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.


Gameplay

Sinai offers an operational-level treatment of three different conflicts between the Arab nations and Israel: 1956, 1967 (the base game), and 1973. As the game came out in 1973, shortly after the conflict of that year, the design notes go to some length to pat themselves on the back for getting so much right in their original, then-hypothetical scenario on the conflict. And, it must be said, there’s something rewarding in seeing wargames fulfill one of their remits as tools for the study of conflicts, as simulations, as much as being games for table-bound warriors.

Ground units in the game range from battalion size through to brigades, with units rated for combat strength and movement points. Air power, found on the Israeli side only, is represented via abstracted interdiction markers. The time scale runs twelve hours to the turn; the map scale runs twelve kilometers to the hex.

Race for the Suez Canal, Turn 2, 1967 scenario, Sinai (SPI)

Race for the Suez Canal, Turn 2, 1967 scenario, Sinai (SPI)

Play proceeds in a traditional I-go/You-go format with no player interactivity. A bare-bones supply phase precedes the movement and combat phases of each player’s turn. Zones of control are semi-sticky—you can never move from one ZoC hex to another, even if a friendly unit is occupying the hex in question, but you can leave ZoC without penalty. This restriction, combined with no minimum move allowance and no road movement bonus, means the ability to maneuver, for all the map’s vast scope, actually feels rather constrained. Don’t expect slashing movements across desert escarpments; this is a battle of tracks, and not the kind on tanks.

Stacking counts units only, not size, so there’s no emphasis on combined arms attacks or leavening brigades with battalions. So load up that spearhead with three armor brigades if you like.

Combat Results Table and Arab Command Control Table, Sinai (SPI)

The Arab (Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi, with a few other nations possible in the 1973 scenario) and Israeli forces are differentiated both qualitatively, with most Israeli mechanized units having more movement points and combat power than their opponents, and via the rules. Arab supply can only be traced over clear terrain and roads, while Israeli supply (once the quite generous automatic supply runs out) can trace over any terrain available to mechanized units. The Arab forces are thus locked to the road network in the rough terrain of Jordan and Syria; and even in the semi-open Sinai, Egyptian units have little opportunity to roam off-road.

Most keenly, however, the rules hamstring non-Jordanian Arab units by subjecting them to a roll on the Arab Command Control Table each turn, reflecting command confusion. Units in hexes specified by the chart must turn tail and run to the nearest supply source, which just so happens to be the edge of the map. The 1973 scenario suspends this rule, as well as one that causes non-Jordanian units to retreat twice the number of hexes called for on the CRT, making for a bit of a more-even fight in the later scenario.

That CRT calls for results solely in terms of hexes of retreat. There are no step losses, no attritional results, so the only way to eliminate a unit is through overrun or by failure to retreat due to the presence of enemy units (or ZoCs) in the retreat path. All very 1970s, in other words, except for the lack of mandatory attacks. Since the attacker can never suffer an adverse effect on the CRT, such a rule wouldn’t change gameplay at all.

Throw in interdiction attacks by the Israeli Air Force to limit Arab movement and the inability of most Arab units to enter terrain other than clear unless via road anyway, and it’s evident that the Arab player is, alas, given a formidable challenge. The 1973 scenario, as noted, lifts many of these restrictions as well as blunts Israeli air power and air mobility via SAMs, and poses more of a contest for both players, but the base 1967 scenario works best as a race against the clock for the Israeli player. Indeed, the victory point schedule gives the Israeli player points based on the number of turns it takes to accomplish all of his/her goals.


Solo Play Suitability

Oddly enough, the base 1967 scenario of Sinai works a treat for solitaire play because of the severe restrictions placed on the Arab player. There’s really not much for an Arab player to accomplish in the game beyond a few spoiling raids on exposed Israeli positions; once the Israeli army launches from its starting positions, which takes place at the very start of the scenario, the Arab player can only hope to slow down their advance. Frankly, it wouldn’t be much fun as a two player scenario, and the design notes acknowledge as much.

Initial breakout, End of Turn 1 Combat, 1967 scenario, Sinai (SPI)

Initial breakout, End of Turn 1 Combat, 1967 scenario, Sinai (SPI)

In particular, the Arab Command Control rule takes units out of any player’s control for a turn, with the number of units potentially affected increasing as Arab losses mount. And they mount. For a solitaire player, that’s a handy feature—when moving Israeli forces, you don’t know if those Arab units blocking the Mitla Pass will stand and fight or be recalled via the Command Control die roll next turn.

There’s also a nice bit of variability in Jordanian participation. Though they’re likely to join the war in the 1967 scenario (a roll of one to four, rolled for once in each of the first four turns), the timing causes some interesting force allocation decisions. Do you strip the Jordanian border to push harder against fortified Syrian locations, or do you stand and wait for a foe who might not show? And the Jordanians are no push-overs, with formidable terrain and forces on their side, so a poor guess makes a big difference.

Syrian and Jordanian fronts, Turn 4, 1967 scenario, Sinai (SPI)

Syrian and Jordanian fronts, Turn 4, 1967 scenario, Sinai (SPI)

As with many of the first generation of wargames, Sinai has a sense of directness about it. There’s not much randomness at work, for good and for ill. The CRT will result in a retreat automatically, regardless of die roll, when the attacker’s combined strength exceeds the defender’s by at least 4 points. Hit that break point and have a retreat-proof cordon around the defender—a de rigueur feature of any ’70s game—and it’s an elimination, no matter how poorly you roll. So the game rewards movement efficiency and combat maximization. There are definite “opening strategies” to this game, and for the gamer who appreciates perfecting strategies, there’s a lot here to like.

The 1973 scenario comes closer to a “standard” wargame and doesn’t have many features that make it more, or less, suitable for solitaire play. The 1956 scenario focuses solely on the Sinai campaign and adds more restrictions to both sides, making it still feasible for solitaire play but not providing a very compelling experience no matter how many players are involved.


Final Die Roll

As a solitaire player, Sinai leans closer to puzzle than simulation for me, but an engaging puzzle all the same. The game effectively replicates the results of the various internecine conflicts in the Middle East, though it does so via mechanisms that feel a bit broadly brushed. Innovations such as step losses, attritional combat, troop quality considerations, and the like would be well received here, but for its time the forces arrayed on the map feel sufficiently varied and interesting. Sinai provides a satisfactory solitaire experience, albeit one that doesn’t push back much.

I’m not inclined to get Sinai back on the table any time soon, but it also didn’t wear out its welcome. With a total set-up to tear-down time of four hours for the 1967 scenario (not, of course, including the time spent rounding the counter corners and reading the fairly clear rules), it’s a reasonable investment for an intriguing look at a conflict that sadly remains relevant today.

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