Shifting Sands

I’ve been putting off doing this write-up, because I feel like my track record on these card games is sketchy. I’ll play one of them a couple or a few times, the game will be fun, I’ll do the write-up, and then the game promptly crashes and burns the very next time I play it. Such was the case for The Napoleonic Wars, Triumph of Chaos, and Sword of Rome, all of which hit the wall pretty hard (some harder than others, though). I’d probably be tougher on Twilight Struggle if I wrote my review today. Here I Stand, a game I do still like, nonetheless couldn’t hold the enthusiasm generated by the first few games and it overall must be judged to have some significant issues.

So, I was not sure what to do with Shifting Sands. But, having now played three times, I’ve cracked and you get this.

Shifting Sands is a direct descendant of GMT and Ted Raicer’s classic games Barbarossa to Berlin and Paths of Glory. The core game system is virtually identical. On your turn, you play a card from your hand, and choose between operations (movement and combat), replacements, strategic moves, or the military or political event. If you choose operations, you spend the number the card gives you to activate units around the board. While your infantry holds the line and provides mass, armor units form the critical core of your army, and drive a lot of the tactical interest by having the ability to shift the weight of an attack easily and rapidly, as well as to add the possibility of overrunning defending units.

From a historical perspective, the war in the Western Desert was not so much blitzkrieg in miniature as it was a series of set-piece battles interspersed with cavalry-style raids and flanking maneuvers, and the tactics of Shifting Sands capture elements of this. Because of the maneuverability of armored units, the overrun results, and possible armor attack bonuses, the offensive is very powerful when things are taking place in the open with insecure flanks. But once you hit a choke-point where flanks can be secured, or once the defender gets some terrain to take advantage of, things turn into a slugging match.

But, the tactical game – while certainly interesting – is not really Shifting Sands’ major focus. As it was for Paths of Glory, Shifting Sands is about resource management. Limited cards and limited action points have to be split wisely between operations, replacements, and events. And operations have to be prioritized wisely amongst the game’s several theaters.

Each player gets their own deck of cards, divided into three piles. The 1940 deck, like Paths of Glory’s Mobilization deck, is small, and the players will go through it in a couple turns. 1941 gets a bit thicker, and then 1942 adds quite a few cards. The thing that makes Shifting Sands feel different, though, is the rapidly-escalating hand sizes. Your hand starts with the Paths of Glory-standard 7 cards, but grows to 10 cards by the end (although it can be temporarily suppressed by Malta-related activities). These large hand sizes make a big difference: the most noticeable is the enhancement in the value of combat cards, since playing them will vary rarely cost you an activation as they often do in Paths of Glory (playing a card’s event to influence combat means that card can’t be used in one of your 6 impulses to actually do stuff. So if there’s a card you need to save for next turn for an important event, and a card you play as a combat card, with a 7 card hand that leaves you one short for your actual impulses). This, combined with combat cards that seem on average somewhat more powerful than the ones in Paths of Glory or Barbarossa to Berlin, is a very nice feature that makes combat a lot more uncertain and interesting, and the availability of combat cards can affect your planning in a way that the much more incidental cards in Barbarossa to Berlin usually don’t.

Apart from the Western Desert, Shifting Sands also features two peripheral theaters, the Near East and East Africa. These are separate gameplay areas in which the Axis ultimately have little to no hope of accomplishing anything constructive, but which can be a drain on British resources. Juggling them ultimately feels like juggling the fronts in Paths of Glory – how can the Serbians be finished off most efficiently? – but the advantage Shifting Sands has is that these resource management tradeoffs make some actual thematic sense. In Paths of Glory, Germany is slowing down Schlieffen’s right wing in order to allow Austria-Hungary to spend operations to battle Serbia, which makes absolutely no sense. In Shifting Sands, having the British choose between spending resources in East Africa or the Western Desert is at least not intuitively jarring.

The other thing is that the game contains many powerful and important event cards, and has a number of sequencing issues – the biggest being a whole series of cards revolving around the reinforcement, siege and possible Axis seizure of Malta. The larger hand sizes makes the management and cycling of cards and events more manageable (compare to the incredibly unwieldy and accident-prone Russian Capitulation Sequence in Paths of Glory).

