The thick, black-and-white rulebook packaged with every copy of the 1979 war-game The Campaign For North Africa is full of obtuse decrees, but the tabletop community always had a special appreciation for entry 52.6 - affectionately known as the “macaroni rule.” The Italian troops in World War II were outfitted with noodle rations, and in the name of historical dogma, the player responsible for the Italians is required to distribute an extra water ration to their forces, so that their pasta may be boiled. Soldiers that do not receive their “pasta point” may immediately become “disorganized,” rendering them useless in the field. It’s a fact of life really: if the Italians can’t boil their pasta, the Italians may desert.
This piece originally appeared 9/8/17.
It was a joke, by the way. Richard Berg, the legendary game designer and author of The Campaign For North Africa, says so himself. He’ll happily admit that this was an unreasonable game for unreasonable people, but still, a pasta point? There’s attention to detail, and then there’s taking the piss. As Berg explains, the rule wasn’t even entirely factually accurate. “The reality is that the Italians cooked their pasta with the tomato sauce that came with the cans,” he says. “But I didn’t want to do a rule on that.” Yes, at the pinnacle of North Africa’s ridiculous excess, even Berg couldn’t help but poke a little fun at the obsessives in his wake.
It’ll take you about 1,500 hours (or 62 days) to complete a full play of The Campaign For North Africa. The game itself covers the famous WWII operations in Libya and Egypt between 1940 and 1943. Along with the opaque rulebook, the box includes 1,600 cardboard chits, a few dozen charts tabulating damage, morale, and mechanical failure, and a swaddling 10-foot long map that brings the Sahara to your kitchen table. You’ll need to recruit 10 total players, (five Allied, five Axis,) who will each lord over a specialized division. The Front-line and Air Commanders will issue orders to the troops in battle, the Rear and Logistics Commanders will ferry supplies to the combat areas, and lastly, a Commander-in-Chief will be responsible for all macro strategic decisions over the course of the conflict. If you and your group meets for three hours at a time, twice a month, you’d wrap up the campaign in about 20 years.
This is transparently absurd. Richard Berg knew it himself. He’s designed hundreds of war-games, focusing on everything from The Battle of Gettysburg to the Golden Age of Piracy, and The Campaign For North Africa was an outlier from the start. It was intended to be a collaborative mega-project for all of the wargaming experts employed by the storied, (and now defunct) imprint Simulations Publications Inc.
Initially, all Berg was responsible for was the map. Six months later, after the other designers had dropped out, SPI asked Berg if he was interested in finishing the game by himself. He was, and two years later he delivered history’s most infamous board game.
Berg has never completed a playthrough of The Campaign For North Africa. The game never received any of the compulsive testing required to iron-out inconsistencies and balance issues that are usually present in a freshly inked rulebook. Berg didn’t care. He never saw the point. “When I said ‘let’s publish this thing’ they said ‘but we’re still playtesting it! We don’t know if it’s balanced or not. It’s gonna take seven years to play!’ And I said ‘you know what, if someone tells you it’s unbalanced, tell them ‘we think it’s your fault, play it again.’”
The Campaign For North Africa arrived in the summer of 1979 and sold for $44 in a chunky, four-inch deep box. The game was never a massive commercial or critical success. It harbors a middling 5.8 on community tastemaker BoardGameGeek, and objectively speaking, the systems are exasperatingly finicky and require an eagle-eye for obscure rules and exceptions. In many ways, North Africa is simply a product of its time. The late ‘70s served as the commercial peak for wargaming, with dozens of new designs hitting store shelves every week. The Campaign wasn’t unique, as much as it was a standard archetype blown out to its extremes. Naturally, you do have to pay a premium price for used copies of the game on eBay, but that has more to do with the novelty of owning the “world’s longest board game” than anything else.
However, there is still a handful of players who regard Berg’s design as a triumph, rather than an extremely long-term gag. Geoff Phipps, a 54-year old software engineer living in Seattle, is one of them. Phipps never owned North Africa, but he did rent it from a local hobby shop after enjoying a slew of other, less-hefty Berg outings. He had no idea what he was getting into. The thing he remembers best is the way the fuel reserves worked. [Correction - 5:35pm, September 19: We initially misspelled Phipps’ last name as Phillips. We apologize for the error.]
“Every military division has a sheet of paper, and on it you’ve got a box for every battalion. It’ll tell you how many guns you have, but more interestingly, it’ll also list the fuel and water. Every game turn, three percent of the fuel evaporates, unless you’re the British before a certain date, because they used 50-gallon drums instead of jerry cans. So instead, seven percent of their fuel evaporates,” explains Phipps. “Every fucking turn you go around and make a pencil note of how much fuel you have. The pasta rule is funny, but this is what the game is about. Just doing tedious calculations all the time.”
