THE SANDS OF WAR, by FRANK CHADWICK
Sixteen 11" x 17" geomorphic game-maps; 880 counters; Table & Chart, and Command Sheet aids; Rules Book; Jump-Start Rules Booklet; 10-sided die; boxed. Published by GDW, POB 1646, Bloomington IL 61702; $40.
Reviewed by Richard H. Berg
There is little doubt that, even in the rather busy pantheon of industry heroes, Frank Chadwick is a Zeus amongst the Ajaxes. He is one of - if not THE - finest game designer working today. Since GDW's emergence in the mid 70's, Chadwick has been GDW's main designer, producing a body of work remarkable for its breadth and width. He has ranged from tactical complexities (Torgau) to operational brevity (the twice-award-winning House Divided); he has worked in ancients (Pharsalus), the American Revolution (Guilford Courthouse), into the modern era (Team Yankee, Tet Offensive, etc.). He is also one of the few, successful cross-over designers, as Twilight 2000 will attest. Granted, Space, 1889 was a miscalculation (how many Jules Verne buffs are there out there?) . . . but, ever resourceful, Frank C covered his simulated butt with the out-of-sight success of his "Desert Shield Fact Book". Its reported, six-figure sales will probably bank-roll the company for the next decade. And, as if that weren't enough, he has steered GDW (admittedly with the astute help of others) from a small-town, Third World company to its status as one of the major simulation and RPG publishers in the market today. Frank is also president of the industry professional association, GAMA, so GDW's tentacles reach out to almost every cave in which hobbiests can hide in.
If dice produced olive oil, there is no doubt that Frank Chadwick would be wargaming's Godfather. (And then we could have the Genco Gencon!)
However, somewhat like the recently Job-like Michael Corleone, there are those who feel that Frankie C is slipping. Stand & Die, while artistically not a bad game, had major selling problems because of its huge size (many retailers felt it took up too much shelf space) and equally huge price ($60). Tet Offensive, also a big-box item, was somewhat garish visually, and then it had its knees shattered by some tepid reviews. Then GDW was all set to issue a whole slew of WWIII-in-Europe stuff and what do those insidious Communists go and do? They say, "Hey, this share-and-share-alike stuff sucks wind; let's try something else!" Good-bye USSR; hello Free Economy. (Russian translation: the line starts around the next block.)
Into this swirling maelstrom of design delights rides the latest in the "First Battle" series of tactical games, The Sands of War. The scope is nothing short of ambitious: a simulation of platoon-level combat in the Middle East (with a little North Africa thrown in) from WWII up to the present. In attempting to offer an alternative to Squad Leader for those who don't want to have to invest in an entire series of modules, Chadwick and GDW have come up with a relatively successful system that combines simplicity and sophistication.
GDW's graphic presentation has always tended to be a bit unusual. Often a mite drab (their maps sometimes have a washed-out look, like they were left in the sun too long), then veering off into the neon-like "hot colors" of something like Tet, GDW still produces a first-rate package, especially with their rules books. And Sands is no exception. Although Larry Elmore's box cover looks like it would be more at home with a "Dune" game, the actual components are somewhat less fanciful. The 16 geomorphic maps are rather thin and shiny, but the mostly sand-yellow-brown hexes are mixed in with some bright blues for a pleasingly mellow effect. The counters, like the hexes, are big and extremely well engineered. Silhouettes are the order of the day, but the amount of information on each counter is almost staggering. Some units contain almost a dozen separate pieces of information, using colored backgrounds, letters, indicators, as well as the usual numbers.
For example, the M2A2 Tank counter shows that it has an attack value of 3 with a Stabilized Gun (enabling it to move and fire more effectively); its gun range is 4 hexes (1000 meters), but it also has a Missile Value of '14' with a Range of '15' hexes. It's Defensive Strength of '3' also indicates it is an armored vehicle, with a Tracked (and amphibious) Movement Rate of '24'. These tanks also have thermal night vision and can carry one Load point of Leg units. One would think this somewhat daunting array would be tedious to assimilate; happily, it isn't.
Sands' rules book is it's best feature. It's not the usual pamphlet, but the kind of softcover book you usually see in RPG games. The typeface is big, there are some good visual examples, and it's easy to read. Actually, that's the game's main surprise, that it is so easy to learn and play. The "basic" game (which is also supported by a separate, "Jump- Start" pamphlet) covers 7 pages; it takes about 15 minutes to get started. As with most tactical games of this ilk, it's always better to play one of the introductory scenarios to see what the designer is getting at. We started with the Palmyra Road scenario (Syria, 1941). It took about 45 minutes to complete; well, complete is not really true (although the time is about right.) It was at the end of that time that we realized that we had absorbed enough of the system to realize that this scenario was no longer a challenge. Anyway, I was loosing. So on we plunged into the Advanced Game.
We picked out what appeared to be a moderate-level scenario, one from the 1948 Israeli War for Independence. The advanced rules are pretty much modularized, so you can play the 40's and 50's battles without having to learn rules about electronic warfare, helicopters, etc. In a nice touch, each scenario lists exactly which advanced rules you need. So, it was only another ten minutes before we were ready to break out the counters and pitch into the Israeli attack on the Lod airstrip.
