Thursday, December 03, 2009

Aitch Eee Double Toothpicks Of Stalingrad

I did an out of the box review of The Hell Of Stalingrad (HoS) a couple of posts back, and finally got the chance to play a face-to-face game with Jesse. Here's the updated verdict on the game.

Two player is definitely more enjoyable than playing the game solo. However, there are two specific solitaire games (one per side) available on the designer's website that are very different than the base game, and I have not tried them. I'm simply saying that playing the game as published is more interesting with an opponent than by oneself.

We played one game with the basic rules to get up to speed, and a second with the "advanced" rules. Our first game took about 90 minutes after we got things set up, and the second took about two hours. Note that the first game involved exactly five battles (we skipped a turn on the second turn because of the Soviet campaign card, and only one building hadn't been taken by the Germans), and eight in the second (we skipped all of the odd numbered turns because I drew almost all of the hourglass cards!) In both cases, there was one fight for one district to determine the winner. I won the first game, Jesse took the second.

The Advanced rules only add combat cards and the game takes six turns instead of three. The new combat cards include Heroes (combat cards without a cost, subject to snipers), as well as some really powerful combat cards that can cause a lot of hassle for the other side. We did not play four player, but those rules look very much to be a work in progress, with very little in the way of fleshing out how things are "supposed" to work, and I have no interest in trying them out.

While we didn't do enough dice to determine if there was a weighting problem with the red dice in the set, I rolled seven 1's out of nine dice thrown (1's are bad) and I abandoned those dice ASAP. I am definitely going to invest in a good set of balanced dice in the very near future, as I'm finding most games come with cheap dice that have problems.

I found the advanced combat cards/heroes to be extremely powerful. Most of them give you the use of the card, followed by an additional action. There are intercept cards that prevent their use, but there's no question that you can get completely screwed with these cards, much more so than with the "basic" combat cards. For instance, I had a card that would give me *two* overruns (adding formations to the building fight, a big advantage), and a Stalin's Ghost card that would allow me to play it essentially for "free" on a maxed out unit. Unfortunately, Jesse played a combat card that forced me to discard my entire hand before I played it (I had to kill three rifle units of my own to use it, and so had to get the rifle units on the building first). The fact that the hero cards don't count against your formation limits is a nice touch, as is the fact that they can be shot at by snipers. I did think that the cards that gave you two additional break dice (or stole one from your opponent) were a little strong in a set that was already very powerful, and there aren't enough interceptions to defend with any confidence when you do pick a card to negate.

That said, there is no reason to play this game with the basic version unless you are teaching to a non-wargamer or neither of you has played before. The advanced cards add a lot of tension to the game because of their power, and I can see redraw actions becoming more prevalent as a result, much as good Combat Commander players know when to discard their cards rather than taking a turn.

The biggest issues the game has run up against have been the gaudy component artwork, the oddly organized rules, and the Break Test that determines who wins the battle. We didn't mind the art at all, it didn't interfere with the iconography that is so critical in this game, and it is evocative of hell on earth, so I give it a pass. The rules are a bit hard to learn from reading the first time, and there are some parts that are simply not cleanly defined in the advanced rule cards, but in general everything is indeed there.

I found the Break Tests to be about what they were in my solo flythrough - a very small set of random events that determine the outcome of the game. I have two thoughts on this. The first is that this is not a game, or even really a simulation, as much as a diversion. That is not a bad thing. Most solitaire and coop games are diversions as well, even though there is a system to "beat". What makes these things a diversion instead is that while skill is required to have a better chance to win, ultimately the winner is determined by random elements. The biggest thing that HoS will have to fight in terms of image is that there are few people who understand how rolling 3 dice to your opponent's 6 improves your odds compared to 4 dice against 6. In other words, what does getting one extra die buy you in a given situation? Until we have a clear idea of how much things improve as a result of devoting extra resources (formations, combat cards) to a battle, all we have is a very vague idea of whether we get a significant improvement in our chances and that's just not good enough.

My second thought is that the game is asymmetrical, and that the Soviets need to carefully consider which forces to devote to which districts, and which to just let go. In other words, if they try to defend everything, they are likely to get nothing. That may mean token resistance in some cases, or even none. There is a very real danger that, by the end of turn 4 in the advanced game (turn one in the basic game) that this will have been the last turn if a time increment campaign card is drawn and there are no buildings on the board from the last turn, as you don't replace buildings on the very last turn. Since you draw campaign cards before you replace buildings, it's a very real possibility and the major reason why both of our games ended with a single building to be fought over. Given that this game is a diversion rather than a game/simulation, I don't think that's a bad thing and it will add tension, and I think it makes the Soviet side a very difficult side to play for new players.

The good news is that both Jesse and I enjoyed the game, despite it's flaws. This would make an excellent evening/filler game at WBC West, for example. We'll definitely play again in the future, and I'll take a copy to GameStorm in the spring for pick-up games. I don't think I'd pack it were I traveling by air, however.

The follow up game in the series, Fires of Midway, is supposed to be close to publication, and it will be interesting to see how the system maps to a much different conflict. I'll definitely pick it up, as I believe this is truly a very novel game concept with a lot of good, fresh ideas. However, as with most first titles it's a bit of an odd duck, as they say, in this first iteration, and while good it will definitely stir considerable controversy and many grognards will avoid it (and should if they like a lot of control over their situation).

I will say this - It's a vastly better game than The Kaiser's Pirates, no matter how many you play with.

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