Rommel in the Desert (1982)
Designer Craig Besinque
Type Historical board wargame
Level Ground operational
Scale Units are regiment/battalion, hexes are 28 miles
Tempo Turn-based
Setting WW2, North Africa
Players 2
Time 3-8 hours

Rommel in the Desert was one of the earlier block-style games and has remained immensely popular for over 30 years for both its elegance and accurately replicating the psychological aspects of the struggle faced by the overall Allied and Axis commanders. The entire war is covered in a series of scenarios dealing with operations from 1940 through 1942, before the Americans arrive. The game system is quite simple but adequately covers the strengths and weaknesses of various unit types, allows for attritional slugfests which can slowly sap combat strength over time, as well as rapier-like mechanized maneuvers with lightning-fast clashes.

[Review of Rommel in the Desert]

Basic setup and factionsEdit

Set up is determined by the scenario rules, but both players are able to set up without their oponent knowing the exact composition of the force (save for some situations where Tobruk is beseiged--the defenders are known to both sides, at least at setup).  The British player controls all Commonwealth forces; the Axis player controls the German and Italian forces.

Turn orderEdit

The Sequence is composed of two major phases--"Buildup Sequence" followed by the "Player-Turn Sequence."  During Buildup, players receive reinforcements scheduled to arrive that month/turn, spend Buildup Points to replace lost steps in their units if eligible, build minefields, and purchase extra supply cards above and beyond those that can be drawn from the deck.  For the Player-Turns, the Axis moves first unless the Allied expends a supply card to mount an Initiative Challenge, which initiates a single round "bidding war" of supply cards to determine who gets the first move.   A dummy supply card can be used by the British player to bluff the Axis into expending a scarce real supply cards to "win initiative" that he would have enjoyed anyway!  

Player-Turns involve the Active Player making a supply check to see that his units are in the supply network, remove disruption for units now back in supply, and then expending supply cards to select and execute ONE of several Turn Options, at various supply costs:

Basic Turn:  Costs one supply card and allows one move and one combat round.

Offensive Turn:  Costs two supply cards and allows two moves and one combat round.

Assault Turn:  Costs two supply cards and allows one move and one ASSAULT combat round.

Blitz Turn:  Costs three supply cards and allows for two consecutive Basic Turns.

Pass Turn:  No cards needed and the player can make a Withdrawal Move only.  

In each option where otherwise allowed, pieces can either perform a Group Move from a single hex to another (or disperse to several) or they can do a Regroup Move from several hexes adjacent to a a common one to a single hex destination.  Withdrawal moves are Group/Regroup moves heading backwards along friendly supply lines.  Combat rounds occur when in/entering hexes with enemy units.  Revealing unit indentiy/type/strength only happens after all movement is completed.  Following battle, another supply check is made; units outside the supply network are disrupted.

The player that has the Initiative is the first Active Player who does ONE Turn Option, followed by the opponent who becomes the Active Player who does ONE Turn Option.  

Players can "Refuse Battle" to avoid ones the Active Player forces on them but at a cost in running "Pursuit Fire" gauntlet.  Players can also Disengage during battles but must disrupt their units.  Disrupted units can be routed if subsequently attacked again. Thus, how battles are sequenced matters a great deal, especially during Blitz Options!

There are all kinds of wrinkles to combat involving Fortresses, Defended Minefields, Overrun situations, and more.

Rules MechanicsEdit

The turn sequence is very similar to other block games--you cannot move all your units, only a portion of them.  In ROMME IN THE DESERT, proper disposition of force for maximum Turn Option flexibility is crucial and is ignored to the peril of the player.  In this game, order of Turn Option selection/execution and type of Turn Option selected is governed by how many supply cards the player is willing--or able--to expend.  Given the uncertainty regarding how many supply cards a player actually has and what types/strengths of units are in particularly hexes, the tension level is high and decision-making quite agonizing.  High risk-taking often results in high-gain...but can also lead to complete disaster.  Knowing when to take chances and "psyching out" our opponent is a large part of the play experience.  The meat of the game really happens in the monthly "operational-level" treatment.

