Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Hell Of Stalingrad

I'm a sucker for new wargame systems - it's not that I don't like the classic hex-and-counter, IGO-HUGO mentality, it's just that I understand that there are many ways to skin a cat (or invade Russia) and that different systems will provide different insights into the history, doctrine, etc of a given conflict or battle. I didn't used to be this way. When CDGs came out in the mid-90's, I was completely uninterested (although to be fair, my lack of interest came from a lack of opponents and the system not being terribly conducive to solo play). In fact, I didn't get Hannibal, one of my favorite wargames, until after the Hill had folded and I was picking up *everything* by them that was on the shelves at that point. Of course, Hannibal is one of the most well regarded of the CDGs, no small feat as it was a) put out by the Hill and thus had rules that made you want to cry, and b) it was the *second* CDG published and was quite a step forward from We The People in many ways - multi-use cards, for one, which have been used in every CDG I'm familiar with with the sole exception of (arguably) Unhappy King Charles.

So, when a new game comes out with a radically different system, I tend to pick it up just out of curiosity if nothing else. The Hell of Stalingrad (HoS) is such a system. The question is, would it be a *good* system, or a *bad* system? Only Toto knows for sure...

I've gotten through one basic game playing solitaire, which I'm happy to say works pretty well for reasons I'll get into more later on. For those in a hurry, here are the particulars:

Pros - Relatively short game (I could see playing an advanced game in three hours, maybe four when teaching). Graphically rich (this may be a con to some). Intuitive system. Strong sense of history on a high level.

Cons - Graphically jarring. Relatively little tactical flavor, and what is there is very abstract. Game outcome will probably hinge on luck of the dice.

OK, now for a more complete breakdown:

Components - The game is made up of a few player mats (oddly spelled "matts" in the rules), a deck of building cards (very large), several dice, and a lot of cards (of the standard sleeve size). Cards do a lot of things - they are used to represent "formations," combat cards (resources or tactics attached to the formations), campaign cards that represent effects from higher echelon units, and "Carnage" cards that randomize several game functions (snipers, initiative, and hold actions). Everything seems pretty sturdy, other than the relatively light player mats which are on flimsy paper. It's nice to have large buildings, but you'll want to be very careful shuffling them as they are 4"x6" and can't be sleeved. However, the chances that being able to identify one of these cards will effect the game are slim unless the card in question is a Volga card and on top of the deck, but you can get around this by cutting the deck if it hasn't been shuffled in a while.

There are also quite a few large counters, all about 1" or 1"x1/2", which represent leaders, various status counters, and the units each side will throw into the mix. I recommend using a tray for these, as you will be pulling various units in and out pretty often. One thing about this game - units have a life span of something approaching a minute and a half. All of the units are of the "half" counter variety, so they are easy to see and use.

The rules are not going to be most people's cup of tea. I'm not a huge fan of games that describe the iconography for 12 pages, then talk about the sequence of play starting on page 17. Really. That said, if you have learned to read rules literally, then you should be OK. I found a few things that were not well explained, mostly involving depletion effects for Soviet formations, but in general you do what the component tells you to do. That said, this game will be more fun to learn if you can find a teacher, as it's really not that complex a game in terms of the mechanisms.

Sequence of Play (SoP) - The game works very simply: you play for 3 to 6 turns (basic and advanced versions, respectively), and every turn there are two phases. The first phase involves random higher echelon activity, drawing reinforcement formations, deploying buildings or Volga cards for districts that were taken by the Germans last turn, reconstituting depleted units, and finally deploying your forces to the various districts, of which there will be a maximum of four. In other words, the admin part of the game.

The second phase is the Battle phase, and this is where all of the excitement happens. Each district will see a separate battle played on it in turn, and for the most part anything that happens happens on that building. First, players execute the "vanguard" actions ad shown on the various formation cards played to that district. Next, an initiative draw from the Carnage deck determines who goes first and who gets the quick benefit shown on the building card. It also determines how many "hold" actions must be taken before the battle ends, as well as advancing the Fire track for that building. Then the battle starts in earnest.

Players get to do one of three things in turn, alternating between sides. You do a thing, then your opponent does a thing. The three things are hold actions, draw actions, or play combat card actions. If you do a hold action, you draw a Carnage card and choose which of two icons to implement. This action also reduces the Hold value on the building, established by the Initiative draw, by one, and once the last point has been taken then you evaluate who wins this battle (more below). Drawing just means that you follow the instructions on your Leader card, which generally means drawing combat cards up to your hand max.

However, it's managing your hand of combat cards that's important, and even more importantly it's done asymmetrically to a point for each side. In general, these cards will add units to the fight for your side, or take others out from the other side (although some German cards *add* units to the Soviet side, the result of creating rubble they can use as a fort). For the Germans, it's relatively easy - each formation can add X cards (improved by one if their leader token is at +1), but the combat card type has to match the unit type. For example, you can't play a combat card with a General icon on it unless the unit has a leader token. You can't play Infantry combat cards on Armored formations. Many of the German units are combined, and can take any combat card. Again, you just do what the card tells you to do, and move on.

