Saturday, August 12, 2006

Shifting Sands Solo

Chuck and I got to try out the new MMP title Shifting Sands at WBC West twice, and learned enough from the game that I've begun to think that the Germans have to make a push into Egypt in 1941 once they get Rommel and a couple of panzer units, and I wanted to give this a try, so I started a solo game. Playing CDGs solo is a bit of a skill, as you have to be able to think in terms of what you would do were you unable to see what cards your opponent had. In Sands, this comes down mostly to whether or not to deploy the Italian fleet, especially later in the game when the penalties for failure are so strong, and holding the 88mm FLAK Guns card that lets the Axis make and prosecute their combat roll first when defending. The entire game took something like six hours, but it's hard to say as I'd play for an hour, then come back later and play a couple more turns, so exact play time is uncertain.

In this game, all of the usual stuff happened: Italians take Khartoum, bring in the Egyptians who provide a speed bump, the Allies bring in units only to have them taken out fairly soon after when the Germans take Greece and Crete. The start of 1941 was a surprise for the Allies when the Axis started not only the Iraqi Revolt, but then brought in the German mountain division in Baghdad which marched all the way to Basra. A full four divisions were diverted to the Near East to deal with the problem, which wasn't completely resolved until early 1942. In East Africa, the Italians held off the Allied attempts to attack into Khartoum, and it fell to the South Africans to clear out East Africa, which they did by the end of 1941 but just barely. In fact, the Axis was at 14VP, just one away from an auto victory, but that was as close as they got.

What happened? First, the German panzer divisions didn't come out as quickly as they might have, and when they did come out and Rommel was ready to roll into Alexandria, the Axis 8 card hand came up with six 2 cards and two 3 cards, one of which was a must-play event. As a result, the Axis couldn't even attack as all of their front line stacks were three-deep and in Limited Supply. Still, they managed to push the Allies to within a space of El Alamein, but once Barbarossa came out it became too much of an attrition battle and they couldn't push any further.

Meanwhile, the fight for Malta wasn't going well for the Allies. E-boats prevented play of a Malta Convoy, and the Germans had drawn every card they needed but Herkules in their first two hands of 1942. Unfortunately for them, the siege of Malta lasted exactly one card play, as the Brits brought in their Spitfires to allow more convoys and require Air Support as well. In the end, the Axis didn't draw Herkules until too late, even though it took a few more turns for the Brits to get their convoys and Malta Victorious (which they held for a turn). As it was, this particular card sequence pretty much doomed the Axis, as they were limited to 6 card hands for seven of the ten turns from 1941-43, and aside from Battleship Convoys, Gigants, and the single GE Battlefield Recovery RP, no replacements.

The Brits were having a tough time getting going in Egypt, taking only Bardia on the Libyan border and not pushing any further on that front. They did play Torch as soon as possible, which was a smart move - even though Patton never showed up, the Vulcan offensive gave the Yanks operational flexibility by putting all Tunisian/Algerian units in Full Supply, allowing frequent attacks at low OPS costs. In fact, this was where the campaign was decided on a couple of fronts.

First, the Allied High Command declared Victory or Death at exactly the right time, giving a VP to the Allies for pushing an Axis unit out of it's space, and then they split the Axis forces to concentrate on both Bizarte in the north and Gades in the south, giving them the two VP they needed for the auto-victory on the last turn. Tunis and Tripoli both held out until the end, despite a last-ditch Allied attempt to push the Axis off the continent entirely.

Games like this demonstrate pretty clearly that much can hinge on how and when cards from your deck sequence. Had the Brits not gotten the Spitfire card immediately, it would have allowed the Germans to make a push in Egypt at a time when the Allies were a bit fragile, but the threat of a war of attrition won out, neutralizing Rommel's combat shift advantage. It's tough to go after units when you know they'll just grow back at the end of the turn while yours will sit there and rot. While the Axis had some good card karma, they didn't ever get the AFR division in East Africa, which could have held off the Allies for a turn longer, giving the Axis a VP. The Malta sequencing certainly killed any chance the Axis had of winning, both in terms of RPs and VP - a three point swing there would definitely have resulted in an Axis win. Even Torch coming out a turn later would have been a death knell, as the Allies didn't take Bizarte until the final game turn, although Gabes went at the end of turn 11.

I still think this is a great game, certainly playable in less than 5 hours by experienced players. I will need another playing to try out the Germans Push East strategy, one where the cards are more in the Germans' favor than they were in this one. Even with the more-scripted-than-usual gameplay, this one is a lot of fun, although it's a shame that it doesn't have the wackiness of Hannibal where literally anything can happen, and sometimes does.

One other thing: I noticed in my second game as the Brits that the red die seemed to be rolling low numbers more often than not, usually ones and twos. After having the same thing happen in this last game, I replaced the die after the fourth turn. In approximately 50 rolls, the red die rolled 4 or higher about 10 times, a significant percentage. Makes me want to go spend some serious money on balanced dice, as the ones that came with Sands are clearly not balanced.

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