Well, here we are with the stock-in-trade of the hobby – whatever else has been designed, and wherever else it took us, you cannot think of the hobby without the Eastern Front in World War Two. From small unit actions, where the brutal simplicity of combat, mano-a-mano, is conveyed in rules that can break your foot if you drop them, to grand operational and strategic designs that come with everything save a yellow briefcase, the hobby has done it every which way for decades.
In this article, however, I will not be doing it every which way, lest I never emerge from my own Rattenkrieg. Instead, with there being more than enough strategic goodness in the catalogue to fill these pages, that is what I will confine myself to. And regrettably, as I have singularly failed since the early Seventies, to buy, play and appreciate every last title in the range, (what was that one in the bag with the hexagonal counters back in the 1970s?), we will all have to make do with what I have owned and played since my early teens, starting with…
Stalingrad – Avalon Hill 1962.
For me, an early purchase, bought with money I earned working Saturdays and school holidays on a veg stall in a London street market – how well I remember the steaming mugs of tea, the sausage sarnies, the banter…all of which helped to take my mind off the game.
In this instance, the disappointment started the moment I got the lid off the box, and wondered where all my teeming hordes were? At that point in my young life, I was trying to read William Shirer’s Rise and Decline of the Third Reich – in a massive and unwieldy paperback version that was about as user-friendly as the Third Reich itself. Nevertheless, despite the pages falling out and then being haphazardly put back by yours truly (I think I had Hess in Scotland several months before he got in the plane), my imagination had been sufficiently sparked to want to play out the titanic struggle between the Nazis and the Soviets with what was the only game on the subject to be readily available in the UK – and only then if you knew where to look.
And please understand I was still just a lad, and with only three games to call my own before this, I was not quite sure what to expect in the average wargame box. I soon learnt otherwise when the fourth came along – Waterloo Meets Gettysburg meets Stalingrad (1914 was, in the marginally adapted words of The Seekers “In a world of its own, that no one else could share”). Of course, back in early 1973, I naively thought I would be getting a massive supply of Soviet units, looming out of the Siberian hinterland and taking the panzers on in the ice and snow. Instead, and to this day I remember this, I went looking and shaking around the box expecting to find another sheet of Russians ready to deploy on the map.
However, quite apart from what was presented sort of suggesting from one angle that Stalin had purged anyone in Russia not called Stalin, there was not a single Russian unit that looked like anything that had actually been in the fight. Leading the way in that regard was some incredibly powerful Soviet cavalry, that rather suggested someone had armed Tolkien’s black shrouded “Nine” with nuclear weapons. I mean, forget about tanks on the breakout and Stuka dive bombers hurtling down (why not, Avalon Hill did), get some cavalry imbued with Soviet ardor, put them on one of the game’s warp factor railway lines, and end the war via the train now standing at platform three.
And meanwhile, at Führer headquarters…
Adjutant: (reading from telegraph) News my Führer! The XLVI Panzer Corps has advanced twenty-five miles.
AH: Excellent! How many miles does that make in the last two months?
Adjutant: One moment my Führer!
(he sorts through some papers and counts on his fingers)
Adjutant: (sheepishly) Twenty-five leader.
(a pencil flies across the map)
AH: Unbelievable! Are these the same vaunted formations that cut through the Poles in a matter of days, made Paris quake, sparked the cobbles of Belgrade and Athens, and threw the British out of Libya in mere weeks?
Adjutant: I know, odd isn’t it?
(he pauses and listens)
Can anyone else hear horses outside?
Director: And cut! Okay, wonderful people. Let’s get ready for the next set-up! Scene Four guys, and I want to see mud, mud, mud!!!
(he turns to face the Führer who is tapping on his shoulder)
AH: I’m not happy with my part!
Director: No one is babes, but we’re all trying to make allowances. Now go pick your pencil up and be a good boy.
Yes, it was all odd; and nothing more so than a sentence I remember from the game’s Battle Manual:
“Early playtests at our offices uncannily reflected how things had actually gone historically” – or words to that effect.
