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I had the honor and pleasure to participate in a three-day playtest of Sal Vasta’s Unconditional Surrender! at WBC 2013. I have a tendency to verbosity; I have struggled – and failed -- to keep this review brief. Those not so much interested in my writing can skip to the summary at the end.

Many may recognize Sal’s name from the box covers of the Axis Empires games, published by Decision Games. I suspect I am not alone among fans of Totaler Krieg! whose initial interest in Unconditional Surrender was sparked by Sal’s work Axis Empires. Some fans of TK!, and perhaps especially of the original Krieg!, have soured on the system’s growing complexity. Such fans may, I think, find much to like in Unconditional Surrender! , as will many people who found many aspects of the K! approach to World War Two simulation interesting, but who were ambivalent about Axis Empires’ complexity.

Scale
Like most modern Grand Strategic World War Two simulations that have the ETO/MTO as their scope, the Unconditional Surrender! map stretches from Gibraltar in the Southwest, to the Barent’s Sea in the Northwest, to Archangel in the Northeast and down to Basra in the Southeast. The map projection is unusual, and a number of observers commented that it seemed “stretched.” In play, however, it doesn’t seem stretched at all. Sal has gone out of his way to try to make East-West distances scale properly, reasoning that the vast majority of military travel in Europe moves along that horizontal Axis. While the projection does lead to some distortion in some areas, Sal deals with these using what he calls “faded dot hexes.” As you might imagine, a faded dot hex is a hex whose colors are slightly washed out with a dark dot in the center. These hexes are unplayable. He uses these FDHs in what many other games term “difficult terrain” – mountainous areas, areas above the Arctic Circle, and areas with generally very limited infrastructure. This effectively transforms these portions of the map to a point-to-point movement system, which militates against the deployment of ahistorically large forces to such regions.

Turns are monthly, and the map is divided into four weather zones: North, Mild, Warm, and Desert.

The map contains features such as cities, ports, forests, swamps, mountains and – along hexsides – rivers and mountain peaks. The oceans are divided into sea zones.

Is it fun? Can a map be fun? Many passers-by commented favorably on the map’s aesthetics, and I agree that Sal has done a good job with it. The terrain features are quite easy to discern, are pleasing to the eye, and the map feels right. When I first embarked upon Barbarossa I felt like Moscow was a long way from the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line in Poland. And it was – but I was able to get there in the expected time frame.

Simplicity
Sal’s chief design conceit is that his counters don’t have any numbers on them. As the rules say, there are only two movement factors to remember: 8 movement points for leg units, 10 movement points for everything else, including air and naval units. Even after extensive play and cajoling by Sal, I’m still not entirely sold on this idea (no numbers on the counters) and the fact that I needed constant reminders not to move my leg units as if they had 10 factors may suggest that my ambivalence about the idea is not ill founded, or might simply be testimony to my poor memory, lack of intelligence, and dodgy in-game ethics.

But it is simple, there’s no denying that. Movement costs are 1 movement point per hex unless the hex contains a terrain feature or an enemy city, in which case it’s 2. Movement along a transportation line cancels the terrain feature movement. Movement across any land hexside feature (river or mountain) adds +1. Movement through sea zones is 1 movement point per sea zone.

Combat is resolved by computing DRMs for attacker and defender, each player rolling a 6-sided die and comparing the result. Although the combat matrix is based on these differentials, it’s not linear. One can’t “reduce” DRMS to a net DRM – the attacker and defender both must add (or subtract, if the DRM is negative) their own DRM to their own die roll. The combat result matrix includes results for land, naval, and air combat as a single result, though each type of combat has its own set of DRMs. It’s always good to roll high.

Is it fun? God yes! Having both players roll a die adds tension, interactivity, and a certain (unjustified) sense that one controls one’s own destiny. Different players will devise their own etiquette, but it quickly became clear in our game that the attacker was expected to roll first. As the attacker, I saw many of 6’s turned into near useless result when the roll was matched or nearly matched by the defender, especially when rolling against Sal’s son, Alfio. When rolling against Sal, on the other hand, many a 3 and 4 were converted to spectacular victories when all Sal needed was a 3 or higher to foil me. And yes, Vasta Luck is real. However, Alfio’s performance suggests that this phenomenon might be more appropriately termed Sal Luck.

