Rommel in the Desert

I am hoping to run a Rommel in the Desert event at Origins. Well, I am running an event, I just hope people show up after the snafu with the printed program. I needed a short scenario, so I chose Battleaxe, which was apparently designed for the tournament at Origins ’87. Only problem: I had never played that scenario (I was unaware of it until it was added to the rulebook in the 2004 version of the game). So I’ve been trying to find opportunities to do so.

My first chance was at Bay Area GamesDay XXXVIII. My opponent was a new player. I played the Germans.

Battleaxe starts both sides fairly short on supply, but the Germans particularly (only 4 cards to the Allied 8). I drew 4 blanks. “Isn’t there a mulligan rule in this game? I think there is a mulligan. Can I redraw?” (The mulligan rule was located later in the evening – you can redraw once, after which you are stuck with it). OK … 4 more blanks. Ouch.

For those unfamiliar with Rommel in the Desert, the game is driven by a deck of supply cards. Each card can be either one unit of supply, or not. Two-thirds of the deck is supply. Supply is required to do absolutely anything in the game, other than defending in place or running away from the enemy in terror. If you have supply, you can attack, counterattack, reinforce, or rearrange your defensive lines. If you have a bit more supply, you can launch larger offensives. If you have a lot of supply, you can attempt blitzkrieg-style breakthroughs. If you have no supply, you can withdraw.

I’ve had to play the game short supply, which is not easy, but is a lot easier as the Germans, since they concentrate a lot of hitting power into a few units, have better mobility, and are generally less fragile. You can use your fast recon units to sort of weave and dodge, and the Germans have a much easier time putting together nasty local counterattacks on short supply. I’ve never had to face down an opponent with 8 (admittedly unknown) supply cards while I had none, though.

I think if my opponent had more experience, it would have been a lot tougher; but the Allies are tricky to play. You can’t play this the way you would approach EastFront or Hammer of the Scots, because unlike in those games, one side’s units (the Axis here, unfortunately for the good guys) are simply better. A lot better, at least until the Grants and Shermans arrive. So for the Allies, the hexside attack limits make it harder to get force superiority; and the better Axis mobility makes it hard to outflank them. So you really need to leverage your supply advantage to unleash major hammer blows, rather than spending a supply here, a supply there – again, because the German units are so much better, if you’re in a move/counter-move situation, they’re always going to come out ahead.

Bottom line, if you can’t create a crisis, or at least an opportunity to tie them down in a major slugfest that will allow you to trade losses step-for-step, you’re better off waiting and building up your supply reserve. Of course, that judgment is tricky because you don’t know just how much supply your opponent has, or whether things are going to get much better. I think the British also have to be more sensitive to when to call off operations that are losing their momentum. If you’ve pushed hard, you aren’t getting results, and your stockpile is running low, it’s time to pull back rather than pushing the offensive until you simply run out of supply.

As our game played out, my recon units were able to screen my main body for the first turn, slowing down the Brits. I used withdrawl moves to yield a couple hexes. The first buildup saw one supply point come my way, which I resisted the temptation to use and simply fell back a bit more; the British had gotten themselves a bit mired in a couple battles to which they had brought insufficient force. The next buildup netted two more supply; at this point, I was able to spend one on a big counterattack, which stalled the British and stabilized a large part of the line. When I then had adequate supply on turn 5 or so, and the British had overextended themselves, and I was able to go over to the offensive and decisively maul their spearheads.

Like EastFront, Rommel is to a large degree about the efficient usage of scarce supply options – scarce supply has to be spent on concerted action and not frittered away. But Rommel is a much more dramatic game than EastFront, for a few reasons. Firstly, the German units are strong enough that the Axis can be fairly assertive. Secondly, you can run through your supply much more rapidly. In EastFront, the number of supply steps you can spend in a turn is limited, as is your ability to stockpile. In Rommel, you can spend vast amounts of supply on a lot of activity in a short amount of time, and you can also stockpile a very large reserve.

Every time I play Rommel in the Desert, I am reminded how much I like the game. Too bad I don’t get to play it more often; this is amongst the best of the best, especially since it plays in such a comparatively short time.

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