Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WBC West - Day 4 - Stalin's War

I've been trying a lot of report styles in my games, and I'm finding that different games benefit more from different styles. Successors worked well with a turn-by-turn posting, A Most Dangerous Time worked well with groups of turns. For Stalin's War, I've decided to go with more of a review format as I don't think that the game Dave and I played was particularly interesting or illuminating as a game, mostly because I think it requires a fairly aggressive German opening and that didn't really happen in our game.

Dave and I tried out Stalin's War, the GMT Games title that got to my house about a week before WBC West on pre-order. Dave has been doing some reading on the Great Patriotic War and was very interested in playing a game that covered the entire conflict, so Stalin's War it was.

Dave is free to correct me, but I'm pretty sure that he hasn't played many Eastern Front campaign games, and certainly not Mr. Raicer's previous effort in the arena, Barbarossa to Berlin (arguably an East Front game with sub games in Western Europe and the Med). I'm not terribly sure that having played that earlier title would have given Dave a better idea of the specifics of the theater, but there's no question that either game is a good way to game that particular conflict at a very accessible complexity level.

Our game was a learning game, and as such we were both making lots of mistakes. I'm coming to the conclusion that I simply shouldn't worry too much about not playing a perfect game, and just try stuff to see what happens. In the end, Dave conceded, but a big part of that concession had to do with me wiping out a German stack that was OoS, but that was also in Cancel Retreat terrain that he could have held onto. Oh well, it was getting close to dinner time anyway, and if nothing else it did a magnificent job of showing how important the transition from offense to defense is for the Germans.

There are a ton of articles out there about the differences between SW and BtB, the same for the ruleset, so I will concentrate on my impressions of the game, what you need to be extremely aware of, and whether or not I liked it enough to make the effort to bring it to the table more often. That's a really big question, because I've already played two games that were new to me this week that I liked quite a bit, A Most Dangerous Time and A Victory Denied. Will SW make the cut for future sessions?

First off is the production work. In general, everything is pretty nice, from the counters to the rulebook. In fact, the rules are pretty good, with only a few things that are a bit on the vague side. The cards seem to have been well proofed, with only a few cards in the German deck that should say Total War but instead say Blitzkrieg. No effect on the game once you know this, although it was a surprise to me when Tex and Eric played the game yesterday and I learned about it. The rules in particular are very concise, have good use of graphics and whitespace, and are pretty clearly marked (other than the usual "where the hell do we switch over to Total War" part). I am using a PDF version of the rules on my iPad using GoodReader, which allows me to insert bookmarks. Take the time to do this if you are doing the same thing, it makes rules lookups extremely fast if you have good bookmarks for every relevant section (and also for those rules you always forget).

Then there's the map. Actually, the map itself is fine, if a little bit tight - it's difficult to see terrain, and the offensive side can get a little heavy on the counter density, but otherwise it's great. I'm happy that the map includes Baku and the Urals, and don't mind the loss of Finland. The problem is that the map takes up about half of the sheet, oversized boxes for tracking activation round types, and a surprising array of CRTs and TECs (two!) that are all repeated on the separate play aid sheets. Certainly we've all seen enough war-games that we can figure out that we only need these things in one place. Even dumber when they could have put things like OoS effects, Winter '42 effects, etc. Given how well the rules were laid out and the information on the counters is so effective (single step, no ZoC, setup info, all very useful, although I'd still like to see reinforcement card numbers on the counters as well).

But I'm niggling about the board layout. It just seems so counter-intuitive that so much useful information is left off in favor of so much repeated information. How about the game itself?

The first thing that strikes me, especially as the Soviets, is how critical map position is for every unit you have. Because of the way German armor exploits using the Blitz mechanism (which relies on attacking into clear, desert, or town terrain), it's very important to defend in depth, but also important to try to defend in non-blitz-able terrain, such as forest, swamp, and cities (or behind the major rivers). The Germans can't burn steps like the Soviets can, a staple of most EF war-games, so they need to avoid losing steps whenever possible, and that means surrounding the Soviets instead of taking them on directly.

