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Subject: The classic SPI QuadriGame system and the Gazala Gallop rss

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Pete Belli
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Cauldron is a game about the WWII battle of Gazala fought in the deserts of eastern Libya near the city of Tobruk in the summer of 1942. As part of the Four Battles in North Africa package it was one of the popular SPI QuadriGames published in the 1970s. These small "quads" were originally produced as a series of games which shared a common basic system. Each individual game within the package had its own separate booklet which contained special rules for that battle or campaign.





This flexible rules format allowed a player to learn the basics and move quickly between the other games in that series. In the QuadriGames playability took precedence over realism when simulating the historical event. These SPI classics helped introduce many players to the wargame hobby. They also offered an entertaining play experience for Grognards taking a break from more serious games. A few games achieved near-perfection because they were fun to play while also creating reasonably accurate military simulations.

I played this game straight out of the box... no variants or house rules were used. Since this is a vintage game I’ll offer younger Geeks a quick summary of the movement and combat rules. Units must stop when they enter an enemy zone of control (the six hexes adjacent to a unit) and units may not voluntarily leave an enemy ZOC. All adjacent formations must be attacked during a player’s turn but a talented general will position his artillery units (which can fire from two or three hexes away in this scenario) to bombard adjacent units he doesn’t want to assault with his infantry or tanks. The proper sequencing of attacks and retreats provides a delicate web of decisions. This makes the quads fun to play.

The struggle was a desperately fought battle which combined sweeping armored maneuvers with grinding combat among the fortified minefields in the Gazala Line. Rommel performed brilliantly. He recovered from an early setback by repulsing a bold Allied counterattack in “The Cauldron” then smashed through the enemy minefields by attacking in the opposite direction. After establishing a new supply line the Afrika Korps defeated the Eighth Army in detail after a series of fluid engagements. Tobruk was captured with little resistance and the Allies conducted a hasty retreat to Egypt which became known in British Army folklore as the Gazala Gallop.

Although the Axis player is on the strategic offensive the scenario gives both commanders an opportunity to attack and defend. A typical session of Cauldron provides the contestants with an interesting tactical puzzle. The game has a few all-or-nothing elements which must be juggled with the need for clear operational objectives and good planning. The victory conditions don’t exactly meet with my approval (more on that later in the review) and the play experience is slightly unbalanced with the Allied player frequently taking a more passive role. However, the game is a classic design and it deserves a closer look.





The map is a fine example of the crisp, clean style favored by SPI art director Redmond Simonsen. Each hex represents about two miles of desert landscape. Roads and trails are crucial features with the light gray broken terrain hexes depicting ridges. The treacherous coastal escarpment is a major obstacle. The entrenchments along the Gazala Line are represented by minefields and fortified boxes. These fieldworks simulate brigade-sized defensive positions supported by artillery. A process similar to a medieval siege must be conducted by the Axis player before the defenders holding one of these fortified boxes can be dislodged. The terrain depicted on the board appears to be a reasonably accurate representation of the battlefield since it matches the official military maps I’ve seen in books and on the internet.





The counters are another example of Simonsen craftsmanship. The order of battle for each army has been tinkered with but I liked the mix of unit sizes that resulted from these decisions. This is particularly true for the Allied force which includes an interesting combination of formation types and combat strengths. I’m glad SPI didn’t use a different color for each nationality in the Allied army (British, Free French, Indian, New Zealand, etc.) but I wish each regiment and brigade had some indication of the formation’s origin. For the Axis counters the Italians use a slightly different color scheme on the typeface but there are no separate rules for Mussolini’s legions.

Unlike the system used in some of the SPI QuadriGames mobile units are not just treated like fast infantry. The rules for movement and combat differentiate between mechanized and foot units. The deadly German anti-tank formations with their 88mm guns are portrayed with special rules that add real flavor to the game. The artillery rules are superb. More on all of this stuff later.




The game begins with Rommel’s first assault. The turning movement has already begun so the Axis units are set up on the Allied southern flank. This was a good design choice because allowing any changes would bring Field Marshal Nostradamus and his 20/20 hindsight into the process. The initial deployment reflects the deception plan developed by Rommel and even has the Italian “Trieste” Division (which got lost in the desert) out of position. The starting positions for the Allied army are also quite effective and this deployment offers the Axis commander a few exposed formations to crush as he advances along the southern flank... which is what happened in 1942.

