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Subject: Königsberg '45: A Victory Lost In East Prussia rss

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David Buckland
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Introduction

Königsberg ’45 covers the fighting in East Prussia from the commencement of the final Russian offensive on 13th January 1945 until 1st February, by which point the first Russian spearheads were reaching the Baltic, cutting the link between East Prussia and the greater Reich. This was not of course the end of the fighting in the province – Königsberg itself did not surrender until April, but the game does cover the most mobile part of the campaign.

As a game, the design seems to have been heavily influenced by “A Victory Lost” (AVL) from MMP. This applies to the essentials of the design, but also to more minor considerations, such as the appearance of the counters, or rules such as that reinforcements can be placed anywhere along the rail net linked to their entry hex, enabling deployment well behind the enemy front if the opponent is careless about interdicting rail lines.

Components

The game is serviceably produced in a slim cardboard box, containing the map, die-cut counters, and twelve pages of rules. 3CG (Three Crowns Games) produce limited print runs of their games – 55 copies in the case of Königsberg ’45. The quality is perfectly acceptable, especially given this is in effect a glorified DTP operation, and although the game will not win any graphics awards, the map and counters go well together: I would only question the use of over-thick brown lines to represent the numerous German defence lines.

Rules & Game Mechanics

The units are mostly divisions (for the Germans) and corps (for the Soviets), and are colour-coded as belonging to higher formations (corps and armies respectively). Each formation has a chit, a number of which are drawn randomly each turn, and the chosen formation is then able to move and possibly fight.

There is little distinction between the two sides in terms of individual units, although the Soviets are generally slightly stronger: a typical Soviet rifle corps will be a 4-3-4, while a German infantry division is more likely to be a 3-3-4. Soviet tank corps are 8-4-8, while a standard Wehrmacht panzer division is a 6-4-8. The Germans do have generally better HQs, with faster movement and a larger command range (the number of hexes from the HQ within which units can be put into command when the HQ's chit is picked). On the other hand, the Soviets have considerably more air power. The main difference between the two sides, however, is the number of chits drawn on each of the ten turns, with the Soviets normally well ahead of their opponents: never less than four more (either 9:5 or 8:4 - and usually more; the biggest difference is on Turns 5 & 10, when the number of chits picked is respectively 10:4). This, representing presumably military resources of all kinds, more than the fact that they have somewhat greater forces, puts the Soviets in the driving seat, and the Germans on the defensive, although the latter can launch local counterattacks.

The Soviets are divided into the two Fronts historically involved: Chernyakovsky's 3rd Belorussian Front attacks from the east of the German positions, while Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front attacks from the south. The latter's Front is generally the stronger, receiving one-third more activations, and having the generally stronger formations. It also faces a somewhat weaker defence (fewer defending units, and more open terrain).

The chits are also used to produce various other design effects. For example, towards the end of the game, the "No Gas" chit makes it prohibitive to move mechanised units after it is picked, resulting in the mechanised spearheads of both sides grounding to a halt, awaiting new supplies. Also crucial are the Front and Army Group (for the Germans) chits. These enable the player to pick any formation to activate (and allows therefore multiple activations for one formation in a turn), and here the Soviets have a major advantage, having four (eventually) to the Germans' one. The 3rd Belorussian Front's chits are slower to arrive, which is another advantage enjoyed by Rokossovsky's forces. There is also a "Random Event" chit, the main effect of which seems to be to make air power's availability fairly chancy, though other outcomes are possible.

ZOCs are very sticky: +2 movement points (MPs) to enter or leave, which means that infantry (mostly with 4 MPs) will need to be fairly close to their enemy to launch an attack. Mechanised units, with 8 MPs, can inflitrate the defence if there are gaps, and infiltration is further facilitated by a Combat Results Table which allows for advances (two hexes for mech units) at even relatively low odds). Terrain effects combat mainly through allowing the defender to negate retreats or step losses, and the cumulative nature of these benefits can make it very difficult to winkle a defender out of a strong position. Attacks across rivers uniquely halve attack values, and this makes rivers a powerful defensive feature. The sticky ZOCs, low movement allowances, and difficult terrain in much of East Prussia might make this seem a defender's dream, but this is mitigated by the vagaries of the chit-picking sequence, which make it very difficult to hold a continuous line with no gaps, and equally problematic to retreat from a compromised position.

