Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I'm Learning Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg

I have a love-hate relationship with WW2 European Theater of Operations (ETO) grand strategic wargames. I'm not talking about The Great Patriotic War, which in the US we refer to as the "East Front" as thought the West Front or even the entire Pacific came anywhere close to the enormous manpower commitments of that massive struggle. I'm talking about the whole shooting match in Europe, from Iberia to the Urals, from Narvik and Murmansk down to Libya. From 1939 or earlier to 1945.

I have several games on the subject: Europe Engulfed, Advanced Third Reich, WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin (which admittedly does not cover the early war), EuroFront, Hitler's War, Struggle for Europe (actually three games that link together), World in Flames, and Totaler Krieg. Of these, the only game that has seen serious table time is WW2:BtB, and a bit of EE.

In comparison, most of the games I own that cover other periods (ACW, ARW, WW1, RCW, Napoleonic Wars, Ancients) tend to be at the grand strategic scale. Paths of Glory, For The People, Napoleonic Wars, War and Peace, Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, Reds!... Clearly I like the idea of this level of abstraction. I also have a few PTO grand strategic games, such as Asia Engulfed, Empire of the Sun, Victory in the Pacific, and (technically speaking) World in Flames again, although the nature of the conflict (Japanese biting off far more than they had the slightest chance of chewing) makes PTO games less interesting to me.

Why then is the ETO such a hard sell in my case? I believe the reason has to do with the difficult diplomatic situation in Europe in 1939-1941, when every few months saw a new nation drawn into the conflict. 1941 in particular was a little crazy, such as when Yugoslavia's leader sided with the Fascists only to face a coup that ended in an Axis invasion and occupation of the country. Really, how do you go about getting events like that into a game in an interesting yet historically plausible fashion? The same goes for the Russian occupation of the Baltic States, Eastern Poland, the Finnish Border, and Bessarabia - Trying to have rules that deal with areas like Bessarabia are difficult to do as most games treat these as parts of countries. They are also often lumped together into a single event, when historically they were not. The old Third Reich game did this, and treated all four of the Axis Minors as one lump conversion when they were all very different events. Of course, 3R has quarterly turns, so a higher level of abstraction, but still a very unsatisfying feel in my opinion.

To be fair, I do not have a very good idea of how most of the ETO games I have listed above handle diplomatic activities in the early years of WW2. The ones I've investigated, however, seem to start with the idea that the different countries are going to end up on the same sides they did historically with a small amount of variation. There is really very little chance of seeing a country like Yugoslavia do what it did, which was experience a coup d'etat and suddenly change the rules.

I've owned Totaler Krieg, the "sequel" to Krieg!, and liked it's overall approach. While no one is going to call this a "light" game from a rules standpoint, it did take a very interesting approach to the problem. Rather than include lots of rules for diplomacy, it instead takes the novel approach of using rules to set up the environment, then let seasonal option card plays (which set the tone for the next two or three turns in many respects) decide what's going on - rearmament, mobilization, special circumstances (such as the creation of Vichy and the sudden fall of France). The only problem I had with TK is that it was sort of an ongoing work in progress, the components were not great (you tore the cards off of a perforated sheet, the counters were wafer-thin), and in the end it felt a little more like a kit than a game. The insane number of scenarios got a little crazy as well, although I freely admit I like lots of options.

One of the vaporware products that was being worked on by the TK team after it's release was, of course, a PTO companion game that could be played simultaneously. From 1998 or so onward, this game, which even had the title of Dai Senso before I think it had a *map*, has been a legend in the wargaming community, along with the Up Front and PanzerBlitz reimagings. PB finally saw the light of day a couple of years back, but Up Front will probably never be reprinted or reimaged. In 2011, however, both TK and DS finally saw production under the overarching title Axis Empires.

A lot has changed in TK from the "first edition" (which was really a second edition of Krieg), but the basic idea is the same with regards to diplomacy - you play an option card that will give you a roll on a particular table and things may or may not go your way. As the Axis, you can even try to demand that Switzerland be ceded to Germany. The Russians can try to demand the Turkish Straits, as they did in the late 40's at the start of the Cold War. They may get the Baltic States in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but not Bessarabia. Just like in the war, everything is a bit of a crap shoot when it comes to diplomacy. You can still just go right ahead and declare war, although if you do it through the normal sequence of play you are giving your opponent the chance to set things up the way he wants them, while if you do it through the political actions of the Option Cards you do it at the start of your turn.

Here's an excellent example: It is March-April of 1940, and the Germans are, as they did historically, going to take Norway, and to do that they need to first take Denmark. There is a card in the Axis deck, Operation Weseruebung, that allows you to declare war on a country that meets certain criteria (in this case, it has to be next to a country that you have units in, which makes Germany an obvious prerequisite) at the start of the turn and then roll on the Diplomatic Incident table. Denmark-Norway is treated as a single country (as is Belgium-Holland), which might rankle some, but at this level they were no competition for the various branches of the German armed forces. In AE:TK, the entire armed forces of both countries is a single "Res" unit with minimal defensive capabilities, and it doesn't even go onto the map until the Western Allies can place it during their turn.