As you may expect, Phipps did not finish The Campaign For North Africa. He and his friends played for exactly one session, resolving to get through the first day of the war for a taste of the combat systems and resource management, before quickly moved onto something that wasn’t going to demand of a decade of his time. His reasons were clear: the game is fastidious, non-intuitive, and it forces some seriously awkward fractional equations. But nearly 40 years later he still daydreams about the experience. “We did have a blast because some of the rules you’re not going to find in any other game,” says Phipps. “Just the fact that they cared about what kind of fuel tank the British had!”
As an amateur game-designer himself, Phipps plans on returning to North Africa after he’s retired to modernize some of the shortcomings in the design. The awkward flight combat module, which has caught the ire of many people in the game’s community, will be his first target, (Berg himself happily volunteers that the system “sucks.” The flight units are handled as individual planes and individual pilots, which is outstandingly fussy, even for wargame standards.) But with Phipps’ keen eye for revisions, perhaps someday he will still cross the Sahara.
Jake was enchanted in a similar way. He’s a 16-year old in Minnesota who obtained a copy of North Africa a few months ago by printing out giant PDF copies of the rulebook and map (he says it was the only way to avoid paying $400.) Like most people in the board game hobby, he learned of The Campaign For North Africa as a fable - that it was long, that it was rare, that it was occasionally silly. As he pored over the rulebook, his curiosity was piqued by the stringent regulations on the treatment of POWs, and how they could defect into their own militia and potentially plunge the campaign into an unwinnable state. Imagine that, the world’s longest board game ending with two losers.
Jake’s goal is to finish North Africa before he graduates high school. Last month he emailed the rulebooks to each of his recruited friends before their first session. Together they sat down in the family dining room to make their first moves. Jake has two years left before college, which is already cutting it close.
“For me, this is a passion. Some of my friends just like the idea of playing the world’s longest game, which is great, I don’t care,” he says. “But that’s not it for me. I love the structure, I love the complexity.”
This is the resolve of The Campaign For North Africa’s cult. They’re drawn to the game not for its cleverness or flair, but for its absurd, maximalist nature. Board games tend to prioritize a friendly communion with their players, simply because it’s difficult to sell copies of a design that nobody understands. But North Africa never got that memo. It is ornery and intentionally difficult, its commercial release feels like a grave miscalculation or an ultimate dare issued by a hysterical publisher. But its audacity touched a special few. Finally, the chance to have your courage and resilience challenged by a pile of cardboard.
Richard Berg has a pretty flat attitude towards the mystification of his most notorious work. As with every other product in his repertoire, the man built North Africa solely because someone was paying him, and he regards anyone earnestly attempting to conquer the full campaign to be either idealistic or foolish. “Has anyone completed the game? I think people have,” he says. “But the point with The Campaign For North Africa was that it was kinda fun to play for a couple weeks or a couple months. After that? Get a life.”
Berg sold his last copy of North Africa a handful of years back, because a “whole bunch of dollars seemed to be [a] more worthwhile thing to have.” He’s being flippant, but that’s not because he thinks the game was poorly conceived. “It did what it set out to do,” explains Berg. “It was supposed to be an intensive eurythmic manual, and I think it functioned at that level. Is this game something you should sit down and play? No, there are plenty of good Africa games, unless you really want to get down to that level.”
We’re in the midst of a tabletop renaissance. Global board game sales have boomed over the past few years, and a renewed interest in the hobby has seeped into coffee shops, video game publishers, and publications like ours. Despite that, the classic hexagonal historical war-game—the true bones of the industry—are a dying breed. This is the Catan generation: millennials weaned on the crisp, instinctual gameplay perfected by the German masters. Phipps has fond memories of the late-’70s “the golden age” of war-gaming - where publishers routinely tried to out-convolute each other with their designs, because surely, the more complex a game is, the grander it must be. “After that golden age the designs got better,” he says. “But at the time there’s this sense of excitement, everything is new and possible.”
Perhaps someday war-gaming will make a comeback, but in the meantime, there will always be the Campaign. The Italian water rations, the thousand-plus cardboard shards, the unrepeatable, era-specific panache to market and sell a 1,500 hour experience. It’s a blessing to be thrilled by evaporating gas, to finally find a board game that embraces your obsessiveness note for note. It’s all way too much. It is drunk and full of hubris. And yet, The Campaign For North Africa will seduce new players for the rest of time.