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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War by Other Means: Sidereal Confluence (WizKids)

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Financier Raymond Defoe hadn’t played Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant (by TauCeti Deichmann, WizKids, 2017) when he riffed on Clausewitz, saying, “Economics is war pursued by other means,” but he may as well have. This simultaneous-action trading and economic engine building game, which plays from four to nine (!) people, requires that players, taking on the roles of nicely differentiated alien species, cooperate through trading to build up their economies, but behind the polite facade, there’s malice aforethought.

Sidereal Confluence in play.

Players start with a tableau of species-specific technology cards in play, each of which contains the game’s central mechanism, a “converter” that takes a set of resources and, once per turn, ouputs a larger, different set of resources. No species can generate enough outputs to fulfill its specific input needs, let alone to research and upgrade technologies to create new, more efficient converters. So, the game is about trading, and everything in the game, aside from victory points, is both tradeable and public knowledge. Need two white cubes to finish a research project? The table knows what you need (and why, if they’re paying attention) and will price accordingly. But, they have needs, too, and deals can be made. Have a converter you’re not using this turn? Trade it for a turn to someone with the resources needed to run it for a cut of the proceeds.

My gaming buddies (Mike Vogt, Neil Stanhagen, Joe Jackson, and Joe’s son) and I got Sidereal Confluence on the table this past weekend. We’re all wargamers at heart, so we went in looking to cut the other guy out of what he needed to win—and in the process realized that we were harming ourselves instead. After the first turn, where we grudgingly made exchanges and insisted on usurious exchange rates, our economic engines were quite anaemic.

This is not a zero sum game; the converters continually pump more and more resources into the game, and more resources are constantly needed to upgrade to the better (and more lucrative, VP-wise) technologies. No, this is a game about arbitrage, about maximizing delta through efficiency and understanding the flow of supply and demand.

Once we figured out that you don’t need to “win” a trade, you just need to come out of it with slightly more than you went in, either in resources or tempo or even goodwill, everything changed, and that’s when it got nicely nasty. Trading became less about immediate personal needs and more about the table’s needs. Blue cubes (biotechnology, in the game’s parlance) about to be in demand? Figure that out a turn before everyone else does, corner the market ahead of time, and take your pick of the offers to fuel your own economy afterwards. As so often in life, it’s better to be a seller…

Sidereal Confluence is certainly not for every game group. Trading, the heart of the game, takes place simultaneously. There’s no orderly queue for offers—think the Chicago Mercantile Exchange futures pit and you have some idea. It is, frankly, a panic for players afflicted with overanalysis syndrome or min-maxers in general; while they’re trying to figure out what they need for a hyper-efficient exchange, the other players have already traded and re-traded for what they need, and to then prise it out of their hands (or claws or pincers or whatever species-equivalent appendage they have) will cost. All trades are binding, too, so no take-backs if you’re slow to the trading floor or poor at math. One either relishes this kind of free-for-all gaming experience or runs screaming from it.

Sidereal Confluence in play.

As with most card tableau games, it can get messy, and the main knock I have on the game is that the space required to set up your own play area grows along with your economic engine, such that you need a lot of space per player (or far neater gamers than I’ve yet to meet). Pair that with the need to see everyone else’s tableaux and resources, to properly trade, and you have the potential for serious usability issues. With five, in a rough oval, I found myself trading mostly with the two people on either side of me, just because of the difficulty of parsing that set of cards and cubes across the way; add more players, and more space, and I can’t see how the two sides of the table wind up interacting.

Play time clocks in at two hours, roughly, and given the simultaneous nature of gameplay, I’m inclined to believe the box when it says two hours regardless of player count, from four to nine. Most promisingly, the game teaches fast, and after that initial turn of parsimony, we were trading, leveraging, wheedling, and dealing with the best of them. Oh, it was still a conflict, but it’s always best when a dagger comes with a smile and a receipt.

(Top photo courtesy of Mike Vogt.)