Soviet formations can only add so many "points" of combat cards, which can be modified in two ways - through veteran leaders (as with the Germans), but also through "motivation" units - you can discard a "motivation" unit along with a Rifle unit on the building to improve the Patriotism value of a formation by one per unit pair discarded from the building. Some Soviet combat cards have a value of 0 and can always be played, but there will be times that you don't have those types of cards and need just one bump to get that Overrun icon that will let you add a formation to that district when you really need one.

There are a host of other rules involving combat, but that's the gist. When the Hold value drops to 0, you do a "break check" for that district. This is possibly the part that will annoy the hell out of you, especially those of you who dislike games that appear to determine the winner on the final die roll (as happened in my solitaire run-through). The process is very simple: the side that has the most formations in the district gets one die (ties mean both sides get a die). The same goes for number of units, so having 20 units while your opponent has 3 is just as valuable as if you have 3 and 2 respectively. The Germans get one die for every Inferno marker (done by advancing Fire markers through card effects, in comparison to the Soviet Buckets removing Inferno markers), and the Soviets get additional dice equal to the defensive value of the building. Roll 'em, and whoever rolls the higher single number wins. Ties go to who has the most of that number. If there's still a tie, things get bloody. If the Soviets win, the building stays in place and a few units might hold on. If the Germans win, there will be a new building (or, if they're lucky, a Volga card) next turn.

If the Germans get Volga cards in all four districts, or if at the end of the turn there are no building cards in play (remember that you add them back in at the start of the next turn), they win. Otherwise, the Soviets win. As such, as more and more Volga cards come up, ending the battle in favor of the Germans in that district, the better chance the Germans will win. In my game, it came down to one last die roll for the Nail Factory in District B, with five dice rolled for both sides. The Soviets won by rolling one '6'. I saw one German die beat four Soviet dice in one case. This is the sort of thing that will drive a lot of wargamers nuts, although to be quite honest almost every wargame is going to be subject to statistical outliers and I don't see that as a problem in and of itself.

What this means is that you are trying to build up your break dice in each battle as you fight it. That means trying to win the battles for Infernos, most units, and most formations. That's an important thing to keep in mind.

One thing that really caught my attention was that the game is supposed to reflect what a meatgrinder Stalingrad was, especially for the Russians who killed over 20,000 of their *own* men to win. Units go into each district with each formation and combat card played, and their life expectancy is about as long as it takes for the other player to play their combat cards. If the unit is "elite" it will have an effect on the opposing units, usually killing one (defender chooses, can't kill shielded units), or precision killing one (attacker chooses *any* one unit). A card that gives the Germans three HMG elite units would result in six (!) unshielded Soviet units being removed, all in one card play. Once the elite unit is played, it flips to it's "core" side, which will show the basic unit types (recon, infantry, armor, motivator).

I see this as a game where players are trying to manage a limited set of resources in the form of formations and combat cards. While you can discard and redraw up to any number of cards for your action, that's an action where you are doing very little to hurt your opponent and nothing to help yourself. Also, because the formations can only take so many combat cards, at some point you can no longer play combat cards and will need to either move the battle closer to it's end through Hold actions or  keep doing Draw actions just to prevent the battle from ending quicker than you'd like. In the end, though, it just comes down to a few dice that determine the outcome.

I should also note that each district has six buildings in them, one of each set being right next to the river (and resulting in the next card being a Volga card). By drawing buildings for replacements until you get one that belongs to that district (or a Volga card) you really aren't too sure how many battles the Germans will have to win in order to break through to the river. In my game, one district got a Volga card at the start of the second turn, and two more on the start of the third turn (although both of those were the cards on the river's edge). The fourth district was never taken by the Germans through three attempts (the Nail Factory in District B). Again, it is possible for the Germans to win in one if the right building cards get drawn, or they may need to fight through all 24 buildings to win.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that this is not a game for people who like games to proceed in an orderly fashion approximate to the historical record. This is a game for people who like Combat Commander, where you don't have a lot of control over the overall situation, but instead have to do what you can with what you have. I could see there being a lot of Draw actions in order to get Combat cards that have Overrun actions to add formations to a battle, for example, sort of like drawing to find an Advance card in CC:E/M/P.

There is no question that this is a game for a new generation of wargamers, people who have played CCGs and like lots of vibrant colors and colorful language in their rules (no swearing, just a lot of purple prose, unless you count the word "hell" which is used extremely liberally throughout). For ASL players, this game won't fly.

Highly recommended for non-wargamers interested in a strongly themed historical conflict game, as well as for wargamers who like Combat Commander's simplicity and chaos management. Otherwise, I strongly recommend you try before you buy, as even the basic game can take a couple of hours if you're teaching it (but I suspect only 90 minutes once you've learned it).

I should mention the "advanced" game, which adds more combat cards that have more complex effects (usually in text form instead of icons), as well as "hero" cards that mix things up even more and give a stronger sense of story, the one thing that the basic game seems to be missing compared to Combat Commander. I'm looking forward to trying those out in the near future, athough it does double the length of the game, which makes me think that those Soviet Heroes are pretty staunch.

BTW, a well-crafted VASSAL module of this would make the game playable within about 40 minutes for the basic game, maybe no more than 90 for the advanced version.

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