Critical Hit (2014)
Country of Origin:
6 8" x 22" unmounted (heavy paper) geoboards (duplicates of one generic desert geoboard), 3 8" x 22" unmounted, uncut geoboards (x9, x15, xE2), 9 sheets of overlays, 1 play aid, 6 pages rules, 12 scenarios, 824 die-cut counters
The most consistent thing about ASL third party publisher Critical Hit is that it is consistently inconsistent. The history of Critical Hit is a long road littered with the baggage of scrapped concepts and initiatives, like tired refugees discarding their belongings as they flee. It is a history of “new series” that end after a run of only one product, of scenario card styles that are abandoned more quickly than a three-eyed stepchild, of constantly changing map artwork. Critical Hit is to consistency what Pauly Shore was to dramatic acting.
The 2014 release of Desert War: 1941 (DW41) is in many respects a perfect example of this. DW41 is essentially an attempt to make a “core” module for Desert scenarios. Now, many ASLers may remember that Critical Hit did this exact same thing just a couple of years ago with its release of Afrika Korps–El Alamein. That product was, though expensive, not a bad attempt at creating a third party Desert platform, based on the use of large generic paper desert maps rather than the small geoboards of West of Alamein. Critical Hit supported the Afrika Korps series by converting a large number of its desert ATS scenarios over to ASL.
All those products and all that effort is meaningless now, as Critical Hit has clearly completely abandoned its Afrika Korps series after just a few years in favor of DW41. Anybody who purchased the Afrika Korps products now have a non-supported series on their hands.
On the one hand, this is simply the latest of a long series of such moves by Critical Hit. However, a deeper analysis reveals that the move to DW41 is probably also based on two additional factors: 1) its business model and 2) what seems to be a recent “strategic” decision regarding its relationship to ASL.
Desperation Morale has described Critical Hit’s business model before, but it is worth mentioning here. Unlike every other third party publisher (or even MMP, for that matter), Critical Hit is a full-time business. This means its sales pay the bills, put the kids through college, etc. However, Critical Hit began publishing supplements for a game published by another company. That’s an inherently unreliable source of income, plus it limits the customer base to ASL players, a niche audience if there ever was one. Critical Hit tried to make up for this by creating the ATS system, a “rival” tactical system to ASL (which had the added benefit of allowing Critical Hit to create two versions of each of its products, an ASL version and an ATS version). The ATS system, though it seems to have a customer base, never really took off (its audience still seems much smaller than that of ASL, which itself is, again, a niche audience). For a while it looked like Critical Hit might expand into wargame publishing more generally when it acquired the games of German wargame company Moments in History, but this never really went anywhere.
As a result, Critical Hit is largely dependent for its continued existence on releasing new ASL and ATS products. But here’s the problem. It is often time-consuming and laborious to create a new ASL product. Even if corners are cut (which God knows Critical Hit has been known to do from time to time), it would be hard for Critical Hit to come up with a constant flow of new products (even taking into account double-selling ASL/ATS) that would be enough to sustain a full-time business.
To “solve” this problem, Critical Hit seems to have decided some years ago to adopt a business model based on constantly reprinting and reselling its previous products. If it can’t make enough new products, it has to sell enough old products. Thus for some years now, “new” versions of most Critical Hit products are released every few years. Of course, how often are wholesalers, retailers or individual consumers going to buy the same product over again? When possible, Critical Hit tries to focus on some new feature, such as new artwork or the inclusion of counters in a new edition. But Critical Hit also releases old products with changed titles and changed scenario names, so that they will seem to many people as if they are new products–and buy something they already owned. Deceitful? It certainly is. But one can see how Critical Hit’s business model seems to drive Critical Hit towards adopting such business practices. One can also see that, as long as Critical Hit has this business model, it will never stop constantly recycling and reselling its old products.
And here we have the basic explanation of why the DW41 series is now with us and the Afrika Korps series is no more. Critical Hit can now rejigger and re-release all of its Afrika Korps scenarios as DW41 scenarios and sell them all over again, as it has already begun to do.
But let’s move for a minute from basic to advanced and look at a more subtle aspect of Critical Hit’s recent releases such as DW41. In 2013, Critical Hit released a product, the Sweet 16 Geo Board & Scenario Collection, the main feature of which consisted of 16 geoboards that were “variants” of official ASL geoboards 1-16. Canadian ASLer Alan Findlay, who had submitted these boards to Critical Hit, created each board to have the same look and feel of the corresponding official board, but not to duplicate it exactly. The Sweet 16 boards were essentially mutant variations of the official boards.
