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Subject: She has her mother's eyes but her father's flat feet... rss

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Magister Ludi
Western Australia
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Africa Orientale
Designer: Jeff Brown
Strategy & Tactics magazine #128 (1989)
Published by (3W) World Wide Wargamers

Africa Orientale (hereafter AO) was an ambitious attempt to portray one of the lesser known campaigns of WWII (Italian East Africa) using a tried and proven game system (Europa) in a magazine format. Did it succeed? Well, the answer is both yes and no.

One of the problem with game systems such as the Europa Series is attracting new players. Given that the original game in the series was released to much acclaim in 1973, you can imagine that the majority of players are veteran Grognards, who would much prefer playing over the vast sweep of the Russian steppes, using impressive armoured divisions with some real punching power against an experienced opponent. That may be, but how to attract new blood to the hobby? I suspect AO was born out of a desire to achieve that aim.

S & T has always been a good platform to reach a wide audience of ‘serious’ historical gamers and over the years there have been many eras covered ranging from the well know to the downright obscure. AO therefore fits the bill nicely as it would have been unlikely to have achieved much of an audience as a stand- alone release. The downside is that ‘forcing’ games into a strict magazine format, with usual 200 counter limit, map size of 34’’ x 22” and 12 or so pages of rules, usually results in a less than perfect product and the player is usually forced to delay play until errata becomes available.

By the way, here’s the link to said errata... that way you can get playing right after reading this review!

The game components pretty much fit the mould; with the exception that the rule book was somewhat longer than usual at 24 pages (albeit 18 were actually rules).

The map is somewhat of a disappointment. Apart from being in standard Europa colours (i.e. nothing flash and hardly state of the art, but functional), it is lacking in a colour terrain chart. This led to some confusion when I attempted to set up and prepare for play the first time. The map has a mass of swamps, but also salt marshes. One makes movement difficult, one impossible. Without a colour TEC however it was not clear which is which. Canals were also difficult to delineate. As both my opponent and I were familiar with Europa, we also believed that there were low volume rails depicted on the map, when in fact they were roads.

Most of the central area is rendered in a dark brown, representing the rough and often mountainous terrain of the Abyssinian highlands. Unfortunately it is too dark and makes it difficult to see some of the towns, which play a part as airbases and victory locations. There is also an error with placement of some roads and cities, which need correction. The usual Europa scale is 16 miles per hex, but given the vast area of the theatre, which takes in almost the entire Horn of Africa region, the scaling is 32 miles per hex, with the result that standard Europa movement abilities as shown on the counters are in fact halved. This in fact works well. It is a shame that a 10 x 34 area of hexes at the edge of the southern map weren’t employed for the missing TEC and other regularly used game charts. A compass rose would also have been useful for the geographically challenged.

The 200 counters were well done in standard Europa format and whilst other S & T’s from the 3W era often verged on the thin and graphically blah , these were nicely handled, although given magazine format there were some additional counters that had to be made up to ease play ( additional forts, game turn markers, garrison markers).

There are some interesting forces in the mix, with Italian regular units ( including a very healthy 5-6 division), Axis colonial troops in large numbers of doubtful quality and worth, South African, Indian, Free French, Vichy French and even a Belgian brigade ( longing to be back sampling cold beer and Pomme Frittes somewhere in the old country).

There is a historical article as usual in the accompanying magazine by Vance von Borries, somewhat of an acknowledged expert on the African and Middle East theatres of WWII. Unfortunately it is lacking a map which would have assisted in working out a strategy, particularly as the allied player. The theatre was indeed vast and this means that the campaign unfolds along roads and rails as supply is the all important feature in this game. The allies must generally ultimately trace back to supply terminals in Kenya and Sudan and laboriously transport supply forward and construct roads to be effective. The Axis player is restricted to supply provided at the start and as such must carefully husband resources and spend exactly when needed to have any chance of victory.

At the start the Italians are widely dispersed as Duke of Aosta who was in overall command as unsure where the main blow would fall and had limited resources to ship troops to endangered points. As no further troops or resources would be forthcoming to the Axis in the theatre, his strategy was to tie down as many Commonwealth troops for as long as possible, to prevent their use in other critical theatres such as Libya and the Balkans.

The Commonwealth has two avenues of attack from Kenya in the South and the Sudan in the north. The southern route is difficult and strategy is dictated by the need to capture the ports of Kismayu and Mogadishu and used this as a springboard to then head north and capture Addis Ababa. The current devastating famine in this region gives an idea of just how desolate this area is. In the north, the supply routes are somewhat easier for the allies, with some well established rail lines, but the axis can make a nuisance of themselves by cutting rail where possible as there are no construction troops readily available to repair these.

The game consists of 26 fortnightly turns using standard Europa mechanisms and for experienced players presents no problems to commence playing. Whilst the Allies can normally muster high odds attacks against the hapless Axis forces, they must keep an eye on the weather; for once rains start in May of 1941, movement is severely restricted. There are also mandatory withdrawals of allied troops, representing high command directing them to other theatres from April 1941, which also reduces allied punching power. For the hapless Italian player, the game is usually one of taking blow after blow and slowly retreating to key victory location to delay the inevitable for as long as possible. For those who enjoy typical Europa with its massive armoured thrust and counter thrust, the situation may seem somewhat of a letdown and akin to smashing ants with a large rock.

As a game, it has limited appeal and playability. Europa players will find it easy to get into and play, but may find the situation uninteresting. Players unfamiliar with the system will probably give it a wide berth, which is a pity as it works well as a simulation of a difficult theatre that is little understood. As a defensive type gamer I found it fun to play the Italians and mess with the allied timetable, but overall it is a somewhat flawed offering. While it can be considered somewhat flawed as a game and simulation it did raise my awareness of the campaign and my background reading revealed that none other than Bill Slim, later to find fame in Burma, was in command of the 10th Indian Brigade during the thrust from Sudan.

If you were interested in the campaign, there are limited offerings at this scale which are playable in a few evenings or gaming sessions. There is of course Wavell's War which recreates this campaign in all its Europa glory, but who has the space and time to recreate what is contained in this 34” x 22” map at standard Europa scale?

For the Europa completist, those interested in campaigns off the beaten track, I would say find yourself a copy, for others, best to move along...there’s nothing here to see.

Images courtesy BGG database.

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