Alternative Titles/Edition History:
First Edition (Afrika Korps-El Alamein, aka AK001) 2010; Second Edition (The Fox Strikes Back Core Pack, aka The Fox Strikes Back - El Alamein Core Pack), 2014
Critical Hit (2010)
Country of Origin:
First Edition: 10 scenarios, 1 22" x 34" map, 47 overlays, 4 pages rules (in 8-page booklet), 312 die-cut counters (two identical sets of 156 counters)
Second Edition (The Fox Strikes Back): 10 scenarios 4 identical copies of 1 8" x 22" heavy paper/light cardstock geoboard (unnamed), 156 die-cut counters, overlay set (essentially same as original)Commentary:
After an abortive earlier attempt to create its own squad-level tactical gaming system dubbed Combat!, Critical Hit tried again in the early 2000s with a revised version of Combat! (itself borrowing significantly from ASL) combined with token concepts from the 1975 game Tobruk (to which Critical Hit had apparently acquired the rights before designer Hal Hock’s death in 1999). The result was the Advanced Tobruk System, carefully designed to have maps and overlays compatible with ASL so that both ATS and ASL-compatible versions of each new product could be released. Consequently, the majority of ATS releases eventually were ported over to ASL at some point.
For some reason, though, the conversion process was never applied to the original ATS scenarios themselves, or to the early ATS expansion packs set in North Africa. In 2010, Critical Hit decided to go back to the well and convert those early ATS products to ASL. The initial result is a series consisting of a de facto “core” product (this one, AK-EL) and five additional scenario packs (which contain nothing but additional scenarios). It is not clear why Critical Hit decided to divide this project up into a half-dozen different projects, instead of combining them into one or two products. Perhaps a financial calculation was involved, with the idea being that more units might be sold if composed of separate, cheaply priced packs rather than one or two more expensive products, or proportionately more profit per unit could be realized. On the other hand, the release of six products at once (in nearly identical packaging) is fairly confusing, and it can be easy for potential purchasers to miss one or more of the products; it is also likely that on-line or real world retailers might not have all six in stock. So Critical Hit may have been too clever for itself in this regard. In any case, getting the whole kit and caboodle will currently set someone back $130, so this will be an expensive endeavor for gamers no matter how one slices it (in late August, Critical Hit suddenly announced another half-dozen AK packs would be imminently released, so one can essentially double the comments mentioned here).
[2011 Update: Quick on the heels of these six packs came a second set of packs arranged the same way: a “core” module and five scenario packs. See Afrika Korps-Battle of Gazala and associated packs for more details on the second half-dozen packs.]
The timing of the product’s release is a bit off, as required ASL component West of Alamein has long been out of print, and its replacement has not yet been released. Thus many newer ASL players will not have all of the requisite components. This will presumably improve over time.
ATS’s approach to the North African desert, now brought to ASL, was to abandon the desert-themed geomorphic mapboards introduced in West of Alamein and Hollow Legions and instead use a large 22″ x 34″ generic desert mapboard, which could be modified as needed through the use of overlays. This was probably a wise decision, as the expansive nature of desert warfare means that most ASL desert scenarios used most of the desert geo-boards anyway, so there was not that much of a reason to have individual but nearly identical geomorphic mapboards. The larger mapboard in this instance is actually more rather than less convenient.
The four dozen overlays represent a wide variety of desert terrain, though the features are all limited in size (though the map is 22″ x 34″, no overlay is larger than around 7″ x 10″ and most are considerably smaller. As a result, there are no options for a ridge or gully that can span the map, for example. Overlays include hillocks, railroads, wadis, villages, sand, deirs, scrub, crag, palm trees, buildings and forts, sand dunes, tracks, camps and dumps, anti-tank ditches, hills, and wire/minefields. Purchasers should carefully check their overlays to make sure they are all correctly cut, as on some copies, some overlay cards are mis-cut.
An eight-page booklet is included with the product, of which four pages are rules, primarily to describe the overlays and their placement. About a page of rules is dedicated to handling the old forts that appear in some scenarios.
