Table for One: Sinai (SPI) Review

Table for One: Sinai (SPI) Review
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For the inaugural post in the new Table for One project, a series of wargame reviews with an eye towards solitaire suitability, I’m going back to the first wargame I ever played: Sinai (1973), by SPI. Then, as now, I tinkered with this operational level one-mapper on the various Arab-Israeli wars without benefit of an opponent. Unlike the last time, however, I sort of know what I’m doing this time around.

Playing a wargame sans opponent requires an understanding of how wargames work, and some thirty-odd years ago, first confronting this mass of paper and cardboard and rules, I had no idea at all how to proceed. But I was hooked nonetheless, captivated by the possibility of moving these variously colored forces across the stark buff-and-blue map.

Even then, as certainly now, I loved the idea of chrome, and the promise of a US expeditionary Marine force or a Moroccan mechanized battalion entering the fray made me determined to learn how to play wargames. I didn’t really succeed then, but mostly because I didn’t know how to play both sides at the same time.

It’s an acquired skill, this simultaneous solitaire, requiring both an uncanny impartiality and a willful ignorance of what the “other half” of your brain is planning. With years of playing face-to-face against an opponent under my belt, it’s actually rather easy to drop into this dual-mindedness. Sometimes your opponent knows what you’re going to do and will try to oppose it directly; sometimes, he or she doesn’t see it. You can tie yourself into knots trying to guess if your opponent knows what you know—that way leads analysis paralysis, a dreaded gaming disorder. You just have to take your chances to the best of your ability. Wargames are sufficiently complex creatures that you’ll often overlook a good move or clever feint until you switch sides and see clearly what you should have done. That little bit of uncertainty makes solo wargame play possible.

Still, some games provide a better solitaire experience than others, and in Table for One, I hope to look at games from a solo perspective and highlight what aspects of them make for good, or poor, single-player experiences.

Overview

Sinai: The Arab-Israeli Wars, ’56, ’67 and ’73
Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), 1973
Designed by James F. Dunnigan

Sinai (SPI) Flat Pack Cover Sheet

Sinai was released in two versions, as a boxed designer’s edition and in the infamous SPI flat pack with integral counter tray. My copy is the latter, complete with folded rules folio. Everything about the SPI flat pack, down to the cheap, poorly-molded d6, screams cost-savings, and the ability to simply drop in a new cover sheet under the flimsy plastic cover allowed SPI to push an enormous number of games out the door. SPI was nothing if not prolific; the contemporary management notion of “fail fast” seems tailor made for their way of business, leading to some remarkable successes at the price of a few less-than-brilliant games, all sent into the world at a breakneck pace—breakneck, at least, in comparison to today’s wargame publishing market, where most games are subjected to lengthy waits on pre-order lists prior to release.

Sinai (SPI) Flat Pack Counter Tray

Sinai comes in as neither an overwhelming success nor a resounding failure. It’s a fairly bog-standard ’70s wargame, with locking zones of control and an utterly bloodless Combat Results Table. The single standard-sized map is awash in blue and tan, with a slightly confusing road network and terrain roster that variously exists depending on which scenario is being played. The 255 half-inch counters are front-printed only on decently thick cardboard, with crisp printing in a few colors that nevertheless allow for good differentiation between the multiple factions in play. One either deeply appreciates Redmond Simonsen’s Letraset skills or finds them bland; I fall firmly in the former camp. Indeed, the clean lines and contrasting colors of this game’s components, far more than the gameplay itself, helped draw me into this hobby all those years ago.

The counters in my copy suffered just the slightest bit of off-registration printing, leading to some counters with an off-color band on the bottom or side. The die cuts were good and well-centered, however, and the counters look quite tidy after a visit from a 2mm Oregon Laminations Counter Corner Rounder.

Order of battle research seems thin on the Arab side, with only a few units given specific designations; by contrast, the vast majority of pre-1973 Israeli units are delineated and set up in their historical starting locations.
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Counter Culture: Table Talk

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It’s been a long day at the game convention. You’ve been slinging dice (into an approved randomizing container, of course—no free rolling!) since the hotel opened the breakfast buffet and you grabbed a cup of weak, luke-warm coffee for sustenance. Fatigue sets in. You’ve barely even touched the fast food lunch begrudgingly procured hours earlier, because the front must be stabilized, the salient flattened, the hole in the line plugged. The game must go on!

But you’re beat. No, not on the table—because of it.

No examination of the physical culture of board wargaming could be complete without touching upon, well, that upon which said board rests: the table. Having the proper platform for your game makes a huge difference in the experience of that game. All other ergonomic considerations flow from the table being used.

Tables before the storm

Conventions in particular are notorious for poor tables, from a gaming perspective. The traditional conference center table runs narrow and long, and even pushing two together barely provides enough space while compounding problems by putting a seam in the middle. The better joints at least drape the double-tables with tablecloths to attempt to even out the surface. Throw in the straight-backed chairs typically provided and convention gaming, for all of its joys, can prove an exercise in endurance.

