Facing a Bold and Clever Foe in the Western Desert. Lighting North Africa Game Review.
Lighting North Africa Game Review. Publisher: Decision Games. Designer: Dan Verssen. Price: $20.00
Passed inspection: Well-designed cards that are evocative of the events and units that appeared in the campaign. Four pages of rules. Sturdy box for storage and transport. Quick easy to grasp rules coupled with a fast playing game.
Failed Basic: Layout could have been a little clearer regarding the definitions of operations and actions.
Lightning North Africa (LNA) is a two-player card game depicting the conflict between the Allies and Axis for control of North Africa during the Second World War. Each turn, players will conduct operations with cards representing the military forces deployed to the theater and use other cards to take actions and conduct battles.
The playing space is defined by a set of six map cards that depict the areas of North Africa between Cairo in the East and Algeria in the West. The cards contain a map showing the rough location of the space as well as any rules specific to actions and operations that occurs in the space. For example, control of the Tobruk map space will impart defensive and logistical benefits to the faction that controls the space.
A set of six Attack Plan cards define the major types of tactical strategies that may be employed in combat. These are used in each battle round and are key to determining the winner of the battle. More on those later.
Force cards depict the major military units that participated in the campaign. All the old familiar faces are present here – 7th Armored, 4th Indian, 2nd New Zealand, 21st Panzer, 5th Panzer and many more. The cards contain an image representative of that unit along with it’s tactical ability and special traits.
The vast majority of the card deck is made up of Action cards. These cards allow each player to perform activities that model operations ranging from airstrikes to laying minefields as well as historical events such as the Balkans War and the impact of Malta on German reinforcements.
The ruled comprise an oversized sheet of paper that is the equivalent of 4 pages pf 8 ½” paper. While the overall organization of the rules is good, the way that the action phase and the operations forces get executed could have been a bit clearer. It took a day of staring at the rules before the way operations are conducted became apparent as the rules list the available operations (executed during actions) under the Force Card section. You’ll have to read the rules very carefully. The confusion was a real head scratcher as it’s very confusing as to how units move and or attack without understanding the available operations. It would have helped had operations be defined under actions.
Fortunately, it’s an easy thing to fix. Lightning North Africa has been on the market for a number of years and the folks at Board Game Geek have good solution. First you can download a nice play aid that basically presents the same rules in a different format. While you are there, go ahead and download a solid FAQ of most of the questions that come up over the years. After reading the reformatted rules, the intent of the original rules became clear.
The heart of the game is a straight forward card-driven board game. Yes, it’s a deck of cards, but the use of the map cards and force cards mean that LNA is basically a high-level area movement board game of the battle for North Africa.
The game mechanics are straightforward. Each turn consists of two player phases laid out in a conventional IGO/UGO format. Within each phase, the phasing player execute the following steps;
Draw a card – just what it says, draw a card from the player’s deck. You’ll get an Action Card or a Force card to add to your hand.
Execute Actions – Each force card that is currently in play can take an operation. These include moving, attacking, regrouping and a passive action called preparing, which allows you to draw another card from the deck. In addition, other action cards can be played to strike the enemy, or recover and regroup your losses.
Fight Battles – You’ve moved, you initiated some attacks – now it’s time to resolve the battles.
Check Supply – This is the opportunity to ensure all your units are in supply. In some cases, an Action card will allow you to minimize the effects of being out of supply.
Discard and Draw cards – in the rare event you have reached your maximum card hand size, you can discard cards and then draw two additional cards. You’ll need these to help you through your opponent’s turn if you get attacked.
This may appear as an IGO/UGO game, but the incorporation of the cards makes this a much more dynamic experience. Each player will have cards that can be played at various points in their opponent’s turn. The cards do things like inflict losses, delay the arrival of reinforcements, cancel a battle from occurring or even the flat-out nullification of an opponent’s action card.
The dynamic and random nature of the deck dealt to each player’s hand will result in a game that very rarely plays the same way twice. Sure, you’ll learn what are the cards that compose the deck, but you’ll never be sure when those cards might be in your hand or your opponents hand.
The title of the game “Lightning North Africa” is descriptive of what is happening here, the rapid, unpredictability of the card play means that in a flash, the state of the game can swing from favoring one player to the other.
What’s most engaging about Lightning North Africa is the multi-level game experience that Dan Verssen has brought to the table. The experience can be characterized with the statement, ‘you’re playing a game within a game that is the façade in front of the real game.’ On the surface, you are playing a two-player game that represents the strategic battle for North Africa. Scratch the surface and what you are really playing is a resource management game. Beneath that is what I see as the real game – the battle of wills and decisions that go into resolving each battle.
The surface game is obvious. You need to move units into position to attack your opponent and meet your victory conditions. You’ll want to bring in reinforcements, move them into contact with your opponent and attack or defend depending on the situation.
The resource management game is going to be familiar to most card game players. You need to manage your hand of cards to ensure you can do the things you need to do while thwarting your opponent. In the game, this translates into being able to bring reinforcements into play, managing your supply lines, taking actions to impact your opponent’s forces (for example, dive bomber strikes) or ensure you have an adequate hand to either conduct a battle or defend against attack.
