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Subject: A reluctant conclusion rss

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Alasdair Campbell
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Blood and Sand is my third foray into the system which started for me with MedWar Sicily. I liked both of the previous games in this series (the aforementioned MedWar and Desert War 1940), although there were niggles here and there which prevented me from giving them top marks. Blood and Sand has elicited a similar reaction from me, a lot to like, but little things here and there which bring it down a tier or two from what I would regard as my favourite games.

Components

The counters are nice: clear, simple and attractive. They are in keeping with the design introduced with Desert War, and I really like them. The cards are functional, but nothing special. The rulebook is clean, and well presented, although people who have not played the previous two games may struggle a bit with the vagueness that appears here and there (the assumption being I presume that you have read the previous games’ manuals; although they themselves were not always that clear). The map is the best thing about the components, really nice to look at, and for me gives a real flavour of the desert campaign. Alas, as is often the case with this series for me, a little bit of carelessness detracts from what should be a strength. What I mean here is (as has been mentioned in another review) that the hexes are on the small side when it comes to accommodating counters. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game didn’t tend to bring stacks of counters to sit in close proximity to one another, but it does, and so from the practical point of view, picking up counters and seeing what the terrain or hexside terrain is presents a problem.

Rules

I’m not going to go into any detail on the basics of the rules, as you can find my thoughts on those in the reviews I have done on the two earlier games in the series. The strengths and weaknesses of the previous games’ basic system are retained. But I will add something here on the special rules which are part of Blood and Sand only, and which obviously have a major impact on the game and how it plays.

The major innovation in Blood and Sand, which is to mirror the special nature of the Desert Campaign, is the introduction of supply zones. Basically it becomes more expensive to attack with units the further away from your main supply source you are. So for the Allies, as they move further and further away from Alexandria, and the Eastern map edge, it becomes more expensive in terms of supply points to attack. And for the Axis, as they move away from El Agheila, it becomes more difficult to attack. Obviously for this added cost to have an impact on your ability to attack, you must have a limited pool of supply points each turn, and that is the case. The Axis base supply each turn being 25pts + 2d6, the Allied base supply being 35pts + 2d6. Unlike previous games in the series, your ability to attack with units is limited, which I feel as I will explain under Gameplay, may have a detrimental effect on the game.

Resource Points are used as in previous games for card play and refitting of units. The cards are more of less the same as previous games, with cards which help with breakthroughs, armour, anti-tank and so on. There are a couple of cards specific to Blood and Sand though. Rommel and Monty have an effect on the game through cards, but perhaps not as dramatic as might have been. One of the more interesting abilities now available is the ability to force the Allies to withdraw troops, or the Allies ability to bring those withdrawn troops back in. I like this ability as it adds another layer of uncertainty.

As I am “used” to the vagueness of some rules from the other titles, I’ll not comment on them here, but it is still present. Overall however, what you have with the rules is another low-complexity and quick play wargame, which even with the ambiguities is fairly easy to understand.

Gameplay

Here for me is where my opinions on the game began to change. Up until the point where I had examined the components and rules, I was pretty happy. Okay, so there were the minuses with regard to the hex size and the usual vague bits in the rules, but I had overcome the same vagueness in the previous games, and so I was looking forward to a period of wargaming I’ve been interested in since my teens when I had great fun with Desert Rats and Vulcan on the ZX Spectrum!

