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Stalin's War, Hitler's Wet Dream

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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From gallery of FinalWord



Stalin’s War is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, rushed out the door in a cardboard box.

An enigma because you have to wonder how something this underdeveloped was ever released. But unless you are new to wargaming you’re not wondering all that much, as GMT releases a fair number of half-baked turkeys every year. And I say that with love in my heart and gravy on my shirt.

The suckers who purchased the first run copies of Stalin’s War received poultry so unbalanced its legs were pointing firmly skyward, muffled gobbles emanating from the shrinkwrap. Truth in advertising should have mandated a title change to Hitler’s Wet Dream. And this time it’s not just my opinion.

As evidence just look at how much the Wehrmacht was emasculated in the "second edition" (basically the same components with modified/living rules). To wit:

1. Soviets now choose any card from the deck to start the game with.

2. Axis play of reinforcement events or for replacements does not reset the operations track on first four turns (this is HUGE).

3. Soviets get 3 free replacement points on turns 2 and 3.

4. Axis lose the game if they don’t have 10 VP at end of Summer 1943.

5. Soviet reinforcements can now appear in towns (this turns out to be a big deal).

Wow! Any two of these would be major, but five kicks straight to the Axis groinal region just to gain a semblance of balance?

Was anyone who has ever played an East front wargame involved in playtesting? Was there any playtesting? I mean the very first time you play SW using the printed rules the Germans are skiing in the Urals, and Dolf is doing his little Nazi macarena in the Kremlin.

It didn’t take long after SW was released—say a month—before it was outed as the rabid gobbler it was. Seems, as is becoming the fairly standard GMT modus, that the initial purchasers were used as unwitting playtesters, with the real game emerging a year or so later with the living rules.

But giving the devil his due, the fixes have served Stalin’s War well. Though—sadly—they seem a bit slap-dash and create some new problems.

Case in point: requiring the Germans to have 10 VP at the end of Summer ’43 was presumably added so the Germans don’t unhistorically retreat to better defensive positions after they can no longer achieve automatic victory. Problem is, there are several events that subtract VP. So even if the Germans are doing well—better than historically even—they can arbitrarily instantly lose if the Soviets draw the right cards.

And that my friends, is chuck-the-whole-thing-in-the-garbage frustrating. Save yourself the potential grief and change this from requiring 10 VP to requiring the historical six Russian VP cities.

I’m a big fan of the operations track in SW, whereby each time you consecutively play a card for operations it’s worth fewer points: play two in a row and the second is worth one fewer ops, play three in a row and the third is worth two fewer ops, etc. Even armies gotta rest after all. It’s an elegant way to control the operational pace and temper those banzai krauts from making a hell-be-damned charge to Siberia.

But SW also recycles the Nordlicht/Taifun/Blau event mechanic from Barbarossa to Berlin, which served to tame the operational pace in that game. Add to this the second edition prohibition about resetting the ops track during early reinforcement or replacement plays and the Germans can find themselves not just tamed, but declawed and missing the family jewels. I was half expecting to see a Russian event titled I Neutered My German Invaders.

Adding insult to injury, the above referenced cards are 4 Ops events that must be played before the Axis can attack Leningrad/Moscow/Stalingrad-Caucasus respectively. For the Axis player they effectively read: “Permanently lose a turn and a 4 Ops card.” In the early war deck there are only five 4 Ops cards. And you really can’t kick off Barbarossa with a bang unless you play a big ops card. So you often have no choice but to play one or more of these events for ops. They are also the best replacement cards.

I won’t argue that the Germans just didn’t have the resources to tackle all three objectives and the cards represent laying the logistical groundwork to attack them. But along with the other prohibitions this is a bit of throttling overkill in the early game. And I really dislike the side effect of the Russians magically knowing they can lightly garrison these cities until the event is played. And once one of these hits the discard pile the Russians know the city is safe for several turns even with a German horde nearby.

When played as events these cards should grant 1 op that can only be used to attack the relevant space. That would keep the Soviets honest at least.

In addition to being enigmatic, Stalin’s War is also a riddle that challenges you to figure it out. As a simulation it’s not that interesting. The game’s narrative is shallow and as scripted as a Hogan’s Heroes episode. And you never really feel like you’re a commander on the Eastern Front like you do in say Russian Front or even The Russian Campaign.

But there’s definitely a puzzle here. I’ve had a lot of fun figuring it out. Play can get downright Chess like. And like Chess, the mechanics aren’t difficult but play is subtle. It’s the mechanics that engage you here not so much the situation or history.

Also like a riddle though, once you figure it out it loses much of its appeal. After five games I’m done with SW. But I’ve gotten my $20 worth.

The first edition of Stalin’s War ranks an F
for complete lack of play balance. Too bad the second edition was used as a triage opportunity more than a way to take it to the next level. Still, it's worth playing a couple times, especially if you favor tactical gameplay over period feel and simulation value.



From gallery of FinalWord

Stalin's War
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