Monday, May 10, 2010

Stalin's War - A *Very* Early Impression

I'm a big CDG fan, have been ever since I discovered the genre of wargaming back in the early '00s. From Successors to Paths of Glory to Hearts and Minds, the concept allows gamers to get deep into not only the military history, but also the political, economic, and social events surrounding them.

The latest (and I mean latest) CDG out the door from GMT Games is Ted Raicer's Stalin's War, which covers the Eastern Front (sans Finland) in WW2 from start to finish. Unlike most CDGs, this one is hex-based, and you don't use Ops to move units that aren't in zones of control. And it's very easy to avoid being in a ZOC in this game, as all non-mech SCUs (the small counters that represent smaller organizations such as corps for the Germans and armies for the Sovs) don't have them, nor do any units that are OOS. Instead Ops are used to move units that *are* in enemy ZOCs and to also attack. There is also a special Blitz mechanism that allows mech units to advance after combat.

If you're thinking that this game is WW2:B2B but with a higher degree of focus, you'd be wrong.

There are a few other novel ideas at work here - to control operational tempo, you start "losing" Ops if you keep playing cards for Ops, starting with the second consecutive card, losing an extra Ops every turn from every card. On the other hand, it's very possible to play no card at all and still get an attack under certain conditions.

The map is, surprisingly, very small in terms of playing area. In fact, I'd say it's something like 35-40% of the entire map surface, the rest being devoted to charts, tracks, and boxes. Compared to a game like Paths, it's a little jarring, especially since they decided to put the Terrain Charts and Combat Charts in VERY LARGE TYPE on the map as well as on both player aids. I'd much prefer that they put *other* material on the charts in a case like this, such as OOS and Russian Winter effects. I suspect that the developer saw that some playtesters liked charts on the map, some on player aids, and split the difference. The result, for those considering development in the future, is to piss on pretty much everyone. Doubling up info is a waste of time and effort, don't do it.

Counter density is very small, on the order of B2B if you just take the East Front into account. Interestingly, there are no panzer Armies in this game, just corps, but three of them equal an LCU. In addition, there are lots of "starred" results on the SCU CRT, which means no lost LCU steps. The German, however, needs to be very careful not to lose too many panzer steps, they only get so many per RP play and they only get *one* of those in almost every turn.

Also of interest in the large number of Soviet SCUs that just evaporate after one hit, never to return. Unlike the "original" rules for B2B, however, the Russian reinforcement cards come out on a set schedule, and the Russians get to use them for Ops as well as the event, just like the Commonwealth reinforcements in Shifting Sands. The Russians still get the borscht kicked out of them, but they also come back in spades.

One element that I can see being a particular problem in this game is that it will be hard for the Germans to get through their Blitzkrieg deck twice before Total War comes along (there are two decks for each side, just like B2B). That means that critical cards like Hitler Takes Command and Taifun may come out at times that completely screw you up for heavy Ops turns, which you'll do primarily in the first two full turns. Raicer has come under fire for too-scripted games in B2B, I hope this doesn't have the same problem (although it's not a problem for me in B2B), although since there are no Invasions (the source of the problem in B2B) I may be worried about nothing.

We'll have two games going, one Tuesday and one Wednesday at WBC West next week, and I'll post on both of them as the week goes on. We're playing both games with the optional bidding rule to add Soviet RPs in turn 3, as apparently it's hard for the Soviets to get up to speed with how the game works. The Blitz mechanism requires the Sovs to defend in depth, although with so few units that generate ZOCs early that's easier said than done.

Also interestingly - there is no Reserve pool, as in B2B. Instead, the Germans have four steps to their LCUs (aside from the Kampfgruppe units like Holldit), and the Soviets just send them straight to the Elim box after two steps are gone. No more making sure you can cover your losses. However, German LCUs don't come back for a few turns, so you want to husband those last steps carefully. Finally, there is a stacking limit of one LCU per hex, although you can throw another three SCUs into the hex without any problem. Since Blitzes allow all mech units in not only the Blitz hex, but all surrounding hexes, to exploit, there is ample opportunity for careful placement during the game, and I expect it will take a couple of run throughs before I feel like I can maximize my mech forces effectively as I do in B2B.

I'll also mention that the game comes with a lot of supporting material in the Playbook, including strat notes, design notes, and an extensive and very informative example of play that runs through the first two and a half turns. Be warned that if you follow along on the board there are several moves that don't detail all of the units that get moved, and at times I'm pretty sure that the Events Played markers aren't in the right place, but then again we're all pretty used to examples of play that are not quite as robust as we'd like in wargaming. There is also an extended example of play at the GMT website (and on CSW and the 'Geek as well) that is in the spirit of the old General Series Replays, but there is very little detailed information on the mechanisms and much more on the overall strategy and tactics, so start with the Playbook first as you learn the game.

As for components, they are very serviceable, although the cards seem a little fragile and I'd sleeve them immediately. The counters are a bit on the plain side, but very functional. The cards look remarkably like their B2B brethren, but with different art (and different effects). The rulebook is excellent, with clear concise language, clear definitions, and a lot of white space, graphics, and examples/notes. It can be read easily in an hour if you aren't constantly interrupted.

Also, let's get one thing straight. It's "Raicer" pronounced "Racer". It is not Racier, like Ray-Seer, or Ray-See-A. Every time Ted puts a new game out, everyone spells and pronounces the name wrong. Raicer.

More next week.

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