Rommel’s out there somewhere, waiting for me.
You know, if I had my way, I’d send that genius son-of-a-bitch an engraved invitation in iambic pentameter – a challenge in two stanzas to meet me alone in the desert. Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We’d stop at about twenty paces. We’d get out, we’d shake hands. Then we’d button up and do battle, just the two of us. And that battle would decide the outcome of the war.
– George C. Scott monologue in Patton.
I’ll start this period off with a game that gave me my start on this subject, back in the day.
My crossover from “family games” into serious wargames happened some time between middle school and high school. I had a friend in the neighborhood who was good for playing games. I recall many rounds of Monopoly and Risk, although we rarely read the rulebooks before doing so, so our versions of the games were a little off.
We liked the war-themed games of the time. Besides Risk, we played a fair amount of Battleship. I also had been given a game for Christmas called Sub Search, which seemed so much cooler because the subs were underwater, and there was chrome in the form periscope and torpedo artwork. I had a game called Tank Command, which had little to do with commanding tanks except that there were little plastic tank models to be launched into the air when you were losing.
Perhaps the favorite of mine was one my friend owned called Dogfight. There was a little more to it than a Sub Search or a Tank Command. Like those, it also had the little plastic pieces and a very cool-looking WWI battlefield to fly over. But in addition, the combat between aircraft involved cards, which used various combat maneuvers, including attacks and barrel rolls. I was always begging my friend to take that one out.
And when I did, he would often say, “If you like this, you would like Richthofen’s War.”
I don’t know if we ever actually played his copy of Richthofen’s War. It seemed awfully complicated. Especially since, as I mentioned, we weren’t really into reading the rulebooks. So instead, we decided on a more entry-level foray into the genre, and picked up some of the Panzerblitz games.
I don’t recall if those were actually my first Avalon Hill games. In fact, I’m pretty sure I bought Luftwaffe and maybe Waterloo before I got into the Panzerblitz series. But I do remember getting for my birthday Panzerblitz when I was 13 or maybe 14.
Now, I don’t remember the exact order of everything. It may be that, even before we played any games, we decided we needed to have the other games in the series. I do remember that, on top of the Panzerblitz purchase, my friend purchased Panzer Leader and I got Arab-Israeli Wars.
What I vividly remember was our first game of Arab-Isreali Wars. This game sure as hell looked like it would be cool. It had helicopters, jet aircraft, and guided missiles. So we started out with scenario B-1, Bir Gifgafa, which had none of those thing, but had the advantage of being introductory.
Now first off, we didn’t understand the scenario setup cards*. In the game, the scenarios are specified with pictures of the counters to be used and a number is printed on them to indicate how many of that counter is in the scenario. We didn’t follow that last part. So for us, the scenario involved 3 Israeli “tanks” (I’m sure we didn’t understand that they were formations, not individual units) versus 2 Arab “tanks.”
To make matters even worse, we didn’t recognize the hex sides as obstacles to Line of Sight, only for their movement and combat roll modifiers. The ‘B’ board is desert terrain, containing only roads and the “sand dune” hex side feature. I think I imagined the battle being portrayed as very much like what is described by Patton in the movie line at the top of the article. Except, surely both Rommel and Patton would be maximizing their use of concealment in the desert terrain.
In any case, we weren’t pleased with our wargaming result. Even as my understanding of the game mechanics developed, I never quite took to the game. I was perpetually jealous of his copy of Panzer Leader with it’s cool-looking urban terrain. We probably never played more than a handful of the games in this series. Instead, my time with both Panzerblitz and Arab-Israeli Wars was spent with the Designers Notes reading about the equipment and its modeling.
The Panzerblitz series was subject to a lot of criticism, even at the time when I was buying and playing it. Today, it obviously tends to hold up very poorly against modern boardgame design. For The Arab-Israeli Wars in particular, the mechanics of combat have been heavily criticized for their disconnection from reality. Although, as one commenter posted in a review, while the individual combat results table rolls may not be very realistic, the game as a whole will often produce the right results.
Plan it Well
You may begin whenever you are ready, but plan it well. Do plan it well, I pray you, sir.
Martin Sheen (?!) as R.E. Lee in Gettysburg.
To help me reminisce, I got out my box and set up the scenario S-1, Kalkiliah, which depicts an Israeli paratrooper raid on a Jordanian police fort shortly before Operation Kadesh. This is not really a scenario that lends itself to the solitaire rules proposed for Panzerblitz, as those require playing against a passive defender. Still, I poked through it as best I could.
Perhaps of note, my cat took a strong interest in the game. He loved the board, and when I starting setting out pieces, he knocked them around. I wonder if Avalon Hill considered the cat market in the promotion of the game?
First, I am reminded why we dreamed of computers taking over our wargames all those years ago. I’m remembering the mechanic of opportunity fire, while not really an issue in a solitaire non-game, it was really, really painful when playing against an actual opponent. Slowly watching the other player move, one hex by one hex, trying to decide whether to use that ability could slow play down to a torture. The Arab-Israeli Wars mechanic is nifty, but being able to turn it over to the computer for auto-resolution makes the game so much more enjoyable. Even on my own, the amount of table-lookup for resolving attacks is tremendous, and often distributed over four or so charts in two different books. Add to that an equal amount of work if you are also checking up on your opponents reading of the tables to keep him honest. Yes, it would probably take only a little familiarity to start to remember the various modifiers to the die rolls, but this is not conducive, at all, for pulling out the box for a quick game.
Neither is the design of this scenario. It portrays the real-life goals of a quick raid and then a retreat before enemy reinforcements arrive, which is well enough. In game terms, this means victory for the Israelis can only come by rapidly seizing the fort and then withdrawing all attackers before the game ends. Losing only 2 units, or leaving 5 behind (or the combination 1 and 3) will negate the positive point value of taking the fort in the first place. There is a secondary set of victory conditions, where an Israeli armored column comes to the rescue, and Israel can pick up more points by eliminating the enemy, but that seems like an even tougher way to win. Bottom line, intense pre-planning seems the only way to play this scenario.
First off, the exit condition means you have to know exactly how many turns ahead of time you’ve got to start your retreat. Next, the key to rapid taking of the Jordanian fort is going to depend heavily on the terrain. You’ll need to know how close you can set up, how close you can deploy (I underutilized my halftracks in the initial deployment – I didn’t realize they were so tough), and the best way to overwhelm the defender. Naturally, the Arab player is going to have to do the same before picking a location for the fort and placing his defenders.
This is all fairly reasonable as an exercise in command, but probably not compatible with a one-off gaming night.
Nonetheless, the point of this exercise wasn’t to renew my interest in my old Avalon Hill board game collection, but to provide the context for some computer gaming. Just in time for this, Shrapnel/Camo Workshop has released a new version of WinSP:MBT. I’ll use that to compare the Kalkiliah similar scenarios designed for WinSP:MBT and Divided Ground.
*So the scenarios in Arab-Israeli Wars aren’t really cards, like they are in Panzerblitz. They are pages in the manual. But explaining all of this was going to disrupt my narrative, so I’ll just leave this like it is. I will say that the Panzerblitz cards indicate the number of units by a multiplier printed beneath the counter on the card (e.g. x3 for 3 Tigers), which may be a little clearer. In any case, it was obviously clearer to us at the time.