Saturday, September 27, 2008

Finally made it to Stalingrad

Okay, I have to admit something and probably give up what little “cred” as a gamer I've garnered.

I've never played a Stalingrad game before.

(And no, the first scenario of Squad Leader doesn't count.)

The East Front never really had the draw for me that the Bulge or North Africa produced. Maybe it's because I don't have a horse in that race. And, it's a rather familiar theme: somebody invades Russia, bogs down in the never-ending terrain and horrible weather, invasion eventually fails. It didn't work for Sweden, and it didn't work for Napoleon. Why should it work for Germany?

However, over time I've learned to appreciate the individual parts of the East Front from a gamers' perspective. Kursk. The Drive for Oil. The Backhand Blow. And, of course, Stalingrad.

So, I was looking forward to this week's gaming when Mike and I got together Multiman's new release Storm over Stalingrad. This is a boxed edition of the game that appeared in Game Journal Magazine #19, and is part of MMP's well-regarded International Game Series (which sometimes-gaming-partner Doug refers to as the "Japanese Game Series" as every game in the series so far has been Japanese in origin.)

SoS is what's called an Area-Impulse game. Players go back and forth activating areas and causing troops to be “spent.” Once all troops are spent (or both players pass in succession) the turn's over. The map is split into largish areas that can contain a large number of troops. (In this case, 10 per side per area.)

Prior games using this basic system are some old Avalon Hill classics. Storm over Arnhem, Breakout: Normandy, Thunder at Cassino, and Turning Point: Stalingrad. Newer games using the same basic system are Monty's Gamble: Market Garden, and the Iwo Jima game we played last week.

Similar to Iwo Jima, SoS is a MUCH simpler game than the others listed above. In fact, it really does distill the area-movement idea down to its bare essence. The result is a decently written 8-page rulebook (but we still managed to miss things.)

Now, I've only played Storm over Arnhem once a LONG time ago, and toyed around with B:N. So, before last week's Iwo Jima game, my area-impulse experience was practically non-existant.

The game has some interesting twists. First, you bid for sides. What you're bidding on is the number of 3-value spaces the Russians need to control at the end of the game to win. They start with 7, but there's no way to hold them all. The rulebook recommends bids of 2 or 3. Mike and I both bid 2, making selection a random process, but with the Russians only needing to control 2 of the 7 spaces to win. (The 7 spaces in question all lie along the riverbank.) I ended up drawing the Russians.

The other twist this game has over other area-impulse games is two decks of cards - one for each side. These cards provide things like artillery, air support, defensive fire, and other tweaks to normal play. The Germans get six cards out of their 27-card deck every turn while the Soviets start getting 3, and it slowly increases to 6 throughout the game.

Combat is relatively straightforward. You total up the firepower of all the attacking units and add that to the sum of two dice. You then look at the highest defense value among the defending units and add that (usually) to the terrain value of the area the defender occupies. Subtract the defense total from the attacking total and if the result is positive, the defender has to assign loss points. 1 point either flips a unit to “spent” or retreats a spent unit. 2 points eliminates a spent unit or flips and retreats a fresh unit. 3 points eliminates a fresh unit. Spent units can't act, but can defend normally at slightly reduced efficiency. Typical units have stats like 2-9-2 or 1-9-3 (attack-defense-movement). Armor defense is as high as 11.

I believe the map is oriented with the Russian left to the south. I'll refer to the map in those terms and correct later if I'm proven wrong.

We had played one turn and drawn cards for the second when I got a card that read oddly. Turns out the card's fine but I'd missed a rule – units with firepower 0 aren't able to fire. Whoops. I'd done a lot of that. We reset and started again.

On this go-round Mike initially pushed hard along the riverbank to my left. He had taken two of the VP areas quickly, but those were two I didn't expect to hold.

There's a subtle rule interaction in the game that really dictates the pace of play in certain situations. Units can fire into their own or any adjacent area. However, if they fire into an adjacent area, they gain a “Fired” marker. Units in areas with a Fired marker do not get to count the terrain value in their defense. This leads to an interesting game of “who blinks first” where you save units wanting to fire into adjacent areas as long as possible in order to avoid getting that Fired marker and sacrificing the extra defense. Typically as soon as one of these groups fired, it set off a daisy-chain of activations where each successive group gave up its terrain defense in order to go on the offensive.

Mike's offensive in the south stalled when the SS units were removed from the fighting at the end of turn 3 as per the reinforcement schedule. This was 2/3 of his strength in that area.

The basic thrust of our game was Mike pushing on each flank while I kept feeding units in for defense. He also kept enough units in the center to keep me from completely abandoning the center to defend the flanks. It turned into a slow grind with a few head-fakes thrown in as Mike had enough movement to sometimes change directions of attack. Our final tally showed me losing 2 VP areas on the left and 1 on the right, leaving me controlling 4. Significantly above the 2 I needed for victory.

In reading through the rules again the next day, we discovered two rules we missed, both significantly helping the defender.

First, units fired on from within their own area do not count the terrain value in their defense. I KNOW I would have lost at least one more area in the south playing with this rule. The other rule we missed involved units retreating into areas already at their maximum number of friendly units. As units can't even move through these areas, we played that units forced to retreat into those areas are eliminated. This isn't the case – they retreat through to the other side, and continue to do so until there's a legal area for them to retreat into that isn't already full. This cost Mike at least two or three units late in the game.

So, both rules we botched went seriously in the defender's favor making it a little too easy from the Russian perspective. We'll need to play this one again to give it a fair shake.

Despite getting a couple critical things wrong, I enjoyed this game. It pulls the essence of area-impulse together in a way that still works as a game. If you've been curious about some of the older titles I mentioned above and aren't sure if you'd like the system, try this one first. If you don't like the way this game flows, odds are you won't like the others either.

I certainly want to play it again to get a handle on the balance and replayability. The bid mechanism for sides varying the victory conditions should put reigns on the balance, and the cards and flexibility in German reinforcement placements should help make each game flow differently. Remains to be seen. I do know it's a good addition to the ever-growing stable of wargames that can be played in an evening. Even counting our botched attempt and reset, we were done in ~4 hours for a first playing. This game easily fits within 3 hours. Stalingrad in an evening. Who woulda thunk it?

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