Heia Sofia does several things for me right out of the gate. One, it’s another of SGS’s boardgame-like wargames that carry on the spirit of my beloved AGEOD series. Two, it’s set in an interesting and underdone theatre of war. Three, the barrier to entry is tiny comparative to a lot of other wargames on the market. In short, it’s a very particular style of wargame, but it works for me in a way that makes it easy to play game after game.
For the First Time Into Africa’s Great War
There may be others, but as far as my experience goes, this is the first digital wargame to focus entirely on the East African Campaign of the First World War. Focusing mainly on the exploits of German General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, the narrative of this campaign sees a small but determined force of German colonial and native soldiers fighting an expansive and successful guerrilla war against the overwhelming forces of the British Empire and their allies, Belgium and Portugal. It is a fascinating campaign not only because of the totally different nature of combat in East Africa, but also because of the difficulty in maintaining supply lines, dealing with disease, and the impact of the war on local populations.
One of the first lectures I listened to from Dr. Timothy Stapleton, a colleague at the University of Calgary, was about the societal impact of this campaign on the peoples who’s homes it was fought over. Most striking to me was the absolutely brutal toll inflicted on porters and carriers. While British army personnel suffered approximately 10,000 casualties from all sources, though mostly from disease, their porters suffered around 100,000. While the German forces kept worse records, research points to around 300,000 civilians dying in the region as a result of disease and famine brought on by both sides requisitioning food and supplies during the fighting.
It is a sobering thought, but one that makes it all the more important that there be any media that touches on this subject. I wish that SGS Heia Safari probed a little deeper into this side of the war, but I do appreciate that unrest, disease, and resistance to occupation in the relevant colonies is worked into events and action cards.
How Does SGS Heia Safari Play?
Those familiar with the SGS series of games will feel right at home. There is a certain comfortable boardgamey feeling to the overall play of SGS games. Tokens represent forces comprised of multiple units that can be split and merged. Movement is area to area with terrain playing a role in battles, movement cost, and Heia Safari’s case, attrition. Cards are central, with their use governing historical events, replacements and special circumstances. Battles are fought over several rounds, where units roll dice trying to score low enough to deal damage to the enemy force. Breaking the enemy may allow for pursuits, and there are special considerations for artillery, ambushes, and fortifications. Really, everything one would expect in an operational game is present, from supply to replacements to naval and ground combat.
Overall, the Heia Safari is very quick to learn. Play advances through a set of phases, first for one player then the other, with turns comprising of one month increments. It doesn’t take very long to figure out which units are reliable, which need to be protected, and where the war is likely to turn hot. The only really learning curve is figuring out what kind of cards might come up, but managing your deck is an important part of play. There is nothing really revolutionary here besides the setting, but a good wargame is good regardless of whether or not it reinvents the wheel.
The Good, and the Not So Good
I loved my time with Heia Safari. I should get that out of the way. I love board wargames as much as digital wargames, and this title, like most SGS games I’ve played, fit nicely into that niche of digitized wargames that simplify the hassle while presenting a clean, fun, and easy game to get lost in.
The setting is the star of the show. The campaign forces very different play styles for the Entente and the German forces. The Entente player must use their resources to capture German territory without overcommitting. The fact that the commitment level is a game mechanic with meaningful impact on the Entente victory conditions is an excellent step towards forcing the player to consider exactly how important a measured advance is to a long term victory. The German player must husband scarce resources and protect a vast territory. With the game pointing to key settlements and a railway to make sure the German player can’t get comfortable running forever.
The enemy AI has so far been pretty good with tactical decisions, but less so with strategic. Playing as Germany, I was pleasantly surprised at the Entente AI’s ability to keep me on my toes and, most importantly, keep me from running roughshod over their borders. They continually applied pressure where I was weak and forced me to fall back into my own territory whenever I got greedy. Strategically, it was difficult for them to get a toehold in my territory in the first couple years of the war. British forces continually attacked near Kilimanjaro, making it relatively easy for me to set up a defense in depth to meet their attacks. The AI was competent enough to give me a run for my money in that campaign eventually, but I wish it was a little more situationally aware of the wider strategic goals. As always, Player versus player will be the best choice, but I thoroughly enjoyed the AI’s ability to punish my mistakes and to present difficult tactical situations, especially around the southern border where they were freer to maneuver.
I know I’m predisposed to like these games, but I really do think that Heia Safari presents an interesting enough campaign to warrant diving in. That is, of course, if one is alright with the boardgame style and use of cards. The game is significantly different enough to warrant two playthroughs before moving on to multiplayer.
SGS Heia Safari is dynamic, colourful, simple to learn, and an eye opening look at an important but underrepresented battle.
Let’s Talk About Wargames received a free game code for the purposes of this review. You can check out the game’s website here.