When the opportunity recently arose for me to get a new gaming table, then, I had to stop and ponder: what makes a good board wargaming table?

It all comes down to dimensions, enforced by the “standard” wargame map that runs 22″ x 34″ and has for decades, itself a multiple of the standard US Letter size and known in the trade as ANSI D.

A standard two map game with the maps arranged side-by-side would need 44″ in length and 34″ in width; or 68″ in length and 22″ in width running lengthwise. Throw in at least a few inches on either side and you need a table that’s, say 72″ x 36″, or 6 feet by 3 feet. Because it’s not just maps—you’ve got charts, counters in Planos, a dice tower, tweezers, rulebooks, a handy-dandy-counter-corner-rounder, plus a bit of personal space in front of you.

Sadly, though, tables don’t tend to come in similarly standardized sizes. Plenty of long enough but too narrow options—convention specials—can be found, and there are pricey options that run a fair bit wider with appropriate length. But reaching the middle of the map can be a problem if the table goes too wide. It’s the Goldilocks problem.

Escaped from the basement

Aesthetic considerations of course should apply. I’ve seen some hand-built tables that work wonderfully from a space perspective but have all the charm of an exploded sawmill, not to mention oddly sited under-table rods and bars and box stretchers and usually a skirt that will jam someone’s knee by the end of a gaming session. For a dedicated gaming basement (and those with them are deserving of our envy and praise), a rough-hewn table will work, but I prefer a bit more savoir faire (or at least fewer splinters).

Table height also plays a role, though a more personalized one. Being on the taller side, I wanted a desk high enough not to have to hunch over, which offers the additional benefit of being usable from a standing position. That different perspective helps sometimes in seeing the whole picture, plus it’s always good to stand.

Perfect for me

In the end, I didn’t quite find my dream table, at least not at a price not approaching a late-model used car. But I got close, finally choosing the IKEA Bjursta dining room table. The width is just a bit too narrow, coming in at a hair over 33 inches, but the length is extendable out to 86 inches, ample room for all the charts and rules I could ever need—and I say that as a devotee of Advanced Squad Leader.

I figure I can hold up the end of the map that runs over the back of the table with file folders tucked underneath, and it’s rare that designers use the very edges of the map anyway. A compromise, for sure, but given the adjustable length and the price, one I can live with, particularly since I plan on using the table mostly for solitaire gaming and don’t need to worry about someone sitting on the other side of the jury-rigged map that often.

The skirt comes down a tad far on the Bjursta, so I picked up some furniture risers to add about four inches, giving me plenty of leg room while sitting and putting the surface at a nice height for use while standing. In all, a pleasantly attractive workhorse of a table.

It is an IKEA table, so I expect it will show a bit of wear before too long, but I anticipate keeping it covered with wargame maps and plexiglass for the foreseeable future, hiding any blemishes caused by overeager dice rolling. Still, it’s the little things—or, in this case, the six-and-a-half foot long things—that make all the difference, and I think this new table will add more than a bit of enjoyment to an already enjoyable hobby.

Classic Doctor Who Airs Again (Sort Of)

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Though probably not done in homage to this site’s long-standing Doctor Who Project, Twitch and the BBC have teamed up to give “classic” Doctor Who the marathon treatment. Weekdays from May 29th through July 23rd, the streaming site will be broadcasting most of the extant episodes of the series, showing a block of stories in order each day.

Doctor Who Marathon on Twitch

Sadly, the schedule indicates that they’re skipping some stories that are missing significant segments on film. Perhaps an understandable choice—Twitch is a video streaming site, after all—but it robs viewers of some signal moments and cuts the First and Second Doctor’s era to a mere twenty-six stories combined. So William Hartnell’s regeneration (and the first appearance of the Cybermen) in “The Tenth Planet” won’t be presented, even though only the final episode is missing and has been re-created via animation and tele-snap. And yet they’re showing “The Web of Fear,” which is similarly missing an episode that has been re-constructed. Bit of Yeti-bias there if you ask me…

Regardless of such quibbles, this Doctor Who marathon on Twitch promises to introduce these stories to a brand new audience. While I don’t think these fresh faces will be hiding behind couches like audiences of old, I’m hopeful that the original Doctors will nonetheless charm and delight a contemporary crowd and bring much-deserved attention to this monumental body of work.

Doctor Who Project: The Time Warrior

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I’ve never heard so much gobbledygook in my life, but I suspect you know what you’re talking about.

To usher in Season Eleven of Doctor Who, series regular Robert Holmes introduces another of his larger-than-life characters, in this case Linx, the titular character from “The Time Warrior” (Series Production Code UUU). But the title proves rather incongruous, for though Commander Linx, the squat Sontaran commander, has managed to transport scientists from the twentieth century back to medieval times, he does so for no reason other than to repair his damaged spaceship, so that he can return to the eternal war between the Sontarans and the Rutans.

