SPI, ACROSS SUEZ (1980)

Not every game — no matter who creates it — is a ground-breaking new design; and hence, not every game is really all that interesting to review. The following profile of ACROSS SUEZ is a good example: it has been languishing for quite some time in my documents folder; but, whether because of disinterest or inertia, I just never got around to finishing and publishing it before now. That being said, I invite my readers to look upon the following essay as a “palette cleanser”; that is: a short piece that is somewhat similar to the small serving of sherbet which provides diners with a refreshing pause before the next major course of their meal.

ACROSS SUEZ: The Battle of Chinese Farm, October 15, 1973 is an operational simulation of the Battle of Chinese Farm during the ’73 Arab-Israeli War. The game was coauthored by Mark Herman and James F. Dunnigan. ACROSS SUEZ was published by Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) in 1980.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND


Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir
The sudden large-scale attack by Syrian forces on the thinly-held Golan Heights, in concert with the totally unforeseen, but crushing Egyptian breakthrough of the Bar-Lev Line on the east bank of the Suez Canal rocked the political and military leadership of Israel as few events had ever done before. For the first few days after the initial Arab attacks, the Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, actually feared for the survival of the Jewish State. However, it did not take long for the Israeli military to mount a counterattack.

On 8 October 1973, General Schmuel Gonen, Commander of the Israeli Southern Front, ordered a full-scale armored attack against the newly-prepared Egyptian Sinai defenses east of the Suez Canal. His goal was to smash into the advanced Egyptian positions, break through and then push his armor into the Egyptian rear to rescue any surviving Israeli soldiers still holding out in parts of the Bar-Lev Line. Unlike previous engagements, however, the Egyptian soldiers held their ground and decimated the attacking Israeli armor with long-range Sagger missiles. Gonen, shaken and confused by the unexpected failure of his attack, lapsed into a mental fugue, unable to decide what to do next. Clearly, the resilience and defensive skill of the Egyptian Army had been a complete surprise to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) High Command, but something still had to be done about Sadat’s army on the east bank of the Suez Canal. A static IDF defense was not the answer; the Israeli tanks tied up against Egypt were desperately needed on the Golan Heights, where the Syrians continued to press their attack against the out-numbered Israeli defenders.

Generals Sharon and Bar-Lev, 1973 Yom Kippur War.
On 10 October, Gonen was quietly replaced by General Chaim Bar-Lev, and by 11 October, Bar-Lev and two of his senior commanders, Major Generals Ariel Sharon and Avraham “Bren” Adan, had concocted a new plan to encircle the Egyptian Third Army and reverse the military situation on the east bank of the Canal. Their plan was based on freshly-obtained American reconnaissance photos that revealed a gap between the Egyptian Second and Third Armies. The new Israeli plan was code-named “Operation Stouthearted Men,” and it would begin with Sharon’s division driving through the gap in the Egyptian line, while Adan’s division attacked the exposed flanks of the Second and Third Egyptian Armies. If Sharon’s unit was able to successfully pass through the enemy lines, it would then advance on Deversoir, destroy any Egyptian units it encountered there, and then quickly seize a bridgehead on both sides of the Suez Canal. If Sharon was successful in the first part of his mission, a mobile bridging-train would then be rushed to the newly-captured bridgeheads, and once the portable bridge was emplaced, Israeli forces would cross the Canal and cut off the Third Army from food, ammunition, and most importantly, from water. The jump-off date for “Operation Stouthearted Men” was fixed for 15 October, 1973.

DESCRIPTION

ACROSS SUEZ: The Battle of Chinese Farm, October 15, 1973 is an operational-level simulation of “The Battle of Chinese Farm”: the mobile action between Egyptian and Israeli forces that swirled around a Japanese agricultural research station (misnamed the “Chinese farm”) that lay astride a key Sinai approach to the Suez Canal. The Israeli victory in this action turned the tide of the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. One player controls the Israeli forces and the other those of Egypt. The Israeli objective is, as it was historically, to slip a mechanized corps and bridging train through a gap between the Second and Third Egyptian Armies, cross the Suez Canal near the northern tip of the Great Bitter Lake, and then cut off and destroy the Third Army before it can escape the Israeli trap.

The small, three-color, hexagonal-grid ACROSS SUEZ game map depicts the area in the Sinai over which the major events of the battle occurred. To speed set-up time, the map locations of all starting units are predetermined. There are eleven different types of terrain represented on the map: clear, sand, ridge, elevated sand, the “Chinese Farm”, Bar-Lev forts, canal, lake, swamp, road, and trail. For the most part, clear, sand, ridge, road, and trail hexes will exert the most important influence on movement; the “Chinese Farm”, Bar-Lev, ridges, and elevated sand hexes will typically be the most critical terrain (by adding column shifts) when it comes to combat resolution. The counters in ACROSS SUEZ represent the combat units — typically armored and mechanized infantry battalions — that actually participated in the historical battle. Both the Egyptian and Israeli forces have access to off-map artillery.

