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Rommel in the Desert -- Yahtzee Meets Wargaming

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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A true classic wargame about the North African campaign in World War 2 has proven elusive. And not for lack of trying. Type ‘Rommel’ into the BGG search box and you’ll get a screen full of titles.

That’s a bit odd since you’d think World War 2 in North Africa would make good grist for the wargaming mill: roughly even forces, wide open spaces, heroic stands, bold moves and countermoves, various nationalities. How can this not add up to something enduring?

The problem, it seems, is that the hex/counter/odds-based-combat-results-table paradigm that works so well in mainland Europe doesn’t really capture the quintessence of war in North Africa. The positive aspects of gaming North Africa cited above are seriously dragged down by the fact that there’s one hardtop road and few objectives of any value or significance in the entire theater. And the ever present heat means the operational tempo is going to vary from sluggish to languid, with brief bouts of hurried.

Rommel in the Desert
manages to make the most of this situation. It succeeds, at least partially, because it doesn’t follow the paradigm. Its fairly simple mechanics strip away the micromanagement aspects of many games on North Africa and concentrate on putting you in the mindset of the top commanders in the field. Let a staff officer worry about exactly how a position will be attacked or where the airfields will be established. Your focus is on bigger things.

You are forced to take stock of your supply situation—represented by randomly drawn cards—and use it to operationally maximize your board position. You can never do everything you want and rarely know exactly what’s facing you: pretty much the N. Africa conundrum in a nutshell.

RitD is dismissed by some wargamers since it uses wooden blocks to represent combat units and abstracts many of the tropes wargamers expect in ‘combat simulation games.’ You don’t even move units individually, but rather use various types of ‘group’ moves. Combat is of the Yahtzee variety, i.e. roll a 6 score a hit, with a side of rock-paper-scissors for the various unit types. Replacement points don’t follow any historical schedule, being just the roll of two dice. On paper it doesn’t sound like it would amount to much of a simulation, but it transcends these simple mechanics.

Historical results are achievable, likely even, but far from guaranteed. With enough supply, nerve, and ample 6s, Rommel can capture Alexandria. If Monty gets the better of you, the Germans will be Bee-lining to el Agheila, hoping to run the clock out on the Allies. A game can be finished in a couple hours. Setup takes five minutes, 10 if you just dumped everything into the box last time you played.

But is RitD a simulation really? Unarguably, it’s a great game. And I’d call it a damn good simulation as well. It’s a different animal because in addition to inserting you into the situation at one specific command level it also strips everything down to its bare essentials. Where most wargames put you in the role of various people in the same campaign, deciding tactical minutiae along with operation logistics and even strategic planning, RitD’s focus on a single role is actually a big step towards realism.

In other North Africa games are you really gaining more realism with a lot more rules? There’s the old, but best-selling, Tobruk. In it, you’re the overall CiC, various company commanders and the leader of each individual tank. You have to roll two dice 35 times every time a Bofors AA gun fires at an acquired hex. And the practical result of all this work towards realism is that at scenario’s end everyone’s vehicles are immobilized. Realism? Tactically maybe, but operationally it has no greater claim than RitD.

Or on a larger scale take Shifting Sands. Card-driven, historical events galore, and much less abstraction, but it arrives at its historical conclusions—more often than not the same ones RitD reaches—mainly because it’s as scripted as an Egyptian newscast. It’s undoubtedly a fun game, but more history book than history lesson. Again, the sense of added realism seems mostly illusionary. Methinks abstract often gets you to the heart of the matter faster than a separate matrix for every gun size and armor thickness combination.

RitD was well ahead of its time when it was released in 1982 and it’s still in print after nearly on 35 years. That’s not a typo. How many wargames can you say that about? I got my copy in 1985, have played it nearly every year since then, 75+ games overall easily, and I’ll die with it. It's hard to argue with success like that.

My only minor gripe, and with Columbia Games in general, is that the box art looks like something from a junior high school art show. As an adult you sometimes have to justify your obsession with games—no not video games mom—to other adults. The box cover of RitD second printing, by far the most commonly encountered, doesn’t exactly say, “Hello, I’m a serious simulation of the war in North Africa in 1941.” More like, “Dude, check out what I drew during English class.”

Regardless, Rommel is a game every wargamer should own. Despite what the box and components look like, don’t put it in the same mental category as Euros like Memoir ’44, which have only the thinnest veneer of simulation value. RitD is a legit wargame.

Lastly, Patrick Ward, of Sheffield, England, professionally reworked the RitD map and made it available as a free download (with permission). The existing map is great but if yours is damaged or you want a change of scenery it’s worth checking it out: www.boardgamegeek.com/filepage/73071/rommel-desert-map-redux


Rommel in the Desert
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