The sluggish British command structure is reflected by a special rule limiting Allied movement on the first day of battle. This is entirely appropriate because the power of Rommel’s attack surprised the British generals. The slow response of the Allied formations mimics problems the British experienced with reports that had to be passed from battalion to brigade to division to corps and the resulting delay in orders from headquarters. The flexible doctrine of the German army and the personal command style of Rommel proved to be a huge advantage during the fluid action of desert warfare.

This would be a good time to mention the supply rules. Units require a viable supply line to the proper map edge in order to be in good supply. As with all WWII games about the war in the desert, this is a crucial element of Cauldron. Units which are unsupplied face severe movement restrictions and a complete reduction of attack strength to zero. Since the CRT uses a differential system (as opposed to the more common odds-ratio of 2-1, 3-1, etc.) this is not a total loss of offensive power. However, since the attack options of unsupplied formations are already limited the effect is quite drastic.

The supply rules in the booklet contain an ambiguous element. Units are not permitted to advance after combat into hexes which would be unsupplied. Since an enemy zone of control usually blocks a supply path (even if a friendly unit is present) this means that deep penetrations of tightly-spaced enemy units are not possible in most cases. However, the example in the rule booklet shows exactly that sequence occurring after a successful attack.

This confusing illustration represents an attack conducted when no supply restrictions are in effect. Since both the Axis player and the Allied player are considered to be automatically in supply during the first phase of Cauldron, a slashing advance like this would be possible, but only during these early turns.

A special “Thank you!” goes out to this BGG wargame rules guru…

J.D. Webster
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…for posting this clarification in the Forum.

Unfortunately, the action will slow considerably during the final portion of the game as these supply rules clamp down on exploitation after combat. I’m not sure if I like this rule or approve of its historical validity in the face of Rommel‘s willingness to take risks during an assault, but I’ve played according to the SPI guidelines anyway.

Axis movement through the Allied minefields is obviously slowed to a crawl. Since an Axis supply line may only be traced through a minefield hex side if both adjacent hexes are occupied by Axis units every trail which crosses a minefield must be “garrisoned” by at least two formations… usually slow Italian infantry regiments.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking these minefields spoil the play experience. Instead of creating massive claustrophobia the minefields add depth to the many layers of the Cauldron onion. While the minefields do obstruct movement the tactical conundrums presented to both players more than compensate for the frustration involved. Any doofus can put together a 3-1 attack in the woods and fields of Belgium. Planning a coordinated assault while maneuvering through minefields in the Libyan desert is a challenge worthy of a great commander! During the battle Rommel actually used the Allied minefields to protect his flanks in the “Cauldron” phase.

Earlier in the review I mentioned the all-or-nothing elements that play such an important role in the Cauldron play experience. One of these crucial elements combines the supply rules and the fortification rules… the Free French brigade holding Bir Hacheim at the southern end of the Allied line.

Bir Hacheim is a fortified box. Allied units defending a fortified box can ignore most adverse combat results. A skillful Axis player must conduct a siege operation by moving assault formations into every available adjacent hex and massing a powerful artillery support group. Even under the best possible conditions, the Axis player will require a lucky roll of the dice to capture Bir Hacheim. Since most of the useful supply trails run through this hex the seizure of the fortified box is essential to Rommel‘s success.

This series of all-or-nothing die rolls reminds me of another classic SPI QuadriGame called Arnhem. In the game depicting that epic WWII airborne assault the Allied player must capture the Nijmegen bridge to continue the struggle with any hope of success. In a typical session of Cauldron a few tosses of the old probability cube at Bir Hacheim could determine the outcome of the entire game. Players must learn to live with this aspect of the game if they want to enjoy the many tempting delights Cauldron offers.





In spite of the restrictive zone of control rules (Shouldn’t German units be able to voluntarily lower the CRT column and attempt a withdrawal? While even the Allied mechanized formations were often entangled in “flypaper” attacks Rommel frequently shifted the focus of his thrusts.) the combat system includes many subtle elements. Perhaps the most intriguing rules cover the German Panzerjager anti-tank units.