The number of units belonging to each formation with a chit is in fact quite low, where it is normally three or four, and here it is the unassigned units that are in both sides orders of battle which are crucial, especially for the Soviets, whose armies would be under-powered otherwise. With each activation, the Soviets can select two unassigned units within command range of the active HQ to be in command. As most of the Soviet unassigned units are powerful 8-4-8 tank corps, or 6-4-8 mech or cavalry corps, these units are often activated several times during each turn - and again the weight of the Soviet attack lies with Rokossovsky, as Chernyakovsky has fewer and weaker unassigned units. The Germans have more such units, and they are much more a mixed bag, but can activate three per HQ, rather than two.

One major change from "A Victory Lost", with very significant effects on game play, is that the two sides do not get to pick the chits each turn (the uncertainty in AVL being over what the opponent selected, and the order in which the chits are drawn). In Königsberg ‘45, the player has no control, though the turn in which additional chits are added, and the number of chits to be picked, are obviously major influences on play.

Victory is decided by ownership of 14 Victory Point (VP) towns and cities scattered throughout East Prussia. All are of equal value (Königsberg is not worth more than any other town or city), but most are in the north of the province, and towards the west. Seven VPs gained by 1st February was the historical result (represented as a Soviet Historical Victory in game terms).

The Game In Play (An AAR)

I have only solitaired this game, and that of course makes for an imperfect assessment of how the game plays. Nevertheless, this system, with its series of mini-moves for each player coming in an unpredictable sequence, actually enables effective solitaire play better than most.

In my most recent attempt, the Soviets ground forward in the first days of the offensive, 3rd Belorussian Front moving up the Pregel Valley in the teeth of stiff German resistance, capturing Gumbinnen (on the 15th January) and Angerapp (on the 18th), but with the defenders still largely intact, a counterattack at one point largely destroying the 2nd Guards Tank Corps – to the subsequent weakening of Chernyakovsky’s attacks.

For the most part, however, these infiltrating Soviet armoured spearheads helped to inflict losses on the defending German formations [retreat being a common combat result, costing a step if through an enemy ZOC].

Rokossovsky seemed to be doing no better, but finally the defending German 2nd Army was weakened sufficiently that on 19th January 49th Army managed to push its way through the failing defences of the German 20th Corps, and raced north-eastwards, capturing Ortelsburg and then Allenstein [a VP city] on the 21st [ie. Turn 5]. There was at that point almost nothing between the advancing Soviets and the Baltic – the few defenders in front of 49th Army had been crushed, and the Germans had little that was not already committed elsewhere. However, the Soviets had outrun their supplies, and crucially it was not until the end of the month that 49th Army was in a position to resume the offensive [in other words, the 49th’s chit was not picked after Turn 5 until Turn 10, while the “Front” chits were used elsewhere (see below)]. By this time, the Germans had managed to cobble together a defence of much of the Bartenstein – Heilsberg Festung line, a naturally strong position. Rather than attack it head on, as the Germans lacked the forces to man a continuous line, 49th Army despatched its attached mechanised elements (1st Guards Tank and 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps) on a glorified raid forward through the main gap between Wormditt and Heilsberg, heading for lightly-defended Braunsberg [a VP town] on the Frisches Haff, capturing it on 1st February [Turn 10].

Further west, Rokossovsky had committed his most powerful formation, the 5th Guards Tank Army, in a thrust towards the northwest and Plock. A day after 49th Army [ie. somewhat later during Turn 4], the 5th Guards managed to shoulder aside the defenders, and Plock fell the next day, the 21st [early in Turn 5].

5th Guards Tank Army was then instructed to head north, with the aim of seizing as many crossings of the river in the Vistula bend as possible [the game’s north-western area has the greatest concentration of VP towns and cities on the map]. The Germans had no active formations in the area, but the main Soviet objectives were held by garrison units of varying strength. Graudenz was attacked on the 26th [Turn 7], and fell the following day [Turn 8], simultaneously with Marienwerder. Thorn was also attacked, falling on January 28th [ie. later in Turn 8] and Kulm came under attack.

At this point, though the Soviet thrust had been remarkably successful, 5th Guards Tank Army was badly overstretched, trying at the same time to defend Graudenz and Marienwerder, while assembling enough force to take Kulm. This proved their undoing, as this was the precise moment when the Grossdeutschland Corps, having been withdrawn from East Prussia in a vain attempt to stem the Soviet offensive tide further south, returned to Army Group Centre. Detraining at Marienberg, and joining forces with the 24th Panzer Division already deployed in the area, Grossdeutschland launched a devastating riposte, recapturing Marienwerder and then Graudenz. The Soviet response was delayed by the stubborn resistance of the Kulm garrison, and subsequent Soviet attacks on Graudenz failed to shift the strengthened defence. [The Germans were the beneficiaries of an almost perfect sequence of chits. Firstly, the Grossdeutschland corps returned early, but after what turned out to be the last 5th Guards Tank Army activations for the turn. Then the Grossdeutschland corps was itself activated, then the HGM (Heeres Gruppe Mitte, ie. Army Group Centre) chit enabled them to be activated again. The net effect was the loss of two (later three) VPs by the Soviets – only Thorn of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s earlier gains was retained].