At first, the release of the Sweet 16 boards might have been simply an attempt at a fast buck, but recent Critical Hit releases strongly suggest that they have now become something more than that. Critical Hit quickly followed them up with a set of more board conversions (and “winterized” versions of the Sweet 16 boards), but what is perhaps more importantly is that Critical Hit started inserting the use of these boards into its other products. Essentially, in its new products, Critical Hit is replacing references to official boards with references to the x-style boards (so called because they all have an x as part of their designation, such as board x2 being the Sweet 16 variant of official geoboard 2).
To a certain degree, this too may be seen as a cynical attempt by Critical Hit to get people to purchase the (expensive) Sweet 16 boards. But it also seems–and DW41 is an example of this–that Critical Hit is now attempting to use these boards as some sort of attempt to “wean” themselves from having to rely on official ASL components. If Critical Hit can continue to sell these geoboard conversions to people, it seems highly likely that, in future products, all references to official geoboards will be replaced with references to corresponding x-style boards (it also seems highly likely that Critical hit will re-playtest none of the scenarios and campaign games of these products). DW41 provides other evidence of this tendency, as will be seen.
Unlike many recent Critical Hit products, which cost two tons of money for not much in the way of components, DW41 does not stint in this regard. There’s a lot of stuff here, from boards to overlays (an overabundance of overlays!) to counters.
DW41 comes with six copies of a generic desert 8″ x 22″ geoboard. Purchasers of recent Critical Hit products may breathe a sigh of relief to discover that these are not Critical Hit’s recent “overlay” style of geoboard, in which the geoboard comes on two sheets of thick paper and has to be cut out like an overlay. These are actual 8″ x 22″ geoboards, though the thickness is slightly less than that of official geoboards. All recent Critical Hit geoboards, of whatever style, have had mis-sized hexgrids in which the narrow side of the boards are actually 1/16″ or 1/8″ (it varies by product) less than a full 8″. Even with a mismatch of just 1/16″, this is enough that Critical Hit boards will not mate up well with official geoboards (or any geoboards printed correctly). These boards have a mismatch of 1/16″. This may not matter as much with DW41 as with some other products, because the boards are likely to be matched only with each other most of the time. Unlike the official desert boards, the boards here are all copies of the same artwork. This is a bit cheap, but perhaps forgivable, given that it is overlays that tend to provide the distinguishing characteristics of desert scenarios.
The generic board has no number, just a symbol (like Prince’s name). This is because, of course, six identical boards can’t have six different numbers. Rather, Critical Hit provides number overlays so that players can actually affix numbers to the boards (this can actually be skipped most of the time).
Sadly, DW41 also comes with three more geoboards, which ARE in the “overlay” style. They each come in two halves, on 9″ x 12″ sheets of thick paper/thin cardstock, and have to be cut out like overlays using scissors or a rotary trimmer. These three boards are x9, x15, and xE2. The boards x9 and x15 are “desertized” versions of boards x9 and x15, which themselves are mutant variations of official boards 9 and 15. Boards x9 and x15, in their non-desert form, originally appeared in the Sweet 16 Geo Board & Scenario Collection released by Critical Hit in 2013 in an attempt to have boards that were like the official boards but which would not violate copyright. This product received a Desperation Morale CONSUMER ALERT warning for a variety of reasons, two of which included the poor physical quality of the boards (described briefly above) and the poor graphics. The poor graphics stem from the building graphics. These maps all use building artwork that, if oriented in a way that is not perfectly horizontal or vertical, results in bad, jagged, pixilated, crude building images. In short, many of the buildings on these maps look like crap. Board x9 only has a few buildings on it, one of them against a dark background, so the problem is not as bad on this particular board. Board x15, however, has a number of buildings and the problem is evident on that board. Board xE2 is an escarpment board, essentially designed to emulate the escarpment overlay from West of Alamein, and so has no buildings. It is not clear why the desert versions of x9 and x15 did not receive different numbers (such as dx9 and dx15) to distinguish them from the non-desert versions. Board x9 actually looks better as a desert board than it does with “normal” graphics.
It should be noted that the decision to use geoboards is a step backwards from the Afrika Korps series, which used large generic maps instead. They are easier to use than keeping a large number of geoboards positioned.
