Saturday, May 03, 2008

Red Storm over the Reich - Early Thoughts

I'm getting more and more interested in the less covered wargaming topics - it's kind of surprising how few conflicts get all the attention, especially in the US. For quite a while, it was all about the East Front (as a front, for the most part), the Bulge, D-Day, and occasionally Market-Garden. Oh, and Midway. The truth is that there are astonishingly few topics in military history that provide a balanced fight that's good for a game. The best ones tend to be involved one side getting to throw the punches at the beginning, with the other throwing the punches later on. That might explain why WWII has so many adherents (that and until recently there were quite a few veterans around) - the entire war was like that. 

And yet, there are tons of games that involve the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941. Usually involving the entire Great Patriotic War (as it's called in Russia), there are still quite a few games that focus solely on the events of 1941 and the German steamroller. I'm fairly certain that there was a certain amount of propaganda involved, us being in the midst of a Cold War with the Russians for forty years and during the era when most of us got into wargaming. As such, it's nice to see a few games starting to come out that cover the end of the war and put the shoe on the other foot. There have been games in the past on the subject, and perhaps these games are best for solo players simply because few of us want to be punching bags for an entire game.

Yet there are Bulge games everywhere, and they more and more often skip the later parts of the battle. If the Germans make it, it's over, and if they don't, it's over. So why fuss with the messy clean-up part?

A few games such as Barbarossa to Berlin and Empire of the Sun turn this idea on it's head by assuming that the Germans or Japanese are doomed for the most part. Not entirely, but by taking on two of the world's strongest industrial bases they certainly were setting themselves up for failure (arguably the Germans had the stronger case, and came the closest to pulling it off). As such, the German player in BtB watches their resources and units dwindle over time to the point where they literally hang on by their fingernails. At least they get about six turns at the start of the game where they run crazy. 

Still, very few games on the late war. Even Ted Raicer's upcoming Stalin's War doesn't even cover 1945, assuming that the Soviets are going to crush the Germans at that point and it's not much fun from a gaming perspective. Yet Compass Games has now published two designs covering the Eastern Front in 1945, Bitter End covering the encirclement of Budapest when the Hungarians refused to go over to the Russian side, and (ironically) Ted R's. Red Storm over the Reich, covering the Soviet push to Berlin. 

I've gotten the chance to set up RSotR on my game table (it barely fits with the leaves unextended, it's a two-mapper) and play through a turn, and while I think this is a hard go for the Germans, there's a pretty good game here. The game comes with three scenarios for different play styles, which I think is a good idea if perhaps solely intended to make the concept palatable. The historical scenario, which has the German forces right up against the Vistula in Poland at the start of the game, will result in massive losses for the Germans (largely due to being placed out of supply by the Soviet spearheads). One reviewer said something about nothing but a police dog and a wiener schnitzel stand between the Red Army and Breslau early on. However, the Soviets have to work hard to get to Berlin, take out the bunker and Hitler, *and* keep the Germans from keeping 5 VP. That may seem strange, but it reflects Stalin's concerns about his flanks and his directives to take pretty much everything in the country, both north and south, on the way to the capital. Plus there's this "Soviet Logistical Strain" thing, that kills momentum for three turns once the Russians get to the western map. Plus they don't get air support for a quarter of the game because their dirt airfields are on the soggy side. So it's not an easy game for the Soviets, just kind of depressing for the Germans.

To address this (and I'm not convinced it needed addressing - there's still a good game here), there are two options. The first, Operation Sleigh Ride, allows the German to pretend that Hitler had a clue and was willing to defend back a bit and in depth to prevent the massive Soviet encirclements. For a cost of 1VP, the Germans get to pull their units out of the historical starting position, and the Soviets still have to take Berlin in 8 turns. The second option assumes that Hitler was out of the picture for whatever reason and that the Nazi leadership turned to the military (Guderian) to pull their chestnuts out of the fire. This means that the Bulge never happened and those units were available to slow up the Russians instead. Coupled with the pullback, it means a much tougher slog for the Russians, but they get 50% more time to win the game. I think that adding 50% to the length of the game is a poor exchange when all you're doing is delaying the inevitable, and I like the simple desperation of the historical scenario, but it's nice that you get the option.

The game is extremely sequence heavy. There is a track just to keep track of what phase you are in, and you'll need it. There are no less than three or four supply checks for each side, and not counting advances after combat, five different movement phases for each side. Each turn. While this may seem to be a bit of overkill, I think it manages to reflect the different realities of each side pretty well. There is a definite trend in wargaming to more accurately reflect the command structures of each side differently, and I think that's a good thing. There are lots of ways to do it, and Raicer found a couple of pretty elegant ways to do it in this game, sequence of play included.