From gallery of davidbuck

5th Guards Tank Army vs Grossdeutschland Corps, 28th January 1945: the start of the German counterattack.

Elsewhere, those parts of Rokossovsky’s command lying between the 5th Guards Tank Army and 49th Army spearheads managed to take Mielau (Mlawa) on the last day of January [Turn 10], while Chernyakovsky’s forces had taken Insterburg from the slowly retreating Germans a day earlier – a last minute lunge towards Wehlau [another VP location], midway between Insterburg and Königsberg fell just short of taking the town.

February opened with the Soviets less far advanced than they had hoped, mainly owing to the successful counterattack by the Grossdeutschland Corps on 28th January.

[The Germans ended with nine of the fourteen VP locations still under their control, representing a German Minor Victory. The Soviets had taken Mielau, Plock, Allenstein, Braunsberg, and Insterburg. The effects of the clash between the Grossdeutschland corps and 5th Guards Tank Army was that the Germans eventually recaptured three VP locations which, with a different sequence of activations, they might have reasonably expected to lose permanently. Had they done so, then the six VPs in German possession would have represented a Soviet Major Victory.

The designers seem to feel that if the game has a bias, it is pro-Soviet, and therefore propose one or two modest optional rules to address the issue. Solitaire playing is not really enough basis to disagree with them, and I did feel that Soviet mistakes were perhaps the more telling. Thus, the failure to clear the Modlin area left the rail line north from Warsaw blocked, and forced the Soviet reinforcements for 2nd Belorussian Front to make a long trek to reach the front lines – and some had so far to go they never reached the actual fighting: the 19th and 50th Armies, for example. However, in my limited experience, the game seems reasonably balanced, as this outcome demonstrates.]

From gallery of davidbuck

East Prussia, 1st February 1945 [ie. the end of the game], showing the main Soviet advances (for 40th Army, read 49th Army).

The Game As History


On this showing, Königsberg ’45 can produce a quite convincing narrative of the opening of the campaign in East Prussia.

For example, the Soviet lunges forward, with bypassed German forces left far in the rear, were very much a hallmark of the fighting. There often was no meaningful front line, and this is well caught by the game. The effect is produced fairly elegantly by the random activation mechanic, which militates against the carefully phased attack or ordered withdrawal, and puts a premium on seizing fleeting opportunities. Even the game “raid” on Braunsberg by 49th Army has a real-life counterpart in the very similar advance of 39th Tank Corps (part of the 5th Guards Tank Army) to Elbing on 23rd January – though the game “raid”, facing a weaker garrison, was able to capture the town.

It might be argued that the effects are a little too rigorous, with entire formations of both sides more or less stranded for days (though this too has its historical counterparts), and that some form of modest ability to move non-activated formations (something akin to watered-down versions of the Stavka chit from “A Victory Lost”) might address the issue. On the other hand, this might affect play-balance, and the point is in any event arguable.

3rd Belorussian Front had a tough time struggling up the valley of the Pregel in the game, as in real life, though Chernyakovsky tried a swing to the north when the direct route to Königsberg was blocked in the actual campaign, which worked reasonably well, as opposed to the swing to the west in the game, which was effectively blocked, and achieved little. The result was that game progress was much less than was achieved by their historical counterparts in this sector, who reached the outskirts of the East Prussian capital by the end of the month.

2nd Belorussian Front had an easier time of it, as it did historically, and for much the same reasons: more Soviet resources, fewer defenders, and more open terrain, though in the early tough slogging, it did not seem as if anything like the actual rate of advance would be possible – a false impression, as it happened.

The Germans achieved nothing in reality like the effectiveness of the Grossdeutschland Corps counterattack, but they might have done, had circumstances been more favourable, so this was a historically plausible outcome: Hossbach’s attempted breakout in late January is perhaps the nearest analogy from the actual campaign. One facet of the campaign not reproduced in the game relevant here is that the divisional/corps level used does not show the splitting up of the Germans’ few Panzer divisions to provide mobile fire brigades to shore up the sagging line. Instead, the Panzer divisions act as unitary wholes in the game – the historical commanders rarely had this luxury.

Generally, however, simple rules producing plausible outcomes are in fact a feature of the game. For example, there are no weather rules per se, but the effect of bad weather can be seen in a number of ways, such as the availability of airpower. The Soviets have far more, but it can disappear in a moment, not to return for a day or two (ie. until the following turn – this is the most common form of random event).

