board position regarding whether to use them or not in lieu of moving/attacking with a single unit or stack. Such capabilities are nice to have in emergencies, but generally should not be counted on in straight combat situations. Probably not going to do any good in that role against enemy units in minefields/boxes. Best against units in the open, but even then the odds are generally long. Card counters will be favored here; if a lot of the mid- to high- value cards have been drawn, it may be worth risking this so long as the attack value is higher than what can be done with a ground unit adjacent to an enemy, or the enemy unit is particularly threatening and requires either step reduction or a fall back result. The Allied player will find this capability very useful in situations were they don't have a lot of units adjacent to the Axis--sometimes greater probabilities of fall back and/or step losses result from air and artillery use than ground attacks.
The Commonwealth player does have the option of flying air over Allied units to give them some defense support, which is useful to beef up exposed units vulnerable to attack. Much depends on the probabilities and what cards have already been drawn.
There's no Zones Of Control (ZOCs) so it's very rare you can surround a unit to kill it with a fall back result. To do this, you are better off chasing it against some sort of terrain barrier (water, an escarpment) so that it can't fall back; takes fewer units to surround it that way. In many situations--especially against Commonwealth and Italians in the open--it's not worth losing activations for such fancy footwork. Dogpile attack strength and hope for a failure to fall back. That will do the killing for you.
Minor Chrome. What is there is minimal but still represents some nice touches. Units have strength to be used against armor and strength to be used against infantry. Armor units are pretty good against both, but AT battalions are best against armor and infantry is best against other infantry. Anti-Tank Screening shields the Axis AT battalions from combat results when stacked with other units until those other units suffer fall backs or reductions. This really provides some backbone to hexes the Axis wants to defend. The Out Of Supply rules are nice in that movement is limited to one hex and is dependent on an odd or even die roll. Players can allow units to get out of supply--and it's often a worthwhile tactic to do so--but there's risk involved. Certain Axis units in the game have specialized engineer capability to help clear minefields...but they typically aren't in the right place at the right time. You can bet these formations are major targets for Commonwealth attacks when they get to the front. Rommel can enhance attacks units he's stacked with executes. And units can opt to "fall back" (retreat) when hit instead of taking losses, provided there is at least one hex to fall back to and they pass a die roll check--and that varies with nationality and circumstances.
The game map sheet--with rules included
Physical Production. You either like LPS, Inc. graphics in their magazine or you don't. For me, Craig Grando's art seems somewhat evocative of the topic in this title. There's a map sheet which has a small map of the area and has the rules printed on it. So no rulebook. However, there's a good bit of errata and some house rules you'll need to play the game, which I'll get to. The counters are quite simple and nice. Never ran out of the markers which are used to mark cleared minefields and to designate units that are out of supply. Of course, you simply have to have a Rommel unit. Of course....
There are errata counters that showed up in the Death Ride: Mars-La-Tour issue (a scan is available here in BGG at https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/45383/errata-counter-imag...). What seemed to be cosmetic fixes corrected some unit sizes which has some impact on stacking. I'll get to that in a bit.
There's also an errata sheet for the game which you simply have to have. You can find that through the game BGG page which takes you to http://www.atomagazine.com/errata/errata_cartwheel_gazala.pd...
Completeness of Rules. Well, this is a small problem. The game assumes experienced wargamers who can patch holes in some sort of mutually agreeable fashion, and this is true even with the errata sheet. So the rules are perhaps a bit too terse. I strongly recommend playing with all the optional rules printed on the map sheet. You can fiddle with the alternative fall back rules on the errata sheet if you want. The game is completely different without the optional rules--the game has so few rules, why play without them?
What follows below are my interpretations mixed in with what the designer/developer/publisher has put out:
Cards. Ace cards are considered a "1," not a face card. Per Lembit Tohver on Consimworld Forum.
Stacking Limits. The rules say two brigades/regiments plus a one-step unit. Since so many of the German forces are battalions, one can easily envision that six could be stacked plus a one-step unit. Well, no. In the Consimworld Forum topic for the game, Chris Fawcett has given the German player a three unit limit. He says that another way of stating 1.2 might be: "Three units may stack in a single hex, provided no more than two are regiments and/or brigades." Of course, this does not count Rommel or the air unit flying interdiction.
Reinforcements. These are clearly seen on the turn record track, but aren't really discussed in the game rules. Recommend bringing these on per the Regroup rules for regrouped unit entry.
Mine Clearing versus Attacking Units in Minefields. My interpretation is that you don't have to clear minefields to attack units in them. Even if you do clear minefields, the defender still gets the benefits. All mine clearing does is keep you from doing a card draw to MOVE into them. My rationale for this interpretation is that lanes are being cleared in minefields for transit--it's not the whole minefield that is being cleared. So there is still significant defensive benefits from the minefield, even if lanes are made through them.
Regroup. The rules on the map sheet are a bit fuzzy. How does one interpret the phrase, "a player can bring back one unit at reduced strength of the same type with strength values equal to or less than a unit which is placed into a permanently eliminated pile?" There are two strengths shown on the counter. Should the strengths be combined together for the purposes of this rule? Or should the player pick either the Armor Factor or Infantry Factor and follow the rule regarding the other units for only that chosen factor? I recommend the latter interpretation.
House Rule. The game rules suggest that when face cards are drawn for combats, they should either be counted as a "miss" or another card should be drawn (which gives a slight Allied advantage). Between players of even skill, I recommend treating such a draw as a miss. If the Axis is more experienced, then players can draw another card (which helps the Allies run down the card deck/game clock).
House Rule. There's been some discussion about what to do with a string of activations for one side or the other in the first turn of the game that seem to slant the situation. Some have proposed various solutions on the Consimworld Forum folder, but nothing appears to yet have taken hold. They have ranged from ignoring subsequent activations past the first two or three consecutive ones to giving the opponent a free activation. Jury seems out on this for now.
There is a lot of game in this small package. It is possibly not to everyone's taste and it's my hope that this review accurately describes the best (and not so stellar) features that will influence decisions to get and/or play the game. For me, I quite enjoy the puzzle it presents to both sides.
For my review of another game on the 1942 Gazala battles, see my initial impressions of Rommel At Gazala (Second Edition) at https://boardgamegeek.com/article/19793413#19793413
- Last edited Fri Jul 17, 2015 6:03 pm (Total Number of Edits: 8)
- Posted Sat Jun 13, 2015 2:08 am
Thank you for the very detailed and thoughtful review and analysis. I, too, am an addict of the Gazala battles, and it was a real challenge to convert the original Stand at Mortain postcard game system into a much larger and longer battle, yet keep to some very restrictive physical format requirements. In some areas I think I succeeded; in others, not so much.
But I'm glad you enjoyed yourself with the game, which is the real core goal any game seeks to achieve.