Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Red Star Risen

Eric and I were all set to put OCS Korea (BGG entry)on the long-term gaming table, when I started reading the rules for MMP's Red Star Rising (RSR) (BGG entry) on a whim. I'd traded for this one some time back, but never really looked at it much, apart from a quick 'oh, that looks nice' check on the components. The more I read, however, the more I liked the look of this one, and I proposed that we should consider a diversion from the plan. Eric read through the rules and agreed that it looked intriguing, so it became our next target.

RSR covers the whole of the eastern front campaign, from the start of Barbarossa through April 1944, when the Soviets had pushed the Axis back to their start lines and more. A very strait-forward game from a rules point of view, but it takes a few standard mechanisms and adds some very interesting twists.

The first is the turn order sequence, where it goes the same route as the GMT EFS games with an asymmetrical sequence, as follows:

Supply determination (both sides)
Axis reinforcements
Axis move (including overruns)
Axis combat
Soviet combat
Soviet reinforcements
Soviet move (including overruns)
Axis tank movement
Clean up

The first thing to note is that the Soviets fight then move, so the challenge is that the Axis may not be where you want him to be by the time combat comes around. This also has the interesting side effect that when you can pin him down to combat, if the Axis player loses steps, then you can follow up with overruns. Finally, note that Axis tank movement after the the Soviet turn. This gives the Axis player two chances to move his armor units (and overrun) and then a combat before the Soviet player has a chance to react. Potentially very devastating.

The next thing is that RSR starts with the basic Victory in the West chit pull mechanism for the strength of Soviet units, which come in three types, but then introduces a couple of twists. The first is that any Soviet unit that has a strength chit and is not adjacent to an Axis unit in the clean up phase has that chit removed. Interesting, as this models a couple of different things. Firstly, if the unit has already taken a step loss, then it is a simple way to model the continuous feed of replacements to units. Second, it represents additional training provided to units removed from the front-line. Secondly, the initial pool of chits get removed from the game as they are removed from units (for whatever reason), and new chits are added to the cup for each of the three pools during the game, so the average strength builds during the game. Both are neat, elegant, and totally simple, way to reflect the growing strength of the Soviet army over time.

However, before that all sounds too easy for the Soviet player to manage, there's a slight wrinkle. It costs +3 MPs to move out of a ZoC, and guess what the MA of Soviets armies are? Yep, 3MPs. Again, a simple mechanism that models the lack of tactical (although it feels odd to use that word in a game of this scale) flexibility that the Soviets showed in the early part of the conflict. Once those Soviet armies are committed to the front line, they ain't going nowhere until they're dead, pushed back, or the Axis player chooses to release them from ZoC. (German corps have a 4 MA.)

Weather is fixed by game turn, and impacts the whole map equally. The turns are of varying length to better reflect the tempo of combat in the prevailing weather. There is a +3 combat modifier in the first winter, and +1 in subsequent years, for both sides. Which brings us nicely to combat. A pretty standard combat table, odds-ratio, A or D results in terms of step losses or retreats, with three levels of terrain effects, and strength modifiers for rivers. Where it differs is above the normal '6' result, only reached by modifiers. Here, there are automatic step losses, mostly of the 1/1 variety, but with the odd attacker only loss, and heavier defender losses further up the odds. As well as the previously mentioned weather modifiers, an overrun has a +1, and Soviet leaders have a +3/+4. The Axis player does have air units, which gives him a 1-column on attack or defense.

Added to the above, both sides have the ability to breakdown into smaller units to cover more ground, or combine for a more potent force. Stacking is also asymmetric, allowing the Soviet only a single army per hex, regardless of its type or strength, but the Axis can stack several units together, and when there are two panzer corps together then they can create an almost unstoppable force.

Another asymmetric area is in supply. Soviet units are supplied if they can trace a 6MP (rail being half, marsh 2) line to to an HQ, which is itself in supply if it's on a rail line connected to a major supply source. Axis units, on the other hand, have to trace 4MPs (same) to a supply depot, which has to be connected by a chain of depots back to a supply source on the west edge of the board. Units that are beyond double these ranges also have to roll for isolation, with the risk of losing steps, which increases with the severity of the weather, more so for the Axis.

The only weak part, I thought, was in the section on industry and the strategic part of the game. The Soviet player has various types of industrial infrastructure dotted about the map, and which the Axis player can capture. Failing to do so allows more Soviet leaders to come into play, but the whole thing just seemed a trifle unfinished and a little tacked onto the rest of the game.

Overall, from just a read of the rules I was very keen to get this played, and when I suggested Eric look at it, he liked what he saw too, and it became our next undertaking.

(As with Sicily, here's a page of pics taken at the end of each turn, so you can follow along.)

With Eric once more on the attack as the Axis, he made short work of my Soviet starting position, pushing forward with his panzers. He made good progress in the north, where all the Soviets start out of supply, but less so in the south. By around turn 7 he was keeping up with where the Axis had got to in 1941.

From there on, however, things started to go a little awry. In the winter I held him and even pushed back in a few places. I had decided that the Leningrad front was an area where I wanted to focus, as if I could gain control of that front I would be able to sweep around into his supply lines. Eric had pushed forward all the way to the gates of Leningrad before winter set in, but with the +3 modifier I was able to push him back, and with the reinforcements I'd been feeding in there I was starting to work my way around his flank.

My weak area was in the south, where I was a little thin on the ground, and when the good weather came Eric tried to break out. Note the situation at the end of turn 11! Fortunately for me he'd outrun his support and I was able to dump a whole load of new armies into the area, which stabilized. I also saw this as an area with a lot of potential, as it was mostly held by weak Romanian units, so I reinforced there heavily, including my first tank army.

