Sands of War (plus Expansion)

Playings; 3 (4 hours).

Remember Arab-Israeli Wars from TAHGC? I sold mine long ago but from hazy recollections Sands of War covers the same ground but is simpler and far prettier. Usually tactical games cover a set historical period boasting common weaponry. Sands of War spans more than 50 years of desert battles and some hefty advances in technology, all from the same rules. All the Arab-Israeli Wars are covered plus the Gulf (naturally, it is a GDW game), the 1948 war was fought with surplus WW2 equipment so Sands of War slips comfortably to the desert campaigns of that period and back to WW2. Thus the game offers a wide range of weaponry but while a player may be an Olympic level bore on part of the period he may have little interest in another.

The Gulf War attracts an uncomfortably large number of scenarios, with yet more in the expansion. The Iraqis stand little chance of winning these so short of an historical exercise they are of little purpose. Doubtless Frank Chadwick is putting the research from his Gulf books to good use. Possibly these scenarios were included to appeal to the good ol' boys back home. Many Americans would be pressed to find Israel on the map but would have watched the Gulf War live on CNN. Public awareness means more sales (hopefully); it certainly has led to a lack of games on such subjects as pre-colonial kingdoms in West Africa. Like many games (Gulf strike, Flashpoint Golan), perceived public interest in an event has led to a game that might not otherwise have been published.

Although on a desert theme the broadly yellow maps include a smattering of towns, islands, hills and rivers, even the odd tree, so would do for any open terrain. Possible conflicts that are not covered by the game but could be with the components include Chad, Somalia and Ethiopia. Not possible are South Africa or anything involving modern British equipment. This is because no counters are included for these nations' inventories although the modern French are rather well covered The older game Battlefield Europe (GDW) would fill some of these gaps but I have read that the 2 are not completely compatible. From reading the back of the box of Battlefield Europe, the two appear fairly similar, I would be glad of any info as to exactly how they differ.

Just as in Arab-Israeli Wars, most of the rulebook is taken up by scenarios for you to set up and play. Also units are platoons of 3 or 4 vehicles (depending on the doctrine) and 30 or so men. A battalion works out at about 10 useful counters plus the odd support unit. The rules are simple enough to handle 3 or more battalions for each side without much head scratching, not so with the old TAHGC game. Everything we need to know is written on to the counters, these are ~4" jobs, allowing room for all this and a picture, unlike Gulf Strike ('VG) which so filled the counters with info that the picture had to go on the back. This is the big decision point in Sands of War. Everything is on the counter, plus only 1 simple odds CRT is used for all combat. This cuts down looking-up, to terrain effects and what all the numbers mean, sheer heaven after playing MBT ~AHGC, see issue 4). This sole design point is also the limitation of the game. A different counter is needed for each unit type, often a 2nd command version as well. This boils down to a lot of units sat in the box not being used but worse, certain items not being represented at all (the old counter mix limitation story). of those units that we do get there will not be enough for a really big force of the same fighting vehicle. Not a problem for the poorer nations who tend to buy a bit of this and a bit of the other but you do not get hordes of say T55s (actually you get 10). The counter sheet replicas printed at the back of the books are not crisp enough to photocopy and paste new units. It is back to using the next best thing and noting the difference.