As for my impressions? Shifting Sands initially get about the same reception as Michael Rinella’s previous game, Monty’s Gamble: Market Garden. I liked both games right away. But on the other hand, both games are so similar in feel to their predecessors (Paths of Glory and Breakout: Normandy), that they didn’t get an initial “wow” the way the originals did when I first played them. But as I came to grips with the new games, I realized that the situations and feel and details are quite different, and interesting in their own right. I really like that both of his games have not just introduced added complexity and playing time, as is unfortunately traditional with spinoff games, but have been able to cleanly port the underlying system to new situations while arguably reducing the complexity and slimming down the playing time. Breakout: Normandy is a 6-hour game, which is just a bit uncomfortable, while Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin are both 10+ hours. On the other hand, Monty’s Gamble is a great and very compact and comfortable 3 to 4 hour game, and Shifting Sands can be finished in 5. Monty’s Gamble’s length is perfect; Shifting Sands is probably a touch long – like in Barbarossa to Berlin, the endgame of mopping up the outnumbered, outgunned, and outclassed Axis is not the most compelling gaming experience ever devised – but on the scale of these things Shifting Sands is a dense game with lots of activity and I have no complaints. Unlike Here I Stand, which can feature significant periods of minimal activity and accomplishment, things are always happening in Shifting Sands.

I can no longer seriously talk about any of these games as “simulations”, but from what I’ll call a “thematic” standpoint, Shifting Sands does pretty well, better I think than many others in this category. The core card mechanism it uses was brilliant when it was originally perfected in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage because it both introduced gameplay tension (having to balance military and political actions) and successfully conveyed a sense of the fog of war of the period. Later games have successfully used cards to achieve game tension, but in my opinion they haven’t always modeled or evoked anything in particular thematically. Paths of Glory was a notable offender in this regard. Why am I trading off Russian vs. French activity? Weren’t these two different nations, with two totally separate supply and command chains? Sure, coordination of offensives between the two nations was hard, but the game model is not coordination problems; the model is that there was a fixed amount of military activity that has to be divvied up amongst the French, British, and Russians, which was clearly just not how things worked. Similarly, presumably the drafting and training areas of the military-industrial complex were going to churn out soldiers regardless of whether or not higher-ups took a break to play a card as Replacement Points instead of happening to notice that someone seems to have sunk the Lusitania. The real limit on replacements was the available manpower pool, from everything I’ve read, something which Paths of Glory pays no attention to.

For me anyway, Shifting Sands is on sounder thematic footing, even though it uses the same system. The antagonists are each drawing from one resource pool, so the decisions about the Western Desert vs. East Africa vs. the Near East make more sense (at least until right at the very end, with the Torch landings, which has the Allies starting to make the same strange trade-offs – who will be active today, the Americans or British? – that you make in Paths of Glory). Supplies in the desert were notoriously variable, so the randomness of the cards feels more plausible. Even the replacement point system, while not great, can be rationalized much more easily here.

On the other hand, any time you repurpose an existing game system to the degree that is the case here, there is bound to be a limit on how much you can do thematically. For example, I think Rommel in the Desert does more with less – Rommel really seems to capture a fundamental tactical and operational feel for the desert campaign, while Shifting Sands takes more of a “storybook” approach, similar (obviously) to that of Paths of Glory: the story of the campaign is told through the event cards, and the players follow along. In Rommel in the Desert, players are making fundamentally authentic-feeling decisions; in Shifting Sands, the campaigns unfold before you. That makes it sound, bad, I know, which doesn’t seem right; but for me personally, I prefer a game which can grasp a couple things fundamentally rather than doing a lot of things superficially. Thus, I think I find Rommel in the Desert the more convincing game, all the more so for having good scenarios playable in a couple of hours. But, by the same token, Shifting Sands does capture the sweep of the entire theatre while Rommel focusses solely on the Western Desert.

Does Shifting Sands succeed as a game? On that count, for me the answer is much more clear – I definitely enjoyed it all three times I played. The game isn’t completely clean; there is some complexity to the interrelated nature of a bunch of the events in the deck that it’ll be difficult to really understand until you’ve played a couple of times, and that complexity is probably a little overdone. The game is probably a touch too long, and the graphic designers over at MMP could have done significantly better in conveying information in the physical design. But these are my only complaints, and they are minor. The game plays more cleanly and with fewer special cases than either predecessor (Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin), it plays in reasonable time, presents the players with lots of interesting decisions, does it constantly with little slack time, maintains its interest almost right to the end, and appears to have well-designed and interesting cards and decks which tell the story of the desert campaign. I look forward to playing it more.

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