Sands' Sequence of Play is far simpler than its application. You determine command control, then there's Fire, Movement (along with Defender Fire), and a Final Fire Phase. That's it! The fun comes in how the different unit types get to use the three main phases. Some units can move and fire, some can fire only in one phase and then move, etc. Combat is odds/ratio, with results being Damaged, Pinned or Bye-Bye. There are heavy adjustments to strengths, from type of weapon, amount of armor, as well as the usual terrain. The Movement Chart is rather extensive but easy to use, and that's pretty much it for the basic game.
It turned out that the Lod airport scenario used none of the Advanced Rules (which apply mostly to "modern" combat); it just had a lot of counters. It was also like shooting camels in a barrel: Arab leg units against an Israeli armored brigade, an "elite" commando force and some other troops. The best Arab strategy seemed to be to huddle inside of the towns hoping the Israeli wouldn't "see" them; then, when they did get discovered, get out before they got annihilated, move away, then return to counter-attack. The Israelis just kept rolling all over the maps, wiping up Arabs. Aside from several surprisingly effective counter-attacks (the strategy caught the Israelis napping twice!), playing the Arabs here is about as much fun as a bus tour of Albania . . . with Kevin Zucker as your guide.
The scenario did reveal one of the drawbacks of the system. While the portrayal of the relative maneuverability of tracked/wheeled vehicles vis a vis foot is accurate, the usual leg movement rate of two hexes is too low for playability. While moving infantry is often agonizingly slow and frustratingly realistic, agony and frustration are not two overly positive adjectives. This rate is even further restricted by the Command Rules, which require battalions to stay pretty close together until the player's handy-dandy Staff counter can accumulate enough Command Points to take care of everyone during The Big Push. While the end result of this is fairly realistic, the mechanic is nowhere near as elegant as the other game systems. There was also some scenario deployment confusion as to what was really east and what should have been west. We figured that the Israeli tanks and commandos were supposed to come in through the map edge - not simply plunked down in the middle of the battlefield (which is what the scenario indicated.)
Seeking greater depth, and equally greater rewards, we forged ahead to what appeared to be a real wow of a scenario: the battle of the Hawizeh Marshes in the Iran-Iraq War, 1985. All sorts of goodies, here: amphibious landings, gas attacks, helicopters, obscured vision rules . . . all the stuff that makes modern warfare the Gadgeteer's Nirvana that it is. Amazingly, it required only about ten more minutes of glancing over the modularized rules for each of these items to get going once again, Sands' simplicity and clarity again coming to the fore. Finding the necessary counters scattered around the counter-tree was something else, however. Sands buffs will be pretty much reduced to getting all their units organized in trays or whatever.
The scenario's "battlefield", which used 3 of the maps, was highly unusual - it has special rules for pontoons, barges and rubber boats - and the players' objectives concurrently difficult. Hawizeh proved a lot more daunting than the previous two games, and there were screw-ups galore (a rather accurate description of this desolate war). Gas is the elephant of modern warfare; regardless of how dangerous it is to both sides, players will never hesitate to use it. And even though the Iranians outnumbered the Iraquis and, with daylight, had major air superiority (most of which never got used because of some really bad dierolls), I found it difficult to break through and across the river.
The air rules, which in some games carry the complexity of Mayan hieroglyphics, are delightfully easy to implement. Planes swoop in during the Movement Phase, strafing and bombing almost at will. (I particularly enjoyed a rather effective Cluster Bomb mission. Unfortunately that bomber, satiated by success, decided to take a lunch break for the remainder of the game; air support is never sure in this game.) Whatever, it was lots of fun (despite the relative lack of political sympathy for either side here), and all three scenarios were played in a (long) afternoon.
Admittedly, modern warfare is not my forte; anything more intricate than a Spencer Repeating rifle tends to confuse me. However, Sands of War was most illuminating to this most appreciative novice. I am aware that Frank Chadwick's knowledge of modern warfare and its weaponry is sufficiently expert to assume that the ratings, ranges and applications of the wide variety of weapon types, although reduced to single digit simplicity, is, within those parameters, evocative. While I have not the background to cast a shadow on that assumption, I do know that the game's simplicity and clarity allows a depth of instant involvement and enjoyment rarely achieved by other games in this area. Sands also has 30+ scenarios covering eight different wars, including the recent Gulf War. And as an extra added attraction, it has an extensive "design-your-own scenario section backed by a large bibliography.
While not THE definitive simulation of modern "desert" warfare (nor was it intended to be), Sands of War plays with such ease, insight and clarity that it fulfills one of my prime review (and design) objectives: you get to play the situation, not the rules.
Physical Quality: Excellent, but not spectacular. Solid, middle-class virtues at work here.
Playability: Despite the tremendous variety of things you can do, the basic system is geared for play. To that end it works quite well. This is an easy game to start and finish. It also plays quite well solitaire.
Historicity: Not my area, but seems fine to me. A pretty good feel for what the different weapons systems can do.
Playing Time: You could probably play any scenario - perhaps even more - in an evening.
Comparisons: Oh, lordy, lordy. Modern Tac Warfare, how do I Love Thee? Let me count the games . . . most of which I've never played. I have played Squad Leader, though, the only platoon-level tactical system still truly extant. Sands is quite similar in play feel, although the system is quite simpler. Granted, it's not as colorful and all-encompassing as SL; then again, you don't have to buy umpteen modules and a U-Haul to play one of the scenarios.
Overall: Sands of War is a good, fun, informative alternative to Squad Leader, so much so that it stands on it's own merits, which are quite extensive.