Over the holidays, my dad and I had the opportunity to both finish Avalon Hill’s Air Assault on Crete and try out the accompanying Invasion of Malta mini-game. Crete wrapped up with a very narrow Allied Victory. Malta has proved to be… frustrating for the Germans.
In Crete, I managed to just barely evacuate enough troops to make the points cut-off and “win”. The game lasted until about turn 14, by which time I was down to three combat units covering the retreat down the heavily strafed road to Sphakia and one lone battalion of Greeks trapped north of Kastelli that was not worth doing more than keeping cut off. In the end, the game produced a more or less historical outcome: the Germans took the island, but the pyrrhic nature of the victory is enough to dissuade Hitler from making further large scale airborne assaults, and the Allied forces’ teams of specialists and technicians were able to make it to North Africa to ultimately turn the tides there.
The results in our Crete game seemed to confirm a lot of my theories on strategy and the game’s balance. The “basic” game in which the only victory conditions are possession of the air bases on the island is a gimme for the Germans. If we’d been using these victory conditions, the Germans would’ve had an insurmountable lock on the game starting on turn three and the rest of the game would just be running out the clock until we decided to quit because playing out foregone conclusions isn’t very fun. The “advanced” game, however, seems like it would be almost impossible for the Germans to win; the “down to the wire” victory I had achieved was more due to incredibly poor strategic placement of my non-combat units that cost me several in the first turns. Regardless of the victory conditions you select, I can’t imagine this game lasting for the full 20-something turns. Still, Crete was a relatively quick play and fun enough.
Malta is a different story. Invasion of Malta is a mini-game with more or less the same mechanics playing out a hypothetical Axis attack on the island. Unlike Crete, the Axis force is comprised of several battalion strength Fallschirmjager units acting as shock troops to prepare the way for a massive Italian Amphibious invasion, and, instead of poorly equipped and highly scattered Allied resistance, they have to dive straight into a hornets nest of AA, heavy artillery, coastal guns and extensive fortifications. To make matters worse, the 9 strength Fallschirmjager Battalions are not allowed in Malta to break down into their smaller company sized pieces, meaning an Exchange combat result will always hurt the Germans more than the Allies. The fun doesn’t stop there: as soon as the Germans lose 50 victory points (battalion units are worth 21 and HQs are worth 5, so 3, at most 4, units), the German force “breaks” and must begin retreating for a beachhead, airstrip or port; if there’s no legal evac point available, they hit the coasts and, I don’t know, try to swim back to the Motherland. I really cannot see the Axis player winning this.
Our first play-thru, my dad was the Axis again, and we made it three turns before he gave up the situation as hopeless. His strategy was to land his paratroopers in the southeast part of the Island, close to the airstrips so he could take them and begin landing airborne reinforcements ASAP. He found his units scattered and dispersed by the massive Anti-Aircraft nests on the eastern half of the island. Where Crete will see drift modifiers of +2, maybe maybe maybe +3, because of the smallness of the theater, range of the guns, and battalion sized AA units (modifier of 3 instead of 1) units landing on Malta face drift penalties of between +5 and +9. The units that weren’t shot down (drift roll of 10 or higher), drowned because they drifted into open water or landed right into fortified hexes got picked apart pretty quickly. My dad conceded before his first assault group of Italians reached shore; after our second play-thru, I doubt they would’ve made any difference.
I was certain that my dad had made a mistake in going straight in and doing an airborn landing in the middle of the most heavily fortified part of the island and was determined to see if I could do better. And I did, but not by much. I made my airdrop primarily south of Mellieha at the north end of the island with a goal to secure St. Paul’s Bay and Salima Bay beaches to land my Italians, with a secondary airdrop just southeast of Valletta to create chaos and eliminate coastal batteries. In the first few turns, my more conservative strategy seemed to be paying off; I’d secured the north of the Island, eliminated several coastal batteries east of Valletta and even succeeded in seizing the bastion in the south part of the city. Unfortunately, the Germans ‘broke’ before my first assault convoy could land, and after my decent start I was suddenly losing all of my units as they fled for the ocean. Even though my secondary airdrop had managed to neutralize several of the coastal batteries, their astonishing ranges and ability for the “heavy” guns to ignore line of sight meant that over half of my initial convoy and about 3/4s of the second wave were sunk right off the bat by the guns still active in Valletta and Marsa Scirocco.
After about 6 turns, thing are looking to be a completely lost cause; that I did twice as well as my dad did on the initial playthrough is not much consolation.
The best way I can describe Malta is as a strategy puzzle meant to appeal to one player who can find someone to be ‘intelligent resistance’: a two-player “I Wanna Be the Guy” where player 2 controls the nightmarish environment player 1 must navigate. There’s not a lot of reward in winning as the Allies here. I imagine that the Axis player must play even more conservatively at the start, waiting for the first convoy to land somewhere relatively safe, like the northernmost part of the island, before making any sort of concerted push towards their objectives. And the fun to be had is in figuring out what works. The Allied player pretty much sits back, shoots down German planes, sinks German ships and pounds anyone who manages to land with heavy artillery.
Overall, I’d say that the double-pack Air Assault on Crete/Invasion of Malta is a good value, but I would recommend it to experienced wargamers who want to try something different and asymmetrical and who have grown bored with their other WW2 games. They’re both fairly quick to play and set up (so long as you don’t let the pieces from the two games get mixed together), which is a big plus. I would not, however, recommend this for more inexperienced wargamers, particularly not as an introductory game, as the balance issues and the frustrations related to the complex set-up strategies required would certainly be magnified greatly.