Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Never start a land war in Asia

This evening's fare (Eric's choice) was the Avalanche Press game, Defiant Russia: 1941. Designed to be played in an evening (the box says two hours) it has 4 maps and 1200 counters, down to the division level. OK, I made that part up. It's really got one half map and 140 counters. Rules are 16 pages, and are pretty clearly written. Each unit has strength and movement factors, although the strength represents the number of dice rolled in combat, generally needing a '6' to cause a step loss or retreat. The first hit must be taken as a step loss, but subsequent hits may be taken as retreats.

I'd heard/read a lot of bad things about AP games, so my expectations were not high for this one. Given the size of the map (16-20 hexes north to south) and the mechanism, I was concerned that there wouldn't be a lot of options for maneuver, and that it would just come down to whoever rolled the best bucket o' dice.

I ended up with the Germans, and proceeded with the standard attacks to the north and south of the Pripet Marshes. The attacks to the north fared better than south. In the north the Finns imploded as Eric rolled 3 '6's in about 8 dice, and the attacks in the far south didn't achieve much. (I rolled 1 hit in about 24 dice in those attacks.) I did a fair job of mauling the Russian units,, causing 20 hits (mostly step losses) in total. However, whilst rolling around half to two thirds of my dice, Eric also managed to score 20 hits. Uh ohh, this is not looking good already.

The second turn saw me face a reconstituted Russian line, defending pretty much in place. The rules allow armor units to move through ZOCs, and infantry as well, but only if both hexes are friendly occupied. In either case ZOC to ZOC movement costs an extra MP, and the unit needs to stop when entering a non-friendly occupied ZOC hex. I was able to leap-frog units through the available gaps, surrounding a large portion of the northern Russian army. I was able to roll well enough to reduce the pockets, but not eliminate them, leaving perfectly placed units to stop my exploitation. Dang! Still, the exploitation combat saw the north almost devoid of Russian units, although south of Pripet still saw me facing some decent Russian forces. The far south had also got moving, the Romanians managing to force the very south to swing around.

The third turn sees the weather come into play (we played with the variable weather option), and anything except a '6' would see clear weather continue. I rolled a '6' - light mud. Sigh. Very limited exploitation. Still I kept pushing in the north, again clearing the area of Russian units, and the road to Moscow was open. South of the marshes I took a risk in pushing armor through, and it paid off as they didn't get killed and a few more Ruskis died for a lack of retreat. The far south saw the Russians cleared out, and there was no activity in the north.

During his turn Eric bugged out, setting up a strong line at the Dnepr river. He'd set up what he could to the north of the marshes, but it was pretty weak, and he had to denude the Leningrad sector to do even that. Then came the weather roll. Another '6'. Mud - movement halved. Double sigh. I looked where I was and the distance to the VP cities, and I was almost ready to call the game. (There are 10 VP city points, Moscow being worth 2, mostly in the middle to east of the map. The player causing the most unit losses also gets a VP.) I kept going, and watched as my units plodded towards his Dnepr line, with an eye on the reinforcements that would also bolster it in the upcoming Russian turn.

Then came the 5th turn, and a glorious thing happened. The weather turned clear, as the die came up a '2'. I took the opportunity and dashed forward, right to the gates of Moscow, hammering on the Dnepr line, and even pushing the Finns to attack Leningrad. And it all worked. The gates of Moscow swung open as I rolled 3 '6's in 9 dice in my exploitation attack. The Dnepr line sprung a leak as I dashed across, and Leningrad fell to the Finns. Well, blast my panzers with a panzerschrek. What a turn-around!

It wasn't all roses and light, however, as Eric also managed to roll 3 '6's in 9 dice to throw me back out of Moscow, and also went on a '6' frenzy, seeming to roll 15 of them in 10 dice, killing 4 armored units. Still, with 2 turns left, there was still a possibility, all I needed was more clear weather. And I got the 50-50 roll, allowing the might of the German army to swing south, surround the entire Russian line in the south and totally eliminate them. Elsewhere, a holding force was placed in front of Moscow, and a couple of strategically placed units split the north from the south to prevent strategic redeployment.

Eric reviewed the position and declared that we might as well call it at that point. With only 2 moves left, almost nothing in the way of forces to counter-attack with, and no way to get them to the places needed, there was just no way he could recover the VP cities. We had 5 city VPs each, but the Russians had a veritable plethora of dead units, giving a 6-5 victory to the Germans.

OK, so I had a slow start, and the weather went against me early on, yet I still pulled out the win. How did that come about, and is the game biased towards the Germans? I think there were three factors to the German success here.

First, and most critical in my view, is that Eric defended too far forward at the start. The Russians have to conserve units, not allowing the Germans to infiltrate and cut off units, especially whole groups of them. It's really hard to set a defensive line when you don't have any units to set with. Of course, this issue tends to spiral downwards pretty quickly, and it could have been even worse if the weather hadn't been grotty in the 3rd & 4th turns.

Second, I think I came to grasp with the movement rules pretty quickly and managed to use them effectively. The German player has to be able to cut off the Russians, blocking lines of supply and retreat effectively, and understanding and arranging the moves to allow the infantry to participate is vital. By themselves the armor can do the job, but not for long as they are very fragile, and need the infantry to soak up those hits.

Third, the weather. Whilst I greeted the turn 3 and 4 rolls like a rather bad smelling panhandler, the later rolls worked in my favor and balanced out. In fact the weather worked out wonderfully, as the bad weather came when we were still toe to toe, and I couldn't have really used clear weather much more effectively than I did mud. (OK, I would have had some exploitation attacks, but I don't think it would have changed much.) Later on, when the board was cleared of Russian units, I was able to do the big sweeping changes with the panzers, switching focus from here to there, eliminating large pockets of Russians.

So, overall, my initial concerns were unfounded. Whilst there is the whole bucket of dice aspect (and we did roll them by the bucket) there is a nice little game in here. The mechanisms work well, there is a decent amount of flavor and chrome, the rules are mostly watertight (we only had one issue that wasn't mentioned in the rules), and it's playable in an evening. Yes, decent game, one that I'll be adding to my buy list.

Our next fully scheduled session won't be until later in November, when the new CC: Mediterranean will be available. Scrummy. I'm hoping to fit in another go with Defiant Russia, this time switching sides, but we'll have to see how that works out.

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