ACROSS SUEZ is played in standardized game turns which are further divided into two symmetrical “Igo-Ugo” player turns. The first player is always the Israeli, and the player turn sequence is as follows: the Israeli Movement Phase followed by the Israeli Combat Phase; the Egyptian commander then repeats exactly the same game operations. After both players have completed their individual player turns, the turn marker is advanced one space, and a new game turn begins. This turn sequence is repeated until the game ends. Each game turn represents approximately eight hours of real time. Stacking is not permitted. Zones of control (ZOCs) are “rigid” but not “sticky”. This means that all units must stop immediately upon entering an enemy ZOC, but may exit an enemy ZOC at the beginning of their movement phase, without any penalty, so long as they do not move directly from one enemy ZOC to another.

Combat in ACROSS SUEZ can take one of two forms: regular adjacent combat and artillery bombardment. As might be expected in an “introductory” game, the combat system is simple and follows a traditional die-roll and Combat Results Table (CRT) based resolution system. Interestingly, instead of the more common “odds-differential” CRT, however, the Combat Results Table in ACROSS SUEZ uses a “strength- differential” WORLD WAR II type system — that is: attacker’s combat strength minus defender’s strength — to resolve the outcomes of battles.

To increase replay value and to also add a bit of historical color, the designer of ACROSS SUEZ has included a small number of special rules. These rules, among other things, reward “combined-arms” attacks — with advantageous column shifts — when performed by either player; in addition, any Israeli ground attacks that are supported by artillery receive an added column shift, while Egyptian artillery may bombard Israeli units independently. There are also important (read: severe) restrictions on the single, critically-important Israeli “bridging” unit.

The burden of attack in ACROSS SUEZ, as it was historically, is squarely on the Israeli player; thus, he or she must accomplish a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. To win, the Israeli player must position his bridging unit on a specific hex on the Suez Canal, get at least six combat units across the Suez, and maintain an unblocked line of communications to the bridging unit at the end of the last turn. An Israeli failure to satisfy any of these requirements results in an Egyptian victory. Play balance, not surprisingly, tends to tilt in favor of the IDF; however, a few lucky Egyptian die-rolls in the early going can tip the scales fairly dramatically in favor of Sadat's forces. A complete game is seven turns long.

A PERSONAL OBSERVATION

Israeli mobile bridging train.
The fact that ACROSS SUEZ ended up being brought to market at all is, considering both its timing and its design credits, something of a mystery. This is not to say that it is not a reasonably good game, because it is; but, in view of the fact that SPI had already published — as part of its 1975 MODERN BATTLES Quadri-game — Howard Barasch’s excellent folio treatment of the Battle of Chinese Farm, it is difficult to see exactly what market niche James Dunnigan thought another, albeit smaller game on the same topic would fill. Granted, ACROSS SUEZ is a less-textured (no on-board artillery or SAM units) and much shorter game than Barasch’s CHINESE FARM, but these differences do not necessarily redound to the newer game’s benefit. Moreover, the fact that Dunnigan tossed this project to Mark Herman is also a bit odd. Herman had only recently finished designing his highly-detailed (some would say “excruciatingly so) tactical armor opus, MECHWAR 2; so to see his name in the ACROSS SUEZ design credits was (for me, at least) much like discovering that, immediately after writing “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, Julia Child had turned around and, under a pseudonym, cranked out the “Pritikin Permanent Weight Loss Manual”!

In any case, this title was only one of a number of “small” boxed games that SPI offered many years ago. These titles were ostensibly designed to be easy to learn, fast-paced, and yet simple to play. In short, ACROSS SUEZ, LENINGRAD, AUSTERLITZ, and THE BIG RED ONE (formerly BULGE), were all published by SPI specifically to serve as “gateway” games for those who were completely new to the hobby of wargaming; a role that, for the most part, they fulfilled moderately well. These small games were also intended to be cheap! In this department, at least, SPI succeeded admirably; they were inexpensive enough, in fact, that even I bought a number of them as gifts for those of my friends who were imprudent enough to indicate even the slightest interest in my hobby. As I recall, the best-received titles were LENINGRAD, THE BIG RED ONE, and, of course, ACROSS SUEZ; for some reason, however, AUSTERLITZ never seemed to elicit nearly as much enthusiasm as the other three titles. I can only assume that for novice players, both the October War and World War II were simply more interesting than a Napoleonic battle that took place more than two hundred years ago.

Interestingly, when it came to trying to tap the “introductory” game market, SPI was not the only publisher to make an effort in this direction. Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) also attempted something along the same lines with their Series 120 Games; unfortunately, GDW being GDW, only a few of the Series 120 titles were truly suitable for beginners. Two of their World War II titles, 1940 and 1941, fit into this category rather nicely. Unfortunately, GDW tended to have a lot more misses than hits when it came to their “gateway” games: AGINCOURT, for example, was both too simple and too colorless; and 1942, although limited in its scope as an air-land-sea game, was a bit too complicated. In fact, if the truth be told, quite a few of the Series 120 games, although cleverly-done, were something of a chore to master even for experienced players: ALMA and BEDA FOMM, for example, come immediately to mind when I think of comparatively sophisticated “introductory” games that were really more suitable for seasoned players than for novices.