A small number of die-cut counters appear in the module as well. In and of themselves, they are not very interesting. A new Italian squad type is introduced, a 4-4-8/2-4-8 elite squad/half-squad designed to represent the Folgore parachutists who fought at El Alamein. A small number of German squads (4-6-8, 4-6-7, and 4-4-7) are included that are intended to represent Afrika Korps troops; they are identical to regular German troops except that the 4-4-7 squads have underlined morale to indicate that they do not ELR further. The other counters are 5/8″ counters representing a variety of standard German vehicles and guns, and British vehicles and guns (though they are more yellow in color than ASL-standard British khaki).
It is worth nothing that, while recent ASL-compatible modules with counters released by Critical Hit included enough counters (aside from info markers) to play any of the scenarios included, this is NOT the case here, and official counters will still be required to provide units needed for the scenarios.
The most noteworthy aspect of the counters is not in what is included but rather in how they are depicted. At long last, Critical Hit abandoned its dysfunctional, difficult-to-understand system of gun/vehicular counter layout. Years of customer complaints, along with sideways glances towards the far more attractive counters produced by rivals Heat of Battle and Bounding Fire Productions, apparently gave Critical Hit enough of a nudge to finally introduce readable counters. “The choice to go with [these] counters,” suggests the El Alamein rules booklet, “follows the long-standing precedent now extant with HoB and BFP counters, and communicated as a preference by gamers.” This goes a long way towards making Critical Hit counters actually usable, as many ASLers did not even bother using CH’s 5/8″ counters in their old layout and presentation style.
Critical Hit, however, has a way to go to be able to match a company like MMP or even a third party publisher like BFP in terms of counter quality. Critical Hit still seems to use some poor counter dies (or employs a sloppy die-cutter; in any case, the nibs are strangely placed), and the registration of its die-cutting in El Alamein is visibly off from its guide marks, with the result that many of the counters have art that is not squarely centered and may even have values cut off.
There are 10 scenarios in AK-EL; not surprisingly, Desert Rules are in effect for all of them. Every scenario uses the included “Tobruk” map. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that these are conversions of ATS scenarios, the scenarios in AK-EL tend towards the small. Half of the AK-EL scenaros fall in the small scenario range, with the other half being medium or large. One scenario uses OBA, two scenarios use Air Support, and three scenarios use Night Rules. A number of the scenarios have extensive overlay placement.
Half of the scenarios feature straight British/Commonwealth vs. German action. The other half feature British/Commonwealth vs. Italians, or vs. Germans and Italians together. A couple of the scenarios don’t look like any fun at all. AK#1 (Charge to Aqqaqir Ridge), while featuring an admirable number of Q’s in the title, depicts a “charge of the light brigade” situation with 17 British Grant and Sherman tanks being picked off by a shooting gallery of 9 AT guns and 88mm AA guns, as well as 2 AFVs. To win, the British have to exit only a single vehicle. Even less enchanting is AK#10 (Todt), which features 6 British fighter-bombers (only) vs. a small convoy of light-skinned German vehicles. There has never been a fun scenario featuring an airplane only OB for a side, and this is unlikely to break the mold.
AK#2 (The Mark of the Lion) and AK#4 (January Breached) look only slightly more fun. Both are tiny scenarios featuring six squads or less per side, victory conditions that involve getting into or getting enemy units out of a wadi, and use Night Rules. They hardly seem worth brushing up on the Night Rules and Desert Rules for.
On a more positive note, AK#6 (Fraser’s Black Line Dash) depicts a small British vs. German infantry action with an interesting SSRs (British units must pass a TC to enter the map). It could be a nice, quick scenario, if the German 81mm mortars (two of them) don’t get too lucky. AK#7 (Kidney Punch) features an interesting combined arms action with British, Italians, and Germans all represented, including everything from a British Hurricane buzzing around the battlefield, Italian flame-throwing tanks, and a variety of AFVs and support weapons. With a variety of ways to amass VP, players are unlikely to know who is winning through most of the scenario. AK#9 (Hunters of Afrika) pits elite British troops against elite Italian parachutists in a 3 1/2 turn scenario that will start with fast and furious action due to an unusual sequential scenario set-up mechanism that will end up with both sides almost on top of each other.