If you fail at this level of the game, you’ll find yourself like your historical counterparts – overextended and vulnerable to counterattack.
The deeper layer of the game is the contest between the two players in terms of strategy and tactics. This is best exemplified through the way that battles are resolved. Once you declare that a unit is attacking, you will then determine your attack plan. There is a total of 6 attack plans that can be selected. Two of them derive from the types of troops you are using (armoured or motorized) or the tactical offensive you can implement. The attacker can either go with the default plans available to the forces, or try for additional options like flank or overrun or siege.
To implement a plan, the attacker selects an action card containing that plan and places it on the table. The defender can then try to nullify it by playing a card with a matching plan (or one of the default options). This goes back and forth until either a card cannot be countered, or both sides decline to play additional cards.
It’s a neat mechanism to represent the strategic effort being placed into a specific battle. You expending a lot of effort to create the conditions for big breakthroughs.
Once you’ve determined the eligible attack plans, the attacker takes the required attack plan cards, selects one and places it face down. This is the actual attack being implemented. The defender must now guess which one of the eligible plans has been selected. If the defender’s guess is correct, the attack fails. If the guess is incorrect, the attack succeeds. It’s a neat mechanism that while fresh feels like a call back to vintage Avalon Hill board games such as Caesar’s Legions or 1776 in which the interplay of defending and attacking plan choices influence the outcome of the battle.
It’s this need to build a hand of attack plans and the agonizing guessing as to what the actual plan is going to be that create that sub-textual game. At this deeper level of engagement, the ‘game’ is really about which player can most effectively read the mind of their opponent and either discern their attack plan or misdirect their opponent into selecting another type of plan. It can become very much like the battle of wits from the movie ‘Princess Bride’ with the defender stuck in a loop of weighing if he should guess ‘flank attack’ has been selected against the costs of the attacker knowing that the defender knows that the attacker knows he knows, so clearly he cannot chose that option.
It’s at this level the game really rewards players with keen insights not into military history or resource management, but their ability to read their opponent’s intention. When you guess your opponent’s plan correctly you’ll be as giddy as George C. Scott in the movie ‘Patton’ shouting “Rommel, you magnificent bastard…I READ YOUR BOOK! “
This decision making cycle is at the heart of the game as you’ll be going through it with every single attack. It’s a battle between the minds of two commanders as they dance around trying to divine their opponent’s intent while trying to conceal their own intent. Just to complicate the dance, each side has cards which can provide the ability to reduce the depth of the attacker’s choices, or in some cases, stop the attack cold.
Like most card games, many cards have specific special rules that apply when they are in play. You have to manage your cards carefully to remember all the attributes and abilities you have at your disposal. It’s annoying to remember at the end of the turn that 5th Panzer recovers one hit for free and 21st Panzer inflicts a free hit at the start of the turn.
A big concern many gamers have today is with a game’s suitability for solitaire play. The good news here is that Lightning North Africa lends itself to a degree of solitaire play. There are no rules for solo play and there’s no ‘bot to automate the play of one side. But you can play both sides and get a reasonable game. There is still a degree of randomness with the battles, and you lose some of the tension present when two players are selecting cards for attack plans with imperfect knowledge of their opponent’s hand. You lose the sub-textual game of commanders trying to outfox their opponent into picking the wrong choice.
At the end of the day, the final question is – does it feel like a game of armored combat in North Africa? This was a theater that saw rapid advances and retreats as the momentum swung between the Axis and Allies. After playing the game several times, the verdict is that yes, this game provides a good feel of the North African campaign. It’s a fast playing game that conveys a sense of the space in which the campaign took place. You’ll get a good feel for the scope and sweep of the North Africa desert without getting bogged down in the details. The game keeps you focused on the big picture. Tobruk is important to winning – just as in the actual campaign. Tripoli and Cairo must be defended. Sure, the Axis can ignore Tripoli for a while, but once Operation Torch kicks off, they’ll have to defend against incursions from the Algerian front as well as manage the shift in initiative that the two-front war triggers.
Battle resolution is a test of wits where each commander tries to outsmart his opponent and seize victory with the forces available. You’ll feel a bit like O’Connor, Auchinleck, Rommel or Montgomery as you battle your way to victory. Managing your troops is critical – you HAVE to pull fatigued troops back to regroup or risk having them wiped out by an enemy counter-attack. Once a force card is gone, it’s gone.
The finite number of forces is a good thing. It drives the game towards completion. Once all the Axis force cards are eliminated from play, the Axis lose the game. And if the Allies lose all the units defending Cairo, it will be an easy drive for the Axis to claim victory in the game.
That defines victory – either the Axis capture Cairo and hold it through the Allied player turn, or the Allies destroyed all the Axis units in North Africa. There is no middle ground in which the Axis hold out for a stalemate or the Allies wait for the Russian steamroller to save their bacon. Victory is up to you – so grab your cards and start campaigning!
Armchair General Rating: 95%
Solitaire Rating: 4 (1 = low solitaire, 5 = perfect for solo play)
Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.