In the middle it was a major holding action, aiming to slowly give ground. By this time the chits in the cup meant that the Axis didn't have the big overruns and combats any more, and was limited to 2-1 and 3-1 attacks. It was also around this time that Eric started rolling like total crap, with 1s coming out every other roll, forcing him back. He also had his panzer corps attacking in a wide frontage in the woods to the south-west of Moscow with no other support, so they'd focus and gain a hex here, but would allow me to advance at the other end there, where he'd pushed me back last turn. This went on for several turns as we went back and fore over the same ground. In the meantime, I'm reinforcing the flanks, and swapping my crummy armies for stronger shock armies and, around turn 20, guards armies.

Going into the second evening session (turns 15-18 - we started with a full day, that covered the first 10 turns) I was starting to feel that I was gaining control. Some large gaps were starting to develop in various places, especially the south. Although a fortuitous overrun result in his panzer movement phase had opened up the way to Kharkov, with only 2 panzer corps and no support it was more a noose than anything. Sure enough, although he held the city for a turn, he ended up losing a couple of panzer steps for no real gain.

I'd added a second tank army to the south, and started driving through the gap that had developed, all the way to the major river, and had cut off his entire southern flank. In a couple of turns I'd removed all Axis units in that area, and had started to cut off supply to the south of his main line. In the north I was clear of his line, had them essentially pocketed and was starting to drive south, ready to cut off supply from the northern part of his main line.

And it was at this point that Eric conceded a major Soviet victory, as there was no way he was going to be able to stop me from pretty much rolling up his line from both directions at my leisure. I'd been studying the position whilst waiting for Eric to arrive that evening, and I'd said that I felt that the game would be over that evening, and so it was.

Eric seemed to be doing well to start with, so what happened? Although he was pushing forward, given that I wasn't putting up much of a fight, but keeping my armies more in reserves, perhaps he wasn't pushing hard enough. In the winter period I was able to push back a little, but this could have gone so much worse for the Axis as pretty much all the die rolls were low, meaning that the combats weren't forcing step losses. It's here that the depth of the Soviet army begins to tell as each step loss drains the life blood from the Axis army, but the Soviets have an almost unending supply of troops to feed into the mix.

Where I think Eric's game collapsed was in the use of his precious panzer corps in the fruitless fight around the woods to the south-west of Moscow in the summer of '42. Although he was winning lots of combats, being unable to cover the whole front with his 6 panzer units meant that I'd just walk straight back into the ground he'd kicked me out of, so he was making no progress. I was delighted to see the panzers fighting over the woods, where what I feared was that he'd bring up the infantry from the south to hold the woods, and move the panzers south to let them loose in the open country. As it was I faced lots of infantry attacks in the clear, being pushed back a hex or two, and even gaining ground as his die rolls sucked mightily. With the panzers coming in from the north and south, I could have been pocketed, with no retreat routes, rather than facing being pushed back across an even front, with clear and safe retreat paths. Whilst the Soviets get a steady flow of reinforcements, it's hard to redeploy armies, and I could have been in trouble.

The other thing that surprised me was that there was little in the way of reserves in the Axis side, pretty much every unit was on the front line. One of the big lessons in OCS is that of maintaining reserves, and I tried to make sure I had a second line where possible. Certainly that became a lot easier for me as the game went on and the reinforcements started to flow. So, when the breakthrough did come in the south, there was nothing there to stop it from being a game winning situation.

One thing we both commented on, was how freakin' far it is to Stalingrad from the Axis starting position. It's still a wonder that the Axis forces managed to penetrate so far into Russia. And that the Soviets managed to push them all the way back again.

The verdict? Absolutely superb game, one of my favorites of all the games we've played together. A monster in scope, the entire east front on one (large) map, the rules are elegant and simple to handle, yet give a great feel. The game simply flows, with little apparent downtime, the various asymmetric mechanisms fitting together just beautifully. The components also must be mentioned. Clear map and counters, comprehensive, and readable, rules. My only gripe is that the northern map uses a marginally different hex size to the main map, and it's impossible to get the alignment straight at both sides. As it turned out, the northern section might as well not have been there, as after a brief attempt on turn 1, Eric gave up on anything happening there.

Go out and get this game, find some table space, and go play it. You'll have a blast.

Eric's going to be out for a session, so with only the one evening before the mini-break to play something, I suggested that we do something short, like going back to Academy Games' Conflict of Heroes (BGG entry), as I'd like to get through all the scenarios in the game this year. After that, we're going to do some Musket & Pike, as we tackle GMT's Gustav Adolf: With God and Victorious Arms (BGG entry) - the whole box, all scenarios. From there it will be OCS Korea, assuming the table is clear. Unless we get diverted again.


Iain Cheyne said...

How many hours did it take to finish?

Eric said...

Hey! Comment emails work. Nice.

We were averaging about 45-50 minutes per turn. And we're not the fastest players on the planet.

Early turns went longer as there's a LOT for the Germans to do and we were working through the rules. Winter/spring went fast as things were stabilizing, then things started slowing down again as the Russians were building up strength.

Many of the Russian parts of the early turns will be very fast as many of their units will be pinned in place.

Iain Cheyne said...

If only I had the room to leave a game like that out between sessions. :)

Eric said...

I hear you - fortunately Mike does. I can only keep games 1 map or smaller set up, and there's no room for a 2nd player - so solitaire only on longer games at my place.

I could easily see RSR coming down to 30-35 minutes/turn. That's about 20-24 hours. A long 2-day or a 3-day weekend event.