The three-year North African adventure, lasting from 12th February 1941 to 9th March 1943, marked both the peak of Erwin Rommel’s career as a general and the beginning of its inevitable decline, which ultimately culminated with the ‘Desert Fox’ opting to commit suicide rather than face charges of high treason after losing faith in Hitler and failing to engineer an end to the war. For a while, though, he was hailed as a military genius for his tactical sense and his ability to strike with remarkable speed across the vast stretches of Tunisian and Libyan deserts. Order of Battle: Sandstorm, The Artistocrats’ latest expansion pack for their turn-based World War II wargame, manages to capture key aspects of Rommel’s African Campaign in what is arguably the most entertaining outing for Order of Battle to date.
Sandstorm starts with an exciting race east across Cyrenaica to Tobruk, and there’s a new sense of urgency immediately at play. You’re facing constricted supply lines, and you’ll have to decide whether to advance along the coastline with your combined force of German and Italian units or take the more direct approach across the desert. Either way, you must move quickly to capture British supply dumps to keep your forces fresh.
There are some interesting new elements to the Order of Battle formula introduced in Sandstorm. The first is maybe the most obvious: sandstorms. Fighting across the North African deserts, you’ll occasionally have to deal with sandstorms that limit movement and visibility. But the bigger change is how the campaign is handled. Rather than a straight shot through a static series of scenarios, Sandstorm provides a few diverting paths that change the campaign based on how well you’ve played. If you manage to capture Tobruk in the first scenario – something the Afrika Corps wasn’t able to accomplish in real life – the Allies will be unable to reinforce the port during Operation Crusader later on but will make a push to take it back. It’s a new layer to permanence in Order of Battle, and it makes for some interesting alternative history scenarios. Operation Herkules, for example, plays out a planned but ultimately abandoned German command operation designed to eliminate British air and naval bases on Malta.
Italian forces have gotten the most attention in Sandstorm, with a wide variety of new units to add to your cores. Appropriately, Italy’s tanks aren’t up to the standard of Rommel’s Panzers, but the G.55 Centauro is a terrific fighter, and the new Bersaglieri are a dangerous special forces-style infantry unit that I’ve found are invaluable in taking on dug-in enemies. There’s a good array of new artillery pieces and naval units as well, helping to make Sandstorm’s cores feel at least a bit distinct from the German formations we’ve had so much time with already.
But it’s important not to set your eyes on expensive units in this campaign. Supply is always limited, and so most of Sandstorm’s 14 campaign missions are frantic sprints to capture resupply points, airports, and harbors – anything to gain back enough points to replenish damaged units and field new ones. There’s always been a push-pull in Order of Battle between fielding something cheap and saving up for something more durable and lethal, but Italy’s flimsy early troops and the short time limit on many of Sandstorm’s missions mean you’ve not only got to make the most of weaker units, you’ve got to work hard at keeping them alive – otherwise your odds of success on subsequent battles are vanishingly low. This was also the case in Panzerkrieg, and for similar reasons: both campaigns stretched German logistics capabilities to the breaking point, and it’s appropriately frustrating most of the time.
It can, however, be just plain frustrating. You can easily put a foot wrong in the first couple moves of many missions and doom yourself to watching the rag-tag remnants of your forces peter out into nothing within a few hexes of the final objective, and after spending an hour playing a scenario, that can definitely be discouraging. Sandstorm isn’t as consistently difficult as I found Panzerkrieg, but it’s much more severe about punishing mistakes – although it’ll often wait for quite a while before letting you know that you’re screwed.
On that note, when I’ve failed missions it’s been clear that it’s entirely down to my own poor planning, and certainly not due being outfoxed by the AI. It’s still pretty predictable, and the narrow coastal roads of Libya seem to confuse the hell out of it. On the second mission, Halfaya Pass, I watched British and Australian infantry units truck back and forth along one narrow road, apparently searching for a way inland to flank around a choke point where I’d set up a squad of German infantry. They’d drive north and find my men, get hit with some artillery fire, and then turn around and head back, only to reappear two turns later for more of the same.
It’s hard to completely blame the AI for this, however. The new ridge terrain feature creates impassable walls and channels, and they can be difficult to decipher a lot of the time. Order of Battle is pretty good about telling you where you can and can’t attack from, but it’s easy to get fooled into thinking that there are more avenues of attack available than there really are thanks to the way ridges are drawn at certain angles. Some more clarity on these would have been helpful.
Even so, Sandstorm is still Order of Battle and it takes advantage of the system’s existing strengths in its best moments. The long, hurried trips across the desert inevitably lead to tense cat-and-mouse skirmishes, jockeying with enemy forces to avoid getting encircled and cut off. As large as the battles can get, I find I’m often most engaged when there aren’t that many units on screen, and careful positioning wins the day. It can feel rewarding, like when you solve a chess problem.
Order of Battle: Sandstorm is the strongest DLC pack I’ve played in the series, though, and that’s almost entirely down to smart mission design. Maps are gigantic and the distance you have to cover in order to complete objectives on time adds a frantic pressure to this series of maps that ties back to the historical Africa Campaign, even when it diverges from real-life events. Fighting it out in the Kasserine Pass becomes increasingly frantic and having to choose between mission objectives and commit to a single course of action highlights how Sandstorm differs from the broad, slog-fest fronts of Panzerkrieg. This is about bringing a knifepoint to bear quickly, striking at places you hope are the enemy’s weak points, rather than maintaining a fighting line. This kind of smart mission design makes Sandstorm a game about making interesting strategic decisions and seeing them through to the end, which is a welcome direction for the series.
The campaign ends on a low note, as did Rommel’s stay in Africa. After an initial victory at Kasserine, German forces were eventually caught in a pincer of US and British forces, well beyond their capacity for resupply and pressured by Allied artillery. Rommel realized it was over and called off the offensive, hoping to salvage what he could with an attack on the British Eighth Army in South Tunisia, but he was held off by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The African Campaign was over, and Rommel returned to Europe.