Meet Commander Linx

However, this time-shifting ability of the Sontarans serves merely as an excuse for the show to play historical dress-up once more, with everyone getting in on the medieval act, from Jon Pertwee clomping around in a suit of armor to new companion Elisabeth Sladen showing off both a Maid Marian outfit and a Robin Hood outfit. Assuming one discounts the jaunt to ancient Atlantis in “The Time Monster” and the limited 1920s ship scenes in “Carnival of Monsters,” “The Time Warrior” marks the first visit to an historical Earth setting since the Second Doctor’s swan song in “The War Games” some four years prior—and even that wasn’t really on Earth.

Guess who!

It’s a comfortable setting for the series, despite the long absence of pseudo-historical stories from the screen, and it shows. The BBC knows how to costume for that time period like no other production team, and they can dress a castle set with far more believable detail than they can, it must be said, outfit a spaceship. Too, there’s more than a bit of the feeling from “The Time Meddler” about this story, with an interloper from beyond the stars interfering with the natural progression of human history through the introduction of modern weaponry. It just feels like home.

But where the Meddling Monk wanted to alter history for his own, somewhat fuzzily rationalized ends, Commander Linx simply wants to get home, so he can get back to all the killing. And if he needs to arm a local bandit from the Middle Ages with long rifles and a killer robot, well, so be it…
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Doctor Who Project: The Green Death

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In a funny way, he reminds me of a sort of younger you.

Sometimes in Doctor Who, the monsters and their villanous plans represent the main event, no matter how assiduously the actors pursue their craft. In Robert Sloman’s “The Green Death” (Story Production Code TTT), the malevolent miscreants (giant maggots and a crazed computer, in this case) and their associated hijinks are very much put to shame by the power of the actual story, that of the Doctor realizing he is losing a companion, and the strength with which Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning carry off the six episode farewell.

In happier times

And it’s just as well the Doctor’s impending heartbreak sustains “The Green Death,” since the ostensible story itself makes no sense at all. In quick summation: a corporation secretly run by a megalomaniacal, self-aware computer has discovered a process to extract more gasoline from petroleum, but the byproduct, which is being pumped into an abandoned Welsh coal mine, causes ordinary maggots to turn into giant versions whose bite causes all human cells to decay (and turn a bioluminescent green), to say nothing of the giant flying creatures into which they eventually metamorphose.

Maggots of the giant variety

Yet the maggots, it turns out, have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the computer’s plan; they’re simply an unforeseen side-effect of a refining process so powerful (and profitable) that the U.K. Prime Minister orders UNIT to help the corporation, Global Chemicals, hide evidence of the creepy-crawlies by destroying the mine entrances. Perhaps years of Yeti and other invasions have made giant insect infestations sufficiently run-of-the-mill that no one notices or much cares anymore.

Time for Top of the Pops?

The crazed computer’s real goal is to turn all humans on the planet into efficient robotized creatures using a form of mind control inflicted via souped-up stereo headphones, a revelation that comes pretty much out of nowhere after several episodes being devoted almost entirely to the mine and its unwelcome inhabitants. It’s another story altogether shoehorned into what could have been a strong, tightly-focused commentary on the lengths humanity is willing to go for cheap, abundant energy—throw another gallon in the tank, and never mind the maggots.

Luckily, we get to see Jo fall in love over several episodes, and in truth, that makes all the parlous plotting and half-baked stories worthwhile.

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Doctor Who Project: Planet of the Daleks

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We can never leave here. Never! Never!

Perhaps nothing sums up Terry Nation’s return to Doctor Who in “Planet of the Daleks” (Story Production Code SSS) better than the fact that said planet has a core of, um, molten ice, a geological anomaly that inevitably plays a prominent role in the story’s outcome. It’s a typically outré Nation conceit. Presumably this odd planetary structure would make hollowing the core out simpler than if it were molten lava, but unlike that plan of the Daleks, this one involves learning the secret of invisibility from the inhabitants of the planet, Spiridon, a jungle world whose savage lifeforms presumably drove the natives to evolve this ability as a protective measure. They also wear purple fur coats when it gets cold, slightly defeating the invisibility adaptation.

Purple is all the rage this season on Spiridon.

But rather than simply establishing a small research outpost to exploit the Spiridonian’s prestidigitous power, the Daleks also store tens of thousands of their brethren in suspended animation there—effectively, their entire military force—in order to retrofit them with the invisibility power for the forthcoming “invasion of all the solar planets” alluded to in the prior story, “Frontier in Space.” A fortuitous single point of potential failure, then, and one which a band of brave Thals (q.v. “The Daleks“) discover and trigger to thwart their eternal enemies.

The power of molten ice!

Though the Dalek War took place generations earlier, the Thals sent a mission from Skaro to hunt down the Daleks. Their two primitive spacecraft crash-land on Spiridon, killing several Thals instantly, but after much derring-do and many scenes of self-sacrifice, the dwindling band of tow-headed non-mutants manage to crack open the walls of the vast Dalek hibernation chamber, letting in torrents of molten, er, ice, freezing the regiments of pepperpots in place for centuries.

Oh, right, and the Doctor and Jo show up, but probably only because Terry Nation’s contract required him to write the Time Lord into the story.
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