Once the battles are revealed and everyone sees the forces involved, the usual "bucket of dice" approach to battles so typical in block games used.  No combat results tables are consulted--the number of dice thrown compares to the strength number of the block firing.  Some blocks fire at normal strength (a "6" inflicts a hit on the selected target block of the defender), Double Fire strength (a "5" or "6" creates a result), or even Triple Fire strength (a "4,

" "5," or "'6" hits), depending on the relationship of type between Firing Unit and Defending Unit and whether or not the combat involves an Elite unit, Assault, Fortresses, and Defended Minefields.  The defender (non-active player) fires first--inflicting losses on the Active player's attacking units before they get to shoot back, then the Active player fires. For both players, artillery is the first to shoot.


Combat involves only one round and so units are typically not eliminated outright unless the action is somewhat lopsided.  Slow attrition is often the norm--and is typically what the British player in particular seeks to create when combat is forced upon him.  The Axis player has to work hard to create operational situations where he can fall on Commonwealth units in such a way his combats become "blowouts" at the least cost to his attacking units.

Creating supply chains/networks is fraught with dilemmas; so long as players keep their supply lines on roads and trails, they can better economize on units in guarding that path.  But once players start to extend into open desert, maintaining supply lines will drain off scarce units that could be better used to conduct attacks or create defensive lines.  Figuring out that balance of how to best use combat power and maintain supply flexibility is one of the interesting questions players face in the game.

Advanced RulesEdit

Optional rules are confined to greater fidelity showcasing the Allied "Army Tank" brigades which had a preponderance of slow "Infantr Tanks" intended for infantry support and not independent armor actions.  They move slower than other amor brigades.


The game has a wide variety of scenarios which makes it one of the more attractive features for a WWII North Africa game; so few others at this scale can offer so many.

Overall Strategy Notes:Edit

The supply situation for both players are the keys to the game.  The situation is comprised of real supply cards in the hand of the player and the suppply network/line/chain on the board.  Maintaining secure supply networks/lines/chains on the board and a healthy stock of cards in one's hand while depriving the same to your opponent is how one wins, but this is easier said than done!  Deception and bluff are indispensible to this effort but these can be double-edged swords at times!  

This is one of those few wargames where having uncommitted reserves is imperative.  Players will seek to pin down the other's forces through combats--he who has the most uncommitted forces has the most flexibility.  If battles go badly and forces must Disengage (becoming Disrupted and ripe for Overrun), having a screen of uncommitted reserves that can cover their retreat and possible subsequent Withdrawal Move is essential.  

In this game, the best defense is a good offense.  This is particularly true for the British player, who can easily be battered by his Axis opponent into adopting a more reactive and passive defense mindset.  When it comes time to go over to the defensive, however, there are major dilemmas regarding how to create one.  Linear static defenses can reduce the chance of blowouts unless the opponent mounts a successful Blitz Option that can penetrate it.  Defense-in-depth can put a stop to enemy breakthroughs, but usually means the defended hexes are far weaker, leading to overall higher losses at the cost of higher enemy supply.  

1940 Scenario Edit

The scenario begins with the Anglo-Italian clashes on the Egyptian and Libyan border in the fall of 1940, ending in February 1941 when, historically, the British defeated the Italians at Beda Fomm in Cyrenaica and advanced to the vicinity of El Agheila until forces were stripped away for the ill-fated defence of Greece.  


The Italians begin with the preponderance of forces, but they are infantry and only get some armor in dribbles in mid-game.  They also begin with the advantage in supply cards but this slowly dwindles as the British, who begin with small but mobile forces, get more supply cards every turn.  Major reinforcements arrive at the endgame and the British must squeeze every advantage possible.  The dilemma for the Italian is how hard and how to push in the first couple of turns to make it harder for the British when they inevitable counterattack; it's a difficult balancing act as the loss of too many forces actually will make it easier for the Commonwealth player.  For the British, there's a great deal of risk taking required to bounce back and take the war to the Italians, conquering as much of the map as possible.