DW41 comes with 9 sheets of overlays, which provide a lot of ways to modify the generic desert board copies:
- Sheet 1: number overlay 29, 6 building overlays (huts), wadi overlay, track overlay, hillock overlay, 3 sand overlays, sand dune overlay, ammo dump overlay, crag overlay
- Sheet 2: 2 hillock overlays, 4 track overlays, wadi overlay, 2 crag overlays, 2 orchard overlays
- Sheet 3: number overlay 26, 3 anti-tank ditch overlays, 3 bridge overlays, 4 sand dune overlays
- Sheet 4: 5 track overlays
- Sheet 5: 2 track overlays, 5 building overlays, 2 crag overlays, 2 orchard overlays, sand dune overlay, 2 wadi overlays, bridge overlay
- Sheet 6: number overlay 27, fort overlay, compass rose overlay, 3 building overlays, orchard overlay, 2 sand dune overlays, 5 sand overlays
- Sheet 7: 4 track overlays, 3 deir overlays, 3 orchard overlays
- Sheet 8: number overlays 30 and 31, deir overlay, runway overlay, 5 track overlays, 7 orchard overlays, hillock overlay
- Sheet 9: number overlay 28, 2 hillock overlays, 2 ammo dump overlays, 3 track overlays, deir overlay, orchard overlay
Generally speaking, the overlay artwork is well done. However, it should be noted that the “rectangular” overlay style of the Afrika Korps series, which made overlay cutting much easier, has been abandoned, so these overlay sheets will take a huge amount of time to cut out. It is not clear why this decision was made.
DW41 comes with one full-page 2-sided color play aid. One one side are various desert rules summaries (hillock LOS, heat haze effects, dust effects); on the other side is a desert-oriented To Hit chart, which has gun-modified To Hit and To Kill numbers for some of the gun types used in desert fighting (British, Italian, and German only, it seems).
Three full and one partial countersheet come with DW41. The partial countersheet has some duplicate desert markers; the others primarily consist of British and German units, all of which also seem to be duplicates. In other words, none of these counters are actually necessary. Not that Italian counters are not included, though they appear in some of the scenarios.
DW41 includes 6 pages of loose-leaf color rules pages, attractively put together. One purpose of the rules is simply to allow players to identify what is what with Critical Hit’s desert terrain artwork. However, the rules also serve another purpose. Labeled “Vernacular Rules,” they actually incorporate “Vernacular Version of Chapter F,” a play aid created by Matt Romey and later reprinted by Critical Hit (the DW41 version does not credit Romey). Essentially, the “vernacular rules” try to explain Chapter F concepts in a more easy-to-learn fashion than the legalese in the actual rules. They are not a replacement for the Chapter F rules of West of Alamein (and the future new edition of Hollow Legions). Seemingly, DW41 admits as much. “They are not meant to be a replacement to Chapter F,” the DW41 rules state, “and all players should own WOA to use this product fully.” However, just two sentences later, Critical Hit changes its mind and suggests that actually one can play DW41 even without West of Alamein and the desert rules of Chapter F: “That said, with the markers, rules and materials provided, desert play can be conducted with the use of a little intuition on the part of the gamer.”
On its website, Critical Hit is even more explicit: “What’s more, with a new take on Verncular [sic] rules for the module, a new version of thje [sic] Desert To Hit table from the Rout Report days, plus a fresh batch of markers specific to the desert, you’ll only need to own ANY module that provides standard markers (e.g. Prep Fire) to play all of the actions presented within.” With the Afrika Korps series, says Critical Hit, “ownership of WOA was required but that won’t be a problem when you strap on your Rommel’s Goggles once again and head into the desert.” Thus, between the “vernacular rules,” the duplicate German and British counters, and the “variant” maps, ostensibly there is no need for possession of West of Alamein at all. One can see that Critical Hit has tried to render itself independent of official ASL here.
The Alamein-less consumer should realize, however, that this promise is just a desert mirage. If you were to take the plunge and get DW41 without having the Chapter F rules, you’d discover that the vernacular rules do not substitute for Chapter F; they merely supplement it. You’d be up a wadi without a paddle.
The rules contain some other tidbits worth mentioning. One such morsel is a paragraph in which players are implicitly told that some or all of the scenarios within DW41 are not balanced, but that this is somehow a “feature.” The aim, Critical Hit asserts, “is to give both sides a chance to win, but these are not ‘tournament’ actions, there is no guarantee of ‘perfect’ balance. One side may well have the edge, and the experience of this theater is what this collection is all about.” Properly parsed, that is an admission that there are likely balance issues with some of the included scenarios.
