You may have noticed, if there’s still any chance you’re checking Drake’s Flames any more, that I haven’t written much lately, thanks to being up to my ass in alligators with this Kickstarter thing. So my dad threw me a bone and wrote up a review, so you have something to read and maybe you come back again to read some other dumb crap I say later. I would say it was filler, but this is a damned solid review, and he also makes with the funny, so it’s worth reading even if your eyes glaze over when you see the words ‘hex and counter.’ This review, then, is written by the other Mister Drake, also known as my old man. And he wrote about a wargame because you’ve heard the saying ‘write what you know?’ Well, my dad knows him some wargames.)
The Evolution of Wargames (Being a Review of No Retreat: the North African Front)
Millions of years ago dinosaurs wandered our earth. They were huge, and in their day we can assume they ruled the world. But then a catastrophe occurred and some cute furry little critters called mammals came along, ate the dinosaur eggs, and now WE rule the world.
Not quite that long ago (but before many of those reading this were born) a mammal named Charles Roberts was inspired to design a game that would allow him to recreate some of the famous battles of history on his dining room table. And so in 1958 he published the game Gettysburg (of course the first wargame in boardgame format would HAVE TO BE Gettysburg). It was essentially a game using miniatures rules with cardboard pieces. But undeterred, under the name of his mail-order Avalon Hill Game Company, in 1961 he published two new games, D-Day and Chancellorsville, both of which used hexagons on a map and a Combat Results Table, thus setting a standard for wargames that is still in force today. His ¾ inch hexes and ½ inch cardboard counters are STILL the standard for most wargames published today.
By the ‘70s the hobby had taken off, and more, and then yet more, publishers joined the field. And being an American hobby (in those early days) it was only natural that the publishers would reach for higher and greater feats. By 1976 games were being published with maps that couldn’t even fit on a ping-pong table and which took months to play. Units were getting smaller and smaller, so some games had counters representing one man, while maps got larger and larger (my friend had War in Europe and we had to move the furniture in his living room to lay out the map, and the game had 3600 counters). One magazine article had a tongue-in-cheek article about a game depicting the war in Europe at the man-to-man level.
As the ‘70s passed, the hobby evolved with new concepts. Wooden blocks began to replace cardboard counters, and maps appeared that used area movement and the hexagons were seen somewhat less often. In 2000 Battle Cry was published and, to the abject horror of veteran wargamers, it came with small plastic soldiers, horses and cannon. BUT the standard set by Charles Roberts STILL RULED in wargames. In fact, today we refer to “standard” wargames as “hex and counter” games.
In 1965 I bought my first wargame – Afrika Korps, designed by Charles Roberts and published by Avalon Hill. I loved the game, and still think it’s a beautiful classic. Good ol’ “hex and counter.” Not that many counters, but a serious attempt to recreate the war in North Africa. And so it was with a touch of nostalgia that I recently bought a fairly new contribution to the wargame library – No Retreat: The North African Front.
The North African Front is an excellent example of the “next evolution” in wargames. Same theme as Afrika Korps, but WOW, what a difference. Hex and counter, and it still has a Combat Results Table – well, in fact THREE CRTs (one for the British, one for the Germans, and one for the Italians). But these hexes are one full inch across, and the counters are ¾ inch. That doesn’t sound all that large as I type this, but on the table they look huge. But perhaps the greatest evolutionary change is in the number of counters. Remember War in Europe referred to above, with its 3600 counters? Well, North African Front has a whopping 48 unit counters and has scenarios that begin with as few as THREE counters for one side (oh, those poor, poor Italians) and a whole five for the British. Months to play? Well, one of the major evolutions in gaming in general the last ten years has been for shorter, faster games. North Africa Front certainly fits that transition. One scenario can be played in an hour, though some can take several hours. The footprint (for the uninitiated, that means how much room the game takes on the table) for North Africa Front is almost embarrassingly small. My friend came over for the game and I had the map laid out – it measures a measly 11 by 17 inches. It looked kind of lost on my table.
BUT WAIT!! Here’s the surprise – there are FIVE maps in this game!! Carl Paradis, the designer, studied the campaign in North Africa and discovered that there were certain choke points along the coast, and all the battles were fought in these focused areas. So as you play the game you fight for one map, and after one side has achieved a victory on that map, you place the next map along the coast and war moves to the new real estate. Ah, the memories of Afrika Korps with its 17 by 44 inch map. And the other North African games that followed came out with HUGE maps. Now you can play the campaign on a card table. I think it’s brilliant. Makes me think of those cute, furry mammals.
Don’t quit reading just yet, thinking, “Are you kidding me? A wargame with eight counters on the map, and a map the size of a Denny’s placemat!” As per the saying, dynamite comes in small packages. (Remember, millions of years ago the dinosaurs were saying, “Mammals come in small packages.”) This is not a simplistic game, something to play with your kids. The rules are 25 pages long, and you have to read them carefully to get all the finer points. In fact (full disclosure) my friend and I messed up on our reading the supply rules, and the way we played it the British had enough supplies to drive all the way around the continent. Poor Italians took a pounding. But the fault was with our understanding the rules, not the rules themselves per se. This is a well thought out game, and the rules work quite well, but it’s no Afrika Korps with its four pages of rules.
Continuing our theme on the evolution of gaming, one of the trends in games the last ten years or so is to add cards. In fact, there are entire new genre of games called “deck-building games” and “card-driven games.” Well, North Africa Front has its cards as well. These cards don’t “drive” the game, but they add the unknown quality missing in almost all traditional hex and counter wargames. For many years we used to lament the lack of “fog of war.” We could count how many combat factors were in a hex, then decide how we could move just enough combat factors to get the combat odds we wanted. Ah, well, you can still do that in North Africa Front, but the cards have the ability to throw a wrench in the works. As the Italians I had several cards that let me add four factors to my defense. When the one lone counter has a defense of two, adding four more points would throw off the attack completely. Some cards are very powerful, others just choke your hand with worthless mass. Twice I drew a card that began, “If Rommel is on the map . . .” Well, the scenario we played was with just the poor Italians, and they kept looking over their shoulders for the super-hero that never arrived.
North African Front is published by GMT Games, headquartered in Hanford, CA. By the way, I bought my first wargame in Hanford, CA, when Hanford was only a good place to be from – I fled there as quickly as I could after high school. I find it absolutely amazing that anything good could come from Hanford, and yet there they are. I’m absolutely certain it has something to do with the aura I left behind. Well, main point, as those familiar with GMT Games know, the quality of their games is pretty much unsurpassed. The components are beautiful, the counters are thick, laminated and come with rounded corners, and the rules are on thick paper and in color and, as opposed to the old Avalon Hill rules, in a font I can read now that my eyes are aging.
This review is getting too long and I haven’t said anything negative about the game. At this point all I can say negatively is that I’m reading over the supply rules. Otherwise, this seems to be a solid game that brings together many of the latest evolutionary trends in wargames, while introducing new ones.
And for the record, no one gave me this game so I could write a positive review. I paid for it, waited for it, and got it with a hole punched in the box top by the Post Office (still waiting to hear about my claim, but about to give up on it). That to say, I really do think this is a truly great game.