1941 Scenario Edit

The scenario starts with Rommel's arrival in the spring of 1941 and his counterattack that historically ends with the British offensive, OPERATION CRUSADER to relieve beseiged Tobruk.  


The game really revolves around whether the Axis can take Tobruk or not as they lunge out of the western corner of the map to conquer Cyrenaica and beyond, ideally to the Egyptian border.  The Germans must create dilemmas for the British that result in a rapid series of piece-meal defeats, as the Commonwealth player enjoys advantages in overall reinforcement and supply card rates.  For the Axis, momentum is everything; once this is lost and the situation begins to become static (and it will eventually), it's difficult to regain.  Ideally for Rommel, that momentum is lost on the last turn of the game and the Axis has what is needed to win.  Typically, however, it's lost before then and the British have a chance to launch an offensive to reverse the situation.

1941-42 Campaign Scenario Edit

This campaign gets a lot of attention in the game as it is what most players want to experience.  All the other scenarios typically are "workups" to this.  It begins with Rommel's arrival and ends at the historical termination of El Alamein after the Eighth Army counteroffensive and the Allies mounted OPERATION TORCH (not portrayed in the game).  


For the Axis, it's a delicate balance of keeping up momentum, credible forces, taking needed territory, and ensuring enough supply to keep the British reacting.  Typically one of these (at least) starts of become lacking!  Deception/bluffing is essential in forcing the Commonwealth to spread itself too thin or leave something open.  For the British, it's maintaining player morale to take defeat after defeat on the chin, yet slowly shaping conditions so that the Axis runs out of steam at crucial points in the game (e.g., outside of Tobruk and Alexandria!)  Deception is necessary to create traps for Rommel to step into--he might be able to get out of them, but at great cost in forces, time, and supply--and quite possibly even in territory!

CRUSADER Scenario Edit

Good learning scenario which pits the strength of the British against the strength of the Axis beseiging Tobruk.  Very short game--only 3 turns.  Both sides have lots of supply cards at start, so expect a lot of battles.  


Sequencing and pacing is everything for both players.  The Axis must be careful to husband some strength to counter Allied reinforces in the endgame--they get none.  They also get one less supply card per turn than the British.  For the British, it's all about inflicting maximum damage on the Axis in the shortest possible time so that there's little left to counter the reinforcements at the end of the scenario.  Historically, Rommel won this battle tactically but lost operationally as he had to retreat back to El Agheila and give up his seige of Tobruk!

BATTLEAXE Scenario Edit

Begins in the summer of 1941 and covers both OPERATION BATTLEAXE and OPERATION CRUSADER, two historically unsuccessful British attempts to lift the Axis siege of Torbuk.  


Wonderfully asymmetric contest in that the British have a clear superiority in the number of units and supply cards, but the Axis have very powerful German armored units that tend to dominate the situation as long as they are kept at high strength.  The British want an attritional contest; the Axis a maneuver one.  

1942 Scenario Edit

After rebuilding his force in the wake of OPERATION CRUSADER in the winter of 1941, Rommel emerges in 1942 out of El Agheila even more powerful than he did in 1941.  The scenario runs from his attack in February to the termination of El Alamein ten turns/months later.  Historically, Rommel captures Tobruk after the Gazala battles, only to crest and recede at El Alamein/Ruweisat Ridge.  