What scenarios are included? The marketing text on Critical Hit’s website claims that DW41 comes with (emphasis in original) “12 BRAND NEW scenarios depicting action in Cyrenaica from February 1941 – April 1941.” Are they actually new, given Critical Hit’s penchant for endless renaming and recycling? A close analysis gives some clues as to where these scenarios came from. In the design credits at the end of the rules, “scenario concepts” are attributed to “Pat Hair” and “development” is credited to “Fred Hair” and the “CH Crew.” That latter can just be ignored, as it is meaningless and often seems to mean Ray Tapio. But the reference to Pat and Fred Hair is more interesting. These brothers popped onto the ASL out of nowhere in 1999 as the people behind the “Operation Compass” scenarios found in Critical Hit Magazine’s “Operation Compass” Special Edition. Pat Hair was the designer and Fred Hair did a lot of playtesting (presumably with Pat). These scenarios were a very large collection of desert scenarios centered around actions between the Italians and the British and their allies in 1940 and early 1941. The Hair brothers then dropped right back into nowhere, so far as it can be seen. The Operation Compass scenarios were not popular, in part because of balance issues in many of the scenarios. Pat Hair, in designer’s notes in the magazine itself, even took pains to announce that balance was not that important to him.
How is this relevant? Well, it turns out that the Brothers Hair had submitted much more than simply the Operation Compass scenarios. They had also submitted a passel of scenarios featuring Rommel’s first offensive in the late winter of 1941. Critical Hit originally announced that it would publish them, but apparently changed its mind, perhaps because of the negative reactions to the original set of scenarios. The DW41 scenarios, which chronologically begin right where the Operation Compass scenarios leave off, thus seem to be modified versions of the Hair brothers scenarios from the old, never-published sequel to Operation Compass. With this, one can see why Critical Hit took pains to make a pre-emptive statement about balance, as these scenarios have every chance of having balance issues just as the original Hair brothers scenarios did.
The 12 scenarios take place from February to April 1941 and simulate actions from the beginning of Rommel’s appearance on the scene through the British retreat into Tobruk. The major focus is on British vs. German actions but Italians appear in nearly half of the scenarios. The scenarios all use only boards included with DW41, which is perhaps a convenience. Not surprisingly for desert scenarios, most of the actions here use a lot of boards:
Two boards: 1 scenario
Three boards: 1 scenario
Four boards: 2 scenarios
Five boards: 3 scenarios
Six boards: 5 scenarios
The scenarios tend to be big in size, too; over half of the scenarios are large (and scenarios tend to be long, too). They have some other Hair brothers hallmarks, too, including large numbers of support weapons (sometimes up to 1:1 squad/SW ratio), and a propensity for powerful leaders (9-2 and up). In fact, the 12 scenarios of DW41 contain no fewer than 28 10-3, 10-2, or 9-2 leaders! The scenarios are very SSR-light (except for listing all those overlays!); essentially, players set up or enter from off-board and start firing at each other. “Chrome” SSRs are virtually non-existent. Two scenarios have Air Support; two scenarios use OBA. Fortifications, other than some foxholes and sangars, are virtually non-existent; only one scenario, DW4 (Into the Bottleneck) actually features a fortified position.
Not surprisingly, the scenarios are vehicle-centric; infantry-infantry actions are ignored. There are three scenarios that are all-armored or nearly so.
The scenario cards themselves have no color on them, in contrast to most other Critical Hit scenarios released around this time.
DW41 sells for over a hundred bucks, making it very pricey (Critical Hit also released a version that ONLY included the overlays and boards and sells even this for $79.95!). So, is it worth it?
Well, let’s sum up. There are a lot of physical components and by and large they are attractive. However, they do not seem to be any improvement over the components of the Afrika Korps series, also by Critical Hit, which came out only a few years ago. In fact, in several respects, they seem a step backwards. Moreover, the scenarios themselves constitute a long-unpublished “sequel” to an ASL product that ASLers did not particularly care for in the first place, and have a good chance of having balance issues.
ASLers who are absolute desert fanatics are probably going to get this regardless, so words are lost on them. As for others, it seems that people who own Afrika Korps El-Alamein, or other products from that series, and enjoy them, probably have no real reason or need to get DW41. Afrika Korps works just fine and is superior in some respects (though it does have careless errata in it).