What is Unique
Sal has figured out a way to use a simple, production point based, use-em-or-lose-em economic system as a sophisticated engine that regulates force size, quality, and offensive capability. Those looking for an Axis Wet Dream scenario can look elsewhere: the Germans do not gain economic strength with each conquest. They gain some, but it all comes at a cost. Not all conquests add to the German economy. Most do not. In our game, it came to pass that the Axis did not conquer any of the Balkan nations. When I (the Axis player) noticed this, I wondered aloud if I was doing something wrong. It turned out not to be so. There are no economic reasons for conquering Yugoslavia or Greece. There might be strategic reasons for occupying Greece (to threaten British interests in the Eastern Mediterranean?), but conquering and occupying a foreign country is a cost, and unless that country has pretty valuable resources, it’s rarely justified economically.

Those who are accustomed to purchasing offensives with BRPs, or offensive chits with IPs, or pulling Blitz markers off of their option cards, or who have played games where one must pay “maintenance” for their on-map units will, I think, appreciate how Unconditional Surrender! handles the “every unit attacks every turn” problem. I discovered this when I launched Barbarossa. After conquering France the Germans were quite fat economically. I had this to build and that to build, and I did indeed build this and that. After all, use em or lose em! Because I had not wasted any time conquering the Balkans there was no need to garrison them, so the Wermacht facing the Red Army was quite large. I then started my attack, paying one production point for each leg unit activated, and two for each panzer or motorized unit activated. I made excellent progress and at the end of all of my movement and combat discovered that I had almost zero product left over for the maintenance of my Air Forces. Argghh!

This economic system presents all players with some pretty painful decisions through the turn. I don’t attack simply to make sure that every unit gets moved. Indeed, as the front in Russia progressed, more and more of my infantry got left behind. I had hard choices to make: keep the Luftwaffe flying or advance every single infantry army? And what about adding new ground units? Even with a fairly successful German performance, by late 1941 these questions were already pressing.

The economic system similarly elegantly created what felt like a realistic simulation of activities in the Mediterranean. The Italians made some bold maneuvers before the Germans were fully capable of assisting. Premature Grazzianization. After flying a number of sorties against Force H (with the help of the Luftwaffe during the Winter of 1940/1941), the Italians felt sufficiently emboldened to sail some reinforcements to North Africa. The British intercepted in true Royal Navy fashion with everything that could reach, which meant a depleted Force H and the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. Due to unfavorable DRMs and Aflio’s hot dice… well, let’s just say that England’s expectation that every man do his duty was well met. But what was fantastic about this wasn’t necessarily the outcome – though that felt right – it was that it wasn’t a single gigantic Battle of Annihilation. It was a series of engagements, in each of which the British bested the Italians, getting progressively better odds in subsequent engagements until finally Supermarina was spent. The British were hurt too, but this is where the economics came into play: Britain was better able to replace her losses than the Italians. So while at the end of the battles the Italians were exhausted and the British were winded, by the end of the production phases, the British were game and the Italians were – still exhausted. No special garrison rules or national characteristics rules were necessary to keep the Italians in port licking their wounds. They simply couldn’t afford much saliva.

Was it fun? Oh my yes. The Italians did manage to land the DAK in Tobruck, which was some kind of victory. Watching the DAK starve to death there wasn’t so great though. But again, it felt right. No special North African logistics rules necessary.

A word about the air and naval systems
There might be some who, knowing of Sal’s attachment to Krieg!, have concerns about the level of abstraction in the naval and air wars in Unconditional Surrender! Rest easy.

They are abstract. If you want every named capital ship, seek them elsewhere. But there are no “Open Ports” or “Naval Bases” to concern you here. Naval units are carriers, surface fleets, and convoys and they are all physically present on the map, all the time. To move from port to port, they activate (“sortie”) and expend movement points. Sea Zones aren’t “closed” or “interdicted” by the presence of enemy vessels – those enemy vessels must affirmatively decide to intercept. I really love the way oversea supply is handled (this was the doom of the Italian Navy in the game I played). Units that are overseas (i.e., cannot trace a land path to a home country city) must trace a supply path through sea zones. This supply trace can be intercepted by enemy naval units. Do I escort my supply convoy?

Well, maybe.