The other element of elegance I've noted are the movement rules. Most units in the game don't have a movement factor, they have a color coded box. Infantry get one, mech get another, and the Soviet Guard Rifle corps/armies get another (although it's fixed throughout the game). At the start of the major movement phases (there are three - assault, exploitation, and reorganization), you roll a die and that will tell you how many spaces each unit can move. For example, a 3 roll by the Soviets will give their Rifle units 4MP, their Guards Rifle units 6MP, and their Mech 10MP for the entire assault phase (for example - these numbers may not be exact, but they're close). 

Here's the trick, though. The Sovs will get to move three different times during the Assault phase - once before combat, once *during* combat, and once after in the "breakthrough" segment. So these points have to be spread out over the entire major phase, and this is done in about as elegant a way as you could do it. First, the Soviet player declares how many MP will be spent before combat. If he wants to fight, he has to leave his Rifle units with at least one MP, so in some cases that means they'll move one hex at best during this phase. If he declares more than 3MP, his arty can't fire that turn. All of the unit types have a marker on a movement remaining track, and their counters move down it that many spaces. Say the Russian declares a move of 3MP for each unit in this segment, so that would put us at 1/3/7 for the types mentioned above.

No one actually moves during combat, but it's taking time that the Soviet would otherwise have, so they roll a die to determine how long combat lasts in terms of MP - roll the die, half and round the number up if necessary for a result of 1-3. Down go the Soviet MP markers, and up goes the German reaction movement marker - reaction movement doesn't allow you to run away, and only mechs can use it, but it's invaluable for plugging where the holes look like they'll be. Chances are excellent that your Rifle units will use up their last points in this segment, but it's OK if they "go over" the limit - as long as they have a single MP before the roll, combat still happens. To continue the example, if I roll a "3" at this point, after combat my units will have MP of 0/1/5 remaining.

After German reaction, any units with MP still remaining can "breakthrough", although it should be mentioned that there are no overruns allowed at any point in the assault phase, which we're still in. I did say it was phase heavy. This is where the mechs do the encirclement of the units they just knocked down, putting them out of supply. They still have some chances to escape if the noose isn't tight enough, but it's a bad situation. Note also that the Germans just roll and move once (reaction excepted) in this phase, but then there's really no reason or even capability for them to do encirclements (although they do get mandated attacks from Hitler).

The other two movement phases, Exploitation and Reorganization, use new movement rolls for each side. Mech units can do overruns in Exploitation, although it's best to go after units you are pretty sure you'll wipe out as otherwise you're going to lose a step. No other combat is allowed in these phases, all the heavy lifting is done in the Assault phase. It's surprisingly elegant considering how many phases are in the game, and even though the Russians have a *lot* of special rules for movement during Assault (Guards Cav, for example, can move either all move before or after combat in this phase, but not both - apparently they were "committed" to the assault or able to move after), it becomes second nature after running through the process once.

This brings up another very interesting element of the game. Zones of control are semi-sticky - if you move into one, you stop (overruns excepted). You can move out of them, but only mech can infiltrate moving ZoC to ZoC. In combat, you can't attack from multiple hexes unless you have a mech in each attacking hex, and every unit projecting a ZoC into the hexes of the attackers has to be attacked in turn. Conversely, you can attack out of a single hex with no limitations at all - other adjacent enemies projecting ZoCs can be ignored. It's a simple rule that shows the coordination limitations involved, primarily in the Soviet army. 

The really interesting part, though, is that most German infantry units are one-steppers. If they take an asterisked combat loss, however, they can be flipped to their Kampfgruppe side, and eliminated units come back as these KG units. The trick is that the infantry have fairly low combat factors to start with, and as KGs many of them have an attack factor of zero. And, you see this coming, units with zero attack factors don't project ZoC. They also don't project ZoC if they are disrupted by artillery fire, or if they are out of supply. That means that your goal as the Soviets isn't so much to eliminate the units through combat, it's to make them ineffective through combat so that you can slide right by them and do encirclements. As such, spearheads do exactly what they're supposed to: the infantry and arty soften up the line so that the mech units can waltz through and surround the enemy. Making this all much easier to parse on the map is the fact that every unit that has no ZoC (and the Disrupted and OOS markers) have vertical white stripes on them, making it very obvious who exterts ZoC and who doesn't. The result is a very transparent system that shows off how combat was supposed to work at this level during this era. 

Not all is lost for the Germans, however. Even if they are in serious trouble, and with their MP cut in half for being OOS or disrupted it can be ugly, they are allowed to use a special type of movement called "roving cauldrons" that allows them to ignore enemy ZoC while moving. IF they move in one of three directions (toward the west or north), and IF they can be out of a Soviet ZoC when they're done moving. As such, mech units can usually get themselves out of a jam relatively easily so long as there's a hole for them to escape. It does an excellent job of modeling what happens if you *almost* finish the encirclement. All of these rules also show exactly how stupid it was to leave all of the units right up on the line waiting for the Soviet offensive to start, even dumber when you consider that the Forward Deployment of the Russian forces to the occupied territories in 1941 set them up for the mass encirclements the Germans pulled on them. Clearly one side learned their lessons while the other didn't. 

