Game Review


Desert War 1940-1942 from Matrix Games

From the Pillars of Hercules to the tombs of Pharaohs, a timeless land spreads where Roman Legions once marched and track laying tanks now maneuver. It is a place where the thunders of war pause at sunset when radios emit a melancholy melody and the lyrics of “Lili Marlene” echo across Saharan sands.

In March 2018 Matrix Games releases “Desert War 1940-1942”. The Few Good Men (FGM) first noticed this game being developed four years ago ( Now comes its commercial release. Comprising a roster of British battalions and regiments noteworthy at Waterloo, these Desert War battles include men from down under marching against Bersaglieri and Panzer Grenadiers riding steel beasts where logistics often matter more than troops. Here is my first impression, a favorable first impression at that.

Theatre: Africa
Unit Scale: Operational
Players: 1-2
AI: Yes
PBEM: Yes, Server Based
Version 0.6.19
Platform PC (Mac unknown and not mentioned anywhere)

Game information on Matrix Games Forums:

Inspired by Atomic Games “V For Victory”, this is a 21st Century computer game much evolved from that fine ancestor. The WEGO game system (a “simultaneous” outcome instead of a turn-based nature) makes for tense turns and supports simple on-line game play using Slitherine’s PBEM system. Twelve scenarios explore the action from the Italian Invasion of Egypt in 1940 to Rommel’s defeat at El Alamein in late 1942.

The game comes with both Manual and Tutorial PDF’s. The Tutorial PDF by John “Slick Wilhelm” Dahlen is excellent. His goal is that you understand the basic game concepts and know how to successfully use your assets to win the scenario. It walks you through the game’s introductory scenario, “2nd Battle for Bardia”. The tutorial offers good details and is “just right” for helping players walk themselves through beginning a battle. The Tutorial doesn’t cover everything but does a fine job of getting you started. You’ll have to mouse around to discover lower layered things for yourself once you absorb tutorial basics. That’s in the Manual.

Desert War 1940-1942 looks like a board game on a monitor screen but is powered by smartly designed software which lets you, the player, focus on what historical commanders would have focused on themselves. While game play follows a good process flow, you, the player, participate in driving to outcomes instead of managing to process. The computer randomizes the results in a rational manner.

The battlefield area is a two-dimensional overhead view with a superimposed hex grid. Ground scale is two miles per hex. Combat units are square counters which display nationality, type (such as infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, and other combat types), unit size, attack-defense-movement values, Stacking factor, and command organization. Up to 8 stacking factors can occupy a single hex; that’s 1 to 5 units. There are nice control tools and display sidebars to see and cycle through the units in a hex. Time scale for the Tutorial Scenario is 3 turns in a 24 hour day.

Ground combat units are companies, battalions, and batteries commanded by Brigade/Division/Army Headquarter units with the computer performing all game play calculations. This lets you think much more about commanding your units than calculating your odds. Historical army units, air squadrons, and naval ships are all included with distinct Graphic User Interfaces for each.

Game graphics are workmanlike. The mouse wheel lets you zoom IN / OUT nicely. Terrain is adequately represented. Unit types are clear and easily switched between NATO symbols and Silhouettes. Attack types show clearly (Ground / Artillery / Air / Naval).

The sequence of play is a single “Set-up” phase at the beginning of the scenario followed by recurring “Plan” and “Execute” phases until the battle concludes. The game utilizes good “design load” (meaning a nice balance of what a player has to attend versus what a player ignores). Players only plan, the computer executes everything else. This is called WEGO; both player sides plot unit movements and orders at the same time, then the computer manages simultaneous actions while players can only watch the outcome of their plans.

SET-UP exposes you to the foundation of the game; command range and supply. The emphasis on SUPPLY (Basic, Combat, and Movement) is clear and rational. I liked how it worked and found it balanced. Supply (rightfully in my view) easily distinguishes between ammunition and fuel which are factors for strategic planning. SET-UP is performed once per scenario. The Tutorial uses SET-UP to introduce you to the game and explain some basics such as factors like unit STRENGTH and unit READINESS which will matter in actual combat.

