Perception, Reality, and Luck: the Low-Odds Ploy against Tobruch
IntroductionOne of the oldest and most persistent bits of gaming “folk wisdom” that has attached itself to AFRIKA KORPS, both as a game and as a historical simulation, is that the final outcome of the entire thirty-eight turn campaign can be, and usually is, decided by a single roll of the die. I am referring, of course, to the built-in possibility of a low-odds (either 1 to 1 or 1 to 2) Axis assault against Tobruch at any point after the first few months of the game. In the eyes of many of AFRIKA KORPS’ most vocal critics, this possibility is sufficient — in and of itself — to eliminate the game from consideration as a real test of skill and to label it, instead, as an ancient hobby relic that is little more than a desert variant of Yahtzee. This is also the main reason, these critics explain, why they personally no longer play AFRIKA KORPS; they don’t want to waste their time on a game the outcome of which can be reduced to a single lucky die-roll. This position, I think at least, represents a very curious point of view. For my own part, if I really believed that any game was completely luck dependent, I’d enter that game’s tournament in a heartbeat, and then simply try to die-roll my way to a tournament plaque! But I digress.
Perception versus RealityObviously, this prejudice against AFRIKA KORPS is fairly wide-spread among gamers or I wouldn’t be discussing it here; moreover, there is, to be fair, a kernel of truth contained in this criticism of one of Avalon Hill’s oldest games. AFRIKA KORPS contests — particularly, face-to-face tournament matches — are frequently decided by a big Axis 1 to 1 attack on Tobruch. So, if this is the case, this particular criticism of the game must be valid, right? Wrong. In reality, these low-odds AFRIKA KORPS tournament finales derive more from the peculiar nature and special pressures of convention play than they do from any feature intrinsic to the game; for this reason, these attacks will tend to show up far more frequently in tournament competition than in either regular face-to-face or PBeM play. And even in tournament situations, the likelihood of a game-ending 1 to 1 against Tobruch has more to do with the personalities and goals of both the Axis and the Commonwealth players, than it does with the game itself. In fact, in the vast majority of these cases, I would argue that both players — not just the Axis commander — have to be complicit in this low-odds Axis gamble for the attack to actually go forward. For this reason and others, after forty-plus years of pushing “baby blue” and “frou-frou pink” counters back and forth across the AFRIKA KORPS game map in both competitive and casual venues, I find myself disagreeing with almost all of the core assumptions that underpin this criticism of the game.
First, a little gaming history: AFRIKA KORPS is not the only one of Avalon Hill’s older games that has been dogged by this kind of off-hand, popular criticism. In fact, I wish that, over the years, I had put aside a dollar for every occasion on which I heard some other player declare that the Germans absolutely could not win in STALINGRAD, or the French in WATERLOO, or that the Americans had no chance in MIDWAY, etc. Ironically enough, during my early years in the hobby I tended to believe most of this silly claptrap. Why not? I had only been involved in the hobby for a few years, and I didn’t know any better. That all changed, however, when a retired Army officer in Florida beat my P.A.A. defenders like a “rented mule” in a PBM game of WATERLOO, thirty-five years ago. I was utterly crushed after my defeat, but in retrospect, that drubbing was the best thing that could have happened to me at the timebecause, from that moment on, I stopped treating other players’ pronouncements as facts, but started seeing them for what they really were: nothing more than personal opinions. And in gaming, like in every other area of life, some opinions have value, and some don’t. The most significant outcome of this early gaming epiphany was that I no longer took anything about wargames — even familiar wargames — for granted. More importantly, I ceased to venture a critical judgment on a title until I had first gained a clear understanding of the game system and then had logged many hours with that title, both in solitaire and in face-to-face play. To this day, I still tend to follow the same formula; which, in a roundabout way, brings this discussion back to AFRIKA KORPS and the subject of low-odds Axis attacks on Tobruch.
As I stated previously, I am deeply suspicious of the specific bit of AFRIKA KORPS “folk wisdom” that argues that the Axis option for a “winner take all” low-odds attack on Tobruch is a built-in and inescapable flaw in the game system. In short: I simply don’t buy it. But that being said, it is only fair for me to state the reasons supporting my skeptical viewpoint. And those reasons are several and varied.