Israeli bridging train in place on the Suez Canal.
Finally returning again to the subject of this profile, ACROSS SUEZ, I confess that I have mixed feelings when it comes to my own view of this little game. On the one hand, it is most certainly a reasonably good “gateway” game; unfortunately, the same characteristics that tend to make it an appropriate “introductory” game also severely limit its appeal to more experienced players. In one sense, I understand what Dunnigan and Herman were attempting to accomplish with this design; my problem is that, even when it comes to simple treatments of this pivotal action in the Yom Kippur War, I personally think the Howard Barasch’s CHINESE FARM, while simple enough to serve as an “introductory” game, is both deep enough and challenging enough to appeal to the experienced gamer. This is something that — in my opinion, at least — ACROSS SUEZ largely fails to do.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 8 hours per game turn (two daylight turns followed by one night game turn)
  • Map Scale: unstated
  • Unit Size: battalion
  • Unit Types: armor, mechanized infantry, armored cavalry, infantry, and bridging train
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: below average (introductory)
  • Solitaire Suitability: above average
  • Average Playing Time: 1.5 - 2 hours

Game Components:

  • One 11” x 17” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Track, Combat Results Table, Terrain Key, and Terrain Effects Chart incorporated)
  • 100 ½” cardboard Counters (over 50% blanks)
  • One 8½” x 11” Rules Booklet
  • One small six-sided Die
  • One 7½” x 8½” SPI Mail Order Envelope
  • One 9” x 12” x 1” cardboard Game Box

Related Blog Posts

SPI, MODERN BATTLES: Four Contemporary Conflicts (1975)
SPI, SINAI (1973)

Recommended Reading

For more information on the Yom Kippur War, see Simon Dunstan's book.

6 comments:

  • Kim Meints said...

    Got to agree with you. Across Suez was a nice game but it sort of got lost in the shuffle I felt back then.You could either play the better Chinese Farm from Mod Quad I or the more detailed Bar Lev from GDW/Conflict.

    But DG must have thought it worthy to reprint it and I even had it on the table couple of weeks ago.Been awhile and it was nice coming back to it again.

  • Greetings Kim:

    Yes, given my druthers, I would still virtually always pick 'CHINESE FARM' or 'BAR-LEV' over 'ACROSS SUEZ'. On the other hand, a friend of mine, Russ Gifford, makes the point that the smaller game is probably a better introductory game than the other two because of its low piece density and its limited number of game turns. In that sense, I suppose that he probably has a legitimate argument.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Nice write up!. One of the few SPI games I don't have...might have to look up a copy....

  • Greetings Anon:

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Yes, although this little game is thin on operational detail, it does have the virtue of being quick to play. It also tends to be a bit more "luck-dependent" than its counterparts: a characteristic that can tend to even things up between unequal opponents.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Don't over look a VERY important factor as an intro game - it was FAST. This game is the Tic Tac - Toe of wargaming. Even inexperienced players could knock this off in an hour or so, and then play it again switching sides.

    Time vs. wargaming is something we experienced players don't think about - a reason we play is to be 'in' that place in our head that games take us. To a new player, it is a huge hurdle to overcome.

    To your review, I will add: The game could be exciting, and I was more successful getting would be gamers to play it than any other game. They seemed to enjoy the limited chrome the game offered: combined arms shifts, the abstracted artillery shifts, night turns which dropped movement rates and curtailed arty, and the 'bonus' for successfully crossing the canal.

    I think the draw of the game was it really was more like Tic Tac Toe - it was a puzzle to be solved. The limits of movement in sand meant the road network was all-important, and the fact that the Egyptian player moved last seemed to be an easy win for Sadat's forces - if the IDF player did not destroy the Egyptian force which, well, they could do.

    It was a lot of game in a little box - I wish it were more balanced....

    I enjoyed the history review at the start - SPI should have added it to the game. (Of course, these are the famous $9.95 boxed games that the box without the game cost more than their profit margin with retailers.)

    Again, thanks for the GREAT review.

  • Greetings Russ:

    Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts.

    Yes, in terms of playability, there is no doubt that ACROSS SUEZ is much more "beginner-friendly" than CHINESE FARM, BAR-LEV, SINAI, or any of the many (in some cases, very good) tactical treatments of the Arab-Israeli Wars. And I admit that shortness, in this case, is a real virtue: the abbreviated playing time (and the potentially wild swings in bombardment luck) make this title an excellent "gateway" game for beginners. In this sense, I suppose that it fills a niche somewhat analagous to SPI's wonderful introductory game NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO.

    Thanks again for visiting and
    Best Regards, Joe

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