Firstly I must state that I have only played the game solo, so 2-player may uncover some aspects of gameplay I have not considered. Once I started my first play, I became frustrated when playing the Axis, as 25 points plus 2d6 usually gives you about 30 points to attack with. And so in the key supply zone around Tobruk each mech/armoured unit you attack with uses up 4 points – so 6 units uses up 24 points, most of your attacking potential. What this means is that you cannot commit an all-out attack, which of course is historically accurate. You will have several units on any given turn which cannot do any attacking, again most likely historically accurate. Now, if those limited attacks could produce fundamental changes in momentum and position, then for my part the historical accuracy would be carried through. However, given the other mechanics of the game, it is very difficult to produce the decisive breakthrough I feel. Firstly, you are relying of die rolls, and so even with 15 die rolls (a very potent 2-stack German attack), you can still end up not dislodging attacker who could conceivably take 5 hits of 5 or 6 and still have one reduced unit in the defender’s hex – for argument’s sake Tobruk itself. What the Axis player, or any attacker has to do, is try and isolate defenders so that they cannot negate hits with retreats, and thus destroy your opponents’ units. But this strategy falls down if the Allies early in the game can delay the Axis for a turn or two, just enough time to get units into a defensive screen in and around Tobruk so that surrounding units becomes difficult.

What all of this boils down to in my opinion, is that despite the Axis having an extra attacking turn at the beginning to simulate the El Agheila offensive, and two very good attacking cards (Breakthrough and Armour), there is a reasonable to pretty good chance that the Allies will be able to delay the Axis just enough to start rushing reinforcements up to the Tobruk area and produce an early game stalemate which can be difficult to break. I could be wrong about this however, as my latest game (my fifth attempt) has produced a markedly different result.

I was very lucky with early die rolls knocking over the Allies at El Agheila very early and easily. Thus I was able to retain my Breakthrough and Armour cards for my assault on Tobruk. I also threw a noose around the 7th Armoured Division and eliminated the Allies’ top unit in the early game, and then I was able to draw a card which forced the Allies to withdraw the entire New Zealand division. And I was able to play the SNAFU card at a key moment to stop Allied reinforcements from reaching the front. So luck was very much with me, and that brought about the fall of Tobruk, and an Allied withdrawal which did not stop until the El Alamein line by November ’41! Now I suspect I made some pretty stupid moves as the Allies to let this happen, but is shows with the right dice and cards you can make a real dent in the Allied behemoth. Those 3-strength Panzer units are very handy for attacking, given the supply point rules for attacking.

Despite this latest success as the Axis, I still have my doubts however, and feel that more often than not the early game will settle into two lines around Tobruk, and that the real game will be whether the Allies can take Benghazi to deny the Axis a minor victory. The Supply Zone rule has introduced a layer of realism absent from the other two titles, and yet not much else been added to mitigate the effect of limiting attacking with this bucket o’ dice system.

I feel some units have far too high a movement allowance, and this allows recon units to fire off over huge distances and it also allows a whole slew of reinforcements to reach the front line on any give turn – which is especially important for the Allies early on. Also the Breakthrough and Rommel cards which allow you to make an extra attack with the same unit during the same turn are kind of hamstrung by the fact that you need enough Supply Points to carry out the follow-up attack. A real bonus card would have been one which allowed to make a free extra attack (perhaps they are meant to be a ‘free’ extra attack, the wording on the cards doesn’t make it crystal clear either way). Perhaps a bigger points allowance for the Axis early on would give them the momentum required for a real offensive. As things stand, I feel that it would take a really naive Allied player (i.e. me on my fifth attempt) to allow the Axis to make a decisive breakthrough around Tobruk. The game system which allows retreats to negate one hit means that it can take a lot of firepower to produce the hits to make a real dent in your opponent’s lines, and the supply zone restrictions means that this is much more difficult to achieve than was the case with previous games.