One rule with a more than normal resonance is that relating to refugees. Every turn, the Soviet places a refugee counter five hexes from one of his front line units. These then move slowly towards either Elbing or Königsberg along the road net, blocking strategic (ie. doubled) movement, and costing valuable movement points to bypass. While the Germans will find their movement obstructed by the refugees, the Soviet player can steamroller them, moving through the refugees at no cost, and removing them from the map. (though there is a minor effect in terms of greater Volksturm numbers).

This is perfectly valid as history, but it is a reminder that, while this may only be a game, the Soviet invasion of East Prussia had a catastrophic effect on the local population, who fled in horrific conditions, ending six hundred years of German settlement in the area. The Germans were of course reaping the whirlwind they had sown earlier in the Soviet Union, and Goebbels undoubtedly played up Soviet atrocities to encourage resistance. However, when all is said and done, appalling incidents were commonplace, and the columns of refugees desperately trying to escape the Red Army’s advance were terribly vulnerable. One of those occasions when games played for enjoyment can indicate the sober underlying reality of the subject matter.

From gallery of davidbuck

3rd Belorussian Front, 1st February 1945. Mielau (top left) and Allenstein (top right) are the two Victory Point locations.

Summary

The designer, Stefan Ekström, has a microbadge proclaiming himself “A Victory Lost” (AVL) fan, so I hope he will not mind the explicit comparisons to the earlier design. Perhaps Königsberg ’45 lacks some features of the Nakamura design, most notably the opportunity for both sides to launch sweeping attacks. In Königsberg ’45, the Germans will be much more limited, as befits the side at the end of its tether. However, this is by no means a slavish copy of AVL, and the changes made to the AVL system have in the main the effect of nicely recreating the features of the campaign in East Prussia.

This is in short an excellent game, and it is a shame that the limited printing by 3CG – while understandable on economic grounds – means presumably that relatively few will actually get to play it.

From gallery of davidbuck

3rd Belorussian Front, 1st February 1945.
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Darrell Hanning
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Re: Königsberg '45: The End Of East Prussia
Terrific review, David - very thorough, and very engaging.
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Philipp Klarmann
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Excellent review. I appreciate your thoughts about the suffering of the population, a hot topic where you mirror my thoughts.
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Gotthard Heinrici (prev. Graf Strachwitz)
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David, where did you get this game?
I checked the 3 crowns website but is says currently out of stock. Wasn't this published this year?
Oh and thanks for the great AAR, game reminds me of AVL!
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Stephen Oliver
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3 crowns only made 55 games so sold out very quickly.
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David Buckland
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Gentlemen,

Thank you for the kind comments.

A few afterthoughts:

- Luck: it is much easier to be philosophical about luck when playing solitaire than it is face-to-face. The main luck element in the game is the chit draws, and Königsberg '45 does not prevent a run of these which could hypothetically severely damage the chances of on side or the other. However, extremes of this kind will be quite rare, and the luck of the draw will mostly tend to even out, given the number of chit draws in a full game. Moreover, in some ways the essence of the system lies in coping with the unexpected or unwished, and the very desirable element of chaos it adds to the game.

- Rules problems: there seemed to be very few (and there is an FAQ). Again, solitaire can be very deceptive, but although there were some unclear points, none seemed critical, and all seemed susceptible to reasonable compromise.

Harae wrote:
David, where did you get this game?
I checked the 3 crowns website but is says currently out of stock. Wasn't this published this year?
I ordered directly from 3CG in Sweden, whose service for both games I have ordered (this one, and "Pax Baltica") has been excellent. In this case, I used their pre-order system, in which you register your interest in an upcoming or projected 3CG game via their website, and they will email you prior to production to confirm whether you wish to order (payment via Paypal, I think). It all went very smoothly.

Having liked this game, I recently pre-ordered their Narva title, using the same system, and covering the Soviet offensive into Estonia in 1944.

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Paul Aceto
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It would be nice to see this set of games picked up by MMP's International Game Series.
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Rob Bottos
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MMP just announced today that they will be adding this game to their IGS series.
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Alan Lynott
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BobRoberts wrote:
MMP just announced today that they will be adding this game to their IGS series.
Does anyone know if MMP are making any changes or tweaks to the game before they release it?

Fantastic review, can't wait to get my hands on this when it is republished.
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Re: Königsberg '45: A Victory Lost In East Prussia - Revolution Games
It now appears that Revolution Games will publish this game.
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Richard H

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Hi All,

Yes, Revolution Games is publishing Konigsberg. It should be released the first quarter of 2018.

Happy New Year!

Richard
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