Review: Desert War 1940 – 1942

Desert War 1940-1942 is a new WEGO turn-based wargame that covers the campaign from the early war in North Africa through to the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. This was the theatre that saw the true principles of blitzkrieg, and armoured warfare in general, put into action. Designed by BK Wargames (a new studio) under the guidance of Matrix Games, the game aims to present the conflict with a completely new approach.

The result is a somewhat complex system that takes a bit of time to learn but is well worth the time you invest – it’s quite interesting. And even though it borrows concepts from both board and computer games it manages to combine them in a new and quite unique way. You will probably need to check the manual quite a few times before mastering the game’s style and flow.

Instead of focusing on what assets you have for use, Desert War seeks to place the importance on how you use the assets you have. Sure, the German tank formations are of course the strongest and the Italians the weakest. What really matters though are not the strength points, but how well you do your planning. And how well you do your planning depends on how you use your supplies, how tight you can keep your organisation, how you use your air assets and if your reconnaissance is always one step ahead – or behind.

Hotkeys, Hotkeys for Sale!

You can, of course, just jump straight in. The interface is modern, and there’s plenty of tooltips to read. Click around and see what happens, and you might even bypass the need to read instructions. Most likely, however, that won’t help you understand the mechanics and flow of the gameplay in a deep enough level to beat the AI (or another player). This is not so much because of the inherent complexities of the game, but rather the different design approach used. That said, you better learn the hotkeys by heart as they are as valuable as knowing your WASD in FPS games.

Even if you’re a complete novice when it comes to any kind of board, computer or wargame the introductory scenario, as well as the tutorial, will get you oriented easily enough. The added benefit is familiarizing yourself with the concepts the game seeks to model. Supplies are not packages to be delivered, shock is not a percentage bonus to attack values, and all combat will, in the end, depend on the dice. And most of all: no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Organisation, Supply, and Shock

Desert War places considerable emphasis on organisation. You need to keep your forces nice and tight, you do need to hold back reserves, and you can’t just go wildly riding through any hole in the line. Units suffer damage to both strength and organisation, so driving them too far too fast will make them outrun the supply lines. Force concentration is important, as it should be.

Units need a line of communication to be supplied. This can be through its own HQ unit, or a higher echelon HQ unit. These distances are calculated in movements points, which means that terrain plays an effect. Enemy zone of control can likewise play a role in this. At the start of each turn, all units that are within supply range are set to basic supply. Being in basic supply has no effect on defense or combat values, but it does halve the units’ movement points. The player can then decide which units receive combat supply and which receive movement supply. As you can imagine combat supply increases attack values, whereas movement supply allows for longer marches, though with the off-chance that you might be ambushed. Both movement and combat supply use their own supply points, which come in limited amounts.

When it comes to combat your line infantry is there to do just that: form a line of infantry. Your tanks, and one or two other units, have shock values in addition to the normal attack and defence values. Shock value is important as it adds shift modifiers to the combat. Mixing units with no shock and shock values cause the shock values to lower. This doesn’t mean your tanks will ride into battle alone like King Arthur’s knights, as there are units with neutral shock values; meaning they don’t lower the value, though they don’t add to it either. Air assets and artillery strikes add power to the attacks as well. Anti-tank units, on the other hand, have defensive shock values, negating those of the attacking enemy tank units.

Plan, Execute, Rewind, Repeat

The way to win battles is to pile on the enemy and beat him to pieces with overwhelming power. Unfortunately, too many games climb the tree arse up in this regard: you are simply trying to tip the balance one way or another and then it’s like rolling downhill with superior numbers. Desert War takes a new approach, where the end result of all your planning is to pile on and win the battle; not to win the battle and then pile on.

The game uses simultaneous movement, commonly known as WEGO. The most important part of any turn is the planning phase. This is where you decide the supply levels, give the movement and attack orders, place the air strikes, decide on naval support and run the intelligence and command missions. Once you hit the play button it all plays out, but probably not quite like you expected as the enemy will be executing their own orders at the same time. There is a movie that will show what happened during the turn and you can play it forwards or backward to analyze what worked, and what didn’t.

Not being able to change orders in the middle of a turn is a welcome approach. You might end up wondering what’s the point of wargames where the most crucial aspects of command and control are negated by the God-like powers of the player anyways? The end results are often chaotic, at least until you can hone your skills and planning to the necessary level. At that point, when your plan finally plays out like you wanted it to, you can feel quite proud.

Once you finish a scenario you can watch the entire playback in one go. Unfortunately, in the version we were testing this seemed to have some issues with units showing up multiple times and so forth. I still enjoyed viewing it though. This, and WEGO in general, are welcome features that should be adopted by more computer wargames.

Combat Operations

The player’s mission here is to simply learn how the system works and then use his skills to plan the operations carefully. Haphazard attacks, rushing units here and there, forgetting to set the correct supply levels, or just not paying attention will result in a defeat. You must have an overall plan, and then execute and modify that plan on a turn by turn basis. Thanks to the WEGO system you never end up with quite what you intended.

You don’t need to go into too much detail with the units and combat. The scenarios are well researched, yet it makes little difference to the player which battalion is named what. All you need to understand are the attack, movement, and defence values, the different unit types, and how orders work. Stack enough combat power to defeat the enemy and improve your chances with assets and odd shifts. This works exceedingly well, given that your main mission and purpose is not to fine-tune the odds, but to instead organise and execute your plan so that the combat power is where it needs to be when it needs to be.

Intelligence and fog of war play a big role in all of this. Not only does it mean you don’t know where enemy units are, but also that even when you do it affects combat if you don’t know precisely what you are going against. Recon units, recon aircraft and command orders allow the player to find out information about enemy units. It’s important to use them wisely, as it should be. Without proper reconnaissance, the enemy can be running circles around you and you wouldn’t even know it.

The Fox and the Rat

The game comes with thirteen scenarios, of which one is the tutorial battle. These range from small-scale engagements of a dozen turns through 45-turn marathons with hundreds of units. The majority of scenarios offer over a hundred units to command per side, which is really the only downside of this title. For me, the system would be far more perfect for smaller skirmishes. Keeping track of hundreds of units and their HQs does become a chore over time. Though if you are willing to put in the time this might not be a downside after all.

All scenarios are designed for solo vs. AI as well as for multiplayer action. On top of this there is an in-game editor. If Desert War becomes popular enough it might well attract the kind of modder base that will extend the game to cover everything from 1940 to 1943, and perhaps even further. Maps, OOB, AI and pretty much everything else can be edited. There is plenty of potential here, though it remains to be seen how well this engine would perform in theatres outside of North Africa.

As it is, Desert War 1940 – 1942 presents an excellent simulation of warfare in North Africa during World War 2. This is a game that both grognards and beer and pretzel folks can enjoy. In fact, it seems to combine the best features from both camps through innovative and unique mechanisms like WEGO. It is not a perfect experience, not that such a thing exists, but it does make me wait in wonder as to what BK Wargames will come up with next.