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Ode to the Desert
By Brian McCue
May 2014

Of all the theaters of operations, it was probably in North Africa that the war took on its most advanced form. The protagonists on both sides were fully motorized formations, for whose employment the flat and obstruction-free desert offered hitherto undreamed-of possibilities. It was the only theater where the principles of motorized and tank warfare, as they had been taught theoretically before the war, could be applied to the full—and further developed. It was the only theater where the pure tank battle between major formations was fought.—Erwin Rommel

The best land wargames are those about desert wars. I see a number of reasons of this.

First and foremost is visibility. Non-desert game must burden their players with all kinds of rules regarding Line-Of-Sight in trees, hedgerows, elephant grass, jungle, etc. - none of which need burden the desert-game player. Moreover, these normally come into play only when deciding if one unit can shoot at another: regardless of line of sight, each player almost always knows where all (or nearly all) of the other player’s pieces are located, and in many games he or she even knows what they are. The desert is the only kind of terrain in which this state of affairs comes close to being true. (So far in the dismal history of the human race, we have yet to fight a war on tundra; the sky and the ocean, where extreme visibility can also be had, aren’t “terrain.”) This over-visibility problem can be solved by getting a referee and playing double-blind (an experience that I strongly recommend), but many people have enough trouble finding a second player, let alone a third, and even in double-blind play there is the built-in unrealistic assumption that all friendly units know each other’s whereabouts, so a desert setting is best suited to what the usual gaming experience provides.

Desert RatsWeather influences visibility, and it has major effects on mobility as well. To treat either in a non-perfunctory way would be highly complex, and I know of no game that seriously attempts to do so. Consider, for example, snow: when it is falling, it reduces both visibility and mobility, but once it is on the ground and the sky is clear again, snow may either increase or decrease visibility and/or mobility. In the desert, the weather is nearly always clear, so the normal state of wargame affairs presents it perfectly. (The alternative state – sandstorm - can be represented even more easily: the fighting stops.)

Rommel’s comments on desert war jump quickly to the topic of tanks. Tanks make for great wargaming (as I’ve expounded in an earlier Ode), and they (along with cavalry, camelry, and elephants, all of which are also great fun to have in games) come into their own in the “flat and obstruction-free desert,” where the comparative lack of natural obstacles allows for the creation and maneuver of the major tank formations to which Rommel refers. Desert visibility allows direct-fire anti-armor weapons to attain (or at least approach) the test-range performance that our coffee-table reference works lead us to expect, or even to demand. To a considerable degree, the same is true of tracked-vehicle movement, especially in games whose pieces each represent more than one vehicle: for a platoon of tanks to drive together at their “off-road speed,” they had better be in very clear terrain indeed, and a desert offers the best opportunity.

Afrika KorpsRommel went so far as to entitle his treatise on the Second World War’s North African campaign Krieg ohne Hass (War Without Hatred).  While war is horrible in any case, it is especially so when it sweeps over civilian families and their homes.  The desert is home to few, so desert war seldom entails this particular form of suffering; moreover, since the combatants generally hail from elsewhere, their struggle is likely to be free of atrocity. The absence of civilians removes from the battle a set of considerations that are difficult to define in real life, hard to reflect in a game, and in fact often ignored in reality and simulation alike, for that very reason. (The battle of Beda Fomm, in which masses of civilian refugees got caught between the retreating Italians and the intercepting British, is the exception that showcases the rule: see scenarios 13, 14, and 48 of Avalanche Press’s Afrika Korps.)

Plentiful documentation makes for good wargames and the North African campaign seems to be unusually well documented. Is that because it was in the desert? Perhaps not, but this is an Ode, so I will claim that the great visibility would help participants to identify the formations they were seeing in the distance, and the logistical difficulty of supporting troops in the desert kept forces small and would force extra attention—and thus paperwork—regarding their location and strength. And paper doesn’t get ruined in the desert.

Avalanche Press offers a number of excellent desert games. The grand-tactical Panzer Grenadier line has long included Afrika Korps and Desert Rats, with An Army at Dawn forthcoming: together, these three (and some now-extinct supplements, notably South Africa’s War) cover the war in North Africa. Sword of Israel, in the Panzer Grenadier Modern series, presents battles from the 1967 Six-Day War.  At larger scales, Gazala, Western Desert, and Alamein address their North African topics at the operational-level, with the unusual Soviets-vs-Japanese Red Desert to look forward to.

Fight for the desert! Order Western Desert Force right here.