The second huge factor is that you can move any unit that isn't in a ZoC without spending OPs, but at the same time you can't move them unless you have selected an OPs action. Whereas in most CDGs you have to actually spend OPs on a space in order to move or fight with them, in this game you can move a lot of things. However, the rule that allows you to let one unit hold the line and any extra units in the space can move freely shows extremely clearly the doctrinal differences between the early Soviets and Germans. The Soviets, because they have so few units, are almost always the only unit in their hex, while the Germans can afford to stack and allow their ZoCs to create a line since the Soviets can blitz until they get tank units. BtB does the same thing (as well as coordinated attacks) because they don't get mech units until later in the game. The trick for the Germans, as mentioned above, is how to change up from an offensive formation to defensive, as blitzing tanks will take them down just as fast as they will with the Russians early.

Another big change is the leap from Loss Factors to Steps as the unit of attrition. The CRTs look much different than they do in PoG or BtB, with a max of three steps lost at the higher LCU levels. There are also results that only affect SCUs, mostly on the SCU table. LCUs are limited to one unit involved in a combat per side, as well as one per hex. Three Panzers (not Sov armor) in a hex are treated as an LCU, as all are SCUs in this game. In fact, SCUs are much more effective on a defensive basis than in the earlier games, although a huge number of the Soviet SCUs at the game start can't be replaced. Combat definitely works differently in practice than in BtB, and a good understanding of that is critical. Add in that there are no SCU reserves (once the LCU loses it's last step, the unit isn't replaced, aside from the four step German armies). That's a little jarring for the Soviets early on, watching all these units evaporate but none go to the Eliminated Unit box and nothing in reserve.

Like BtB, the Soviets don't win just by keeping the Germans from winning. They need to take the Germans down by the end of the game. However, there are a lot of ways for the Russians to get victory points, especially in the second half of the game. That simple idea was a big part of what made BtB a winner for me, and it's here as well. Sadly, we didn't get that far, but from playing the Soviets in 1941 I can only imagine that the Germans have a very similar experience in 1944/5.

Finally, there are many reinforcements for the Soviets in Total War that require existing units on the board that you replace, and in some cases (like upgrading Soviet infantry armies to mech Guard units) you want to be really sure that you've got those units on the board to take full advantage. You'll also want to remember that you can replace reduced old units with full strength new units, which just increases the already sizeable Russian replacement advantage.

I found there was a lot to think about, especially my first time out, so we played pretty slowly and had quite a bit of rules lookups. That said, it was a very interesting game, made very manageable by the scale and unit density (and ruleset). I would say that there is actually more chrome in SW than in BtB, especially if you ignore the Invasion mechanism in the latter. Things like German Mobile Defense, a slew of special rules for the first couple of turns, supply lines that run to rail systems, units that don't always exert ZoCs, and the dangers of getting Blitzed in a bad way, all require a lot of remembering. Fortunately, Chad Jensen posted a set of cards that list the various rules for each turn, and they help a lot. I recommend them for your first few games.

The game should play pretty quickly once you've gotten the rules down, as there are only five rounds per turn, and about 18 turns, so 36 fewer activations than, say, PoG. However, since every OPs turn involves more than just 2-5 spaces being activated, and placement being such a crucial part of the game, I found the OPs turns to take quite a bit longer, at least for me in at the point where I don't know the map as well as I need to.

While this is not the first hex-based CDG (Empire of the Sun did that, but it's a *much* more involved and complex game from a rules standpoint, if not from a execution standpoint), it is the first game that does it in a land-based game and does it well. I would expect to see a lot more of this style coming out over the next few years, and it's a nice refresh on the genre. However, like many CDGs that have come out over the last few years, many will be less than stellar designs and I suspect that Stalin's War will remain a classic, just as Paths of Glory has. Will it have the same "scripting" issues that so many find uninteresting in BtB? I suspect there are a lot of events that need to be played in a timely fashion, but at this point only time will tell.

As for SW, though, I expect it will be a game that generates a lot of good tension and a lot of games will come down to the wire. I'm looking forward to getting that far in the game in the future, hopefully sooner than later.

Sent from my iPad

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