Having had an eye on Shifting Sands, I decided to go ahead and pick up a copy at Origins 2007 while on sale at the MMP booth. We decided to go with the smaller scenario based battle for our first play as opposed to the full campaign in order to familiarize ourselves with the rules and cards. I played the Allies, my friend Steve took the Axis forces.
The scenario starts in Spring of '41 with the Allied forces having already penetrated deep into Libya (the Allies have already taken Benghazi and Tobruk,) the Italian forces nearly encircled in East Africa, and no units active in the Middle East yet. The game lasts through Spring '42 with the Axis needing 7 VP or more (having started at 4) in order to win.
The first turn saw me rout many of the Italian forces in East Africa to the gates of Adis Ababa, the Italian supply source there. In North Africa though, things went south in a hurry as Steve was able to overrun my advance forces in Benghazi and get to the gates of Tobruk.
The second and third turns ended up being crucial and ultimately decided the game I believe. Steve got both Iraqi Revolt and Untermenschen Irak in quick succession, which caught me completely off guard (mostly due to not knowing the cards very well.) The Vichy French and Iraqis were quickly able to punt me out of the Middle East. In addition, I failed to recognize the importance of the Indian division...I should have moved them to Basra with the first possible chance I had...they were more or less useless to me until late in the game.
In addition to the Middle East, I really got bogged down in East Africa. It was crucial for me to take in order to prevent the free victory points for having any Axis forces in East Africa after Fall of '41. After great initial success, only a single Italian division remained holed up in the mountains. However a dogged defense caused me to waste 4 action rounds to get rid of him. I think I hurt myself a little here as I probably started moving forces from East Africa a little faster then I should have to North Africa in order to reinforce my forces there.
Fortunately, I was able to get Barbarossa at the end of turn 3 and was able to start playing Malta Convoys to slow up the Axis march across Libya. In addition, I really started piling up a significant amount of resources in Port Said and Suez was able to start mounting large scale offensive operations. I was able to get 3 large stacks up to Benghazi and easily overran the Italian forces there. Steve played a skillful withdrawal though, avoiding contact where he could to put up a perimeter defense around El Aghlia.
The last turn saw me draw 4 Four Ops Cards (!) as well as the a single 5 Ops Card. It was exactly what I needed to make the final push I felt to win, as I needed as 4 VPs at that time to win.
By this point in the game I had enough forces back in the Middle East to retake Jerusalem and Mosul as well as taking Beruit for an additional VP. It all came down to El Aghlia which after 3 continuos turns of assault I could not crack, primarily due to the Axis forces being in supply which allowed them to cycle new units into the fray more quickly then I could.
So the scenario ended with the Axis winning a close one by 1 VP, although we agreed that even though I lost the battle, if the game and continued I would have won the war.
Overall, great game. Being a veteran of other games of this genre, primarily Barbarossa to Berlin, I think this one is a little more balanced and forgiving on those numerous "doh!" moves you make throughout the game. I think I made the right move focusing on ejecting the Italians from East Africa quickly but failed to recognize how out of hand the Middle East can get in a hurry if neglected. In addition, as the game shifted further west, the Axis forces were able to more quickly cycle units as I got closer to his supply base in Tripoli, which really slowed me down.
I am admittedly a little grey on the North Africa campaigns, but Shifting Sands does seem to give a good historical perspective about the desert theatre of WW II. The designer, I feel, did a good job of showing how the North Africa battles were really influenced by events far away. I can see in the full campaign how important it is for the Allies to quickly eject the Italians from East Africa to free up forces, play the Barbarossa card, and then begin playing the various Malta cards as quickly as possible.
After one play, I can give this one an enthusiastic 2 thumbs up. I can't wait to try the full campaign and am now interested enough in the desert campaigns to go to the local library and pick up a few books to read on the subject!
Another play or two will have both of the players advantaged with knowing what the right weight of forces is to place in the side theatres; my first couple games saw me groping to decide how many divisions to put in East Africa and how many divisions it was prudent to put in Iraq to prepare for the revolt possibility.