Since losing the Flare Path dimension debate by a whisker last April, my old mate Erwin Rommel has been been itching for a rematch. When I heard on the grognard grapevine that he and Bernie Montgomery didn’t see eye to eye on SGS Afrika Korps, a standalone £19.50 Wars Across the World spin-off, I realised I finally had a suitable subject for that rematch. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for two men whose knowledge of desert warfare would fill the Qattara Depression.
Monty: Hello, Erwin. Back for another drubbing, I see.
Rommel: Don’t count your unhatched poultry, old friend. SGS Afrika Korps is seriously flawed, and, deep down, I think you know it.
Monty: I’m guessing that’s a reference to the artificial intelligence.
Rommel: Not just the AI, but as you’ve brought it up we may as well start there. At the risk of sounding immodest, I didn’t win the nickname ‘The Desert Fox’ in a raffle. As you know, I earned it for, amongst other things, growing sunflowers, blunting battleaxes, and skilfully tending cauldrons. The unimaginative, slow-witted, timid version of me in SGS Afrika Korps is, frankly, insulting. The devs try to cover up ‘my’ tactical shortcomings with an array of battle-boosting stats, but the fact is their Rommel is a dullard and his doltishness spoils what could have been a fine wargame.
Monty: I think you’re being too harsh on your silicon alter ego. And even if Ersatz Erwin isn’t the sharpest tool in the Knightsbridge Box, you can always replace him by playing as the Axis yourself.
Rommel: Switching sides doesn’t help. Allied commanders – O’Connor, Ritchie, Auchinleck, your good self… – lead as inexpertly as the Axis ones. Every general in SGS Afrika Korps is a Rodolfo Graziani! They all lack drive and flexibility. All can be isolated from their supply networks then eliminated with relative ease by a half-decent WatW player. The inadequacies matter less in the shorter scenarios*, but in the 42 turn main attraction they ensure defeats are rarer than trawlers in the Great Sand Sea. Honestly, have you lost a game of SGS:AK yet?
* Battleaxe – 3 turns, El Alamein – 6 turns, Operazione E – 8 turns, Compass – 8 turns, Crusader – 8 turns.
Monty: I’m 30 turns into my first full-length German playthough right now and although I enjoy a big victory points advantage I don’t think I’m going to quite manage to make it to Alexandria or Cairo. That counts as a loss in my book.
Rommel: Trust me, the second time you play it you’ll reach the Nile. Try the scenario from the British perspective and even on ‘expert’ difficulty you’ll be in Tripoli before you know it.
Monty: If I admit that the AI isn’t exactly top notch, will you admit that SGS:AK captures the feel of the to and fro in Cyrenaica and western Egypt rather nicely? The importance of supply, the value of armour and airpower, the magnetic lure of that coast road, the debilitating heat of the North African summer… it’s all there gently or sometimes not so gently influencing your strategy. Aspects of the fighting, the map and core play mechanics can’t represent, cards and scripted events generally do a good job of simulating. We feel the impact of the wider war, the reverberations of developments in Greece, Russia, East Africa, Syria, even the Pacific. Want to understand why Malta and Tobruk were two of the most bombed places on Earth in 1941, play this game. Surely you can’t dislike SGS:AK’s enthusiasm for its subject matter… the way it teaches history and harnesses it.
Rommel: I don’t deny the game is a charismatic history tutor. “Could it be a more insightful one?” is the question I find myself asking. As we’ve observed on previous occasions, you’d struggle to find a more perfect example of a self-balancing campaign than the desert ding-dong that turned us both into household names. Two armies with goals at opposite ends of a 1900 kilometre-long strip of dirt and sand must overcome metaphorical elastic tethers to reach those goals. The nearer an army gets to its goal, the further its vital supplies have to travel. With progress comes increasing resistance to progress!
Monty: A reality Afrika Korps acknowledges in its own way. The longer a chain of supply-distributing map areas, the easier it is to sever and the longer it takes newly arrived units to scuttle to the front.
Rommel: Granted, but where’s the shorthand that points out that trucks don’t grow on palm trees and run on sunbeams, and that prisoners put strain on supplies too? Assuming it’s intact, a vast supply network in SGS:AK works as efficiently as a tiny one, and is just as sustainable. If I was designing a Western Desert Campaign wargame from scratch, one of my top priorities would be a sophisticated logistics system. The one Philippe Thibaut inherits and adapts isn’t bad, but I can’t help comparing it to superior systems like the one found in Unity of Command II.
Monty: At least the hand-me-down mechanics reduce tutorial and manual time. If you’ve played Wars Across the World or Winter War, you’ll find launching your first offensive in Cyrenaica simple.
Rommel: And if you haven’t played Wars Across the World or Winter War before? Time poor, I’m fond of WatW’s sensible unit counts and trim, logical rules. SGS:AK is friendlier than most of its peers, but the elaborate turn structure, fussy reinforcement placement cursor, and the need to carefully trace unit paths remain potential trip hazards for newcomers. Manually pathing aircraft is arguably the game’s most tiresome activity. Had the engine been built to order, a more elegant approach could have been employed.
Secondhand should mean tried and tested too, but in this case doesn’t. Encountered any bugs yet?
Monty: Nothing too disruptive. Autosaves mean the regular freezes are irritating rather than rage inducing.
Rommel: It says something about the calibre of the AI I’m facing, that I’m heading for victory in my current Axis campaign despite being unable to play most of the cards in my hand because of a technical issue, and having my entire force ravaged by a faulty “major air raid” card a couple of turns ago. Two months on from release, the game really should be in better shape than this.
Monty: Tell me you’re not enjoying eating up the miles to Alexandria with the help of those tempting “breakthroughs”*. Tell me the game’s colourful collection of units and lovely counter art doesn’t gladden your groggy heart. Tell me you don’t have a strong urge to temporarily abandon your hermit ways and try a spot of multiplayer?
* Mobile units victorious in sympathetic terrain can opt to push on up to twice per turn.
Rommel: True, it’s not often we get to see Italian, Australian, New Zealand, and Indian forces sharing a screen, and, yes, once the bugs are fixed, it’s possible I might be persuaded to embark on a PBEM game or two. At least playing multiplayer I won’t have to watch the Desert Fox loll in the sun, or bite off far more than he can chew when he really should be outflanking, nipping, or turning tail.
Monty: If your portrayal in SGS:AK offends you so much, recommend me a Western Desert wargame with a recognisable Rommel.
Rommel: I wish that I could, Bernard, I wish that I could. Until devs start rethinking their priorities, until they realise that, at the operational level at least, simulating the character of a leader is every bit as important as simulating the capabilities of a unit or weapon, you and me are going to have to put up with looking like – what’s that phrase of yours? – “proper Charlies”.
Monty: Actually I don’t have a problem with the way I’m depicted.
Rommel: That’s probably because your proxy turns up late in the main campaign and has precious little time to make a fool of himself.
Monty: According to the imaginary poll I’ve just conducted, although you’ve said twice as much in this debate as I have, the only thing you’ve managed to convince the readers of is that you have unrealistic AI expectations and a low tolerance for trifling bugs. I think that makes me the victor in this clash. As its ‘positive’ Steam reception suggests, SGS: Afrika Korps is as solid as a Matilda II.
Rommel: Switch ‘Matilda II’ for ‘Cruiser Mk I’ and that simile might work.
Monty: So you refuse to accept that Afrika Korps is worth its modest £19.50 asking price?
Rommel: I do.
Monty: Then that leaves only one avenue open to us.
Rommel: Thunder Rally?
Monty: Thunder Rally!