Naval units and air units, like ground units, do not have combat factors. The number of sorties they have “accumulated” determines their efficacy. Each time a naval or air unit is activated for any reason, it is “sortying” and a sortie marker is placed on it. Each air or naval unit may sortie six times. Once the sortie marker is slipped to −6, that air or naval unit is combat ineffective. It is not removed from the map. Instead (reaching back to the section on the economic system) sortie markers are reduced, two-steps at a time, at a cost of three production points, at a maximum of two sortie reductions per unit per turn. The only way to restore naval and air units to full strength is to let them “rest” while spending money on them.

So, do I escort my convoy? Well, if I can afford the sorties. If I can’t, the DAK starves to death after landing triumphantly in Tobruk.

Are they fun? Yes! In spite of the abstractions, I could hear the sputtering motors of damaged Swordfish making torpedo runs on Caio Duilio, then limping back to Illustrious, Force H disengaging and returning to Malta to fight again another day only to be pummeled upon its return by Sparvieros that had managed to avoid the Hurricanes, while the 1st Battle Squadron of the Royal Navy steams into Alexandria harbor, damaged but victorious, and awash in glory.

Decision points, decision points, decision points
There are some who take their enjoyment from conflict simulations by crafting and executing the perfect plan. There are others who derive their enjoyment from the exquisite agony of multiple decision points. Unconditional Surrender! will appeal primarily to the latter. Yes there’s planning, and the sequencing of activity during an action phase can critically impact the outcome of a ground offensive or amphibious operations. Sal has jammed an incredible number of difficult decisions into every turn, for both players.

Simulation Value
I haven’t played the game enough to draw conclusions about its simulation value. Even if I had, I lack sufficient knowledge of world war two for my judgment to carry much weight. I can report, though, that for me, every aspect of the game had the right “feel” to it. Some of it took some getting used to. I began particularly skeptical about the application of the naval sortie-counting system and the numbers and types of naval units, but the engagements in the Mediterranean made me a believer.

The ground system, which is of course the heart of the game, also has the right feel to it. Unlike most hex-based conflict simulations, in Unconditional Surrender! each unit completes its move and fights its combats individually. This design choice had multiple positive outcomes.

1. It allows Sal to use the economic system to limit offensive operations in a natural way, without imposing a huge accounting burden on the playes. Because each unit is activated one at a time, there’s no need to count out the number of activations you plan to do ahead of time. Activating this infantry army? Knock one down on the economic track. Move and fight. Want to activate another? Knock another one down the economic track. Out of money? Out of luck.

2. Units move faster when they fight? One issue with many (most?) operational and strategic level games is that, because of the ability to advance after combat or do some kind of post-combat exploitation, often units that are engaged in combat move faster and further than units that do not engage in combat. Sal’s system addresses this elegantly: to fight you must be activated (pay the money) and spend movement points. Every movement point spent fighting is a point that can’t be spent moving. Can you still advance after combat? Well, sort of. But to attack a hex, you must pay the movement costs to move into the hex as well as the extra movement point for attacking. You can call it “advance after combat” if you like – but you’ve already paid the movement costs for entering the hex. You just had to fight for the right to do so.

3. Envelopment on the proper scale. The ground movement/combat system encourages envelopment on a reasonable scale. If you can get enemy units surrounded by your ZOC, you get combat advantages and you increase the damage done with retreat results. This provides an incentive for local envelopments, using your armored units to make breakthroughs just deep enough to surround defending front line troops with your ZOC. There’s rarely an incentive to go racing off into the hinterland. Successful armored attacks typically find the armored units attacking backward after their initial successes, creating and reducing pockets on the fly. You will rarely see efforts to “isolate” thousands of square miles of enemy territory.

4. Decision points. The transition from triumphantly advancing armored spearhead to recklessly exposed unsupported sitting duck can be brief and merciless. If the pocket isn’t reduced, the enveloper may become the enveloped. High risks, high rewards.

The other terrific element of this system is that both players roll dice for each combat, and each activated attacking unit is likely to engage in multiple combats in a turn. This keeps the non-phasing player actively engaged during much of the phasing player’s action phase and adds to the delicious tension surrounding each combat outcome.

And it is fun! Every activation is a potential roller coaster ride. Typically, tension mounts as the turn progresses (see that enveloper becoming the enveloped note above). A stunning breakthrough early in the turn can sputter as supporting elements fail to keep up or exploit the opportunities created with the initial success.

