The Clash of Armour is the subtitle of this latest game from the admirably prolific PSS, and were in the desert once more: a locality increasingly familiar to wargamers. But there's no need to worry about getting sand in your boots playing Tobruk, because, as the packaging suggests, tanks are the main fighting units in this campaign.
Tobruk is a medium-range simulation of Rommel's attempt to break through a vast minefield laid by the Allies in North Africa between Gazala and Bir Hachieim to defend Tobruk, a key Mediterranean supply point. By medium-range I mean that it doesn't recreate a single battle, nor does it present the player with a long-term extended campaign. The action covers a little over a month, starting on May 26th 1942, and combat is resolved in a single turn. The aim, when playing against the computer - as the Axis side, for you do not have a choice - is to capture as many of the Allied bases as possible. Tobruk, up at the top right-hand comer, is the ultimate goal.
The main display map is a visually uninspiring representation of Cyrenaica, with the Gazala Line - the Allied minefield - cutting the desert in half. According to the rulebook the minefield was only half-completed when the offensive begano and it is presumably because of this that there is a way round the bottom of the line. The Axis troops begin the game on their side of the line, and all the oasis targets - and the Allied forces - are on the other. Identification of every part of the map is easy, because a Com Box, similar to that in Battle of Britain, can be moved over any feature, whether unit or landscape, for an instant report. There are few features on the map anyway. It is sand, sand everywhere.
Enemy units can be examined by use of the Com Box just as easily as friendly units, and the defensive strength of oases is displayed too. The system is smooth to operate, easy to understand, and unambiguous. Data given on units includes their strength in terms of supply of infantry, provisions and artillery, and the number of moves the unit can make that turn.
There are two turns a day predictably divided into Movement and Combat Phases; a Supply Phase and a Command Phase occur every second turn, at the end of the day. Units can be moved at the player's leisure by means of the Corn Box, in a way which is again identical to the Battle of Britain system. Units do not have the option of committing suicide by passing over the minefield, unfortunately; it's treated as an impassable obstacle. Entering an enemy zone of control (for the relatively uninitiated, that means the squares immediately surrounding the enemy unit) arrests movement, though combat is not inevitable.
The Corn Box doesn't let you plot out a movement further than the movement allowance of a unit, which I found a useful restriction and reminder. Movement orders are executed immediately, something else which helps in organising forces. When all units have been moved, pressing the space bar moves the game onto the combat phase. In this phase, unusually, combat is an option which has to be selected. And here, unless you've turned the thing off in the start-up menu, we hit the infamous Pss Token Arcade Sequence.
I gave my views on this in my Battle of Britain review in my first column. In Battle of Britain, which is a fast-moving, real-time game, the distinctly tacky arcade sequence did not seem impossibly out of place. In the middle of this traditional cardboard-counters strategy wargame, which has no other element of moving action, this sequence clashes stylistically on every level. As might be imagined, you are put in charge of a tank. As is not so self-evident, you are presented with an iconmenu of tank functions; the gun turret, shell loading and firing and navigation.
To turn the tank round you have to select the navigation mode, and trundle the vehicle about defenceless while being fired upon, then switch hurriedly to the gun turret to fire back without being able to move. I found I was just able to pick tanks off by firing shells at them, because the shell-firing mode allows some mobility. The whole thing is stunningly badly designed and unplayable. It has quite an attractive on-screen appearance, in contrast to the main body of the game, and bears all the hallmarks - though I don't know the inside story - of quite separate authorship. Tobruk loads with the arcade sequence deselected, and I would advise you leave it like that.
Unless you're trying the arcade sequence, combat is resolved speedily and simultaneously and retreats and surrenders reported.
Units always seem to surrender; you aren't given the satisfaction of a 'division completely obliterated' report. The supply phase follows, and the player is asked to decide which units will receive the limited resources available. The importance of supply in a desert war is emphasised by the fact that the Axis forces have to trundle their mobile supply bases after their forces, and protect them from the enemy. This factor adds a lot of interest to the gameplay, because if both of the supply dumps are destroyed - and they are extremely vulnerable - the Axis side automatically loses.
The command phase moves onto another screen, whore strategic disposition of resource points is decided. Points can be put into things like AFV (armoured fighting vehicle) recovery to minimise losses after battle, and, importantly, into ground strikes and mine laying or lifting. Putting a sufficient number of points into mine lifting allows the Axis side to make a neat break in the Gazala Line, to get some of the slower-moving units through quickly. Ground Strike allows the choice of one bombing target, which mayor may not have moved by the time the order is executed.
The instruction booklet is neatly printed and entirely adequate, providing a short but informative summary of the historical situation and guiding the player briskly through the mechanics of the game. There is, however, a lack of obviousness in the layout which makes particular things difficult to find afterwards, but there are lists of the units and their properties, command points and their strengths, and the obligatory bibliography to show that the designer has done his research.
Tobruk is easy to pick up, quick to play, and devoid of long-term interest. There are no skill levels, which is a serious omission, and on my first bungling attempt, when I was just trying to pick up the rules and wasn't sure exactly what I was doing until a couple of turns in, I won. The game has a bit of a hook in its very smoothness and simplicity of objective, but despite the strategic trimmings of the command phase, there's nothing in it to satisfy for more than an afternoon.