Yes folks, wargaming’s version of the Twilight Zone had been discovered, for how else could an utter absence of appropriate mechanisms for armour, airpower, and a highly iffy order of battle translate into an “uncanny reflection” of actual events? And of course, over the years god knows how many articles appeared in The General trying to tart the thing up, backed by that total giveaway indicator that all is not well in the present state – extra counters…and then some more extra counters…and rules…and things.
An interesting aspect to any look at Stalingrad’s literature is the fact that it has produced so very much of the stuff, and in two very different forms. On one side of the creative effort has been the attempt of players to put something into the game that would make it feel vaguely like what it was meant to be; and on the other side, there have been studies, very considerable studies, by George Phillies, which concentrate on the thing “as is,” and basically boil it down to a game of skill involving a red army and a blue one, for control of key points – which is all well and good if we were talking about a game of Risk or Go, but this was supposed to be Russia between 1941 and 1943…it said so in the rules, and there were photos on the box of things that sort of suggested where you were meant to be and what you were supposed to be doing.
More pictures appeared in…
The Russian Campaign – Avalon Hill Version 1976.
This was my second foray into the east at this level – I did not go for a “Drang Nach Osten” for the simple reason that hardly anyone here sold it, and I hardly ever had the money for that sort of purchase.
It was a different matter with The Russian Campaign. On the face of it, this was everything Stalingrad was not – good. Actually, it was not that good, but even throwing some dice at plastic soldiers was better than Stalingrad. Nevertheless, whatever faults The Russian Campaign had, the hordes were sort of there, helped along with some replacement rules that periodically resurrected at least some of the things you had managed to wreck. And, as I said in “The Maps of Collapse” article, there were other sublimely superficial attractions – Berlin on the map, workers in the cities, Stukas in the air…and amendments in the mag.
Undoubtedly the biggest improvement over Stalingrad was the double move for armoured and mechanized/motorized units, which gave players the chance to plunge behind the enemy line and get some sort of encirclement going. Of course, in player world, as opposed to Adolf Land and Stalin’s Realm of Wonder, units rarely stayed in place long enough to get completely cut off…but it always sort of felt that they might, even if it rarely happened after turn one. As for the biggest weakness in the game, for me that was, and persistently remained, the post 1941 scenarios, that never came across as anything but a clumsily imposed afterthought. In the first Avalon Hill effort, everything supposedly available prior to the given scenario start date got heaped up on the start line; but although supposed adjustments in later additions were meant to improve things, they only created issues of their own…
Director: Okay, let’s roll people! Scene fifty-seven, The Russian Campaign, June 1944 set-up.
(he takes a final look around)
(the Führer is looking sulky)
AH: (peering at the map) Where the hell is my bleeding army?
Director: Sorry babes?
AH: In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve got *** all on the ruddy map!
Director: Oh, come now. You’ve got a bit of stuff, sort of here and there…and look, there’s a teensy-weensy tank unit…or something.
AH: And what the Hermann Göring am I supposed to do with that? Where’s all the units I had the first time we set this 1944 up? I had tons of stuff then. I thought I was winning. What’s happened?
Director: Bit of a rethink sweetheart, that’s all. You know, freezy sneezy winters, Stalingrad, Kursk, lots of nasty encirclements… we had to sort of reflect that, you understand, for credibility.
AH: But I’m supposed to be conquering things. I’ve got fewer men here than Custer had the last time he got off his horse.
Director: Now don’t you go bothering George. He’s still in development whereas you are the big feature. So, positions people, and action!
(Stalin is glaring at the map)
JS: Why haf I not got aircraft units?
Director: Sorry sweetheart?
(Stalin points at Hitler)
JS: He haf aircraft units. He haf them for years, flying off and landing around his headquarters, and going boom de boom over my workers and peasants. So, if he can have Rüdel the Red Nosed Fascist, why cannot Josef haf his Sturmoviks?