The game is not broken, but I can’t help thinking that overcomplicating a simple game system for the sake of historical realism can be a mistake. Once you add one layer of realism like this, then you begin to pose questions as to whether other rules should be added to help add to that realism. Why not allow either side to stockpile a turn’s supply for use at any point in the future, thus allowing for a major offensive? Or make the extra attacks through cards, free attacks. This for me would give the game more fluidity and make it less predictable as the Desert Campaign proved to be. As things stand, I can’t get the nagging feeling out of my head that most games will centre upon Tobruk, with the Allies eventually late game trying to take Benghazi. This will still produce a game when either side can win or lose, as Benghazi gives the Axis a minor victory. But with the limited supply points for attack, once unit densities reach their mid-game level for both sides, I cannot see many ways of either side really doing too much. Thus all seems to hinge on the first turn or two when the Axis, with the right dice and cards, can push the Allies back and make a real game of it. What I am saying here is that to my mind the early die rolls in turn 1 and 2 for the Axis are going to dictate to a large extent what happens for the remainder of the game, one unlucky roll and the Axis are held for a crucial extra turn at El Agheila. I never felt this was the case with the previous two titles. There was no doubt that you could get unlucky rolls, but you could come up with a strategy to try to and overcome bad luck to some degree. Here I feel, bad dice early on can more or less finish the chances the Axis has of making it to Bardia etc.

Conclusion

And so Blood and Sand has left me with a sense of frustration as much as anything. I like the simple system. It gives me a chance to play out campaigns which would normally take a lot longer to play. The components are nice for the most part, although there are one or two issues. I did get the feeling with my fifth playthrough that the Axis can make a decisive breakthrough, but the underlying feeling that great dice early on are required (and perhaps a couple of poor decisions on the Allies’ part) and not any real tactical nous is disappointing. There’s no point in having lots of powerful Axis or Allied units, if you are unable to use most of them at the same time in a co-ordinated attack, at least from time to time. This would have remained true to the game’s simple, no-nonsense roots. As things stand, the cluttered hexes and the question mark over the supply zones leave this game hanging at the 6.5 out of 10 mark for me. A shame, as this was the title I was most looking forward to in the series. I’m still looking for a game which can give me the North African Campaign in a manageable (medium to low complexity) format.
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Alasdair Campbell
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Thanks for the recommendation.

I have been considering Rommel in the Desert, or waiting for No Retreat 2, of maybe even trying to pick up Afrika (2nd ed), all different animals and in the case of Afrika a bit of a different scale.

I've read good things about all of them. I really like No Retreat: The Russian Front, so that has been tipping me towards waiting for its North African cousin. Although I would like to try one of Columbia's block games - I was torn between Rommel and Hammer of the Scots.

Decisions, decisions...



 
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Steven Goodknecht
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Alasdair,

Very good review. As this is your third wargame review, you have been added to the wargame reviewers geeklist here:http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/127822/in-praise-of-bg...
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Alasdair Campbell
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Thank you Steven,

I'm pleased to join such esteemed company. I know how much reviews have helped me make up my mind when it comes to buying games, and so I thought I would try and return the favour with some titles I own which have not received a lot of attention.
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Roger Lai
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Great insightful review, keep it up!
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Mike Hoyt

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Yeah, good review. Made me decide to pass

Rommel in the Desert and Afrika II are both great alternatives, and both let you stockpile supply for the big offensive. Can't really see not having that in a North Africa game
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Alasdair Campbell
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Thanks Roger and Mike,

Yes, I'm going to give Afrika II a try, if I can source a copy.

 
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David G. Cox Esq.
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Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are.
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Excellent review. I think you have been fair with your comments and your review is written with great clarity.

The fact that your opinions mirror mine is simply a coincidence.

I look forward to more of your reviews.


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Alasdair Campbell
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I agree with you, house rules for supply and movement allowances could easily fix this game. The stock pile rule would really help matters, for me anyway. Some people may like the system as it is, as it certainly gives a flavour of the supply limitations of desert campaign. I've since acquired Afrika II and I feel its handling of the supply issue is more nuanced. With that game, you can be desperately short of supply at key moments, but also you are able to try and stock pile supply and a die roll for port and coastal transport capacity can give you a short-term glut of supply.

In Blood and Sand, the die roll never, to my mind, really gave you wild supply swings. The difference between 25 supply points and 35 supply points for the Axis was not that significant. But yes, a couple of house rules could make a game a nice lowish-complexity treatment of the campaign. I too eagerly await No Retreat 2!

 
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