The actual mix of counters available is related to the scenarios provided. It seems as though the scenarios had been finalised and then the counter mix decided on to provide counters for those scenarios. The alternative approach is to provide units for "standard" world army organisations (Russian mechanised infantry regiment and the like) and adapt these for the scenarios. Hopefully the GDW system has meant minimal jigging to fit the available counters into the scenarios. The expansion set does replace some vehicle types with new counters, modifying some of the original scenarios, evidence of some corner cutting. A disadvantage is that certain popular types are poorly represented (only 7 T62s) and other counters are not going to get a lot of use outside of certain scenarios. 10 Type 63 counters are provided, a Chinese infantry vehicle used by the Iraqis in 1 scenario against the Iranians. For further Chinese vehicles you will have to adapt Russian armour (which is all the Chinese did). Considering this factor together with the large number of pre-planned scenarios, the game can be considered as a multi-game set or megaquad. It is possible to make up your own games, a points system is provided but no organisation charts. Also lacking are any details on the weapons represented by the counters, GDW assumes (they may be right) that all gamers know this sort of thing. If not you will have to study the silhouette and counter stats, alternatively the Observers Book of Tanks is cheap and rather good for the modern stuff, although I have never seen anything from it in the trees in the bottom of the garden. The scale of the game poses certain problems of relating to what the actions of the cardboard units represent. The scale is not small enough to pick out what every vehicle and fireteam is doing. In MBT, Firefight (SPVTSR) and hosts of other tactical games each counter represents 1 vehicle, if the counter is eliminated it does not tax the brain to work out what has happened to the object it represents. Sands of War counters reflect 3 or 4 fighting units that could conceivably split up to control more than 1 hex, instead they must move and take damage as a single tactical group. CRT results consist of misses, eliminations, pins (infantry only, reduced combat ability but the counter can recover by not moving) damage (vehicles only, combat power halved and unable to recover) but nothing else. Two pins or damage results in a row will eliminate the unit Thankfully there are no retreats or exchanges. The effective results are a combination of morale and physical damage, the gamer will never know exactly what has happened but in his shoes as Brigade Commander he does know that one of the little lights on his VDU has gone out. Iraqi COs will have to rub out 1 pencil mark from their Michelin map of Kuwait. 2 damaged vehicle units can be combined into 1 unharmed and 1 unavailable (for further recombination) unit so a damage result may represent a loss of 1 out of 3 fighting units. A swift change of underwear plus/a strong brew of tea and the better of 2 shot up units can be thrown back into the fray. Infantry is harder to follow, if a unit recovers from a pin it will be as good as new, presumably the platoon has gone to ground with very light casualties (good news unless you happen to be the acceptable level of loss). Unless there are juicier targets to be had, the enemy will try to place a 2nd pin on the unfortunate infantry and make it run for home.

Sands of War is aimed at a level of awareness too low to bother about what every tactical unit is up to but not broad enough to represent wide strategic sweeps. You cannot race across the West Bank to drive the IDF into the sea; instead the brief of the battle will be to capture some town or stretch of road. Although there are 20 maps available, 2 are the usual number for each scenario giving a folio sized playing area. Things can get pretty congested in the obvious key areas (places to fight for or hide in). Although even the humble Shir I (Chieftain) is able to fire out to 20 hexes, it will only do serious damage up to 5 and infantry will rarely fire above 2 hexes, so most of the committed units will be within 10 hexes of each other, they will have to be considering the size of maps used.

Having cut combat mechanisms to the bare minimum, Sands of War is able to consider the aspects of command and morale. Certain units are marked as command stands, infantry command units are special units but vehicle commanders have all the abilities of regular vehicles plus the ability to command Any command unit may issue a command chit to any unit that is subordinate to it. A unit not within range of a command chit can only move half distance and not towards any enemy unit that it can see. Infantry units that are out of command may not recover from pins. A command chit may be used to combine 2 eliminated non-vehicle units or repair 1 damaged vehicle (forcing another to be scrapped) instead of counting for other command purposes. A formation that uses a command counter to repair damage will thus have its ability to attack reduced.

When playing these rules 1 drawback appears. Command units only affect subordinate counters, no problem for a T55 commander in charge of the only unit of T55s. Infantry commanders are all the same, except from a small identification number. Things are fine at set up but formations get mixed as the game goes on and some serious peering is in order to find out who can give commands to whom. The size of formations plus the number of commanders per formation (usually just 1) will affect the performance of an army as much as its weapons. A command chit will put any subordinate unit within 2 hexes of the commander in command or any subordinate unit within 1 hex of some other point that the commander can see can be put in command. This gives an advantage to keeping command units up with the troops rather than behind a hill but increases the chance of their elimination. The loss of a commander will slow up any attack, defenders are not so badly affected Higher command echelons can help out by issuing commands to units from lower commands. If the commander of a group is lost then other formations can transfer surviving units of the group to their own formations but only at a rate of I unit per command chit issued (restricting their ability to issue command type orders).