Director: (looking up a gallery) Darling, are you up there? You are. Lovely. Any thoughts…anything…why Josef hasn’t got any Sturmo (he looks back at Stalin who inaudibly mouths answer)…what honey?…Sturmoviks?
(he looks back up at gallery).
He’s got what? Workers? Paratroopers? Partisans? Yeah, but he’s asking about planes sweetie. You think it’s a counter-mix thing? Or it might a balance issue? You don’t know…not really…okay, fine, leave it to me.
(he turns to Stalin)
Sorry Josef, that’s a plain no-show on the planes…
(he giggles nervously).
Okay positions dictators. Adolf, leave that Stuka alone, we’re kinda past that now.
Dark Crusade – 3W 1984.
This, in a way, is an important game. For a start, the design concept was clever and original, and in the normal run of things, that would have been enough to get past the somewhat basic components. Sadly, however, the game was also important for two other reasons – for showing what happens when the design and development relationship looks like a street battle without the planning; and, in its own way, for also unwittingly presenting, at least to me, the decline the hobby was in by the mid-1980s.
I bought this game in my usual London shop shortly after it was released; and it speaks volumes that it was close to being the only new stock they had. The business had overreached and been badly caught out by the shrinkage in much of the hobby as habits changed and the first home computers came along. Somewhere close to the rail station I had a first look at the game, and on that basis came very close to walking it back to the shop – a premises which I can only describe as looking like the hobbyist’s equivalent of Miss Haversham’s dining room and wedding cake. As for what was in the box, many of the units had the wrong information on them, and Mr. Proofreader had clearly gone walkabout in the Stalingrad sewers…taking the one and only map with him.
In all, it sort of summed up with I already felt – the hobby was in decline, with shops selling old stuff in broken boxes, and broken stuff in new boxes. I cannot tell you how disillusioned I was, but I would like to think it was at about the same level as the designer’s feelings at seeing his work unnecessarily founder. The sad thing is, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the concept of Dark Crusade – the point to point map, the combat system of “hold on and hold up the enemy,” the emphasis on a quick-running game backed by (in theory) a decent OOB could have worked very nicely…only it did not, because like any failed creative effort, it was denied the time and the collective attention/acumen it needed to gel. And that is not what the craft should ever be about…ahem…Won by the Sword anybody…?
There is a very interesting piece on BGG where Lou Coatney talks about the travails of the game in the period leading up to its launch. Apparently, the second edition was better, but mine was too bust to fix. I tried; but with everything fast resembling one of my mother’s shopping lists, I just gave up and chucked it. What a pity.
Russian Front – Avalon Hill 1985.
These days a company like GMT does not seem overly bothered by having more than one title currently available on essentially the same subject – The Supreme Commander and Unconditional Surrender spring to mind, as do Won by the Sword and Leaping Lemmings – only kidding!
But in the mid-1980s, when everyone appeared to have money save anyone and anything I was interested in, Avalon Hill, it seems, did have reservations about publishing Russian Front when it already had The Russian Campaign ageing away amid a heap of player-inspired revisions. But they did bring it out, and I really should have loved it…only I did not. I think, like Carl Paradis has said on BGG, it felt like the sum of all the clever parts added up to less than might have been expected. Some things, like laying and removing mines in harbours, seemed like a timewasting chore, and especially when you compared that to not being able to fortify anywhere on the land part of the map – so forget about the millions of mines around Kursk and the resolute masses digging trenches around Moscow…the game, as was, had nothing to say on the subject.
On a more positive note, the components were pretty good (the map was very good) and the armour/blitz mechanisms were probably to the best to date for a corps game. But the game’s step reduction, with losses affecting combat ability only when the unit(s) in question finally evaporated, seemed a tad odd. And the novelty soon wore off a combat procedure that necessitated plucking everything off the map, hitting it around like one of Monty Python’s knights, and then putting it all back again.
