Review: Campaign Series Middle East 1948 – 1985

The last turn/hex-based computer game produced on this subject was Talonsoft’s Divided Ground in 2001. That game and HPS’ earlier Middle East ’67 were both designed by John Tiller and covered the four big conflicts in the middle-east between 1948 & 1985: 1948’s War of Israeli Independence, the Suez crisis of 1956, the 1967 Seven-Days War and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Much has change since then, and using Tiller’s engine, Jason Petho has led a crack team to update the Campaign Series to cover conflicts since 1973 and some interesting but overlooked operations in the 1950s and 1960s.

In January 2018, Campaign Series: Middle East received a mammoth 2.0 update. We highly suggest you read this article to find out what’s changed.

The Desert Can Be a Busy Place

The terrain graphics are more complex than one might think. Different kinds of sand, small but deep streams and marshes affect movement; palm groves and fields obstruct sight and provide sites for ambushes; rocks provide cover and three kinds of roads can aid movement. Other man-made features include gleaming white villages and farms, rock sangars and impressive city buildings. All of these are shown clearly on the seven zoom levels, giving players a feel for their situation.

Jordanian troops defend Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967.

Units can be seen using NATO symbols or icons with or without bases. The counter type changes with zoom level or player choice. The trademark info box shows unit’s six attributes such as morale and strength along with the all-important action bar. More information can be found by opening the Unit Handbook and Unit Viewer. For excitement, tanks explode into flames, artillery blasts create smoke, and small arms fire streaks to its targets. If air strikes are available, planes and jets zoom over the map. An essential complement to the graphics is the sound effects. The new Extreme Fog of War option makes enemies virtually invisible, not to mention identify. However, the different weapon sounds can indicate the type of weapon, giving a feel for range and direction to a trained ear. Including movement sounds for vehicles, helicopters and boots, the sound effects for this game are impressive.

A Few New Twists

Mechanics are vintage Tiller: select with left click, move and shoot with right click, order from menu bar, tool bar or hotkeys. Different highlights show particular unit status. In large scenarios, moving units or small groups one hex at a time is tedious. Destinations can be marked several hexes away but the pathfinding algorithm may not choose the wisest route, forcing players back to said tedium. Two functions allow units in the same organization (brigade, regiment, etc.) to be moved in column or echelon but these formations are useless when contact is made. If ever a game called for other grouping methods, it’s this one.

A tank column moves along a road in 2D.

New additions to options and units add some color to this tired rhythm of clicks. The Extreme Assault option removes the possibility of a single tank automatically overrunning infantry. New units include mobile recovery vehicles to remove movement-blocking wrecks and mobile bridging units allow movement over streams. Some units can create IEDs. Adding humanity to an otherwise cold business are the civilian counters that, if attacked, count against players’ victory points. The most impressive – not to mention long overdue – new unit type is helicopters. Whirlybirds transport units, provide long range recon and direct fire support when armed. Helicopters fly at three heights, trading speed for safety. This improvement literally adds a new dimension to the system.

Use of the old and new mechanics and units is explained in a fine 207-page PDF manual where questions are answered with headers like “How do I clear a minefield?”. So simple even website editors would use it. Four boot camp scenarios help with the learning curve and three training scenarios explain PBEM mechanics. The battle generator and scenario editors are explained in great detail.

Forty Years of Tragedy

All of these features are used in over 130 historical and hypothetical scenarios as well as three linked campaigns. Not surprising all the many major engagements of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 are covered. What makes this game a notch above others are the under-reported incidents. Israeli settlers and militia are engaged by Arab irregulars. The French fight a losing battle in Algeria while the British try to keep the lid on Aden. The Israelis pursue bloody punitive excursions into Lebanon, Syria and PLO camps. Jordan kicks out Black September in what amounts to a civil war. These topics are not only relatively obscure but serve as a trace for the evolution of combat in the region. It’s a long way from second-hand World War II weapons to Saggers.

Helicopter gunships cover a French advance in Algeria.

These clashes take place on 250 meter hexes with counters ranging from platoon to individual vehicle level. Scenarios can have less than six units to over 750. Most scenarios last from ten to twenty turns with serious missions lasting up to fifty turns and a few going for seventy to eighty turns. Depending on scenario complexity, players can be anything from company to army commanders. Players opting for the latter should be congratulated on their tenacity: this scale is fine for up to six on the nine step complexity scale but, after that, play becomes work.

Surprisingly Tense

The three linked campaigns, covering Syrian operations in 1967, British operations in Aden in 1964 and Israeli operation in 1973, are branched. Scores that are high or medium get ranked and go on to other missions; losers get the sack.

My first campaign mission was to take an Israeli tank brigade in 1973 from one end of the map to an exit hex at the other end in fifteen turns with two village objectives in between, and I had two parallel roads. Should be easy peasy, right? Trouble began even before contact was made through traffic jams on the better road. As I approached the first village, I sent a tank to the south for a recce. Wham! An artillery shell out of nowhere demolished it. Advancing a tank platoon into the village, ineffective fire surprised me. I thought turn-based games were calm. I was Wrong! The enemy only became visible when the company attempted to enter his hex.

Concentrated fire only disrupted him so I sent two tanks around to his flank. Again, my fire only caused disruption. Another round of fire caused him to retreat to the northwest, allowing me to take the objective. In my first mistake caused by bloodthirst, I sent the platoon to chase him. A turn later, I overran ran him but my unit was out of position and off the road. Meanwhile, other snipers opened up as I headed west out of the village. I should have let my infantry handle them but their transports had been delayed by the traffic jam so I sent a tank that was quickly destroyed by a Sagger. I lost two more vehicles heading to the second village but got a measure of revenge when my artillery took out two enemy positions in a palm tree grove. The light dawned on me that speed was my friend and time was my enemy. With only three turns left, I bypassed enemy positions and exited the bulk of my forces. Unfortunately, I left some troops on the map chasing low value targets and a trail of burning tanks. I scraped by with a minor defeat and sweat on my brow.

Israeli tanks clear a village.

I could argue that the Tiller engine is antiquated and clumsy but it still possess a fair amount of flexibility and can be adapted in many different ways. Without these qualities, the stream of fine games based on it would not exist. Campaign Series Middle East: 1948-1985 is a great example of how the system can be updated and turned into an exciting game, although from a usability standpoint there’s still room for improvement.

This review covers a game published or developed by the Slitherine Group of companies. Please see our Reviews Policy for more information. The full policy will be implemented as soon as we can.


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