Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Barbarossa in a Wide Angle Lens

It was my turn to choose the game this session, and I was very interested in getting Defiant Russia on the table. This is part of Avalanche Press' series of small-box games (their “Quick Play Games” series), and is also part of what they call “The Essential Avalanche,” a handful of games that define the types of games the company produces.

AP doesn't have the greatest reputation in hard-core wargaming circles. Their rep is that they produce underdeveloped, undertested, unattractive games that frequently have major errata and gameplay issues. Some of their recent issues seem to be reversing that trend. Many of the small-box games are getting good responses, and their Panzer Grenadier series (which I like quite a bit) keeps expanding. I'll give them credit for trying different ideas for map art, but sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. (Compare these three maps.)

Anyway, on to the game. Defiant Russia is a high-level treatment of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia in June of 1941. It is designed to be playable in an evening. (Box says 90-120 minutes.) There are seven turns of one month each, 140 counters represent various armies and corps, and each hex is 45 miles. The map is “half size” 17x22 inches, and there are VERY few tables to consult. In fact, the only tables are for terrain effects and random weather determination. The size of the game is reminiscent of the old SPI 120 series games that some of you older than me might remember.

Each unit has a combat strength which determines the number of dice the unit rolls in combat. Roll a six, get a hit. The first hit suffered in a combat must be taken as a step loss by one of the defenders (nearly all units have two steps) but any further losses can be taken as step losses OR retreats unless the number of hits suffered is larger than the total steps available. Then the stack is toast. Terrain and Leaders add or subtract dice, and there are air power points available in varying quantities that can add up to three dice into a specific combat. Yes, this is a “buckets of dice” game. Right up Mike's alley.

Play sequence is standard IGO-UGO, and the sequence is Weather Determination, Organization, Movement, Combat, Exploitation Movement, Exploitation Combat. Then the Soviets repeat all but the first step. After the first couple turns, we were rarely referring to the rulebook except for situations we hadn't yet encountered. That's a good sign. We missed a couple things (I'm specifically thinking of Russian stacking restrictions and Partizans) but that's natural for a first play.

There are 11 VPs available. 2 for controlling Moscow, 1 each for seven other cities, 1 for causing most casualties, and 1 for Stalin surviving or not. It's impossible for there to be a tie.

In the interest of time, we used the historical setup published on Avalanche's website. This eliminated the “how do I best setup Army Group Center?” questions for a game we've never played. (The standard setup allows you to set up each army group or military district however you'd like within certain boundaries.)

So... how did we fare? I took the Russians, which is a bit of a challenge for me as my typical play style is more suited to attack. (Except in chess. Go figure.) Mike attacked hard in the first turn (the Germans really need to push early before the weather worsens) and, as usual, his dice failed him. We had rather equal hits scored, but he probably rolled twice as many dice. The second turn was a little better from his perspective, but now my replacements and reinforcements were to start arriving. Good thing, too, as my northern flank had nearly disappeared.

Turn three brought light mud, making exploitation nearly impossible. That slowed him down a bit. I was able to set up a defensive line in the south on the eastern bank of the Dnieper river. I was going to try to do the same thing on the Dvina in the north, but Mike was able to cross it during turn 3 before I could get reinforcements there.

At this point, Mike was thinking he didn't have a chance. I had loads of new units coming, and he didn't think he was going to have the time to make much headway. Turn 4 being mud didn't help. That cut movement rates in half.

From my perspective, though, I was severely beat down. I had nearly no defense in the north, and my southern flank was intact but thin. Reinforcements were steadily arriving, but it takes time to get them into place, and the weather wasn't helping me either. Mike had taken three VP cities by this point, and was definitely going to win the casualty VP. That meant I could only lose one more city, as a counter attack was unlikely.

Turn 5 (October) brought clear weather, much to my dismay. Mike charged hard. He was fortunate to take Leningrad with his Finns, and he actually even took Moscow. Kharkov was the last VP city he was likely to reach, and it was behind my thin defensive wall in the south. My wall broke during exploitation in turn 5, and Kharkov was looking doomed.

I managed to retake Moscow on my half of turn 5, but Leningrad wasn't coming back. I threw what I could in front of the remaining units charging hard on Moscow and the ones reaching Kharkov. My biggest hope was mud in turn 6. Snow was definite in turn 7, so I needed him slowed now. At this point, I was leading 6-5, but barely hanging on by a thread.

So, what weather do we get in November? Clear. Ugh. Mike took Kharkov with MANY supports, and cut off the rail net isolating Moscow from the south. After looking at the situation in my half of turn 6, there was no realistic way I was going to recover any more VP spaces. It was getting late, as well, so we called the game at this point with a 6-5 German victory. It might have gotten worse if Mike had decided to try to take Moscow instead of isolating it and sealing his position.

I was pleasantly surprised by the game. It isn't more than it pretends to be, but it's very playable. I expect that with experience the play time will settle in around two hours. (we took a little over three, but we both struggled with the number of options available early on.) Effectively playing the Russians requires a good sense of timing. You need to know when to pull back and conserve your troops vs. foolish counter attacks early on. I know I hung on a turn too long in the north and paid for it. The fact that Mike has already emailed me wanting to give it another go after swapping sides says a lot.

It's not a definitive treatment of anything, and the scale intentionally leaves out loads of detail, but for a decent overview of Barbarossa in a $20 package, Defiant Russia is worth a look. I know I'll be looking a little closer at the other games in this series, specifically Red Vengeance. It's the same system, but set in 1944 so the roles are reversed and Russia is attacking trying to drive the Germans out of Russia.


Mike said...

I just ordered both DF and RV from B&B

Eric said...


They Shall Not Pass is the same basic system as well, just tweaked for WWI.

We'll pull that one out at some point as well.