This is perhaps Rommel's best chance at winning, but it's still a long, hard row to hoe.  The balance of supply is the same for both players in this scenario--it's never this good for the Axis--but the British enjoy far more reinforcements.  Once again, the Axis must mount a series of simultaneous and multiple threats, coupling real ones with fake ones using deception/bluff, to keep the British continuously off balance.  Rommel will need a huge superiority of force by the time he reaches the Qattara Depression bottleneck where there is no maneuver room. He'll have very little time to smash through before the Commonwealth can equalize/stabilze the situation.  For the British, personal/player morale is everything to hang in there and mentally condition the German player to particular expectations/styles, even using tactical defeats towards this end.  Then, an unexpected switch can be lauched at the moment of greatest risk for the Axis to throw his rhythm off.  Very challenging for both sides.

GAZALA Scenario Edit

This is the shortest scenario in the game and the best to start with when learning.  Covers the series of tactical actions which eventually led to Rommel's capture of Tobruk, but was historically a very near-run thing.    


This scenario is an all-out brawl--neither side gets reinforcements and the supply situation only favors the Allies by a whisker.  The Axis starts with a numerical advantage but once the Alexandria reinforcements move up for the Turn 2 battles, either enough momentum has been gained to deal with them or Rommel will need a miracle to win. Historically, Rommel was trapped behding British lines but was able, with the help of British indecision, pull a rabbit out of the hat to win.  For the British, how the first turn plays out will greatly determine chance of success in the scond turn.  There' no margin for error for either side--the demand for precise play even given the high degree of uncertainty in the situation is why this situation makes for a marvelous tutorial you'll want to play again and again.


The scenario begins with Rommel--fresh from his near-run miracle in taking Tobruk in the Gazala battles, to scramble as fast as he can towards Alexandria to take it before the British can solidify a defense.  The scenario ends in November 1942 when the Allies land in his strategic rear (not shown) in OPERATION TORCH.  


For the Germans, this is an exercise in expedients--most of the force is understrength as result of Gazala--but the strongest possible effort must be made to take advantage of that victory and push through to Alexandria.  The British are understrength too, but they get twice the reinforcements that the Axis do.  The balance of supply is dead even so the Germans must "make hay while the sun still shines."  The Commonwealth have to use the short time they've got to to shape conditions for eventual defensive success at the Qattara Depression bottleneck, imposing a favorable war of attrition there at the right time that only they can win.

Evaluation as Warfighting ModelEdit

Fog of War: High.  The blocks allow players to stand their pieces on end, hidden from their opponent until engaged in battle.  Losses are shown by rotating the blocks so current strength numbers are shown on the top edge (this is also hidden from the opponent until combat).

Friction: Low.  You have a great deal of control over your own situation in moving units and conducting battles.  Friction is comparable to most's usually represented by the luck factor in battles.  This game also provides some friction in varying supply support, but that's it.

Fluidity: Moderate.  Players can't typically move everything they want to during a turn, and must prioritize their effort through their use of supply cards.  The sequence and types of moves are an essential part of the game, and cost various numbers of supply cards.

Combat Power:

Physical: Moderate.  Given the operational-level scale of the game, the force characterizations are sufficiently diverse enough to differentiate units in a roughly accurate way, despite the unusual combat system typical for block games of this type.
Mental: Low.  No explicit treatment of superiority in this regard; this is typical of most wargames in that the player provides this.
MoralLow.  No real definition of moral will and/or morale in the game.  The player’s morale is all that matters, particularly when coping with adversity and the fog of war.

Disorder: Low.  Despite the fog of war, the game feels as well organized as chess.

Complexity: Moderate.  The game is easy to learn, but hard to master.  The shifting availability of supply and the fog of war make it much harder, but it is still within reach of the average player.

Where to get itEdit

Columbia Games (manufacturer)
Noble Knight Games (discount game distributor)
The Gamers' Armory (game store with email order service)
VASSAL (online wargame engine)

Related booksEdit

Rommel’s North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942 by Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani
The Crucible of War: Wavell’s Command - The Definitive History of the Desert War, Vol 1 by Barrie Pitt
Desert War: The North African Campaign, 1940-1943 by Alan Moorehead

Related linksEdit

Consimworld Forum Boardgame Discussion Page Entry .
Rommel in the Desert at Boardgamegeeks