The Russians are set at the start for four spearheads that should result in at least a couple of encirclements in the early game in the center and south (especially the south, oh my). The north is full of good defensive terrain, and the Germans were more interested in protecting their ancestral territory rather than Poland, Slovakia, etc. There are fortresses, refugees fleeing from the big cities to try to get evacuated from the Baltic coast (which project ZoCs that impede the *Germans*), chrome for the bombing of Dresden, the effect of losing the industrial base in Silesia and the command base in Zoffen, and even a logistical limit on how far the Soviets can advance before their armored columns start to outrace their supply trucks. You can even bombard Russians using the Prinz Eugen. 

The game is pretty big, two standard 34"x22" maps joined together. The art is very nice and clear, although the various tables on the map are too small a type for me to read (there are bigger cardstock versions included with the game, fortunately). There are, thankfully, multiple spots where you get the effects of disruption, lack of supply, and logistical strain listed as well - I never understand why these things aren't de riguer in wargames - play aids should list, well, lists of stuff you aren't likely to remember. The terrain key doesn't mention which types kill ZoCs (forts, urban, major rivers after the freeze wears off), but I'm being picky. While the rules are a bit on the cavalier side (one of the main folks at Compass, Brien Miller, came from Avalanche and this may explain a lot), I've noticed that they did an excellent job covering the various confusions and mistakes for Silent War pretty effectively and early, so I'm hoping that RSotR will get the same treatment. 

And there are some confusions. Air units are listed as being able to both support combat and bombard, but the individual units are given stats for one type or the other, and the Germans have no support aircraft (although the combat rules mention both sides supporting). It will take you a few readthroughs to figure out exactly how movement (for both sides) works. And there are sections that summarize rules from other sections - the air rules, for example. I think that if you have a summary, you only need to refer the reader to it from the other applicable sections, there isn't a need to actually write out the rule multiple times, which leads to mistakes and confusion as to which one is the actual rule. 

A few other interesting elements of the game - you can't fight with a single infantry unit in a hex. Not at all. This emphasizes the materiel requirements for an offensive in an incredibly elegant fashion, in my book. Combat is about projecting force in an offensive or defensive capacity, so you figure out how much damage your factors are going to do to the other side. There are a small set of DRMs that take your terrain, air support, etc into account, and some units have multiple steps to show their toughness, but the "defense" factors are not so much about how much damage a unit can take as they are about how much damage a defending unit can inflict on an attacker. 

Replacements/reinforcements are also interesting. The Russians get one extra mech unit coming in late in the (historical) game, while the Germans are clearly more interested in surrendering to the Allies than the Russians, and so a lot of extra units are coming in from the west, the Courland pocket, etc for the Germans throughout the game. The Germans also get a lot of replacements, usually in the form of KG units (you can't flip the infantry units back to their original sides, you just bring in the destroyed KGs) but also some mech steps. The Soviet, on the other hand, gets to take replacements *once*, and then they get it for everyone - all flipped units come back to full strength, but you have to pick your time and there are other issues involved. Clearly, the Russians threw everything they had at the Germans for this final push from the start, and it's one of the few comforts the German player can take that he, at least, will have a pool of units to throw into the path of the onrushing juggernaut.

All in all I'm quite taken with the system. I've already screwed up a few rules (I missed that the roving cauldrons had to end movement out of ZoC, for instance - why not have a chart of ZoC rules on the map/play aids too?), but nothing terribly onerous. The units have their starting hexes listed on them, but setting this game up gave me a headache and I'll have to use the OOB sheets that come with the game next time - the type on the counters is just too tiny). The good news is that there is no reason to have a specific 1 2 Inf counter start on a particular space - there are no organizational rules in this game, only unit type is important. A good reason to keep the game sorted by unit type instead of by where they enter the board, I guess.

The only issue I have with this game (and with all contiguous multimap games - Great War in Europe is an exception as the maps don't connect physically) is that I can't store it. Also, my plexi sheet is *just* a little short in both dimensions, but that will only be a problem until the Germans collapse in East Prussia - the north end of the map is the Baltic Sea for the most part. As a result, this is a game that is likely to see table time, even solitaire, only when I know I have a period of time when the main table won't be in use or on VASSAL. Otherwise, it's a nice set of components, an under-addressed campaign of WWII, and a proven designer who brings some great ideas to the table in a moderately complex game while keeping things fairly streamlined. 

Like I mentioned earlier, I'm really starting to enjoy the insights that wargames bring to the history of a situation, and 18 years into the fall of the Soviet Union, we are getting access to more and more Russian and Eastern European sources that give us more informed game. When you have designers who can bring those insights to the gaming table, it's all good. 

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