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Algeria: The War of Independence 1954-1962» Forums » Reviews

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Justin Wood
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Algeria is an interesting take on the conflict between Algerian nationalists and their French colonizers. Although featuring combat, the game takes a unique approach that brings a lot of the political feel to the battles on the table. I've always been interested in guerilla conflicts and the dynamics of terror and counter-terrorism, so the subject matter was intriguing to me. This review is after several playthroughs of the game.

The initial experience was that it was hard to get a sense of the game. The rules feel like they were designed to save pages and although concepts present are pretty clearly explained (did need a few clarifications, which the designer himself provided in the forums-much appreciated), the general nature of the game was elusive until running through it. I do wargame occasionally and that knowledge seemed to be helpful for filling in conceptual details. Additionally, the charts
themselves provide a lot of the specifics, so you have to read them for some of the actual play mechanics.

The best part of the Algeria is the feel it gives to the conflict. Although the players battle with cardboard counters like in any wargame, the focus is really on the cost of that conflict. The key value in the game is each player's Political Support Level. This is an abstraction of the general feel of the populace regarding each side in the conflict. A player wins by driving the other's PSL down to zero. This is accomplished via missions.

The FLN player spends Administrative Points, which are earned via control of various regions of the country (as well as the PSL level and possibly from intervening foreign governments). The FLN conducts missions that attempt to subvert the French, either lowering their PSL or raising the FLN PSL. Similarly, the French player can conduct military or pacification operations. The French player must pay their costs of building and maintaining forces out of their Political Support Level.

The FLN units have options that are very realistic in their mission types, as well as the ability to escape underground when the French try and go after them. The French player needs certain kinds of units to flush them out or prevent them from escaping, which leads to the unit
selection strategy. There is also a random events table which is checked each turn, and it contains real-life historical events that have an effect on game play, which is pretty cool.

The French player having to spend PSL points to take action really provides the flavor in the game. It takes a fair number of points to build up units and conduct missions. One hitch for the French though, is that if the PSL level drops below 30, it triggers the possibility of a coup. It's 1 in 6, but then there is another table for the result of the coup, with about a 1 in 6 chance that it is catastrophically bad for the French. It can actually be mildly bad or even favorable as well. The overall effect though is one of desperation. To win the battle you have to spend your Political Support, so you always feel like you are losing ground even if you are hurting the FLN. This seems to match very well with the concept of a colonial power trying to hold its grasp on its colony.

Unfortunately, that sense of desperation translates into the main flaw of the game. Although that feeling is cool given the theme, the result is that there appears to be only one real strategy in the game, at least in our experience. The French player needs to build up forces
quickly and spend deep into coup-provoking levels of PSL in order to try and eradicate the FLN forces. The FLN player must try to break out and multiply rapidly to prevent this and start controlling territory. If the FLN breakout is successful, there can be some back and forth but
the French player will struggle to have any chance because PSL is hard to come by.

What we found is that by risking a coup, the French player could totally eliminate the FLN. The FLN needs front units to produce new units, so if these can be eradicated and other units prevented from becoming fronts and multiplying, the FLN can be left with no forces. (There is a random event that can give the FLN unassailable fronts in other countries however, but that never happened) Obviously a coup that was severe could cause an instant French loss, but will likely happen only occasionally. The game does not end with the eradication of the FLN, since the FLN PSL must be reduced to zero. This led to an awkward situation where the FLN has no moves. The French player must then spend a few turns claiming territory to build up their PSL to where they can perform missions that knock down the FLN PSL. The French could still lose to the coup at this point, but it seems a bit pointless to keep playing since you are basically just challenging a few rolls of the die.

Component quality is sub-par, though it's not really fair to criticize it too heavily. This game is a niche within a niche market- there just aren't many players interested in gaming the colonial conflict in Algeria. No doubt the publisher couldn't afford to invest in high quality pieces when that would have driven the price up to high to where they could never make a return. Still, on a weekend when the game was in rotation with Conflict of Heroes, it's hard not to lament the counter quality, given how far state of the art has come.

The counters weren't cut cleanly and were more paper than cardboard, with a tendency to split. The map is a small paper fold-out and the charts are printed black and white on light card stock. Although the many card charts keep the package size small, in practice it required a lot of table space to array them all out. I would have liked to see clearer presentation in the tables which were functionally basic.

A game with rough edges and simple, even humble, components would be okay if it was a compelling play. The overall impression of Algeria was that it wasn't particularly "fun". Although the actions one was nominally taking felt appropriate, the limitations on strategy made play somewhat uninteresting. This might be a nice game just to mix things up on the table, but my overall impression is that I don't really have much interest in pulling it off the shelf again. That may be a harsh judgment ultimately, especially since I really want games like this that explore different conflicts and mechanics. Algeria is a good effort but didn't really cross over into a must-play category for me.
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Brian Train
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Thank you for your thoughtful review.
There are many ways to play this game, and "diving for the bottom" is a risky strategy that doesn't always work. Certainly there were elements in the French military who wanted to go all-out at the beginning but were restrained by their political leadership, and by the rather battered condition of the French elite units after withdrawing from Indochina. If you play this again, you may want to try the optional rule, mentioned elsewhere in this forum,that limits the initial French response.
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Neal Durando
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Good review, Justin.

I've actually found it rather hard for the French to win. (I've played with the optional rule Brian mentions above.) And you're right that it is a niche game, but it is a fascinating one. I bought a copy and played a few games to get some kind of handle on the war before beginning a big research project. You can really learn a lot of history from this sort of effort.
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Brian Train
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I've written a number of articles for Strategy and Tactics and World At War magazine. Sometimes I design a game on a given subject after having done the research for an article, sometimes the game comes first, and sometimes the game gets designed in the middle of the article-writing process, as a form of creative procrasination!

The point is that, at least for me, these games are meant to distill a lot of research into a model that presents the players with some of the options and atmosphere faced by the actual participants. This takes place at a very high and quite abstracted level, but if I can instil some of the emotion and drama of the history while staying true to its essence, I'm pleased. I'm not comparing myself to Thomas Carlyle, but for illustration's sake I think this is the sort of thing he was trying to get at too....
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Justin Wood
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I had not played with the optional rule you mention. It does seem to address directly my concern about the French strategy. It would be interesting to try the game again with this rule. Hopefully I can do so soon. I think I would recommend new players try to include the rule. Definitely the French would find the going more difficult.
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