Crossfire in the Western Desert

All my Crossfire so far has been European with the potential for lots of cover, but I’ve been musing on how to represent desert battles. I believe that it is possible to get a good game out in the desert, but it does require some thinking.

The Challenge of Desert games

The wide open spaces suggested by a desert game seem at odds with Crossfire’s normal close terrain. My experience is that having protected approach routes outside enemy LOS is crucial in Crossfire as once you’re in LOS you can get mown down. If desert means open spaces and long Lines of Fire, then the games will be short and bloody, i.e. not much fun.


I was, however, interested in a couple of comments by James Lucas in his book “War in the Desert: the Eighth Army at El Alamein”, 1982. (I believe he actually served in the 8th army.)

“It is a belief, widely held but quite erroneous, that the whole of the desert territory of Libya and Egypt is one huge expanse of golden sand dunes – the name ‘Western Desert’ might seem to support that belief. In the deep south of both countries, there are indeed stretches of such terrain, but the surface over which fighting took place is grit, a dirty, grey brownish crust, the product of centuries of erosion of the lime-stone rock that covers much of the area.” (p. 50)

“Contrary to popular belief the desert is not flat so that there is always dead ground” (p. 73).

He also mentioned “ridges”/”crests”/”djebels” (which are described as “dun coloured”), shear cliffs, low “hills” (max 100 m), shallow “depressions”, “shale and rock”, and during an infantry attack going “up the [enemy held] slope moving from rock to rock”. Crossfire seems to offer the full range of these – see Desert Terrain Types.

My impression is that infantry generally could find cover. But infantry are small targets, and tanks, in contrast, often engaged in duels from over 600 m range (i.e. the entire width of a Crossfire table). This suggests to me that there were actually two levels of cover – “low” stuff for infantry and “high” stuff for tanks. There was lots of “low” cover and little “high” cover. Or, in other words, tank combat was long range (long Lines of Fire) and infantry combat wasn’t (short Lines of Fire).

So to do a desert game we have to figure out how to:

  1. Provide lots of cover for infantry
  2. Restrict Lines of Fire for for small arms, but not for heavy weapons .
  3. Do this on a table that looks like desert.

You’ll need a strategy for addressing these problems. After listing the Desert Terrain Types, I outline three possible solutions to the problems above:

Finally I list some other Optional Rules for the desert.

Desert Terrain Types

The Western Desert was not billiard table flat, more like flat(ish) and rough. Potential feature types from Crossfire are:

  • Rough Ground
  • Depressions
  • Hills (or Contour Lines from Hit the Dirt, but no more than one level)
  • Buildings
  • Building Complexes (village or town with narrow streets)

And from Hit the Dirt:

  • Rock fields
  • Boulder fields
  • Crests
  • Cliffs

Special Rule 2 – Crests, from Hit the Dirt, seems particularly appropriate for the Desert as “a Crest, on the game board, represents the minor undulations that even the flattest terrain has – those tiny folds that allow a squad or more to hide themselves even when they’re apparently sitting in the open.” (p. iii)

Have a look at my page on Crossfire Terrain for a description of these types.

Solution 1: Just use less terrain

Danielle Varelli has tried desert games with less than the normal amount of terrain on the table. Less terrain means more open spaces and consequently longer “jumps” for units, and longer shooting distances. From some locations it was possible for Danielle to shoot across the whole table. Danielle’s experiment was successful, although apparently it posed some tactical challenges for the attacker.

This might look like desert, but doesn’t address the problems of cover and restricted Lines of Fire for infantry. I am not convinced that infantry had to deal with long range sniping by other infantry, hence onto other possibilities …

Solution 2: Use desert style blocking terrain

Although there were few proper hills in the desert there were lots of gentle rises and crests, and there were lots of rocks. So you could feel justified in covering a table in Desert Terrain and use Hills (or Contour Lines), Crests, and Boulder Fields to block LOS – thus achieving the effect of a normal Crossfire game but one that looks like a desert. Blocking features help restrict LOS on the desert table, but if you use too many, then the table will start to look more like Italy than Libya.

Boulder fields look right (i.e. rough, rocky) and block LOS as well, but bearing in mind that tanks often fired at great distances in the desert, you might consider the optional rule for LOS through Boulder Fields. This rule means that infantry can’t have a fire fight across a boulder field, but tanks are vulnerable on the other side, and can shoot across them.

Optional Rule: LOS through Boulder Fields

Boulder fields can be exactly as per Hit the Dirt, i.e. protective cover to direct and indirect
fire, and block LOS. But this might break up LOS too much for guns, so an optional rule would be
to have boulder fields block LOS between infantry (including crew served weapons) but not to/from

Solution 3: Limit Small Arms Range

I had a think about Ground Scales in Crossfire, and realised that maximum small arms fire was probably between terrain features that had only one (perhaps two) intervening features. This lead me to thinking that the solution to Desert warfare is not to introduce terrain that blocks LOS, but to limit small arms fire and leave other fire alone, i.e. introduce Ranges. This means you can have a table full of rough ground, but which has limited fields of fire for Rifle and SMG Squads, but which don’t strict heavy weapons – seems realistic to me.

It isn’t necessary to introduce a ruler to get Ranges; you just have to count features. The rule would go something like this:

  • A stand must be in LOS, arc of fire, obey the target proximity rules, and be within range to be able to fire.
  • Crew Served Weapons and Vehicles have unlimited range (as per standard Crossfire)
  • Rifle and SMG squads have a maximum range of two area features. Area features include Rough Ground, Crossfire Hills (but not Hit The Dirt Contour Lines), Rock Fields, Boulder Fields, Woods, Orchards, Structures, etc. Linear features don’t count for range, e.g. walls, hedges, roads, rivers, crests, wire.

With this rule you might not need to distinguish Rock Fields and Boulder fields, but could go back to treating both as Rough Ground.

The table layout below is typical desert terrain, containing Rough Ground, a depression, a crest and a couple of low hills (one level Contour Lines with Rough Ground on top).

Typical desert

Assuming all of these stands are Rifle Squads, the black lines between stands indicated which can shoot at each other. The table below summarises this, and explains the reason if shooting is not possible.

Can they shoot at each other? G1 G2 G3
B1 Yes Yes Yes
B2 No, out of range Yes Yes
B3 No, blocked by Crest, although in range No, blocked by Crest, although in range Yes
B4 No, blocked by Hill No, blocked by Hill No, outside range
B5 No, blocked by Crest No, outside range No, outside range

If, G3 was a HMG and not a Rifle squad, then it could also shoot at B4 and B5, but they could not reply.

Limited Small Arms Range in European Crossfire

I wouldn’t, at the moment anyway, suggest applying this concept to normal Crossfire. Generally there is sufficient blocking terrain that it isn’t necessary to have an additional rule about ranges.

Other Optional Rules

A few options rules that you might want to try out:

Bogging Down (Optional Rule)

Hit the Dirt’s Special Rule 5 Bogging down might be appropriate for the desert. For example
Tanks could bog down in rough ground, rock fields, and/or boulder fields on 4- on 1d6; unbog on
5+; becoming permanently mired on 1.

Sand/Dust Storm (Optional Rule)

Chuck Parrott suggested an optional dust/sand clouds. These would operate like like a big random smoke screens. Dust clouds could spring up on a 5+ on 1d6 after each initiative change. . Throw 1d6 for the number of dust clouds. Either randomly place clouds on the table or move existing ones as suits you. Each cloud can be 4 to 6 inches square/circular and completely blocks any LOS through or into the cloud.

Moving vehicles might also produce dust clouds. .


I’ve put together a scenario around the Assault on Tobruk.

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