Allied mechanized formations which assault an Axis unit which is adjacent to an anti-tank battalion (or the Panzerjager unit itself) must use a special column on the CRT with added risks for the attacker. This is a reasonably accurate representation of the German 88mm guns but since Rommel’s tactics often involved the ambush of advancing British armor by hidden artillery pieces some of the flavor is lost. During the battle the 32nd Army Tank Brigade lost 50 of its 70 Matilda tanks in one such fiasco. There are few Attacker Eliminated results on the CRT so without any fog of war rules such dramatic events are unlikely.

Artillery plays a decisive role in the game, just as it did in 1942. Firing ranges are short (1, 2, or 3 hexes) so proper positioning is crucial. Since a successful assault can result in the defending retreating up to four hexes advancing forces frequently outrun their friendly artillery support, which is historically accurate. Deciding where and when to use a defensive artillery barrage -- FPF or Final Protective Fire in SPI rules lingo -- is another fascinating element of the artillery system. A clever Allied player can emulate his historical counterpart by using artillery fire to disrupt a German anti-tank battalion before conducting a mechanized attack. Even the classic soak-off mission takes on a new importance in Cauldron because every die roll that might cause a retreat has the potential to affect another battle… no tumble of the dice can be taken for granted.

Reserve formations play an important role in planning and strategy. Combat results can force a unit to retreat up to four hexes. In many cases victorious enemy units can pursue the defeated formation. The rules often permit a unit conducting exploitation to swerve away from the retreat path and maneuver against the enemy flank or rear. Skillful placement of reserve formations can halt these penetrations because an enemy unit is forced to stop if an exploitation move takes it into a zone of control.

I have a few gripes about the combat rules.

Axis ground support points (representing the Stuka dive-bombers that played such an important role in the battle) could have been a fine addition to the rules at little or no cost in complexity.

In 1942 the Allied counterattacks were uncoordinated and British assault tactics lacked imagination. Armored forces were not concentrated but were committed to battle in a piecemeal fashion. However, this element can largely be ignored between Turn 2 and Turn 7 when the Allied player is automatically in supply. British forces are able to make aggressive thrusts much like the attacks Ritchie attempted in the early phase of the battle; with the advantage of historical knowledge and no supply worries during exploitation a competent Allied commander can really throw a big monkey wrench into Rommel’s plan... and probably bigger than anything possible in 1942.

This problem is partially mitigated by the slightly unbalanced play experience faced by the Allied commander later in the session. While the Axis player is joyfully shuttling Panzers across the desert to launch attacks (and trying to break through the Gazala Line in one or two places) the Allied player might be moving just a couple of units and conducting a few mandatory battles as he awaits developments. Much of this lethargy is swept away if the Allies decide to run away and exit the map, which brings us to a discussion of the victory conditions.

In 1942 the British generals fought the battle of Gazala while looking over back their shoulders and contemplating a retreat to Egypt. The airfields of Cyrenaica were important to Churchill because the struggle for Malta was reaching a peak of intensity. The port of Tobruk had psychological significance after the heroic defense of the city earlier in the war. However, the supreme Allied commander Auchinleck had already told his generals that Tobruk could be abandoned if the Gazala Line collapsed. The army would then withdraw beyond the Egyptian frontier.

Both players are awarded victory points for the destruction of enemy units. Since the number of VPs earned is based on the combat strength of the destroyed formations the more powerful Allied units score more points for Rommel... a shattered 4-5-12 British mechanized brigade would score nine points. Tobruk is worth 100 points and this is another all-or-nothing element of the game. If the Axis player controls Tobruk at the end of any Allied turn the game ends immediately. A sliding scale is used to determine the level of victory based on the ratio of Axis VPs to Allied VPs and a draw is possible.

Points are also awarded to the Allied player for exiting units from the eastern edge of the map. I have no real quarrel with this since the rule is historically valid. However, it seems to me that the value of Tobruk to the Allied player should decline if that commander decides to haul ass. The fortifications of the city had been neglected. Many of the land mines had been removed to create the Gazala Line. Sand had drifted into the anti-tank ditch. No real effort was made to defend Tobruk. When Rommel moved in the Germans captured 30,000 prisoners, 2,000 trucks, 1.5 million gallons of fuel, and a huge stockpile of supplies. In my opinion Tobruk should score big for the Axis player but not so much for an Allied commander who decides to retreat. Once the choice has been made to exit any units the Allied VP value of Tobruk should probably be reduced.