Historically, of course, both the Danes and the Norwegians stood up to the Germans until they were overrun, and most of the time this sort of thing will happen in AE:TK too. However, the option card also calls for a roll on the Diplomatic Incident table, and in this particular instance I rolled a Coup d'Etat, which makes Denmark-Norway immediately an Axis minor country. Kind of a disappointment, as I was looking forward to seeing the airdrop unit in action, but I will save that for invading France in a couple of turns.

This is *exactly* the sort of thing that I find so appealing about AE:TK. Wargamers tend to be control freaks in a lot of ways - with God-like prescience and power, they can do whatever they want with their units, they know that the Russian Winter is coming, they know that Finland, Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria will join them in attacking Russia in 1941. Yet all of these things were far from certain, and in some cases were completely unanticipated. As long-time readers of this blog know, I play wargames for four major reasons - the company of my opponent, the simulation of a real world situation and how the various systems work together, the springboard the game creates into my interest of the history of the conflict and/or period, and the literary elements that help the game to tell a story.

It is this last element that makes a particular game memorable (assuming the game is well-crafted and my opponent pleasant and competent). An epic session with lots of turns of fortune and a closely contested outcome is much preferable to a dull game that I win. While the level of variability in AE:TK may not always lend itself to a closely contested outcome, it's fairly certain that I'll enjoy moaning about it right up until I give up after every country in the Balkans has gone to the Allied cause. It's certainly something I'll want to relate in this blog, in a session report on the 'Geek, or to friends. That said, the game is also set up so that you can follow the history closely if you wish to, although the outcomes may not all be identical to history.

I'm sure that some of the other grand strategic ETO games I list above can have this sort of variance. For now, TK seems to handle this in a manner that is pretty graceful and quick (and uncertain). It also has a counter density that I am finding to be very manageable for my stubby and less than dexterous (when it comes to handling counters, anyway) fingers.

I was very interested in TK in it's "original" form back in the day, but the component quality and mutable ruleset kept me from really taking the steps to learn the game in depth. I'm very happy to say that the new Axis Empires edition seems to have a very tight ruleset, with excellent clarifications and examples clearly marked and in-line with the rules, and the designers/developers have taken care to include an excellent roadmap for how to learn the game. I am currently on the third scenario, the Fall of France, and as I began to learn the game it occurred to me that recounting my learning experience would make an excellent series of blog entries that I will make on a turn-by-turn basis. I'm playing this particular game in VASSAL, so very easy to get pictures of the game as well.

I will also make an entry of the things that took me a little more time to fully understand. The rules are, as all good wargame rules should be, intended to be taken literally, as is the card text. That entry will precede the actual game report of The Fall of France, and will cover the things I learned in both Case White and Barbarossa. I hope you find them of some value.


Anonymous said...

What game is the best? Europe Engulfed, Totaler Kreig, or Eurofront II? Which has the best components? Which system allows for supply, artillery, and paratroops?

Dug said...

Best is a very subjective question, much depends on what you're looking for in an ETO game. That said:

EE: Block game, but not from Columbia, so a high degree of fog of war. Makes heavy use of "special actions" to do a wide variety of things like arty and airdrops. Area map on thick cardstock, smaller blocks, quite a few components that are punched. I have played a bit, found the various special actions to be a bit overwhelming. Otherwise probably the most accessible of the three games. Uses an economic system for new units, makes them available over time in a "force pool" similar to TK.

EF2: Block game, so a lot of fog of war. Uses HQs to drive operational tempo, which abstracts in arty. Map is twice as large as EE/TK, same cardstock as EE, few cardboard counters but they are there. Big hexes rather than areas. I suspect there are airborne units, but I don't really remember. I believe units come in via a reinforcement schedule. Replacements are similar to TK in that you get steps although TK takes a more involved approach to how they get to the front line.

TK2: More "traditional" wargame components - paper maps, diecut counters (1/2"). Uses cards to drive economy, strategic choices, allow for special situations like the fall of France or even an Ostland Accord (creation of puppet states in the East much like France did in western Germany during the early Napoleonic era). Arty is represented by HQs providing ranged support, paratroops are specific units that drop during Blitz combat (so not always available).

All take supply into account, although TK2 treats supply as what your units need to do what they do rather than what you are denying your opponents so they die. TK2 does a *lot* of things differently, from how the rules are organized to a lot of elements ignored in other games (like having large military formations running around in your minor allies' territory).

If I was starting with one, and I wasn't terribly experienced with wargames, I'd look at EE first. Less board complexity (although the special actions give you a *lot* of choices), more of an Axis and Allies feel, and a smaller board. EF2 is great but huge and the biggest ruleset of the bunch. I am also not a huge fan of Columbia's rules structure, which uses sidebars in less than consistent ways (not supposed to include rules, but they do in pretty much every game of theirs I own).

Hope that's helpful.