About a decade after commercial wargame publishing became a viable, ongoing industry, very large wargames started to appear: four poster-sized paper maps or more and thousands of playing pieces. They tend to have small but intense followings: these aren’t like other games. While most games – at least the ones we publish - are intended to be played and enjoyed in a single evening, these huge games take far longer. Some of the scenarios require an entire evening just to set them up. While two people can play them, they’ll need to do so over weeks or maybe months. More commonly, they’re played by teams.
That makes them an excuse for a repeated social occasion, accounting for their continued popularity with gamers. In our hyper-connected era we feel we need an excuse to join with our friends in the same location, and a massive wargame perfectly fits that requirement. No screen can replace actual human contact.
Such a game presents a challenge for the publisher: you’re not going to sell very many of them, since 10 people can play one game instead of just two. They take a long time to produce and they consume enormous resources – not just cash, but artist and editorial time. If the game hits, you can make some real money; if it misses, you can be out of business.
Early this century, the old Avalanche Press took a stab at giant games, and produced Alamein, a massive game of the Alamein battles in late 1942. It finally sold out when we ran out of its giant, double-sized box, and faded into the sunset.
The other color parts – maps, playing pieces – remained in storage, but scattered throughout the warehouse. When we moved some of the warehouse stock a few months ago I took pains to collect all of the Alamein parts together, and as I suspected we had enough to justify printing some more black-and-white components and a new box wrap for our new-style boxes (the game, just barely, will fit inside).
Alamein’s new edition is identical to the old edition, except for the nice new box. And it is a massive game, starting with four oversized paper maps. These are a huge size (38 x 26 inches) that we can’t print any more, and they depict the desert terrain of western Egypt where the battles took place.
To maneuver across that huge playing surface, there’s a huge number of playing pieces: 1,960 of them. Most of them are combat units, but there are some markers as well.
Alamein is a battalion-scale game, with units rated for the usual stuff (attack, defense, movement) plus morale plus armor quality/anti-tank strength. Some specialist units are companies, and you can also separate some of your battalions into companies. You won’t want to do that very often, but it’s useful in some situations.
Alamein is also a division-scale game, as you activate your forces by formation (almost always a division) and then move and fight with them. The divisions just happen to each be represented by a whole bunch of pieces. You also supply your units through your divisions, and in practice that makes divisions and their headquarters function very much like the real thing.
Unique for the games in its series (all of them, except Island of Death, have been out of print for many years), Alamein also includes an air warfare sub-system, with actual air units (squadrons). Each player decides how many to use (thus consuming part of your limited stock of supplies) and chooses their missions – air strikes, harassment, supply interdiction, ground support and the all-important air superiority. This is pretty cool: players get to move the actual air squadrons about instead of assigning “air points” to do stuff. We probably should have retro-fitted it to Island of Death at some point.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the game system itself is pretty intense, at least by our standards. But it’s all interwoven so well that the elements become pretty intuitive once you’ve played the game. There are a few wrinkles that aren’t that obvious at first: one is the crucial nature of supply via the “double” supply system (in short, you give your fighting units the stuff to feed themselves and shoot AND you give their formation the stuff to make their operations viable). Actually there’s also artillery ammunition to issue, which makes it a triple supply system. But it all weaves together, particularly with the air system.
The combat sub-system is also a little deceptive at first glance. It appears to be a pretty standard odds-driven combat results table, with a split set of results (one for the attacker, one for the defender). And it appears very, very hard on the attacker.
But that’s before you start looking for odds modifications. Leaders, armor, morale, air support, terrain, flanking attacks – all of these can improve your attack (or defense, some of them). And so that impossible 1:1 attack becomes a far more propitious 6:1 attack. This is why you’ll sometimes want to separate your battalions into far-more-vulnerable companies, to outflank an enemy position for get some tanks involved in the assault.
All of that means you’ll be pretty invested in the game play – unlike most of our games, this one’s not recommended for play while drunk. You can play the game solitaire pretty well. It also rewards team play very well; that formation structure is almost designed to reward team play (since most of the testing was done that way, I suspect it was consciously designed with team play in mind).
Alamein isn’t for everyone, but provides a very rewarding experience for the right kind of wargamer. We only have a limited number of copies available, and once they’re gone the game is done forever – a reprint of this magnificent beast is simply beyond our current capabilities.
Click here to order Alamein right now!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.