Monday, October 12, 2009

In Denial

Chuck came over today to try out the recent MMP title A Victory Denied, designed by Adam Starkweather, who developed the American version of A Victory Lost, one of the high points of hex and counter wargaming over the past five years. AVL is a very simple design without a ton of chrome (arguably the most complex part of the game is the exceptions you make for major rivers) combined with a chit pull activation system with a twist. The result was what will eventually be a classic thrust and parry wargame that requires close attention to detail without a huge amount of downtime (assuming Stavka isn't pulled).

AVD has been in the works for some time, but for some reason it wasn't making it's preorder numbers very quickly despite the popularity of AVL, so when it did come out I was very excited. Would the scale and situation of the post-Stalingrad Soviet offensive to the Don and beyond countered by Manstein's "backhand blow" translate well to the German advance on Moscow via Smolensk 18 months earlier, with radically different armies and goals?

The answer is that I'm not quite sure yet.

First, some of the differences between the games, point by point:

  • Russian Activations: In AVL, the activations are only for units within range of the specific HQ activated. In AVD, an activation chit can activate not only the HQ in question, but every HQ that is in range of the first HQ, as well as any HQ in range of those HQs, and so on [Note: you only activate the HQs in range of the first HQ, there is no further chaining. The confusion came from use of the word "activate" to mean both as a result of the chit pull as well as for any units and HQs in range of that HQ]. If you've got your HQs placed correctly, every chit pull is a Stavka pull for the Russians. 
  • German Activations: The Germans have 9th Army HQs that activate any HQ they wish on the board, acting in some ways like the Manstein chits from AVL. However they do *not* activate any mech units. The Germans have 3rd and 2nd Pz Gp chits that *do* allow them to activate mech units from those organizations so long as they are within three or four hexes of each other. Most importantly, they have the Guderian chit, which isn't put in the cup but can substitute for any chit pull and activate the 2nd Pz Gp. There are multiples of each type of chit other than Guderian.
  • Mandatory Activation Chits: Supply, German Air Power, reinforcements, and Soviet arty are all chits now as well, and ones that are in the cup every turn (except arty on turn 1). Arty lets the Soviets make some 3-1 attacks on the board (maybe) for free, Air Power gives Stuka units back to the Germans. 
  • Supply Chit: Supply no longer happens at a predetermined time, now it's part of the chit pull mechanism. When it shows up, a few things happen - The Russian can put German units out of supply every turn (the number depending on which turn it is) that halve their movement and attack. Then any OOS units are marked Isolated, which halves all of their values. Finally, the Soviets can voluntarily relocate their HQs, which can be very important as the situation is very fluid.
  • Reinforcements: Also now tied to a chit rather than a turn phase. Soviets get units from their reserves, off-board units get to move during the reinforcement phase (there are no rail lines in this game to bring them in, you use "strategic movement" instead). There is also the Minsk Pocket to deal with, which I'll discuss below. 
  • Asymmetrical Combat: Germans roll a d6, Soviets a d10. The extra numbers on the Soviet die basically repeat the low (read: crappy) results, so a 6 on their die is great, a 7 not so much. However, if they roll a 0 (10), they toss in a random elite unit from a cup to the mix and recalculate the odds! In other words, when the Soviets attack, the results can be wacky. Otherwise the aim is the same as in AVL - surround units and hope they have to retreat.
  • Victory Conditions: Like AVL, you have specific spaces you want to take on the board for VP. Unlike AVL, those spaces will have varying VP values that you won't know until the end of the game (unless the Russians take back one of the VP spaces, when a random token is placed face up in that space). Also like AVL, the Russians get points for killing German mech units, but unlike AVL the favor isn't returned. In fact, the Russians don't actually *lose* any units unless they are isolated when destroyed, they just go back in the reserve and elite pools.
  • Stacking: Two units per hex, as in AVL. However, Soviets can't put two "tan" units in the same hex (their "normal" units), but can have two so long as at least one is red (elite). 
  • German Mech Fragility: The big tanks are, to a high degree, even more fragile than in AVL, having a defense of 2 (but an attack of 9). These units need to be protected, as they are worth between 4 and 6 VP each for the Soviets at game end.
  • Convoluted Victory Conditions: Major wackiness here. The game length and how victory is computed relies heavily upon a die roll at the end of turn 6. At that point, Hitler may want the Germans to take Moscow, so the game runs to turn 10. If he's distracted, the game runs to turn 8. It's also possible that the German gets to pick which set of victory conditions he wishes. I guess this is historical, putting the German commanders in the same frame of mind (what the hell are we trying to do here exactly?), but for gamers who like things nailed down a bit more, it adds yet more chaos to an already fairly chaotic game. Which is not to say that I don't like the idea, it certainly makes for an entertaining solitaire game.
All in all, the game has a different feel because of the different situation (Russians popping up everywhere in the middle of turns, German infantry keeping the Minsk pocket closed), but also because so many units can be activated at once. The German disconnect between their infantry and mech units is very interesting, and presents the Germans with some puzzles as the game gets going. The Russian use of specific HQ activation chits combined with being able to relocate those HQs when the Supply chit is drawn (or placing reinforcement HQs when the Reinf chit is drawn) means that things may not go exactly as planned. Given that this game simulates the German Army at the end of it's logistical supply lines, reaching for a military objective that's one or two leaps further out than even the blitzkrieg is particularly confident in, that sort of wackiness is warranted. Make no mistake, this game is going to be *very* different every time you play *because* you never know how things will play out in the chit pulls, even more so than in AVL.

