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Subject: East Front Toccata rss

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Francis K. Lalumiere
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Brossard
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(Originally posted on BoardGameNews.com)

In late June of 1941, Hitler finally decided that he wanted what lay hidden in the heart of the Russian motherland. Call that prize what you will—national pride, historical symbolism, the Russian spirit, or oil, pure and simple.
For Hitler it was Barbarossa, and he executed the operation with all the might the Wermacht could muster.

Stalin’s War takes off with the opening salvos of the German invasion in ’41, pushes through to the Soviet counter-attack, and brings the whole conflict to a crushing conclusion with the fall of Berlin in the spring of ’45. (Assuming history repeats itself on the table top…)

The game unfolds at the operational level on a hex grid that’s fairly small considering the vast expanses it represents: from Berlin in the west, all the way to the Ural Mountains and the industrial centers of Chelyabinsk and Magnitogorsk in the east.

After an initial setup that puts the Soviets right in the grinder, each player is dealt a hand of strategy cards that can be used in one of three ways: as an event (printed on each card), as a Replacement card (with different replacement values for the various factions involved in the conflict), or as an Operations card (using the OPS value of the card, from 1 to 4).
This is what aficionados call a card-driven wargame (CDG), where each move revolves around the play of a card—for only one of its possible effects. Long strings of agonizing decisions ensue, which is precisely what players love about this type of game.
Ain’t we a twisted bunch?

Played as an event, a card simulates an historical happening that shaped the course of the war—just as it is sure to fashion the proceedings of the game. There are 55 strategy cards to each deck, which means 110 unique events in the entire game.
Soviet events include The Volga Has Only One Bank, creating a fortress in one of three critical city hexes; Operation Bagration, providing a much needed boost to the Russian push towards Germany; and Industrial Evacuation, which makes it possible to bring tanks into play, among other effects.
German events include Vlasov, bringing the Vlasov Corps into play; Nordlicht, allowing the Axis to attack Leningrad; and the dreaded Hitler Takes Command, which permits the play of a slew of other German events, but at a cost in logistical flexibility.

Played for its Replacement value, a card allows its player to accumulate replacement points that may be used later that turn to patch up damaged units or bring fresh troops out to the front line.

And played for Operations, a card provides OPS points that are used to move units about and launch attacks. But there’s a twist: although restricted by each unit’s movement allowance, most movement is free. OPS need to be spent only when the last friendly unit in a stack exits a hex adjacent to the enemy, and to initiate combat (one OPS point per hex). This makes it possible to restrict movement/combat through the use of an OPS mechanic, while at the same time (even on a hex grid) keeping the front line advancing more or less in a coordinated fashion.

But OPS need to be used sparingly, for each consecutive card played for OPS has its value reduced by one, cumulatively. This means that the first OPS card retains its full value, but the next one will play at -1, and the one after that at -2, and so on. A card played for an event or replacement points resets the OPS cumulative sequence—but that sequence does carry over from turn to turn.
Plan accordingly.

Combat is fairly standard and resolved by totaling power on each side and rolling on the appropriate CRT, depending on the type of units involved. Step losses and retreats usually follow.
Some of the event cards actually sport combat effects, and those combat cards stay in play (until the end of the current turn) for the victor of an engagement. This means that subsequent battles can benefit from the same combat cards without the need for further pasteboards to leave a player’s hand. In case of defeat, however, all of the player’s cards leave the table.

Exploitation rules (for when armored units punch a hole through the defensive line) add a touch of anxiety to each turn, and control of oil hexes affects hand size for both opponents. Lose too much of that oil, and your operations will assuredly grind to a halt.

The full game ends after 18 turns, but sudden death is possible for both sides in a wide array of situations.


WAR PRODUCTION

In true GMT fashion, it’s difficult to find fault with the components of Stalin’s War.
The paper map is large and replete with relevant information.
I was initially surprised at the size of the playing area, but it turns out there’s plenty of room to maneuver about (and I tend to find the board actually wider than it should be when I’m sitting on the Russian side…).
The game comes with two full-color player aids, but we end up never using them because most of the required information is laid out on the board. Even time-sensitive special rules are highlighted on the turn track.

The cards are printed on good stock and feature great historical photographs. Again, all the necessary info is found on each card, so you don’t have to go fishing in the rulebook for minute details.

