The Wretched Excess of ‘The Campaign for North Africa’
The mother of all wargames is impossible to play
It’s hard to exaggerate The Campaign for North Africa‘s reputation for being complicated. It might be the most intimidating tabletop game ever put to print, and it is without question the most demanding of all old-school wargames.
We can only barely describe its scale. But for starters, here’s a comparison. A typical game of Monopoly takes between 60 and 90 minutes. Axis & Allies goes for about three hours. The monstrous 1979 wargame The Longest Day can take 100 hours.
The Campaign for North Africa takes 50 days … without breaks. And you need 10 players. If you and nine friends play it as a full-time job for eight hours per day for five days a week, you’re looking at 30 weeks.
If you dare to even try, it’s worth waiting until retirement.
Published by the now defunct firm SPI, The Campaign for North Africa is a legend in the wargame community and depicts the entire North African theater during World War II. But it’s better fit as a collector’s item, to occasionally gawk at, than a practical hobby.
In a genre known for an obsession with realism and detailed rules, it has no peers.
The 1979 game has more than 1,800 cardboard counters. The map stretches for 10 feet, and the rules take into account individual aircraft and pilots for a major military campaign which lasted three years. A single turn, which depicts a week in the war, can take eight hours. It requires players dedicated solely to rear-area logistics, intelligence, air power, frontline combat and upper-level command — for both the Allies and the Axis.
It is the Moby-Dick of games, and we’re not talking about the book, but the whale which dooms those who attempt to conquer it. There are very few photos of the game in the public domain, but take a look.
Above — SPI box art. At top — Erwin Rommel in Libya, 1941. Photo via the National Archives and Records Administration
Think of it as less of a strict game and more as a military simulation, akin to the tabletop exercises performed by research organizations and actual armies. In fact, playing hexagonal-grid wargames is one way the Pentagon prepares for the wars it might have to fight in the future.
But The Campaign for North Africa pushes it. As a hobby, it would likely be the only pastime you’d have for several years. It could feasibly take longer to play than the actual war. It might be less demanding to research and build a time machine to take you back to 1940-1943 than to play this game.
The rules come in a big, thick book, so we can only point to some of the more outrageous ones. (A fairly comprehensive review can be found here.) For example, if you’re playing the Axis, the game requires you to track the water your Italian troops need to cook their pasta.
I’m not shitting you.
One of the biggest mistakes the Italians made during the entire Desert Campaign was to provide their troops with a diet which was composed, in large part, of spaghetti and macaroni. Aside from providing insufficient protein (this wasn’t Buitoni Brand) pasta has one serious drawback in the desert: you need water to cook it! Therefore, each Italian battalion,when it receives its Stores, must receive an additional 1 point of water when stores are distributed. Any battalion-sized unit that does not receive their Pasta Point (one water point) may not voluntarily exceed their CPA that turn. Furthermore, Italian battalions not receiving their Pasta Point that have a Cohesion Level of -10 or worse immediately become Disorganized, as if they had reached -26. As soon as such units get their Pasta Point,they regain the original cohesion level(i.e., the level they had before they disintegrated.)
Which raises the question of whether the game is entirely serious. It’s probably better to call it a grand artistic statement and a testbed for wargaming mechanics. Richard Berg, the lead designer, once called it “wretched excess … but it was designed specifically as such.”
But there are two things to understand about The Campaign for North Africa. First, it’s a product of its era, and was the culmination of increasing complexity typical of ’70s-era games.
The 1970s are widely considered the heyday of tabletop wargames. The personal computer revolution was still in its infancy, and wargames with similar detail — but with most of the number-crunching done by machine — were many years away.
We also can’t understand The Campaign for North Africa without knowing a few things about its publisher, SPI, which grew rapidly to dominate the wargaming industry during the decade.
The firm became a relative giant by combining niche wargaming with a magazine that featured upcoming titles, articles on military history and questionnaires about games consumers wanted to play. The magazine built brand loyalty, and when readers sent in their questionnaires, SPI tabulated the results.
This was wargaming mixed with innovative consumer market analysis, according to a history of the company by designer Greg Costikyan.
SPI did to wargaming what pulp magazines did for science fiction, Costikyan argued. The company popularized it. “Wargaming, everyone seemed to believe, had achieved a permanent presence in American life, if a tiny one by comparison to fields like film or publishing,” he wrote in a 1996 article.
And as the hobby grew, the games grew more complex. And this was fine, as the games were popular as a niche for an audience that liked detailed, realistic war sims.
But The Campaign for North Africa came out at an unfortunate time for SPI. Having expanded for most of the decade, the firm was well into decline when it released the game in 1979.
As Costikyan detailed, a series of poor management decisions, flattening revenues and rising inflation took its toll on the company’s finances. The recession of 1981 brought it down completely. By 1983, SPI was defunct.
It would be easy to call Campaign an act of hubris. But it was not the only monster game in the firm’s catalog, just the biggest, and other companies with huge games had entered the industry by that point.
Avalon Hill’s The Longest Day also came out in 1979. The Australian Design Group’s World In Flames, which takes about 100 hours to play, came out in 1985 — well after SPI’s collapse. And the preponderance of evidence suggests that deeper, fundamental problems doomed the company, not the size and scale of one particular game.
And The Campaign for North Africa carries on. California-based Decision Games is working on a slimmed-down re-release. For one, instead of tracking individual pilots, the players will have squadrons. And the original is still available on auction sites although it fetches a high price.
Simplifying the rules makes sense. The main reason being that if you’re looking for realism, tracking the water Italian troops use to boil their pasta is a bad way to go. As Costikyan noted, “Rommel’s staff might worry about such things, but Rommel assuredly did not.” Armies delegate, and the original game doesn’t allow for enough of it.
Still, it’s tempting in a Captain Ahab kind of way. Though I’ll wait until I retire. And then I’ll think about it … against my better judgment.