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Board Game: Mersa Matruh
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I am the wasp / that burrows in! I am the shriek / of twilight din!
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Mersa Matruh is a newish (2005) DTP wargame from designer Chris Harding. The game depicts a delaying action from the WWII North African Campaign, and is intended as both a quick battle for grognards, and as an affordable introduction to hex-and-counter games for novices.

As a DTP (self-published) game, the emphasis is on value for money rather than dazzling production values. For the price, the bits are great. The game is packaged as an A4 ziploc bag containing the following components:

* rulebook
The rulebook is about 10 A4 pages long, and is written in 1.2.3 format with a few diagrams here and there. A single scenario is included. On the whole the rules are both comprehensible and comprehensive, and I found that all of my questions arising in play could be solved by consulting the rules. The OCD grammarians among us will be concerned by the abuse of commas throughout, but a quick tap of a felt tip pen converts them to semicolons where appropriate. An interesting historical blurb about the battle is included, as well as a cover sheet with a colour image of the commanders.

* counters
An uncut countersheet with around 200 small single-sided counters is included. About one third of these are units, with the balance being a mixture of support and status markers. Each counter shows a NATO marking for the unit (e.g. recon, mech. infantry), a unit size (for stacking), troop quality (used to determine a DRM), movement points, and organisational info (e.g. X Artillery Corps). Two important pieces of information omitted from the counters are the setup hex, and the unit strength in steps. The latter is understandable, as many units have four or five steps, which would be difficult to track using single sided counters. The countersheet is (inkjet?) printed onto thick matt cardboard.

The counters turned out to be quite tricky to cut from the sheet. I used a cutting mat, metal rule, and stanley knife, but I still got some worn print and rough edges. The rulebook recommends using a paper cutter / guillotine to get a clean cut and straight edges, but if you don't have one, you'll probably end up using a stanley knife like I did. Under no circumstances should you attempt to cut the counters out with scissors!

If you do go the stanley knife route, I suggest covering the countersheet in very thin adhesive plastic (we call it 'contact' here, not sure what it is elsewhere) to prevent the print rubbing off, then clipping the counters once you're done cutting them out. The counters are easy to pick up in an unclipped state, but I think that clipping them would discourage the cardboard from separating.

* small ziploc bags
Three ziploc counter bags are included, which is a nice touch. They're just the right size, and of better quality than the bags I usually buy for this purpose.

* map
The game is played on an A3, colour photocopied hexmap of Mersa Matruh and the surrounding coast and desert. The map is clear and simple, and you'll end up visiting most of it during a game. The hexes are numbered in the usual fashion. Despite the teeny counters and low stacking limit, the hexes are still a bit on the small side, but it's not as bad as, say, ASLSK#1 in this regard. An A2 map would have been better, but I imagine this would have substantially increased the production costs.

* unit strength sheets
As mentioned above, the units have multiple steps not displayed on their counters. Step determination and reduction in the game is handled by a slightly fiddly system of double entry book-keeping, with each player having a unit strength sheet for both sides. Steps lost count have an impact on VPs and artillery support, so it's important to make sure that both sides' sheets are always in agreement accurate.

* support cards
The stars of the show quality-wise are the two support cards (one for each player), which look like something from a GMT game. Little stacks of counters are placed on these cards to keep track of available artillery and air support. The artillery support counters belong to a particular units, and have a range (in hexes, from the artillery unit's map position) that varies depending on the unit. Air support is abstracted to a single pool which can be allocated to any battle.

* player aid
One colour photocopy player aid containing the CRT and a terrain summary is provided. Another (monochrome) aid is printed on the back page of the rulebook, so that the players can have one each.

Players are expected to provide 1d6 and a couple of pencils, and their own beer, chips, and perspex sheet.

Board Game: Mersa Matruh

Game components

The game plays for the most part like a traditional hex-and-counter game. Sides take complete turns rather than acting in impulses, supply is checked after the movement phase, and combat is resolved on a 1d6 CRT. There are no cards, fog of war, friction, or concealment, which would probably be a bit complex for an introductory game.

Setup is on the long side, with counters starting in numbered hexes that are listed in the rulebook. There's a fair bit of hunting-and-pecking here before all the counters are in the right place. I recommend using a pie rule here, where one player sets up both sides, and the other returns from the bottle-o and picks which side he or she would like to play.

Movement is straightforward, with MPs printed on each counter, and few terrain effects. Minefields impede movement (but can be cleared by infantry), and the scenario begins with the Allied fortifications at Mersa Matruh heavily mined. Unusually for a hex-and-counter game, units do not have to stop when entering minefields or enemy zone of control. All of the units are pretty fast, which makes for a fun change from combat to pursuit once the minefields are cleared out.

Supply is very well handled, but is perhaps a bit complex for an introductory game. Each unit has an HQ, and the HQ must be able to trace supply to the highway (basically by not straying too far from a road or trail). Combat units must stay close to their HQ, though recon units can wander a bit further. Supply cannot be traced through minefields or enemy ZoC, and it's this rule that prevents the game being a walkover for the Axis. There are four ordinal supply states, so unlike some North African games, it's possible for a unit to recover from a couple of turns with no supply. The meat of the game is definitely the management of supply.

Combat is handled by a 1d6 CRT, with attackerefender step ratio determining the column used. Both sides can contribute artillery and air as additional steps for the purposes of determining the CRT column. There are also many applicable DRMs, most of which are logical (low supply penalty, armour bonus vs infantry), and some of which might have been better built directly into the CRT (e.g, +1 DRM for a 6:1 attack).

The artillery / air support rules are quite deterministic: the attacker contributes 0-3 points, then the defender contributes 0-2 points. I found this a little gamey for my tastes (as I could peer at the CRT to figure out what I needed to add), but you could resolve it as a blind bid if you wanted more fog / friction.

So how does it play, then? For me, the game is fun and well-balanced, and the battle is interesting. There are some rough edges, like the double entry book-keeping, but the game is over fairly quickly (I'd say 2 hours, not including setup, once you have the rules down) so it's not a huge concern. The two sides play differently, and there are some different setups and strategies to tinker with, so I think the game should have some replay value.

As a quick introductory North African game, this is a success. It's perhaps a bit complex / fiddly for the total novice, but on the whole it's interesting and well-executed. For someone investigating wargames, Mersa Matruh would be a good next step up from something like MMP's Target Arnhem. It's surprisingly polished for both a DTP game and a first design, and the price is low enough that it's worth taking a punt on. I'll be keen to see what Chris comes up with for his next wargame.

Edit: Deleted the parts where I was using the spare unit sheet incorrectly, and added another gratuitous drinking reference. My ambition in life is to one day play a wargame and get all of the rules and exceptions right, but it appears that the drinking is getting in the way of this.
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