The counters do a fine job, as usual. I especially like the action counters (numbered 1 through 5) that each player can use to mark, on their side of the map, what type of actions they’ve played. Makes it very easy to backtrack and make sure nothing fell through the cracks.


RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

The rules are pretty straightforward and nicely laid out. You’ve got 20 pages of rules, plus a two-page index, which makes learning easy. There’s also half a page of “easily forgotten rules,” just to make sure players don’t miss a thing.

The only section I found a bit difficult to decipher was the one about 0 OPS Rounds, which took some gazing at for a little time. But other than that, you should be home free.

The box also contains a playbook that breaks down as two pages of designer’s notes, one page of strategy tips, and a whopping 15-page example of play. If they’d had a bigger box, they might actually have packaged Ted Raicer inside every copy to personally teach you how to play.

Now I’ve probably been spoiled by what GMT did with their Twilight Struggle, but I really wish they’d included a section about the historical background of events in the playbook. An added value for the history geek in all of us.


FUN FACTOR

Stalin’s War is a blast to play. True, I’m a fan of CDGs, but I’m not indiscriminate and I don’t fall for all of them. But this one’s a keeper.

Each player’s strategy deck is in fact two separate halves: about a third of the game is played with just the first half—with all the cards labeled “Blitzkrieg”—and then the second half is shuffled in, once certain conditions have been met. This brings all the “Total War” cards into the mix, with special reinforcements and show-stopping events galore. It’s a great way to create a feeling of escalation.


PARTING SHOTS

Stalin’s War is on the verge of becoming my new favorite WWII east front game. The simple rules and the angst of each card play just make my day.

The full game (18 turns) should take two experienced players around six hours to play out, which definitely brings the experience within the bounds of a one-day affair—heck, you could even play it in one long evening if you don’t spend too much time on dessert.

The game does propose a tournament scenario that ends after turn 8. The problem is that turn 8 is pretty much the turning point for the Soviets: up to that moment, the Soviet player is better off orchestrating a controlled retreat until the German starts running out of steam and better Russian units show up (which happens when the Total War cards get shuffled in, usually around turn 7). The tournament scenario is still balanced as far as victory conditions go, but the Soviet player doesn’t get to experience an exhilarating ride the way the German player does.
For a more interesting eight-turn scenario, I would have pushed the game some four turns down the line, starting on turn 5 and ending on turn 12, with an alternate setup reflecting the historical situation in the spring of 1942. This would have given the German a few turns to keep pushing east, until the Soviet builds up enough power to push back and try to even the score.
Perhaps in an upcoming issue of GMT’s magazine, C3i?
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simon thornton
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er hem ...Im no historian but didnt the war start in 1941 ?

ps Great review btw.
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Francis K. Lalumiere
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bluekingzog wrote:
er hem ...Im no historian but didnt the war start in 1941 ?

ps Great review btw.

Whoah, what a brain-fart.
Of course!

Thanks for pointing that out. blush
 
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Chester
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Quote:
But OPS need to be used sparingly, for each consecutive card played for OPS has its value reduced by one, cumulatively. This means that the first OPS card retains its full value, but the next one will play at -1, and the one after that at -2, and so on. A card played for an event or replacement points resets the OPS cumulative sequence—but that sequence does carry over from turn to turn.
Plan accordingly.


I think the jury is out on this point. The biggest criticism so far is that the penalty for chronic OPS play for Germany is not steep enough. Movement is so cheap otherwise. The Blitz can isolate and OOS enemy units even without initiating combat.
 
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Francis K. Lalumiere
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cornjob wrote:
Quote:
But OPS need to be used sparingly, for each consecutive card played for OPS has its value reduced by one, cumulatively. This means that the first OPS card retains its full value, but the next one will play at -1, and the one after that at -2, and so on. A card played for an event or replacement points resets the OPS cumulative sequence—but that sequence does carry over from turn to turn.
Plan accordingly.


I think the jury is out on this point. The biggest criticism so far is that the penalty for chronic OPS play for Germany is not steep enough. Movement is so cheap otherwise. The Blitz can isolate and OOS enemy units even without initiating combat.

Absolutely, Chester: I've been on the receiving end often enough to feel the pain of the German blitz frenzy...
But so far I still feel that the OPS penalty works fine. Then again, maybe my opponent (playing German) wasn't enough of a bastard.
I should play more often with you fine gents!
 
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