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Posted on Jun 18, 2007 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Shifting Sands Review

By Robert Delwood

After movement, all combat is resolved. Either play may use cards marked as Combat cards, which gives them certain benefits ranging from a favorable die roll modifier, changing the combat table columns, to avoiding combat entirely. The attacker totals his or her combat points and rolls on the table, the defender then does the same. If the attacker inflicts more losses, the defender retreats. In a special case that the attacker has armor, rolls a breakthrough result, and inflicts more damage, an overrun occurs. An overrun is a particularly impressive situation in which the attacker not only clears the area of enemy units but also allows all attacking units to advance up to their movement allowance, rather than the one or two areas normally permitted. A well-timed overrun can break the game open. Often both players end up jockeying for position just for a chance to get an overrun. The winner of the combat also keeps their played combat cards for use in a later Action Round of the same turn. The combat procedure merits taking a moment to read carefully but it is an effective mechanism for the game.

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Victory has a sudden death feel, which always makes for intense play. Although the Allies just have to brace themselves for a long game, the Axis, on the other hand, have almost a half dozen ways of winning. Five of those are imminent. For starters, they start with 10 of their needed 14 victory points, set up tantalizingly close-already inside Egypt-and Rommel, with his overwhelming forces, shows up on turn three. The fact is, if the Axis doesn’t win outright in the first four turns with Rommel, they will need to brace for a long game, too.
The campaign game plays out in three phases. The initial phase is the British dominance, with the Italian offensive stalled just inside Egypt. The British have two turns before Rommel and his German armor arrives, so they have to make the best of this precious time. Typically, they either go on the offensive, attempting to drive the Axis back as far as possible, or they brace for the inevitable. The second phase is the Axis dominance. Rommel arrives on turn three and can be in combat in as few as two Action Rounds after that. The effectiveness of the Germans is not only that their units are strong, but also that once an Action Round Rommel gets to shift the combat factors of any attack including a German unit two columns. The next four turns will be the most intense in the game. The Axis has the force, initiative, and position to get an automatic victory and the British have just enough to keep delaying that a turn. It becomes a nerve wracking battle. The last phase is the Allied dominance, although that is a gradual process.

What makes this game compelling is that neither side feels they have the time or resources they need. The British have an ambitions scope and must fight everywhere: The Germans in North Africa, completely conquer East Africa, and perhaps fight in the Middle East, all at the same time if the Axis literally plays their cards right. And no theater is really less important than another one. The British must keep Port Said and Suez or face an automatic loss. They lose a victory point a turn starting turn six if there are any Axis units in East Africa and the Middle East. The Axis has a potential of two victory point cities if the British don’t respond to those uprisings quickly enough. Those two cities alone would give the Axis 12 of the needed 14 victory points. In addition, the German’s drive to Cairo will likely get another point for capturing El Alamein. If even for one turn, the Axis has 13 of 14.

The Axis has their own concerns. Although strong, the German units are brittle and losses are difficult to replace, new units come in slowly, the Axis card options are not as flexible as the Allies’, and, ultimately, the cards are literally stacked against them. Rommel’s combat advantage gets whittled away, the Americans can come in from the west, and the Allies can replace their losses almost on the same turn. The final indignation is that those last two victory points seem impossible to get.

The cards and the card play is at the heart of the game. The game has a framework. Of course, there are a limited number of cards but more importantly the timing and sequence of the events are enforced. Some cards come in during a specific year, some can’t be played before a certain date within a year and others have prerequisite events. Doing better or worse than your historical counterpart won’t change the deck. But it doesn’t mean the game’s scripted either. There’s too much variety. Not all the cards can be drawn. Even from among those drawn, not all of them can be played. The tactical situation drives the card play as much as the events on the card. A German breakthrough at the wrong time may force the Allied to play a card for its operations value and not the event; two cards may be mutually exclusive, the good cards are good in all categories but you can only use it for one of those purposes. In that regard, the mechanics are finely tuned. This evens out the luck and a game winning or game losing card streak is unlikely. Even with the worse of draws, the Allies could brute force their way through, or the Axis’ pressure might distract the Allies just long enough. It’s that dichotomy that make the game fun.

It’d be recommending playing a practice game first. Although the mechanics are easy, getting to know the cards is more important. Many fan sites have a listing of all the cards, and while that is useful, using the cards during the game is the best way to appreciate their subtleties. In spite of rumors, a scenario lasting one sitting remains elusive but with familiarity, the game moves at a good pace. Low unit density, limited movement and combat options, and a relativity low card hand allows play to be continuous with little down time for either player. There are plenty of hard choices and the situation changes almost every Action Round.

 

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