Summary
I could go on, but I’ll spare you. Unconditional Surrender! is fun, fast, and realistic. The economic system correctly models the constraints on modern industrial warfare without submerging the players in bean counting exercises. The air and naval systems, while abstract, interact elegantly with each other and with the ground system and supply rules to create realistic logistical constraints without a bunch of special rules. Naval battles are fought for a reason, usually the transport or support of ground forces. Ground combat and movement are simple, integrated, and tension filled with a high degree of non-phasing player interaction and engagement.

I recommend this game unconditionally.
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Nice review. I playtested a couple of years of a game - not enough to be an expert but enough to know I had to preorder it. The move/attack thing is interesting, the naval/air 'hits' system takes a little getting used to, but is good. I like the faded hex thing too - the space is there for air to overfly but accurately limits land ops in places like northern Finland.

Looking forward to this!
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Thanks for the review. I have this pre-ordered and am looking very much forward to it.

I guess in order to make sure you are not running out of production points during your campaign, some re-planning is required. Since activation is done by unit, do you think such pre-planning would bog down the flow of the game?
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Wendell
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Tako wrote:
Thanks for the review. I have this pre-ordered and am looking very much forward to it.

I guess in order to make sure you are not running out of production points during your campaign, some re-planning is required. Since activation is done by unit, do you think such pre-planning would bog down the flow of the game?


The potential is there. Whether this is a problem depends on the player, not the game.
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Dan Stueber
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Tako wrote:
Thanks for the review. I have this pre-ordered and am looking very much forward to it.

I guess in order to make sure you are not running out of production points during your campaign, some re-planning is required. Since activation is done by unit, do you think such pre-planning would bog down the flow of the game?


I played the entire war solitaire so am certainly no expert on the game but yes there is some pre-planning involved. When it was a factions side I simply looked at what air and naval units I wanted to remove sorties from and if there were any units I wanted to mobilize before I started moving units on the map. I figured how much it would cost to mobilize/remove sorties from those units and subtracted it from the amount of points I have for the turn.

Now this didn't always work because there were times when your attacks would not go as planned so you had to use production points to activate units to try to save units that were cut off because your battles did not turn out the way you wanted....

Dan
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Outstanding review. I haven't had the chance to read the rules so this gave me a great feel for gameplay. Think this is getting bumped to the top of the queue as soon as it arrives.
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Have this on preorder as well. Looks very promising
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BooBoo130 wrote:
I played the entire war solitaire so am certainly no expert on the game but yes there is some pre-planning involved. When it was a factions side I simply looked at what air and naval units I wanted to remove sorties from and if there were any units I wanted to mobilize before I started moving units on the map. I figured how much it would cost to mobilize/remove sorties from those units and subtracted it from the amount of points I have for the turn.

Now this didn't always work because there were times when your attacks would not go as planned so you had to use production points to activate units to try to save units that were cut off because your battles did not turn out the way you wanted....

Dan


Sounds like the right level of planning for me. I do like that a bit of foresight and planning is required and pays off, in particular if this aligns with retaining the strategic perspective of the game. Looking forward to this!
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Salvatore Vasta
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BooBoo130 wrote:

I played the entire war solitaire so am certainly no expert on the game but yes there is some pre-planning involved. When it was a factions side I simply looked at what air and naval units I wanted to remove sorties from and if there were any units I wanted to mobilize before I started moving units on the map. I figured how much it would cost to mobilize/remove sorties from those units and subtracted it from the amount of points I have for the turn.


For those playing PBEM, I created an Excel file to help track this. It can be downloaded with the other files. I found in useful in a PBEM because I normally wouldn't complete a turn in one sitting and this helped me remember what I was planning to do when I got back to the game, or at the least, the units I planned to activate.

Sal
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Sal, thanks for sharing this. Could you give us the location of the file? I checked the BGG file section, but it was not there (yet?)
 
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Salvatore Vasta
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Tako wrote:
Sal, thanks for sharing this. Could you give us the location of the file? I checked the BGG file section, but it was not there (yet?)