But, in all honesty, more than anything else, I think was becoming heartily tired of encountering this little issue…
Director: Right, do I have my actors in place? Yes? Well remember it’s summer 1943, so Adolf’s on his last push…no…sorry Adolf, it’s no good having the sulks, you’ve have enough pushes already. So…
(Stalin raises his hand)
JS: I am not happy man.
Director: Yes, that’s right Josef. Give it plenty of mood sweetheart, but save some for the oh-so-important balcony scenes later.
JS: Stuff ze balacony scene! I am looking at ze map here. It haf very pretty colours, and it haf ze Motherland all over it, but next to no ****ing Germany!
AH: Hah! You try conquering a country the size of yours when most of the oil is off the map!
JS: Oh, like you are so hard done by, you Fascist pig! No wonder no one else got a seat round dacha pool when von Rippentroops was calling. You vant it all, that is what I am thinkin’…fly the planes, move ze tanks, go bang bang in my forests, and try make dirty great holes in Kremlin roof.
Director: Well, you do have planes this time around Josef baby.
JS: Yes, and conspiracy means I got nowhere good to fly the ****ing things! I tell you, as I am Georgian, one year ago I say to my people “Not one step back!” Now, when it seems good that we might win, if we take more than one step forward, we are off ze bloody map!
(he strides around and points at Hitler)
So, square tash, he want to go this way and that way…he want big blow up in Kiev, Kharkov, Smolensk, Moscow and plenty else; but when I am getting ze upper hands, there is *** all of his to attack!
Director: Josef, darling, we all just assumed that if you had gone all the way back to near where you started, we could declare a winner and get the wrap party champers on ice.
JS: Cobblers wallops! I see how you are makin’ movie films in your country, like this “Gone With Ze Breezes.” It very long film, but it not end with your Rhett Butler stuck inside big house pullin’ at doorknob. No, he go away properly, through door, and he tell woman, Scarlett O’ Pimpernels, that she not get hands on his hydro-electric facility.
Director: Well, tell you what Josef…if you can see Berlin, you know, like pretend and emote honey, I’m sure we will all see it too. Just you put it out there, like you always do.
(he turns to Hitler)
And can we watch the pencil count please Addy? The prop guys are getting nervy about running out.
Trial of Strength – Panther Games 1985.
I said just a little earlier that the hobby was in decline by the mid-1980s, which it was with shops closing and games companies failing. But there was another side to the story, with some legendary games still arriving on shelves – RAF, Storm over Arnhem, Turning Point Stalingrad and Up Front being some of the obvious examples. If I really get culturally urbane about all this, I might compare the occasional glories of 1980s wargaming to the British film industry in the 1970s – full of bad jokes, boobs and “oo’er missus!” But what I really mean is that British cinema was flat out of money and inspiration for close to ten years, but just occasionally something far better came along – like Get Carter, The Wicker Man and The Long Good Friday.
Trial of Strength, in game terms, never quite made it to that sort of level – perhaps one might argue it was the right subject, bold ideas, but overall, had just the wrong set of rules. They were not bad rules by any means, but there were a lot of them, with some imposing new concepts along the way – many linked to a unified movement and combat mechanism. I do not mind admitting that I was drifting away from the hobby in favour of the joys of a Sinclair Spectrum and then an Atari ST. I was totally off rules that took too long to read, or in some other way took me out of my comfort zone. I enjoyed Up Front, but I never played it with all the rules because all the game was in the first few pages – the rest was silly, misjudged padding. So, when it came to Trial of Strength, which lurched from one extreme to the other on the map front (Berlin was there, and Paris nearly was), and combined that with some rule terminology that looked like it had been written by Dame Edna Everage, (this was an Aussie game after all), I could not be bothered past some initial half-hearted efforts.
