Monday, November 15, 2010

The Barbarossa Campaign - Out Of The Box

As you can imagine, Sunriver took quite a bit out of me. I've done a bit of gaming over the past couple of weeks, but not a lot that was particularly new to me. However, I've gotten the chance to play a couple of new games very recently, and thought I'd share my opinions of them.

First up is the Victory Point Games title The Barbarossa Campaign, a reworking of a DTP solitaire game that's been around for a while.

Whenever I hear there's a new game on Barbarossa, the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union (including a few recently appropriated countries or portions thereof) by Nazi Germany, I have to wonder what such a title will bring that's new to the hobby. Barbarossa is perhaps the most gamed subject occurring during World War II, with the only real competitors being D-Day and The Battle of the Bulge (and then mostly in the US). It was the largest war in history, with tens of millions of men involved. Some of the biggest battles in history took place during what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War, including the one that broke the back of the Germans at Stalingrad.

Of course, Barbarossa really only entails the initial operations by the Germans, as it was their code name for the invasion, so the game's name is a bit of a misnomer, but at the same time any wargamer or military historian will recognize that the game encompasses the entire war, running up through the Spring of 1945. TBC actually runs into Summer of 1945, presumably to allow the Germans to hold on long enough to eke out a moral victory of sorts.

For the record, I have gotten through about 80% of a campaign game, which lasts 17 turns if it goes the distance and is listed as taking about 2-3 hours in the game's printed materials. I've spent closer to 4 at this point, but then again I'm learning the game as I go, and while this is a fairly simple game it takes a much different tack than most games on the subject and thus requires a lot of study to keep things moving forward. I would expect future games to take much less time, although 2 hours seems to be based on the Germans winning or losing before Summer of 1945.

Victory Point Games has an unusual business model in that it is a DTP company that puts out fairly high quality components given it's humble operations. All printing is done in house with good printers, but the component quality still feels like a very well put together DTP game. Which, to be fair, it is. The counters are mounted and largely double-sided, which is in itself very impressive (and, which owner Alan Emerich says, is the most labor-intensive and error-prone part of the assembly process). The game is fairly expensive for such a beast, weighing in at $45 (IIRC) retail. For your money, you do get a lot of stuff - three counter sheets, a deck of cards, a map, three status record half-sheets, a sheet with special events, and a sixteen-page rule folio. The whole thing comes in a big ziplock bag, and the front and back packaging includes an extensive example of play. You won't need dice to play, but you will need three containers to draw chits from. The total game footprint is relatively small, around 50-70% of a standard one sheet map from most games.

As a solitaire game, your job is to either get the Germans to win by taking the trinity of Stalingrad/Leningrad/Moscow, or failing that to have enough success for enough turns to win through victory points. I think both of these goals will require a certain amount of luck to occur, frankly, although I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing in a solitaire game where the balance between luck and good play is the core design choice. If you can't get the love to pull off an AV situation, then the Germans get to see just how big a bitch payback is, although they can still pull some surprises out of their hat. Unlike most games covering the conflict, the retreat through Germany plays a vital role if you get that far, which I like.

The focus of the game is at the strategic level, and as a result there are a lot of game elements that might be unfamiliar to the player:

Units: Units play a much different role in this game than you'd expect. For one thing, no matter how much you stretch the lines, they won't break. In fact, the concept of a contiguous line on both sides of the conflict is critical. Punch a hole, and there are just more Russians to beat. While units are identified by corps/army, for all purposes the run of the mill "line" units are interchangeable and infinite. There are "special" units (panzer corps, Gross Deutschland, shock, guard, tank) that give you special effects and combat benefits, as well as Axis Allies that can create some problems for the German side, but for the most part the units do little more than define the front. My first reaction was that one of the things that distinguishes strategic Eastern Front games is that one side or the other is trying to push their opponent to the breaking point. In fact, it is the *map* itself that symbolizes this fact, combined with the mix of non-line units. As the Germans push more into the Russian motherland, they have relatively fewer special units to blitz with, while the few special units the Russians have tend to be diluted. As the game progresses and the Germans start to lose their special units while the Russians get more, and the front gets smaller as the Germans fall back, the opposite happens. As an abstraction, this works very well and would not have been obvious to me were I a designer.