I enjoyed playing Cauldron after the passage of many years. It is a classic wargame in every sense of the word. To me it represents the essence of the SPI quads: fast, fun, and slightly flawed due to the shortcomings of the SPI production system. My poor performance as Rommel in the sample game would not please the Fuhrer, but I had a good time. The burden is definitely on the Axis player in this game. I also think the game is too long and could be shortened by a few turns.

For less than the cost of a large pizza I took a nostalgic journey back to the last century and the years of my golden youth. Not a bad deal.
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Darrell Hanning
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Great job as usual, Pete.
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Kim Meints
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Thanks Pete

I had it to where back in the day I calculated my Axis unit moves and positions so I could wipe out the southern Allied units by turn 3,turn 4 at the most including Bir Hacheim with a southern swing around and up into the rear of the fortified boxes.

Well this spring I played it again after a long period of years not touching it. I sure wasn't able to repeat my wonderful performance of when I was 20(year it came out) even with trying hard to do so.
This is one where I want to play it again soon to get my Axis mojo back where it once was
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jumbit
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Quote:
This was a good design choice because allowing any changes would bring Field Marshal Nostradamus and his 20/20 hindsight into the process.

Thumbed for this.

Although, I can't but feel that all these old Quad games are lessened in value, since Jim Dunnigan himself came on BGG and admitted that they were merely puzzles to be solved.
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Dave Kohr
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Dunnigan was responding to somebody talking about Operation Olympic, which was a solitaire game, and not a Quad game. Solitaire games do in fact tend to be "merely puzzles to be solved".
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Stephen Oliver
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Thanks for the great review.

I have played MANY great games of Cauldron on Hexwar.com.

A fascinating study.

Hexwar.com has an option for "Fog of War" which has all units four units away are invisible. The game is good either way but FOW adds some mystery.

On Hexwar.com, the supply rules with their restrictive advances is incorporated into the game so no figuring out on your own whether a unit is in supply or not.

My handle on hexwar.com is iam2509 if anyone wants to give me a challenge.
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Jim P.
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Outstanding review - thanks. I play a Paul Rohrbaugh game called Fox's Gambit which is set at the same time with the British boxes and mines in place. It sounds like you know your history when it comes to this period in North Africa, Pete. Can you recommend a book to read on Rommel in this time frame?
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Pete Belli
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Thanks for the positive comments.

InvisibleRobots wrote:
Can you recommend a book to read on Rommel in this time frame?


Not a devoted reader of Rommel biography. Sorry.

Did enjoy a (new to me) book called Eighth Army by Robin Neillands while I was preparing this review. Crisp writing and honest analysis from the British/Commonwealth perspective.
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Chas Argent
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Nice review, Pate, well done. Always glad to see someone playing the North Africa quad!
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InvisibleRobots wrote:
Can you recommend a book to read on Rommel in this time frame?

Panzer Battles, by von Mellenthin. He was a staff officer with the Afrika Korps and got to see a lot of Rommel up-close and personal. The most hilarious part of the book is when Rommel was traveling somewhere as he was wont to do, and he got cut off and almost killed. When he got back to the command post, von Mellenthin and the others were carrying on calmly, preparing to launch the next attack without him. Rommel was flabbergasted that anyone else could do the job that he though only he could do and went off to his tent to sulk.
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Jim P.
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jumbit wrote:
InvisibleRobots wrote:
Can you recommend a book to read on Rommel in this time frame?

Panzer Battles, by von Mellenthin. He was a staff officer with the Afrika Korps and got to see a lot of Rommel up-close and personal. The most hilarious part of the book is when Rommel was traveling somewhere as he was wont to do, and he got cut off and almost killed. When he got back to the command post, von Mellenthin and the others were carrying on calmly, preparing to launch the next attack without him. Rommel was flabbergasted that anyone else could do the job that he though only he could do and went off to his tent to sulk.


Much obliged for the book ideas, Pete and Jumbit. I'll try them both as they are conveniently rooted in each opposing side.
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michael confoy
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Nothing I love better than nice, timely reviews like this one of games with those modern graphics, well-written rules, well play-tested, etc. Can wait to order my copy from SPI in NYC.
 
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