Once units are set up where desired, the next phase in PLAN. PLAN is the heart of the game. It’s when you, the player, make all your decisions and take your actions. Things make sense quickly. The player uses both Hot Keys and Mouse buttons to make units do their tasks with very useful on-call displays. The game uses the concept of Shock to enhance armor attack capabilities. Attack Strength and Shock are different factors which the Tutorial helps explain. In the PLAN phase, the player moves ground units, initiates attacks, targets artillery, assigns aircraft missions, and lays naval gunfire. There are also abstracted off-map abilities to enhance unit performance and gain Intelligence about enemy units obscured by the fog of war. INTEL allocation of resources available to identify actual enemy units is a nice touch and is designed as a right touch

When Plans are complete for that game turn, players trigger Execute. The Execution phase plays out like a DVD player views a video, complete with controls. You can use the controls to pause the action, to rewind and watch it again, or to let it play through to the end without doing anything. EXECUTE conducts the actions planned; attacks, bombardments, bombing, and so on. It is a WEGO view of the simultaneous actions planned by the player. You watch your plans unfold for good or ill. It is totally passive; just as it was for senior officers at their command posts. You wait to see how things turn out then affirm or revise your subsequent plans. Game tools let you examine and understand results in detail. When ready, you end the turn and Plan the next one, adjusting future plans to past results. Sounds in the game associate with game events in a meaningful manner. The process makes perfect sense.

These are the important concepts to learn and grasp in order to play effectively:
• Keep units in full supply, and use supply points wisely. In some of the larger scenarios, you don’t have enough supply points to keep every unit in Combat+ supply every turn. Carefully calculate which turns are appropriate for Combat+ supply, or Move+ supply. Supply reverts to “Basic” for every unit after each turn.
• Use units that possess offensive shock value to capture valuable strategic targets or to destroy important enemy units. Don’t combine units that DO possess offensive shock with units which DO NOT possess offensive shock, in an attack. That will dilute and negate Shock effects.
• Protect supply points by employing air units with “Counter Air” orders. Conversely, attack opponent supplies by assigning air units to “Interdiction” orders.
• Read the manual and the quick start guide, because the Tutorial leaves out a lot of detail. Some of the larger scenarios require knowing how to deal with minefields.

After playing through the entire tutorial, I found no night turns. The three turns per day start at 0600, 1200, and 1800. So the final turn each day appears to cover 12 hours of activity and naval gunfire support was not available at that time. The AI launched several of its own counterattacks but the situation at Bardia is pretty desperate to defend so I am unable to evaluate AI shrewdness. Battles end with a non-dramatic result screen that allows you to review statistical result graphs and a movie replay of the entire battle. This full battle replay is a very nice touch and it is fun to watch your tactical plans play out seamlessly for combat from the battle’s start to finish!

The tutorial mentions “Air Interdiction” but does not elaborate – it is one of the many details for which you’ll have to read the game manual to learn and understand. I find this game’s User Interface much simpler than hex games like Panzer Battles / Panzer Corps. I suspect (without actually knowing) that the replay value for this game will prove quite high specifically due to its H2H (Head-to-Head / Human-to-Human) play capabilities.

The game’s designer notes state:

“Our goal in is to use a narrow set of subjectively selected numbers to achieve something that is “about right”—somewhere in the neighborhood of correct. Yes, we will use numbers—decimal perfect—to get to that neighborhood. Will they be good numbers? Well…if they feel “about right” to the player during game play, then we have achieved our goal —the numbers are…good enough. The people who play this game come to it with some knowledge about the War in the Desert during WWII…or…none at all. It needs to be fun for ALL (the many) and acceptable to those with deep knowledge of the subject (The Few).

“So let’s go for “about right” and be done with it.”

– Brian Kelly & John Duquette; Desert War 1940-42 game creation, design, and development

Mission accomplished! This game delivers on the promises made and does good justice to the war of Desert Rats and Afrika Korps. It captures the elements which make this campaign so appealing and so different from other WW2 theaters: locale, terrain, strategic situation, differing combat arms, intelligence and communication capabilities, supply capacities, strengths and weaknesses of individual units as well as of the higher command structure and organization for each nationality. With all this available, players can readily explore a wide range of insights and hindsight alternatives. It is a game that every North Africa aficionado will want to have. This game is for them.

Whether you approach this game with long experience or as a new learner, it nicely captures a detailed look of what happens in a very satisfying fashion. Desert War 1940-1942 is a fine effort where you “play the game” instead of “playing the rules”. If you get this game, you will get a good North Africa war-game and if you wonder whether it is worth getting at all, my answer is, “Yes”.

Reviewed on behalf of The Few Good Men by Badger73.

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