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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Sailing the Ocean Blue: Conquistador (SPI)

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Getting there, as they say, is half the battle, and few games demonstrate this truism as well as Richard Berg’s Conquistador—The Age of Exploration: 1495-1600 (SPI, 1976), a forty-year old conflict simulation game on the exploration and colonization of the Americas first published in Strategy & Tactics #58.

Spanish Virginia

One of the very first dedicated three-player wargames, Conquistador puts players in the role of the monarchs of Spain, England, and France as they vie to discover various features of the New World and then exploit the hell out of this teeming, already-inhabited land mass. Though nominally a wargame, players more often fight the game system rather than each other. Just sailing to and from the New World takes a heavy toll on ships, colonists, and soldiers; and woe betide the player who does not properly outfit an expedition, a failing that can result in the loss of all hands to the briny deep.

The early game, much as historically, focuses on discovery and the exploitation of gold mines, which provide the best source of income for the first six (of twenty-one) five-year turns. Once the contours of the Americas are well known and several colonies have been established, farming and the unsparing plunder of the Incan, Mayan, and Aztec empires becomes the fastest means of accumulating money and power. The native inhabitants are represented abstractly, as another variable on a table to be reckoned with. Careful management of colony size can lead to peaceful co-existence, but such tolerance is economically inefficient, and the game nudges players to see the brutality inherent in the historical colonial process.

A foothold in South America

Effectively, the game centers on building a strong economic engine—really, Conquistador is an early Euro game in that regard, complete with worker placement—and managing the very wild swings of fortune built into the attrition system (both for units on land and units crossing the oceans) and in the inevitable native unrest caused by the European onslaught, becomes key. Losing colonies outright happens often if they are not garrisoned by soldiers—and paying for those soldiers requires more and more exploitation of the land and the peoples thereon, a vicious cycle indeed.

The three nations receive historical Explorers who can sail where there be dragons—Drake, Columbus, Cabot, Magellan, Verrazzano—but the Spanish uniquely employ Conquistadors who provide benefits in land exploration (and combat with natives). They also must drag Missionaries with them wherever they go, to spread the Gospel by word (and, often, bloody deed). France and England enjoy much less differentiation in the rules, though the English do deploy “Sea Dogs” who can plunder gold from enemy ships towards the end game.

I had the opportunity to take Conquistador out for a spin recently at the District of Columbia’s finest game store, Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, with my regular opponents and all-around good guys Mike Vogt and Doug Bush. We played about half the game, abstaining for the most part from combat with one another’s forces, though as the Spanish I did detour Pizarro from a fruitless search for the Seven Cities of Gold to make an abortive raid on Doug’s English port that had been ferrying booty from Panamanian gold mines. Mike, meanwhile, established a strong French presence in Texas and drained the Sonora Valley of its mineral wealth, though at great cost in colonists, who succumbed frequently to the harsh terrain. When we called it, the English had a commanding lead in victory points due to their ability to move gold back to Europe most effectively, followed by the French who were buoyed by their many discoveries.

Pizzaro visits the Incans

Once we got a handle on the game, it played quickly enough. The planning for expeditions took the most time, though after I bankrupted the Spanish by bankrolling a hideously expensive (and unsuccessful) expedition by Columbus to round the Horn, planning was simple just by dint of having no money to spend. Would have been glorious (and profitable in VP) had it paid off, but I struggled for money for the rest of the game.

The map and counter graphics hold up well after four decades, conveying the needed information with a minimum of fuss in classic Redmond Simonsen style, and the counters rounded nicely with some attention from my handy-dandy counter corner rounder. On the table, the colors together provide a pleasing palette, making effective use of the limited colors available to the printing process of the day. Just a handsome game all around.

Good wargames do more than recreate a conflict; they provide some degree of insight, however fleeting, into the subject matter. Conquistador serves both as a strong three-player wargame with a fair bit of replayability and as an unique, if abstract, look at the nasty bit of business that was the European colonization of the Americas.

Winter Offensive 2015 After Action Report

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How many wargamers can you fit in 4,500 square feet of conference space, assuming you factor in room for tables, chairs, dice towers, and a keg? At least 165 if you were at Winter Offensive 2015 in Bowie, Maryland, the latest installation of the East Coast’s premier Advanced Squad Leader tournament, held annually over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend.

A Sea of Gamers

This year’s event saw the most attendees ever, nearly twenty more than last year’s record crowd. By noon on Saturday, all available table space seemed to have filled up, though most people were happy to share space. Attendance was likely boosted by the debut of the long-awaited “final” core module for ASL, Hakkaa Päälle, which (re)introduces the Finns to the tactical gaming system.

The printing on the new Finnish counters came out quite nicely, and the light grey color chosen works well in the system, as long as you don’t have them fighting the Italians, who share the same counter palette. The counter material also rounded quite nicely, as I brought my handy-dandy deluxe counter corner rounder with me to the tournament for the express purpose of clipping the Finns. Quite a few people stopped by and asked about the labor-saving wonder device, which gently rounds off the otherwise nubby edges to produce an aesthetically pleasing and easily manipulable counter. I dare say I converted at least a few people to the church of Oregon Laminations (just in case there’s a rounder referral rewards program I don’t know about…).

Fear the Finns!

I had the privilege of taking the fresh Finns out for a spin against regular gaming chum and all-around good guy Mike Vogt, who had the Soviets on defense in 172 “The Last Attack,” a scenario chosen almost entirely because one of the Finnish leaders enters the game on a bicycle. He didn’t last long, but the match went almost to the end. Mike set up a canny defense (and employed some absurd fire discipline) and was able to slow my progress enough to hold one of the required victory conditions for a well-deserved win. We had a series of interminable melees that I kept pouring units into, only to see them ground up. Probably not the best strategy, but a greater principle was at stake. I was not going to lose those melees. I did, of course, but that’s beside the point. A pleasure as always playing against Mike.

