Monday, August 24, 2009

Rising Star

Over the last few weeks, Mike and I have been playing Red Star Rising, the entry in Multi-man's IGS line that covers the entirety of WWII in Russia from the initial Barbarossa invasion through the spring of 1944, the point at which the Russians have pushed back into Romania, and are threatening Germany itself.

The game is based on the old SPI Victory in the West system that has random unit strengths, but with a number of changes. The game was previously published in 2004 by designer Masahiro Yamazaki in Six Angles Magazine #9 as “War for the Motherland.” This, in turn, was a complete rework of a version originally published by Rampart Games.

Multi-man gave it a magnificent graphics workover with a map by Mark Mahaffey, one of my favorite artists. (The final version can be seen on Mark's site.) My understanding is there's some rules updates as well. The rules are written by the same team as Devil's Cauldron and Warriors of God (Jon Gautier; writer, Adam Starkweather; developer). I've been extremely critical of their particular style of rules writing in the past, but I must credit them here – from their body of work of which I'm familiar, this is by far their best effort. We had very few rules questions during play.

As I mentioned, the game covers pretty much the entire eastern front. The map (when playing the full campaign game as Mike and I did) reaches from the Arctic circle down to the Caucasus Mountains, and from just inside the Prussian/Polish/Hungarian borders all the way to the Caspian Sea. This at about 35 km/hex. There are six scenarios covering varying amounts of time from the three-turn Introductory Scenario up through the full-meal-deal at 40 turns.

Two structural design choices make themselves known right up front. First, time is relative. One of the bigger problems in modeling large-scale games on the eastern front is how to handle the varying level of activity. OCS handles it through supply availability. Barbarossa (as published in World at War magazine) handles it through changing movement rates every turn. Red Star Rising handles it through changing the time frame covered by a turn. Turn lengths range from 10 days in the height of summer to two months during the mud in spring and fall.

The other interesting choice is an asymmetrical turn sequence. Turns flow as follows:

  1. Supply

  2. Axis Reinforcements

  3. Axis Movement

  4. Axis Combat

  5. Soviet Combat

  6. Soviet Reinforcements

  7. Soviet Movement

  8. Axis Tank Movement

  9. Admin

So, the Germans get to move then fight, the Soviets must fight, then move. This tweak alone allows the Germans much more control over where and when fights happen. And that's before you even get to the Axis Tank Movement phase where the German tanks get to move (and potentially overrun) again.

The game is filled with little design gems like this. One of my favorite – it costs three extra movement points to move out of a ZOC. Russian units typically only have three movement points. No problem, you can always move one hex, right? Yup. Unless you start in a ZOC. This effectively pins any Russian units in place when they're adjacent to the enemy. Until you get to winter when it's only 2MP to move out of a ZOC. (Oh, and only Axis tank and Russian Guard Cavalry can ever move from ZOC directly to another ZOC.) These all work together to emphasize the inability of Russian units to detach from an engagement once stuck in.

Another interesting design is the CRT. Most results are given as A# or D# where the number must be satisfied by retreats or step losses in any combination of the owner's choice. Unless you get into the bottom portion of the chart (rows on the chart are numbered 1 to 10+ and you roll a D6 for combat, and the bottom portion is from 7 higher). If you manage to get down there, you see results like #/# where the numbers are required step losses for each side. How do you get down there? Overruns give a +1 DRM, Winter '41 gives a +3 (the other two winters giving +1) and Soviet Leaders give positive modifiers (usually +2 through +4) to Soviet attacks in their (typically) 3-4 hex range. So, you want to roll high, but not TOO high as the Axis, and once the Soviet replacement system gears up in '42, you want big numbers all the time. Oh, and the CRT isn't strictly linear in the bottom portion. You'll see things like 7 giving a 1/1, 8 giving a 1/-, and 9 giving a 1/1. (Yes, that means an 8 gives the attacker, but not the defender, a step loss.)

Finally, that random unit strength I mentioned earlier. The Russian Army-sized units (and Guard and Russian Armor) draw a chit when they don't have one and are either engaged in combat or adjacent to an Axis unit during the Admin phase. Over the course of the game, the Soviets get these chits as reinforcements, and they get stronger over time. Also, during the admin phase, if a Russian Army unit has a strength chit but is not adjacent to an Axis unit, it puts its chit back into the draw cup. As step losses are taken by flipping this chit, this means a Russian Army unit that takes a step loss but manages to disengage can regain that step loss merely by staying disengaged throughout the turn. This does a good job of simulating the Russian ability to replace losses during the course of the campaign with better and better quality troops. The Axis units, however, are excluded from this chit-draw mechanism.

The deeper you go into the rules, the more you realize the two sides have almost entirely different rules. Supply is handled differently, reinforcements arrive differently, etc. And it just works. The two sides DO play completely differently, but very much along the lines I'd expect. The German army is mobile, strong, but neither large nor resilient. The Soviet army is large, ponderous, and relentless. And gives quantity a quality all its own.

Mike and I mostly got the idea to play this from a thread on ConsimWorld asking “What's your best bang-for-the-buck game you own from Multi-Man publishing?” So many people responded with Red Star Rising as at least part of their answer we just had to give it a go. The effort was worth it. This game is simply (in the vernacular of Dave Eggleston) Top Shelf. There was probably only one rule that made us go “huh?” and that involved removal of Soviet Factories (there didn't seem to be a downside to doing it for the Soviets). Hardly anything major.

I'll give a full session report in my next post, but consider this my mini review after around 20 hours of play.

Top Notch.

Give it a go. If you're at all interested in WWII in Russia, this is probably the most playable full-campaign entry out there.

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