Sorry, I wasn't clear. It is the same link where one can upload the PnP files. http://www.mediafire.com/?drcqnoevhcu8j

For the tracking file only try, http://www.mediafire.com/view/js53x1de19hh2m2/USE_Prod_Track...

Sal
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How are losses handled? At army level, I am wondering what happens to a "losing" unit in combat. Does it completely disappear? Are there steps? Retreats? Strength rosters?
 
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svasta wrote:
Sorry, I wasn't clear. It is the same link where one can upload the PnP files. http://www.mediafire.com/?drcqnoevhcu8j


Thanks!
 
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Salvatore Vasta
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chuft wrote:
How are losses handled? At army level, I am wondering what happens to a "losing" unit in combat. Does it completely disappear? Are there steps? Retreats? Strength rosters?


There are platoon level strength rosters with the option to track down to squads.

Most armies have a full strength side and a reduced strength side. Some armies are only reduced strength. A full strength unit that suffers a loss is flipped to its reduced side. A reduced strength unit is eliminated and removed from the map.

Causing a loss generally requires having a significant DRM advantage in combat (along with a favorable die roll spread) or getting a defender retreat result when it is unable to retreat (which is turned into reduction). Normally you do not have a large number armies being eliminated turn after turn.

Eliminated units are eligible to be rebuild on the following turn after operations are over.

Sal
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Paul Pfeiffer
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svasta wrote:
chuft wrote:
How are losses handled? At army level, I am wondering what happens to a "losing" unit in combat. Does it completely disappear? Are there steps? Retreats? Strength rosters?


There are platoon level strength rosters with the option to track down to squads.


Eliminated units are eligible to be rebuild on the following turn after operations are over.

Sal


Great review. I built a pole barn for this game. The Russian squads are stored on pallets in the rear.

Just to add to those who say" hey units are dieing all over the place and that seems unreal" Well, my experience is the German kill Soviets like crazy and they(soviets)keep coming back like a bad 70's horror movie. But when the Germans lose units(which doesn't happen as often) they seem to have real problems getting them back...at least later in the game. It feels real somehow...because you know I am really Stalin and I know how it was for the Soviets. Ha. Seriously, this is a good game. I did a review of his free version here http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/895954/reviewsession-of-unco...

it is a review/session report. Fun stuff
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Salvatore Vasta
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elrond3737 wrote:
[Just to add to those who say" hey units are dieing all over the place and that seems unreal" Well, my experience is the German kill Soviets like crazy and they(soviets)keep coming back like a bad 70's horror movie. But when the Germans lose units(which doesn't happen as often) they seem to have real problems getting them back...at least later in the game. It feels real somehow...because you know I am really Stalin and I know how it was for the Soviets. Ha. Seriously, this is a good game. I did a review of his free version here http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/895954/reviewsession-of-unco...

it is a review/session report. Fun stuff


The review is quite humorous. Give it a read even if you are not interested in Unconditional Surrender! Case Blue.

Sal
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David Reeves
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Kind of like a German officer's quote:

"We ran out of bullets before they ran out of Russians."

Good. Then, I will definitely like the feel of this game when I receive my pre-order.


elrond3737 wrote:
svasta wrote:
chuft wrote:
How are losses handled? At army level, I am wondering what happens to a "losing" unit in combat. Does it completely disappear? Are there steps? Retreats? Strength rosters?


There are platoon level strength rosters with the option to track down to squads.


Eliminated units are eligible to be rebuild on the following turn after operations are over.

Sal


Great review. I built a pole barn for this game. The Russian squads are stored on pallets in the rear.

Just to add to those who say" hey units are dieing all over the place and that seems unreal" Well, my experience is the German kill Soviets like crazy and they(soviets)keep coming back like a bad 70's horror movie. But when the Germans lose units(which doesn't happen as often) they seem to have real problems getting them back...at least later in the game. It feels real somehow...because you know I am really Stalin and I know how it was for the Soviets. Ha. Seriously, this is a good game. I did a review of his free version here http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/895954/reviewsession-of-unco...

it is a review/session report. Fun stuff
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Franck Bouvot
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The review sold me on the game. I just bought it from a gaming store nearby (in Paris) and I can't wait spending some time this weekend on it.

I've been looking for a nice ETO game that wouldn't be too hard to get into. I've started playing wargame only for a year now and I wanted a grand strategy game on that conflict. Seems a good pick.
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