It should be noted that, as of a month or two after the release of the 6 AK products, there has been a fair amount of errata for them. As of mid-August 2010, as far as AK-EL is concerned, AK#2, AK#6, and AK#8 have all had their original scenario cards replaced with a 1.1 version. Presumably the earliest released copies had the original version; players whose copy of AK-EL do not have version 1.1 cards for these scenarios should contact Critical Hit. Players should probably attempt to find errata prior to playing any scenario here.
The Afrika Korps project is, overall, a welcome return to the desert for ASL. It is not the most popular theater for players, and so has seriously been neglected by designers (the fact that ASL desert rules, boards and counters have been out of print for many years has definitely not helped). AK may convince some ASL veterans to break out their Chapter F and give it another go. Certainly the addition of a large map is convenient, as are the addition of many new overlays. The new CH AFV counter art is also welcome (though CH still has a way to go to improve on its counter quality). Less welcome is the division of the AK project into so many different separate products, which is not particularly consumer friendly. As far as AK-EL is concerned, the scenarios included are not as nice a mix as they could be (there was just no reason to include AK#10, for example), and one hopes that they have been adequately playtested (the early errata does make one a bit nervous).
One additional point is perhaps worth making. The release of so many scenarios at once, followed almost immediately by a second, equally large batch of scenarios (Critical Hit announced in late August 2010 the imminent release of another 6 packs of ATS-to-ASL desert conversions) raises questions as to whether all (or even most) of the converted scenarios received adequate playtesting and development, especially because CH’s main team of playtesters and developers were not involved in the project.
2012 Update: In late 2012, Critical Hit released Bir El Gubi, a Platoon Leader Campaign Game designed to be used in conjunction with either this product or Afrika Korps-Battle of Gazala. It contains a version 1.1 of the Afrika Korps rules, suggesting that subsequent changes may have been made to the rulebook included in this product.
2nd Edition (i.e., The Fox Strikes Back Core Pack) Comments: As Critical Hit has adopted a conscious business model of routinely giving old products facelifts and new names, it was inevitable perhaps that this would happen to its Afrika Korps series as well. This happened in 2014 with the release of The Fox Strikes Back Core Pack (and two accompanying scenario packs that duplicate two of the Afrika Korps packs), which is essentially a very hasty, rather inferior re-do of Afrika Korps-El Alamein. It came out at the same time as Desert War: 1941, which was an attempt by Critical Hit to hit the restart button on all its desert stuff, primarily by throwing away the large maps of the Afrika Korps series and returning to Critical Hit-produced desert geoboards. Consequently, The Fox Strikes Back is essentially the scenarios of Afrika Korps-El Alamein hastily rejiggered to be played on 8″ x 22″ desert geoboards rather than the original large desert map.
The scenarios are all marked 2.0 and ostensibly fix much of the errata that plagued the original release, but who knows whether new errata was introduced by moving them to this different map format. The Fox Strikes back comes with 4 identical copies of a single nameless desert geoboard and seems to reproduce all the original El Alamein overlays res-sized to fit the smaller hexes of the geoboards. The geoboards themselves have a mis-sized hexgrid that is 1/16″ too short on its 8″ side, which would cause mismatching against any properly sized geo-boards, but these boards are likely only ever to mate against each other. This edition has no rules (a few rules are squeezed onto the bottoms of scenario cards) and includes a single set of the original Afrika Korps counters (the 1st edition had two sets of these counters).
It is not clear that The Fox Strikes Back offers any improvement at all over Afrika Korps-El Alamein. In fact, the former is possibly more desirable because of the large map (although the scenarios do have errata that must be found). The Fox Strikes Back, at the rather substantial price of $60, is still cheaper, however (and in print).
2015 Update: In 2015, Critical Hit published Battle of El Alamein Monster, which in some ways is a new version of this product, though there are substantial–and odd–changes.