Initiative: Every turn you will compute how well the Germans are doing, then use this to determine which side has the initiative. In the early game, the Germans will have it and thus can do Blitz combat, while the Russians will lose their Initiative step which essentially gives them "free" advances. As the initiative falls more and more to the Soviets, the Germans will eventually lose the ability to even attack. What is particularly cool is how the initiative is computed. Units which are surrounded and surrender (very easy in the first turn, much harder later on) contribute, as do advances in tank tech, Soviet industrial power, Lend Lease, strategic choices, and a certain randomized subset of captured cities. Even some combat results shift the initiative. Perhaps surprisingly, this computation is really pretty easy to do and is what I consider to be the most elegant part of the design.

Combat: This is a particularly interesting design choice. First of all, there are no dice. You draw from an ever-changing pool of combat chits in four colors to see how things go. In general, green is good for the Axis, red for the Soviets. Some chits with white X's across them are left out at the beginning, but can be added at a nerf to the German initiative computation in future turns. Black X's also come out and can be returned to the draw cup at a certain cost. There are also "splat" counters (*) that, along with X counters, have certain effects depending upon what combat phase it is. Of course, the types of units involved will have various effects as well, from column shifts to allowing different results. As mentioned above, some chits even have effects on initiative for the end of turn computation. For the most part it works very well, as you only return chits to the cup at the end of the turn. Thus, sometimes you want to pull chits just to hope that you'll get red results during the German turn in order to improve your odds of getting green chits during the counterattacks.

Strategic Focus: One particularly interesting idea is that as the German you decide where you put your emphasis at a strategic level. Depending upon who has the initiative, this will limit these choices to some extent. For example, if the Germans have initiative (or share it) they can put their efforts into tank production, or perhaps devastation (hampering industrial efforts). Later in the game, they are limited to putting up defensive works or putting their efforts into counterattacks. Many of these effects won't come into play unless specific event cards are drawn, so at times you may feel like you're just sending your wish list to Santa, but you want to be on the right focus when the card comes up. If you aren't a gambling person, you can always use the Logistics choice regardless of initiative and gain a point in your favor when you make the initiative computation.

Aside from a fairly wide range of possible events that make the game different every time (and fairly unpredictable), there are two other things that might turn people away from what is otherwise a very engaging title. The first is the difficulty in taking the three major cities in the game. If they're fortified, it requires considerable luck and a strong position, since you can't Blitz into them (and normal combat is once per unit). There are some players who say that they don't even bother because it's too much of a crap shoot and you're better off bypassing and surrounding, then trying to take the city. In my game, I was able to take and hold Moscow for a time, so it's definitely possible. I never got enough forces close to Leningrad to do this, although I did get one shot at Stalingrad.

The second problem is that the process by which you determine which Soviet Counterattack to do next is relatively cumbersome. You figure out which uncommitted German has the most Soviets next to it, then break ties based on which combat generates the best odds. In the mid game when there are a lot of units stretching across the board, this can get to be fairly painful. All I can say is that as you do it and internalize the column shift mods, it gets easier, but there's no question that the late game spends about half of play time managing this particular part of the AI. Which is a little strange as most of the scenarios that come with the game start at various points from 1943 on, meaning that you have a fairly limited set of choices compared to the early game. There are no scenarios for starting early and seeing how well you do, which I supposed can be justified by saying that this is what the AV conditions are meant to provide.

It's not that you don't have any choices near game end, you actually do because you make some choices in how Soviets advance and where, and you can create situations where the dreaded Guard Tank units end up being removed. This is intentional, but there's no question that getting your ass handed to you in the late game is nowhere near as fun as handing it to Stalin's boys early on.

In the end, TBC provides a certain amount of tradeoffs. To my knowledge, it's the only solitaire game covering the entire conflict. It plays relatively quickly, and most of the systems are very elegant. You get to make some strategic decisions that you just don't see in other games. The game also has a lot of very novel ways of doing things that might give you some new insight into the conflict.

On the down side, there's no question that the game is better suited to masochists in the late game. AI management can be a bit of a chore, especially later in the game. And, perhaps the most damning of all, this is a DTP component game with a professionally published game price. For some, getting past the components will be an issue, although I don't find them to be a real problem and I actually prefer to have games that take up less space on my shelves.

Again, the above is really more of a first impression than a hard review, so I urge you to use this as a data point rather than a strong recommendation. However, if you want a relatively small game that covers a lot of history in a short time and does it in a way you probably haven't seen before, and if you can adjust your expectations regarding component quality and price, there's a pretty cool little game here. While it won't take the place of the later States of Siege games from the same company in terms of how fast the game plays, at the same time I think you have a lot more say in how successful you are. And it's the whole freakin' Eastern Front, dude. Tell me what other game gets you from Brest-Litovsk to Stalingrad then back to Berlin in three hours.

Game on.

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