This might be the place to add a few more general observations – intricate and clever game mechanisms in isolation are never going to be anything more than that unless the subject “in hand” seems right as a result. Whatever sort of map we are facing, whatever the counters, we wargaming lads and lasses do want to feel “in the moment.” It is the same with books – to go a tad off subject, I can read Sibourne’s Waterloo account (well, try to), or I can read Alessandro Barbero or Tim Clayton (please do, all of you), or from some decades ago, David Howarth’s “A Near Run Thing,” which remains an amazing “first person’s” view of the battle. And I rather think most of us who roll the dice want “A Near Run Thing” over a Sibourne in game terms; which for Waterloo leans me more to La Bataille rather than Wellington’s Victory…until, that is, (and I hope it is a goody), Hexasim’s game comes out.
After all these years I might be wrong with Trial of Strength, but my recollection is that it was a “process” game that I could not hook into. And for all it sought to do differently, it had that same fundamental flaw as near everything since Stalingrad – you could be surprised by a combat result, but not how a force happened to be there. Making an opponent genuinely uncertain as to where a blow will fall has eluded the hobby at many levels over many years – if someone solved that, a great deal of other cleverness could be seen as utterly superfluous.
Barbarossa – TSR/SPI 1986.
I did not get off to a good start with this one – there was no price on the box, and in the big store I was standing in, it took a lot of huffing and puffing from a very reluctant assistant to sort it out. Twice I was asked if I “really wanted the game,” and twice I answered resolutely; the third time (believe it or not, I was not in the Iron Hills being served by the Mouth of Sauron) the price gun appeared and we were in business.
But on reflection, I should have taken the want of a price and the lack of a retail pitch as absolute signs to go elsewhere and get something else. In fairness, there were a couple of good things on show here – a genuine 1941-45 game, and corps/army units that housed variable strengths up to realistic maximums. Why more games have not done this over the years, rather than lumber players with fixed strengths from one end of the campaign to the other, is totally beyond me. The whole essence of German army corps/Soviet army structure was that they were the vessels into which most military contents were delivered and served, so, just for once, in terms of augmented/degraded strength, or shuffled resources, what you got in this design was a welcome difference.
And in addition to that little wonder, the game itself, or to be more precise, its box, also wanted to proclaim one other big thing – that it had a desert on it, often overlooked apparently, and blowing to its arid heart’s content a little to the west of Astrakhan. And my reaction? BIG DEAL!!!
But, sarcasm aside, deserts and “Customize Your Corps Your Way” options did not compensate for a game that tried to look as hideously off-putting as possible. One look at the box cover art and its matching accessories and it was not Russia any more – no, it was the only solid part of Neptune (you could see a bit of mountain in the background, a little to the side of a figure that I can only describe as Darth Vader Turned Country Farmer). And whilst I like the box illustrations to sort of introduce and accord with the components inside, there is always room for an exception…what a pity this was not it. Everything, or near everything, was this sickly green colour, with the main exception being the even more hideous mountains, which kind of sat there like bacon that has been hidden at the back of the fridge for far too long. And rounding off the alien landscape were the city symbols and rail lines…or as I prefer to see them, for that is what they looked like, underground schematics for a Robert Heinlein bug planet.
So it was the old story – the old and utterly ignored story. Colours matter, and the presentation of terrain matters, and as the counters are your actors, they had better walk on stage looking the part. And that is why the products of French companies look so snazzy, and why we prefer Bulge games to have wintery maps, and Afrika Korps games to feel hot and sandy…and Russia to look like it is not at the other end of the Solar System.
Russia Besieged – L2 2004.
Now that is a big gap. Close to twenty years all told; twenty years separating Barbarossa from the time Russia Besieged first appeared…and then add another four or five to when I bought the game. To be honest, I was plain off the hobby and playing Dungeon Master on the old Atari ST instead. I only made a first tentative return when Turning Point Stalingrad appeared and I eventually got round to buying it. I was to succumb, I confess, to its dazzling good looks and easy to get into…..system
But to return to Russia Besieged, to state the staggering obvious, this was The Russian Campaign done (almost) properly; and the really interesting thing about that little bit of game reportage, is that there is not a great deal in the L2 interpretation that could not have been put into the Avalon Hill 1976 original (well, sort of original) if only a bit of thought had preceded the belated and then repeated “we need another edition” approach to things. Nothing in Russia Besieged is particularly complicated, just more progressed and developed than its forerunner. As a result, the OOB is better, the units have a reduced strength side, there are commanders, the Soviets get their airpower, industry is presented in more detail, and, by and large, most things are rather more thoroughly worked out.