Long-time opponent Doug Bush provided the other major gaming event of the tournament for me, our traditional all-day non-ASL match. Following on last year’s playing of SPI’s BAOR, we switched to a tighter scale with SPI’s Berlin ’85, covering a hypothetical attempt by the Warsaw Pact to overrun the NATO West Berlin garrison at the start of WW III. The map, a Simonsen classic, took some getting used to, with its welter of colors and symbols depicting the various types of city terrain and transportation routes, but after a point, they became comprehensible and showed well under the counters. I have a real fondness for the SPI counters from this era, with their crisp lettering and glorious colors.

Berlin 85

The combat system reflects the game’s early ’80s pedigree, with locking Zones of Control, mandatory attacks, and a heavy reliance on retreat results. I still managed to lose quite a few Soviet mechanized battalions to ill-advised attacks against West Berlin police units holed up in heavy urban terrain, and while my East Germans managed a sweeping thrust from Potsdam into the American Sector that threatened to unhinge the NATO defense, Doug managed to hold off my attacks long enough to edge out a Marginal Victory once NATO succumbed to a surrender roll. Both Doug and I agreed that the game deserves another playing, as the system contains a few subtleties that, once grasped, allow for a different tactical approach. A real gem against a great opponent, and a game I’m happy to have added to the played list.

As ever, I managed to get in some side gaming as well, more this year than ever before. Group favorite Pax Porfiriana made the table three times (and, it must be said, I somehow won all three, leading to a prohibition against my playing it anymore). Mike introduced everyone to Panamax, a game about shipping through the Panama Canal. That game, a cross between worker placement style action choices and 18XX financial manipulation, hit the table to rave reviews and got played a good three times. A Study in Emerald came out on Friday night, with the Restorationists solidly thumping the Loyalists, who made their move about a turn too late. I had the honor in that one of putting a stake through the heart of Vampire Sherlock Holmes.

And, of course, the annual playing of Battlestar Galactica on Saturday night ended with, as always, a Cylon victory. The humans were done in by the cagey play of John Slotwinski, who held the Admiral card and concealed his robotic nature long enough to jump the human fleet into the middle of nowhere for the win. We used the Pegasus expansion, adding another Battlestar and Cylon Leaders to the game. The new rules didn’t add much complexity and worked well with six players, but with our standard five player games, I’d opt to use the base rules alone.

My thanks to the team at Multi-Man Publishing for another fine Winter Offensive, and to all my opponents for three days of amazing, and exhausting, gaming.

How We Played the Game: The SPI "Infomercial"

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Courtesy of John Cooper on ConsimWorld, we have this “infomercial” (and, indeed, there’s not really any other way to describe it) created by SPI, one of the powerhouses of wargame design and publishing in the 1970’s:

The footage was apparently taken from a set of video tapes about Strategy and Tactics magazine (video reviews of the individual issues, according to a review of the set) by Big Bear Productions.

As far as explanations of wargaming go, this film succeeds in presenting the basics to laypeople and could serve the same expository function today as it did some thirty-five odd years ago, except maybe for the hairstyles and wide collars and all the smoking.

The segment about two minutes in, with stop-motion animation of counters marching across a map, is particularly effective—especially when a cavalry counter literally gallops across a bridge.

Several gaming faux pas exist in the film, however, most notably the rolling of dice on the map itself and the presence of open beverages on the gaming surface. Given that the footage seems to have been taken in SPI’s headquarters, though, I’d imagine that, in the event of a soaking, replacement counters and maps were but a room away . . .

Counter Culture: In the Kingdom of the Board

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Any ludological taxonomy that classifies games by physical features will contain an order, or perhaps a phylum, based on the presence of a pre-defined playing surface—a play mat, a tableaux, or, more simply, a board. Consider it Gamerus non-computericum meepleopile boardiferous. Indeed, boards give their name to this part of the gaming hobby as a whole, boardgaming, even when said games form their “boards” via tile or card placement.

For many people, particularly non-gamers, the board in a boardgame is literally a board, a thick piece of cardboard, usually with a single fold down the middle, with a paper playing surface glued or, less often, printed on top of it. The expectation when opening a boardgame is that you will find such a playing surface.

For wargamers, particularly contemporary wargamers—and wargaming is a genus within boardgaming—the opposite holds true: our boards tend to be printed directly onto heavy stock paper, not mounted to a board. (Wargamers tend to refer to boards as maps, as they most often depict terrain, either actual or abstract.)

Back in board wargaming’s first turn, though, Avalon Hill, the Standard Oil of wargaming, prided itself on producing wargames with mounted maps, only late in their existence switching to paper maps for some games. By contrast, their main competitors in the 1970’s and 1980’s, SPI and GDW, produced games almost exclusively with paper maps. Economically, paper maps are cheaper to print, lighter to ship, less bulky to package, and eliminate the tricky mounting process. As wargaming became more and more a niche market into the 1990’s, mounted wargame maps all but disappeared, showing up in the slow trickle of Advanced Squad Leader modules and not much else.

Modern printing methods and the much-debated resurgence of the wargaming hobby have seen contemporary wargamers spoiled for choice, with three types of maps available—paper, “deluxe,” and mounted:

Paper, deluxe, or mounted?

How do these three types of maps stack up?

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