Review: Command: Shifting Sands

With the exception of Northern Inferno which dealt with an eruption of the Cold War during the 1970s, the stand-alone games and expansions for Command: Modern Air and Naval Operations (CMANO), have dealt with modern-day hot spots – “ripped from today’s headlines” as it were. The latest entry reverses the trend in a very significant manner. Command Shifting Sands covers the various Arab-Israeli conflicts, unofficial as well as official, from the Suez Crisis of 1956 to the air battles over the Bekaa Valley on 1982. This broad timespan presents many challenges to players as well as scenario designers.


Over the Sand and in the Water

Shifting Sands‘ graphics can be divided into two parts. Zoomed out, the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Levant are beautiful and accurate with mountains, sand dunes and lush deltas. Crete and Cyprus are perfectly sculpted and even the detection rings and communication lines around ships and aircraft look nice. However, zooming in brings up the pedestrian side of the game. Units are NTDS symbols although an alternative with stylized silhouettes is available. City buildings are outlines of factories or refineries and large military facilities are mere cross-hatched squares with other land sites marked as small red circles. Reference points are small yellow dots while exclusion and patrol zones are a kind of puce. The names of units as well as some of their attributes are shown in small white font. None of these observations are criticisms as, when players are zoomed in close; they’re getting serious and have no need for memory-eating cosmetics. Enough eye candy can be had in the sidebars showing pictures of many ships, planes, weapons and buildings. Larger, sexier images are portrayed in the informative database viewer.

This view of two US carrier battle groups steaming to aid the USS Liberty shows both the beauty of the geography and the frenzy of battle.

Any CMANO game is about information and that comes in great quantity. Sidebars not only yield information on the selected unit but links to the data base give insight into its weapons and load out. Fuel and damage status can be gauged in horizontal bars. Displaying the Order of Battle screen lists every unit in a descending hierarchy and clicking on an entry takes players back to that unit’s position on the map. Given the size of some scenarios, this function is a grand aid to players. A scrolling message log keeps players up to date. In some scenarios, “flash” messages pop up ordering the player to take specific actions.

Animation is represented by the units moving in real-time across the map. Small lines emanating from the units indicate direction and exploding stars appear when attacks are made. Sound effects include the roar of jets taking off, the crash of bomb hits, the ripping sounds of missiles when launched and the staccato of automatic machinegun and cannon fire. Sonar-like pings announce new important entries in the message log. The game engine has been repeatedly improved but the manual, while still fine for basic concepts, has not been updated. Fortunately, all changes have been collated at A valuable FAQ is also available at that site.

First We Study, Then We Fight

The seventeen separate scenarios run the gamut of complexity from simple to extremely complicated. For each battle – even the easy ones, players should examine their craft, weapons and munitions before setting up the first mission. Objectives may be clear but the thirty years covered contain huge leaps in technology and assuming knowledge of the capabilities of all items can lead to frustration and defeat. For example, orders to knock out an airfield in 1967 may require creating flights of different sizes. Linking different squadrons and even different loadouts for the same type aircraft from the same squadron isn’t allowed. Intricate choreography of units, place and time is essential. A Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission in 1964 called for a different approach than an SEAD mission in 1967 and yet other tactics in 1973 and 1982. The “homework” required for this planning requires a good understanding of orders, close scrutiny of the map, visits to the database viewer and the Order of Battle tab. Even then, events may force platers to think out of the box such as creating support missions for recon.

The information in the database is vital to success.

The range of the scenarios’ type and scale is also wide. Players can go from taking out Syrian batteries on the Golan Heights which are shelling Israeli settlements to mammoth engagements with hundreds of aircraft over many hours. Famous battles include the Israeli “left hook” preemptive airstrike of 1967 to their attack on Iran’s nuclear facility in 1981 and the savaging of the Syrian air force during the Bekaa Valley campaign of 1982. Most of the scenarios can only be played as Israel and only two can be played as either side. Three scenarios are hypothetical “Alternate Timelines” ones: a very different American response to the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, an Israeli nuclear response to the Egyptian early success in 1973 and a active Russian intervention after the Israeli crossing of the Suez in 1973. Many of the more complex scenarios have international implication. Firing on civilian or non-combatant military units can result in penalties of either using victory points or bringing other countries into the conflict. Unidentified bogies should be first identified by their electronic emissions that give clues to their nationality and then should be marked as hostile, unfriendly, or neutral. For these reasons, weapon doctrines should be kept on “tight” and units on patrol should not be allowed to investigate outside of their zone unless the side’s briefing specifically orders it.

The naval operations of these wars have received little attention relative to the massive and decisive air battles. Like Willie Loman, “attention should be paid” to them. Early naval battles are World War II-like gun fights with some torpedo actions. The 1967 war showed advances in weapon technology and the first lethal results of ship-to-ship missile combat were in 1967. The Israelis had their own ways at sea until the Egyptians brought Soviet technology to bear. No longer could the Israeli Naval bombard with impunity. The Syrians soon updated their coastal defenses against sea bombardments. These scenarios teach players a lesson they should use at all times: keep time compression at no more than one minute game time to one second real time. Missile fights are fast and lethal so players must maintain close control over the situation. The only times higher game speeds should be used is when side briefings call for triggers before aggressive action begins.

Israeli ships take on Syrian patrol craft in the midst of many civilian vessels.

Command: Shifting Sands‘ different approach to CMANO stand-alone games and expansions may mark a significant point in CMANO’s development. Earlier products threw players into the deep end of the pool with no truly simple scenarios.  Tutorials and YouTube videos ease the learning curve but do not fully prepare beginning players for the tense action most missions entail. Shifting Sands offers a few simple scenarios where rookies can get their feet wet but not scalded. The historical perspective is also informative. The “hot spot” themes in the other products are fascinating and educational but only capture one moment in time with inly the set of weapon platforms available to each combatant at that time.

Real understanding of naval warfare comes from observing the evolution of weapons and tactics. Players are able to do this from the CMANO community pack but only after a painstaking look at all the many entries. Moreover, those missions lack the necessary oversight of a team to keep a focus. This last point is the strongest praise for Shifting Sands. Its content was provided by a team of community scenario designers who banded together to spruce up some earlier ideas to create a coherent package. Such skill, dedication and discipline put more “professional” studios in the shade.

This article reviews a game developed and published my members of the Slitherine Group, which we share joint ownership with. For more information, please consult the About Us and Reviews Policy pages.