On the other hand, the play area is still skewed, (see my Maps of Collapse article) and substantial portions of it have about as much detail as Tolkien’s depiction of the Sea of Rhun and its environs. And in a slightly disturbing take on the predecessor’s complete incompleteness, Russia Besieged’s scenarios all came as expansion extras, along with this little quandary…
Director: (looking around nervously) Okay fellas, 1942 set-ups if you please…and err, do we have a re-write for that or can we just go with the flow?
(there is an inaudible reply from the gallery)
Yeah, well just in case you haven’t realized, you can’t do the scene if you don’t have the set-ups.
(another inaudible reply)
What do you mean, the set-ups are in another set? No, never mind, we’re all getting greyer and older here, so just give me what you’ve got honey and we can talk about 1943 later…if we ever get that far, that is.
(he moves to his chair)
Okay people, it’s summer 1942, Adolf and his guys have finally warmed up again, so let’s get rolling.
AH: (tapping on the map) There! I’ve just made a decision of colossal importance!
Director: Cut! Adolf darling, are you really going to use that voice from now on?
AH: What voice
Director: You know, the Alec Guinness one. It’s just that I’ve got to match all this stuff together sweetheart, and so far you’ve given me Frank Finlay, Bruno Ganz, a teeny weeny bit of David Bamber, and on top of that, more Anthony Hopkins than I can possibly cope with. So is it Alec from now on?
(the Führer nods)
Okay, that’s fine with me. Just please stay there though, Addy.
AH: …of colossal importance. With the need we have for Russian oil, and especially since we put that extra sticker on the map, I propose an immediate thrust through Turkey. We can readily manage that given the entire absence of the Turkish army, and with King Boris of Bulgaria on his last knockings, we can expect no problems there either. So…
JS: ‘Alf a flippin’ moments! Where are the bleedin’ Turkish units? I not hafin’ ze Germans makin’ their advances like they is Julie ****ing Andrews doing sing-song in the edelweiss!
AH: Hah! If I know the Turks, they are all lounging in their cafés blowing bubbles in their pipes, getting fat on baklava, and playing endless games of backgammon!
JS: Rubbish! I not here to listen to you, you National Socialist salad tosser! The Turks, they haf all disappeared quicker than political prisoner in Beria jail. I vant to know where they is, or where they isn’t!
Director: Cut! Oh please you guys, just have mercy on me and kindly stop massacring the script!
(there is an indistinct call from the gallery, causing the director to rise from his chair and look up)
Yes babes? There are Turks…apparently. Well, where are they? They’re extras. So why aren’t they here, with the other extras? I mean, Hermann’s here…waiting for the food to arrive, so where are these other extras? Where? They’re what kind of option? Oh I see…Addy, Josef, could I have a word?
AH & JS: What?
Director: Money talking sweethearts. We don’t have to have the Turks unless you want the Turks; but unless you both want the Turks, neither of you can have them. Now, if we do have the Turks, and one of you has got them, and the other one does not mind, one of you that wanted them because you both did, can either ally with them or invade them…in which case the other one can have them on their side, providing you both wanted them in the first place.
(the dictators struggle to keep up)
Now boys, here’s the thing. Even if you both want them, we might not be able to get them, because quite apart from them costing more, there were never that many of them in the first place, and we may be too late, or over budget, or both, in which case, even if you both want them either to invade, ignore or ally with, you’ll just have to do without…unless we can get some from somewhere else.
AH: I’ve just made a decision of even more colossal importance…
Red Star Rising – MMP 2007.
