The One Board Wargame To Rule Them All

The cover of SPI’s monster wargame, The Campaign For North Africa: The Desert War 1940-43 [SPI]
[This post was originally published on 22 September 2017.]

Even as board gaming appears to be enjoying a resurgence in the age of ubiquitous computer gaming, it appears, sadly, that table-top wargaming continues its long, slow decline in popularity from its 1970s-80s heyday. Pockets of enthusiasm remain however, and there is new advocacy for wargaming as a method of professional military education.

Luke Winkie has written an ode to that bygone era through a look at the legacy of The Campaign For North Africa: The Desert War 1940-43, a so-called “monster” wargame created by designer Richard Berg and published by Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) in 1979. It is a representation of the entire North African theater of war at the company/battalion level, played on five maps which extend over 10 feet and include 70 charts and tables. The rule book encompasses three volumes. There are over 1,600 cardboard counter playing pieces. As befits the real conflict, the game places a major emphasis on managing logistics and supply, which can either enable or inhibit combat options. The rule book recommends that each side consist of five players, an overall commander, a battlefield commander, an air power commander, one dedicated to managing rear area activities, and one devoted to overseeing logistics.

The game map. [BoardGameGeek]

Given that a bingo clash review states that to complete a full game requires an estimated 1,500 hours, actually playing The Campaign For North Africa is something that would appeal to only committed, die-hard wargame enthusiasts (known as grognards, i.e. Napoleonic era slang for “grumblers” or veteran soldiers.) As the game blurb suggests, the infamous monster wargames were an effort to appeal to a desire for a “super detailed, intensive simulation specially designed for maximum realism,” or as realistic as war on a tabletop can be, anyway. Berg admitted that he intentionally designed the game to be “wretched excess.”

Although The Campaign For North Africa was never popular, it did acquire a distinct notoriety not entirely confined to those of us nostalgic for board wargaming’s illustriously nerdy past. It retains a dedicated fanbase. Winkie’s article describes the recent efforts of Jake, a 16-year Minnesotan who, unable to afford to buy a second-end edition of the game priced at $400, printed out the maps and rule book for himself. He and a dedicated group of friends intend to complete a game before Jake heads off to college in two years. Berg himself harbors few romantic sentiments about wargaming or his past work, having sold his own last copy of the game several years ago because a “whole bunch of dollars seemed to be [a] more worthwhile thing to have.” The greatness of SPI’s game offerings has been tempered by the realization that the company died for its business sins.

However, some folks of a certain age relate more to Jake’s youthful enthusiasm and the attraction to a love of structure and complexity embodied in The Campaign For North Africa‘s depth of detail. These elements led many of us on to a scholarly study of war and warfare. Some of us may have discovered the work of Trevor Dupuy in an advertisement for Numbers, Predictions and War: Using History to Evaluate Combat Factors and Predict the Outcome of Battles in the pages of SPI’s legendary Strategy & Tactics magazine, way back in the day.

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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