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WW 2: Barbarossa To Berlin -- The Game of Life. Mad Max Edition

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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From gallery of FinalWord


It’s a given in our culture that if something is wildly successful there will be a sequel. Inevitably, the sequel won’t be as good, either because it’s a rehash of the same thing rushed to market, or because it applies the formula in a way that’s a rough fit. WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin suffers a little from both.

Ted Raicer’s Paths of Glory was the runaway hit of the 1990s. The card-driven mechanic came into its own with this game. Each turn you have to choose among activating units, mustering replacements, strategically redeploying or triggering a historical event. You have to play six cards each turn and you only have seven so tough choices are a constant.

The system fit World War I like a LEGO, getting the tempo of the conflict just right. It actually made gaming World War I interesting at the strategic level, something no other game had managed and many had failed at. When I now think about the dozens of hours spent fiddling with the static lines in Guns of August I question my sanity.

Money talks and in this case it screamed for GMT to port the system over to the best-selling genre in wargaming by a wide margin: World War 2. Mr. Raicer went to work and three years later WW 2: Barbarossa to Berlin hit the streets. It sold like herring at a seal convention.

At this time I was over the moon about CDGs and purchased just about every one. The mechanic allows easy PBEM and is perfect for those of us who don’t have live bodies nearby willing to spend every waking hour gaming. Still, I didn’t buy BtB at this time. I demoed the game at a convention and it immediately struck me less as a worthy sequel to PoG and more like one of those choose-your-path adventure books.

Of course eventually I succumbed, after it won the CSR Award for best WW2 game in 2002, garnered countless ecstatic reviews and saw heavy ACTS play. Once the first print run sold out I had to have a copy. So my history with the game starts in 2008 and I’ve only played it half a dozen times.

The reason for the low number of playings is that whenever the choice comes up to start a new game, face-to-face or PBEM, BtB just doesn’t make the cut. And not because it’s a bad game, quite the contrary, it may actually be too good a game. Experience counts here. Noobs beware.

With its predictable card flow, limited choices and optional-in-theory-only events you move along somewhat like playing the Mad Max version of The Game of Life. There's a fixed path, with a few branches, and you land on a fixed number of spaces in your journey to a defined endpoint. Sure there are choices to be made along the way, but their scope is narrow.

This scripted nature of the game is the main knock on it, but it’s also a plus. This repeatability makes for great competitive play. It's reasonably balanced (in tourneys both sides are bid for) and you can’t stray into alternate history territory: The Germans will get next to Moscow. The Wallies will be banging into Germany by game end. And the Italians will desert their sauerkraut-obsessed friends to the north. You really can’t prevent any of that.

And this was obviously a conscious design decision, one you have to accept if you’re going to like it. Paradoxically, it’s a strategic level game that’s not interesting at the strategic level.

But it shines at the operational level. How you attack, maximize terrain, time event plays and where you commit units does determine whether you win or lose. It’s not scripted to the point that the end is predetermined, though the endgame is: the Germans will weaken no matter what you do, the Russians will build their steamroller, and the Americans will poke you in the rear. At the end of the game the board position will not look that different after your 5th play or your 50th. The devil is entirely in the operational details in BtB.

And it’s unquestionably a fun game. I can’t think of a better strategic level World War 2 game that covers the entire ETO and is playable in a normal working day. Granted, that’s a small club.

From the outside looking in, it appears BtB exists mainly because it was as close to printing money as you can get in wargame publishing. Take PoG system, add World War 2, season with Mr. Raicer’s name on the box and stand back as sweaty-palmed gamers hunt-and-peck their credit card numbers into your website to grab a copy at $55 a pop.

But the PoG system isn’t really a good fit for World War 2. The operational tempo is wrong. If you measured the total ground gained by all the armies in WW1 versus WW2 it wouldn’t even be close. So forcing PoGs sedate pace into a WW2 framework was going to require some accommodation.

Given this, Mr. Raicer demonstrated why he is among the hobby’s leading lights by designing an entertaining, historically palpable and challenging game. Historical plausability wasn’t going to be possible unless players were kept on a tight leash.

Make it easy for the Turks, Spaniards or Swedes to enter the war, or amphibiously invade Venice, or any number of highly improbable things and soon the crazy train is debarking Rommel in Baghdad. If a game allowed that it might quickly be mocked into obscurity. Hewing to the historical line was the safe bet.

You can make a good argument that BtB erred too much in the safe direction. But I think it was the better alternative. I’ll always go for a good game that gives me fewer choices over a chaotic mess where anything goes. Ideally BtB would have been more strategically flexible, but that would have taken more development time. The CDG trend was hot at the turn of the century and like a panzer corps spotting a gap in the Russian lines, it had to be exploited. Mach schnell!

BtB won’t get much more play from me going forward as there are more interesting titles beckoning, but I can see why a large contingent rate this game a 10 and continue to play it 13 years after its debut.




From gallery of FinalWord

World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin
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