The Demyansk kessel was born from two stubborn leaders during the winter offensive of 1941-1942. One wanted the enemy destroyed, the other giving a no retreat order. Demyansk being a small town with an important rail link to Leningrad was ultimately a death trap cauldron when it was formed.
With such a historical background, any wargamer would be drawn to this title as much as it was for Stalingrad. The moment I started to read the rules and play my first game, the tactical and operational situation of the game itself turned into a disappointing cum frustrated attack-die rolling exercise for me. But all is not lost..... As history will have it..... There is resupply from the air.....is there?
The map is really very basic and gives the flavor of old school. The mountain, forest and plains hexes are very clearly delineated. Due to this functional simplicity, some may feel that it is very blend or even ugly. Luckily, there are gamers that has posted some nice updates that could be used as alternatives.
The counters are again, a basic and tried system of attack/defend and movement factors, adjusted to account for the map size and hex ranges. The usual colors of grey/blue-ish for Germans and red/brown for Russians are again evident of familiarity. (there are the usual black and whites for Elites from both sides.)
The rules are but a few pages in length. Take away the setup section and you are left with a simple read, done in half an hour.
The rules in brief
Deployment of reinforcements : this is when and where your reinforcements comes in. For the Russians, this is when the airborne troops may be brought into play through air drop directly into the pocket.
Mechanized movement : The German mechanized and assault gun units may move. Russians do not have this phase, but is replaced by HQ (only) unit moving during their turn.
Combat : The good old Combat Results Table (CRT) with the standard calculations for an ODDs resolution for effect. The odds ranges from 1-1 to a maximum of 6-1. The Results ranges from AR2 (attacker retreating 2 hexes) to DR3 and DE (defender eliminated).
Movement again : This time all units may move, including German mechanized and Assault gun units. Russians may move their combat units only.
And the turn cycles towards the IGO-UGO for 1 turn passed.
The charts and setup
A game that tells the story of a pocket battle waiting to be crushed and their relief efforts will undoubtably start with forces surrounded from all sides and cut-off from the front. In a way, this pocket do look very similar to Stalingrad, with airfields to be protected and strong points being fortified.
This setup is perhaps the start of my disappointment. The setup for such a small battle with minimal units (as compared to other games) on the whole should be quite straight forward, but it is still unclear as to which unit could deploy at which hex-level. The unit identification for setup is wrong. ( there is no Russian 382nd Rifle, but 2 copies of 358th Rifle was given. Worst yet, the 358th has differing combat values. You can imagine the confusion!)
Another issue that I felt strange at setup was the wordings '.... Place ON or north of Demyansk...', followed by the next '.... Place ON or south of Demyansk.....'. At Demyansk hex level, all northern units could mix with southern units! If so, than what's the point of separating those units with that limiting restriction?
The lack of pictorial guidance has greatly hampered the speed of deployment. But having said that, This IS a rather 'old' wargame ....... There are no charts. The CRT and some simple modifiers, are printed at the end of the rules set.
Once the units at game start has been deployed (I have to make do with possible erroneous setup, as indicated above) , you will notice that it looked quite impressive that the 'situation' was worth the time to game. But all is not so when the first turn begins....
The game as I see it
The game rules creates the uncertainty for the trapped Pocket German units to BE (or not) in supply. This affects their combat abilities and restricts them from acting too aggressively behind Russian lines. This is perhaps the only aspect I like about this game.
There is only 3 'exchange' results in the CRT, making the prospect of attack rather bloodless. More often than not, the results causes retreats. This may not sound so bad, as victorious units would be marching in...... But it's this lack of 'punishment' to the attackers that the game boils down to units pushing units back and forth along a frontline. Any real gain is not by strategy, but by pure luck that you 'rolled the dice better than your opponent's counter attack at similar odds.' (you rolled a D3 but your opponent only rolled a D1, that's why, your unit is there till the next bout!)
With the rules requiring a continuous frontline through interlocking ZOCs, at the start of he game, it seems like everyone is pretty strung out. One unit per hex covering through ZOCs almost mean 1 unit each at alternate hexes. Looks great at the start of game, but as a numerical odds calculation wargame, there doesn't seem to be much you can have better odds from.
Even when the Germans could advance in the south, the continual frontline rules still pulls German units to 'cover' ZOC hexes. Realistic as the 'bigger picture' it suppose to represent, but makes the game play limitations to just juggling that 2-3 units for battle ( both Germans and Russians), over and over again, turn after turn. I'm not sure if that really makes a game... A game?
Broad front strategy is not exactly possible, as odds attack at less than 1:1 is not allowed. So, each turn would see the reinforcement shore up the frontline or gathering that few counters to do some 'surgical strike' on 1 or 2 selective locations. Attacks by the Trapped Germans are near useless, as all fortification hexes need to be held. Even if these units win a combat, they can't exactly leave their hex! This leaves them pretty much cannon folder for the Russians to do their 'surgical strikes' as and when the Russian reinforcements arrives.
After turn 10, the restrictions on Germans holding fortifications are removed but it's the fortification hexes that are keeping the Germans intact, in the pocket, so concentration of units to breakout COULD be possible, but it also releases Russians units to close in and tighten the pocket.
Coupled with the restriction on HQ range of influence, the spot where the Russians will attack, leaves nothing to surprise. The up coming reinforcements are the only variables, on how the game will develop, where the German pocket will crumble, especially so when the German SS units are gone. One standard tactic in Wargames are using those units that are about to be removed from the game to absorb casualties. This is not a bad thing, but for a game this 'small', using this tactic becomes a standard 'must do' thing.
With 18 turns, the final few turns are perhaps the saving grace of the game. This is when both players starts to throw/draw all available units to either attack for a 'link-up' or attack and cause a separation between 2 groups of Germans. And whoever is the gamer that rolled a better casualty on the other will have the upper hand and wins the game.
The game play starts slow and builds up ( very slowly) to that final few turns for the win. As a small package game, it does have its limitations and replay value drops further when you have played 2-3 times. Because of those initial shortcomings, I have rated it low, not because it was a lousy game, but more because it does not bring a gamer 'into' it.
Moving on to folio games by DG. Let's see what they can do for me.
Thanks for posting.
That map IS shockingly bad, though.
While I am usually the World's Biggest PacRim hater, I have to take offense about the map. It's a 20 year old game. I've seen much worse maps by people who had much better access to improved tech since then.
Agreed. Even though blend, at least it was functional and serves to clearly indicated the terrain hexes without doubts.
Definately better than some game maps of recent years.
On that note, I'm usually more concern of the gameplay or system than the beauty of maps n counters. Too old school? Maybe.
I liked this game. I thought that the Germans had adequate mobile units for limited attacks.