One of the particularly interesting parts of the campaign is the Minsk Pocket. Located just to the west of the map, the German 9th Army had bottled up some Soviet units in Minsk and had to decide whether those units should be supporting the continuing mech advance and risking a breakout of Soviet units, or stay put. The risk drops as the game progresses, and on turn 4 the pocket collapses entirely. However, during that time the Germans have to evaluate if they are keeping to their timetable or not. The more German units that leave the encirclement, the more chance that the Soviets may get favorable mods to their attacks, more units popping up on the board, and even some VP. By turn 3, however, it's much more unlikely that these things will happen, but it does give the German a bit of a way to counter a particularly bad first turn chit pull sequence.

The net result is that the Germans have almost nothing on the board early but their mech units, and as they advance it will clearly not be enough units to do what they want, especially if they keep the various Pz Gps close enough to activate them all. By turn 4 or 5, the infantry has come forward just as the mech units start to run out of gas and the Soviets begin to appear in earnest, as well as getting better quality units.

So, after a half game with Chuck, how do I feel about this game, especially in comparison to AVL? First off, I have some problems with the components. The color scheme in particular between the 2nd and 3rd Pz Grps is stupid - one has a grey body and black stripe across the top, the other is reversed. HQs just have the body color with no stripe, although to be fair they aren't activated along with the mech units. The map has a similar look to AVL, although it's difficult to differentiate cities vs towns, and the VP hexes can be a bit of a chore to locate on the map as they use very washed out colors and small icons. Finally, it can be difficult to see where the roads run through forest hexes. They use the same parallelogram symbols for tank units as in AVL, although as in that game there are silhouetted alternate counters (one of which has the wrong values and you'll want to use the "modern" symbol unit instead). I find these symbols to be hard to parse, especially in a game where the difference between mech and non-mech is so critical, but at least I'm given a choice in the matter.

As I said before, one of the charms of AVL is that every chit pull tends to generate a relatively small amount of activity resulting in low downtime, at least until the STAVKA chit gets pulled and the German can go run errands and take the dogs for a walk. In AVD, you can have every unit on the board activate, or at least a significant portion of them, especially as the game gets going. While there seem to be a smaller number of units on the board, at least for the Soviets early, once the Minsk Pocket collapses the game gets a lot more involved and a lot more units on the board.

After one play, and only through the early turns, it's very hard for me to give a recommendation for this game in either direction. On the one hand, while we had some rules look ups for things like what you do during the Reinf and Supply chit pulls, the game is nearly as elegant and well developed as AVL was, so you spend a lot more time playing instead of learning the rules. On the other hand, those 9th Army chit pulls are going to make for a very long game for the Russians in terms of downtime. [Note: as mentioned before, you don't activate everything that chains to everything else. As such, there is no STAVKA chit pull that will trigger the entire board, and thus nowhere near as much downtime and downside as I'd imagined.]

Perhaps the biggest issue is that of chaos. As I've said before, I'm a fan of appropriate chaos, and I believe that this game has it. That said, it seems that the outcome of the game will in large part be determined by which of the victory conditions is decided at the end of turn 6. Randomizing when the reinforcements and supply mechanisms kick in is something else that will add tension, but will annoy the hell out of those who struggle with luck and prefer a more controlled game. Like Warriors of God and Combat Commander, this may not be your game if you like executing a plan from the word go. If, on the other hand, you don't mind seeing what the dice and chits throw at you and can adapt, this may be a game you'll get along with better.

Either way, it's a slugfest.

One important note: The game comes with a sheet of errata that is very important to understand, although it's not a lot of errata. There are also a couple of rules with clarifications and changes on the 'Geek, but they are part of the game description rather than a specific file or forum, and they do not include the errata that comes with the game! To my mind, errata affects the ruleset, and a piece of scrap paper in the box is *not* part of the ruleset, so put the information on it in the same place as the rest of the errata. We're talking three paragraphs here, certainly there is no good reason *not* to include it all in one place.

We'll have to see when Chuck and I get back to this game. We spent a good five hours on it, about an hour per turn, although much of that was getting to understand the changes and I figure it's closer to 40 minutes per turn or less once you're familiar with the system and the situation. At 8 to 10 turns, that's a full day and maybe more, but not far off from the time length of AVL. Just don't go in thinking you'll be done in four hours your first go (unless you let the Germans run to Moscow early).

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