Everything up to this point has kept to a quick and simple system (even if you don't understand this article you will understand the game). Unfortunately Sands of War has not I but 2 sets of morale rules, they have different names but both cover the same concepts and are both affected by the other. I admit that 1 of the 2 systems is an optional rule but with a simple system all the options beg to be used, I never got as far as the optional rules of MBT.

All formations have a morale number; all destroyed fighting units, except recon and observers, count as 1 point towards this number. Any units brought back by recombination will force the count down again. When the morale number is reached the formation hesitates and all units are out of command for the next game turn (not a big problem). When double the number is lost, all units are out of command plus all infantry are pinned and vehicles damaged. This means that any previously damaged or pinned units are destroyed. Commanders can still command units in the same hex as themselves (confusing exception to all the above), plus it is not clear what happens when a unit from a broken formation is transferred to another group.

At the same time as all this is happening the units are subject to cohesion. All pinned, damaged and destroyed results suffered by a formation are totalled at the of the player turn. A DI 0 is compared to this total, if it is equal or less, the formation is disordered. All damaged vehicles in the formation are now destroyed and all non-pinned units must move away from the enemy, all non-pinned units are then pinned, pinned units remain pinned. No part of the unit may fire while this is happening. The loss of damaged vehicles will add to the morale result. A few good shots on a weakened armour unit will see it fail cohesion and the extra damage as a result of failure may lead to a failure of morale. Damage results do not apply to infantry, making foot units more resilient than mechanised units who will be penalised by the elimination of damaged APCs or MICVs. Some troops count as high cohesion, counting I less casualty than suffered (or 1 free death), Gulf War Americans are high cohesion. Formations that have hesitated or are designated as low cohesion act as if 1 extra casualty has been suffered. A single shot at them (that misses) will force cohesion loss on a roll of 1, many Gulf War Iraqis get to be low cohesion.

In practice formations cannot take a lot of damage. Armies are destroyed by virtue of the majority of formations losing morale and cohesion (units lost because of morale also count for cohesion), rather than a high rate of losses from firing. Losses due to cohesion and morale in these units could equal those due to firing. The ability to fix morale levels, cohesion ratings, the number of commanders per formation and formation size allows differing levels of training and types of doctrine to be simulated. The Syrians had some fine armour in 1973 but taught the Russians some lessons in how not to deploy it. In Sands of War the T12 is better than the M6OA1 (but inferior to the Chieftain) yet by adjusting cohesion and morale, the M6OAl 5 can be given an advantage. It is just a shame that cohesion and morale could not have been combined into the same rules section.

The range of scenarios covers quite a time period. While it is clear that these all follow the common theme of desert warfare, GDW have lessened the appeal of the game by aiming for the widest possible audience. How many desert warfare nuts can there be? Any WW2 gamer will shy away from the modern units (not enough Germans for a start) and regard all those counters left in the box as wasted investment. The modern gamer does better from the deal, T34s and Shermans turning up for years on end in the Middle East. The game system is simple, including the use of missiles and airpower. Playing the early scenarios will not require these rules and render the system a little too simple for some tastes. The same map scale for all periodsí results in a Crusader tank having a maximum range of 6 hexes compared to 16 for an M1A1. The modern units fill the playing area; WW2 troops will need to creep much closer together for any serious action.

Unlike the vehicles, all infantry types are the same regardless of the date, there are 4 classes of infantry (Elite to Militia) but the range and combat ability of each type will be the same in any scenario. No allowance is made for any increase in volume of infantry fire. The variety of infantry support weapons does improve giving modern infantry some advantage should a WW2 squad step through a time warp.