To begin with, there is the issue of player motivation to consider. That is: why is it that people play wargames, in the first place? I cannot speak for everyone in the hobby, but for me and for most of the players with whom I have had a long association, the primary factor that motivates all of us is an interest in military history coupled with a keen love of competition. The game board and counters convey a sense of dynamism and spatial reality that history books and campaign maps simply cannot match. Just as importantly, we all enjoy the challenges posed by the strategic or tactical problems, however abstracted, contained in the typical conflict simulation. Also and not surprisingly, when we play these games, we all prefer to win. I could be wrong, but I assume that a sizeable percentage of other wargamers share these same characteristics. The inference that I draw from this is that most reasonable players, when they sit down to play a game, do not do so with the perverse intention of losing. If this is indeed the case, and I believe that it is, then an obvious question can be posed to those critics who raise the specter of the big Axis 1 to 1 in the early turns of AFRIKA KORPS. That question is: Why would any rational and competitive player, with the match just beginning, adopt a strategy that would immediately lose the game 50% of the time — a doubled exchange being almost as devastating as an A Elim for the Axis — for a 33% chance of damaging, but not destroying the British army in North Africa? A player would have a much better chance of success at a Roulette table. In fact, if a casino offered this range of odds, it would have to kidnap people at gunpoint in order to get customers through its doors. Thus, the short answer to this question is that a rational player would not.
The flow of AFRIKA KORPS play is such, however, that the players will quickly transition from the opening moves to the middle-game. Assuming that the typical Axis player is unlikely to risk throwing the game by trying an unnecessary 1 to 1 against Tobruch — at least in the early game turns — the next obvious question is: when then would such an attempt, based on an Axis player’s realistic appraisal of the game situation, become most likely? The obvious answer, of course, is when that player, rightly or wrongly, becomes convinced that he is behind in the match and in danger of losing. Usually, this change in the Axis player’s perception of the game occurs in one of two situations: either when — due to the arrival of substantial Commonwealth reinforcements (November 1941, for example) — the British achieve a marked superiority over the Axis in combat power; or, alternatively, as soon as the DAK launches an initial set of attacks against the Tobruch fortress and incurs heavy losses due to one or more doubled exchanges. In both of these situations, the likelihood of an Axis low-odds attempt to capture Tobruch increases exponentially. And it is, by the way, usually one of these two sets of circumstances that bring about the majority of low-odds attacks against Tobruch during convention play. Since being forewarned is being forearmed, what course of action should the British commander choose once either of these situations arises? This is not a trivial question: what the Commonwealth player decides to do at this point in the contest will inevitably spell the difference between a short game versus a long game, and more importantly, between a glorious Allied victory or an ignominious defeat.
Of course, the seductive, “short game” approach for the British commander is to stand fast in Tobruch, and to hope that his favorable three to two odds advantage actually pays off when his Axis opponent attacks. Tobruch, after all is a crucial position, both logistically and defensively; if you don’t believe it, the game’s Players’ Notes say so. It is also important psychologically to both players. This second, mental factor is often the Allied players’ biggest problem: they confuse the fortress’ psychological value with its strategic value; unfortunately, the two are not the same. Thus, the Commonwealth commanders’ decision to defend the fortress is fairly common, particularly for players embroiled in heavy tournament action. Often, Allied tournament players decide this way because of the perceived importance of Tobruch, because of the pressure of time limits on play and, even more importantly, because of the lure of other convention events. I know because I have succumbed to these various temptations myself. However, at the risk of speaking heresy, I am going to vehemently argue that the “stand fast” Allied option — at least for those British players who want to maximize their chances for victory — is virtually always the wrong choice. The logic underpinning my argument is simple: the only reason that a reasonable Axis player would be risking a low-odds attack on Tobruch in the first place is that he is behind in the game; therefore the most sensible long-term game strategy for his Allied opponent to pursue is to make sure that he stays behind! In a nutshell, this means that the Commonwealth player should use sea movement to evacuate his remaining heavy units from Tobruch, while leaving a single token 1-1-6 behind to force the DAK to attack the fortress and expend a precious supply. Stated another way: why give a demoralized and weakened adversary an opportunity to get back into the game if you don’t have to? Since most low-odds Axis attacks against Tobruch are preceded by obvious indicators, standing fast and accepting the battle makes the Allied player complicit in the attack, and, at least partially responsible for its outcome.