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Francis K. Lalumiere
In order to quench the German war machine’s ever-growing thirst, Hitler needed oil and lots of it. In 1942—after the fall of Rostov in November ’41—the Führer launched a series of offensives in the Caucasus. Those were met with resistance at first, and then with a slew of Soviet counterattacks manned by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of troops. The Russian army eventually kicked the Wehrmacht out of its territory, but only after a costly and bloody struggle.
The Caucasus Campaign recreates this vast conflict on a strategic scale and pits the German player in a battle not only against his Soviet opponent, but against the clock.
The game is played on a map of the northern part of the Caucasus, stretching from the Caspian Sea in the East all the way to the Black Sea in the West. This is a traditional hex & counter adventure, albeit with a very low counter density. Seasoned wargamers will feel comfortable with most of the mechanics: land movement, sea movement (used sparingly, and limited to Soviet units), rail movement, zones of control, ratio-based combat resolved with the help of our old friend the CRT (Combat Results Table), units flipped to indicate step losses, supply lines, and so on.
The sequence of play is an interesting twist in that it intertwines actions from both sides. The German turn looks like this:
Axis Initial Phase – Axis Primary Impulse – Soviet Secondary Impulse – Axis Secondary Impulse – Axis Supply Phase
With an abbreviated Soviet Turn:
Soviet Initial Phase – Soviet Primary Impulse – Soviet Supply Phase
This sort of weaved sequence of play gives rise to interesting and creative moves on both sides of the political frontier.
German reinforcements generally do not deviate from a rigid schedule. Some units (like the Brandenburgers) may show up at a randomly determined turn, and the Alpine Corps may or may not enter play (and if it does, the Axis must earn even more victory points to win the game), but the rest of the roster is already decided upon before the first unit opens fires.
The Soviet player, on the other hand, draws three units at random from a cup every turn. What turns up is out of his control—and may happen to be one of the three “None” counters thrown into the mix. Just hope you don’t get more than one of those on any given turn.
While most of the combat results imply a retreat on the part of the defender, said defender often gets a chance to try a “determined defense” that might—always at the cost of one unit step—cancel the retreat.
Which is not to say that you’ll want to do this all the time. As the Soviet player, retreat is often the preferable option, provided it doesn’t cause additional losses (because of enemy zones of control, for instance).
Although falling back is the order of the day for the Russians in the early stages of the conflict—holding on to Rostov invariably amounts to a massacre—difficult terrain to the South quickly comes to their aid in stopping the German juggernaut. So the Axis player may relish the easy acquisition of about the first 10 victory points, but that sweet taste will soon turn sour when the goings get tough. And I mean TOUGH. Pushing your way through NKVD units in mountain hexes only to attack a strong Guards division in a major city ain’t no piece of cake. No matter how much icing you spread on top of it.
Still, proceedings should unfold rather quickly. If they’re not, then you’re playing it wrong—especially for the German player, who needs to push forward faster than it takes to say Mein Gott. It’s a tough win for the Axis, but not at all impossible. Just keep at it.
Designer/illustrator Mark Simonitch does his own game justice with an elegant map. Not only is the information presented in a clear and beautiful fashion, the map is also loaded with more information than you’d think would fit comfortably on a piece of paper (but more on that later).
The counters are fine and clear, with very few errata: essentially, three of them are missing a triangle in their upper-right corner to indicate that the unit comes into play on its reduced side. Not a big deal (and easy to remedy if you’re not afraid to bring a fine-tipped Sharpie to bear on your beloved counters).
One would be hard-pressed to come up with a tidbit of info left off the player aid card, present in two copies.
But GMT did forget to include a weather counter! A small oversight that’s easily forgiven, especially since you can use any other counter to do the job. (I threw a small black wooden cube inside the box to act as a weather counter, but you could just as well use one of the rail move markers, which are seldom—if ever—needed.)
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Before my first game, I read the rules to The Caucasus Campaign three times. It’s only 17 pages, but it’s laden with exceptions, special cases and unique situations. I enjoyed the historical chrome afforded by those small bulges in the rules, but their numbers bugged me. I knew I was doomed to forget half of them in the heat of battle.
Then I played my first game and something remarkable happened: I realized that if something was not on the player aid card, it was on the board. Simonitch had printed the information on his board, and usually in the most logical and convenient of places.
So you’re worried about forgetting exactly when the Hitler Takes Command special rule comes into play? The turn track will tell you. Grinding your teeth just thinking about the two railroads that you can only use for supply? It says so right on the board, next to each railroad. Panicked about entry hex J, that the Axis can use only once they’ve captured it? Not only does the Taman hex feature all the required information, but it’s even got a holding box for Blücher and his men to wait out the required capture before entering play.
Now the real miracle happened after my first game. I went back to read the rules again—as I always do—to take note of what we’d missed on our first engagement. You know, there’s always something. Well, this time, we hadn’t missed anything. Not a single detail. How awesome is that?
The five-page example of play came in handy during the learning process, and the index on the back cover is serviceable, but far from exhaustive. However, with an encyclopedic board that references pretty much everything, who cares?
The game is much more fun than I expected. The Caucasus Campaign thwarted my expectations on two fronts.
First, the traditional game mechanics had somewhat prepared me for a tame gaming experience. I mean, old-style CRTs? Come on.
But it’s all expertly integrated in a way that makes the game flow like a well oiled machine. (And one reminiscent of another Simonitch design, Ardennes ’44.) Sometimes, what’s been working for years is the best solution.
I was also under the impression that the Russian player would be bored out of his skull. Getting pounded to a pulp by a superior force can’t be fun, right?
Maybe, except that there’s a strange satisfaction derived from a meticulously planned collapse. Especially when you know that you just have to wait for juicy opportunities to strike back at the invader. Think your Black Sea Fleet won’t see any action? Just wait and see.
The Caucasus Campaign proposes two scenarios, starting with a tournament game that takes about three hours to completion. But even the full 14-turn campaign is playable in something like six hours (maybe a little less if you keep things moving), which can either take the better part of a day, or the heart of a long, eventful evening.
So two scenarios and one static setup? Indeed.
But it’s all you need. Trust me. Better yet—trust Mark.
Nice review of a very good game.
Francis K. Lalumiere
Nice review. I just played the game, and really liked it. I have to say one thing though, the number of exceptions and special rules doesn't strike me (and didn't as I read the rules) as excessive. And as you say, between the rules, the map and player aid card, it works very nicely. We played last night at GMT East, and basically read the rules as we played. We made our share of mistakes, but even under those circumstances found the rules pretty manageable.