There are two things worth saying about this game, both of which are linked to its pronounced Japanese involvement – it has one particularly clever mechanism, and, well…we will come to the other one in a moment.
The clever feature involves how the Soviet Army of Workers, Peasants and Wide Wide Women goes from being absolute rubbish to being not quite so rubbishy, and then rather good. In essence, it is a simple matter of unit classification – as the defining code letter improves, the fighting values go up. Of course, if the Germans get their way, the Russians will be all gone before they get any good at all. And altogether, it is a very nice part of a very clean and nice looking game…and now we came to the other part, with its profound insight into cultural perspectives…hmmmm…
(the Director is standing next to a traditionally-dressed Japanese gentleman – in gorgeous medieval-style silks and a £5000 watch)
Director: Okay boys, this is Akihiko, our cultural advisor, who’s going to introduce the map to you
AH: Ah, excellent. Can’t wait to get the panzers rolling on that!
Akihiko: No, no, no. It is not the map yet. It is anything, and everything, and nothing. It must be meditated on, understood in its deeper meaning, and then we may begin to unfold…
AH: Is this going to take a long time? The moment of decision is now! The only way I grew my National Socialist party from its original…
Director: (testily) Yes honey, we all know you started your party with six members, or something like that. And believe it or not, there are plenty of people who rather wish it had stayed that way! Now be a good boy, sit at the table with Akihiko, and pay attention.
(they all squat around the low table)
Akihiko: The paper is in three pieces. I have a verse on this.
(in the distance a drum sounds and a deep “hom” is heard)
JS: Oh bloody hells!
Akihiko: The map is in three pieces
The continents number five
Some think this odd
I do not
Knees up Mother Brown.
(the director produces a tissue and wipes his eye)
Akihiko: The map is indeed in three pieces, and all the pieces are of different shapes and sizes. Only one is absolutely necessary for play and…
AH: Well, I want to play with all three of them!
JS: I do not! We will do without this middle-sized piece.
AH: We will not, you puffing balalaika-twanger! That piece has got my most important ally on it!
JS: If it is that important to you, you may have it. Stalin gives you Finland…temporarily. But, you may never have the smallest piece.
Akihiko: This is interesting. (bang, hom) Do you wish to keep the smallest piece because it is the smallest piece, and that it possesses a beauty found only in the tiniest treasure? (bang, hom)
AH: No, it’s because it’s got the bloody oil on it!
JS: Hah! Stuff ze oil wellies! (bang, hom) Yet again, I am sensing conspiracy! There is no Berlin Reich Fascist Lair on any map here neithers!
You think me harsh man because I say I want no map but ze big one, but even there I am thwarted of Rhett Butler pulling at his door knobs and telling bourgeois planktation woman she can go put blocks on her own watercourse!
Akihiko: (bang, hom) Alas, you are slaves of material things; thralls of that which is transitory and (bang) without true (hom) value.
To learn this, we shall play the game (bang, hom, yata ta-ta) without any map at all, not only because they are funny shape and do not fit table, but because they are not necessary.
(Akihiko raises an arm, closes his eyes, and sways slightly)
(bang, hom, followed by long pause)
(Akihiko opens his eyes and looks around)
Akihiko: There, I have won.
No Retreat – GMT Edition 2011.
There are plenty of games that are good, bad or indifferent, where, at the very least, we can admire the system for at least something, or discover some other nuance worth recording. Rarer are the games, good, bad or indifferent, which we can say are a designer’s statement on a subject – shown in the way they model the play, or the themes from the historical event they choose to highlight and interpret. Earlier in this article I featured Dark Crusade, which I would happily present as a statement game rather than a system game, that was sadly undermined by a fraught development process – and being English I know about these things through boundless disappointments at numerous World Cups.
And then there is No Retreat – for many a gamer today looking for a manageable and colourful Eastern Front experience, this is the design of choice. I would certainly call it a statement game; but one where the statement is about the pattern of play rather than “The Eastern Front Should Be Done in this Fashion.” What makes it special is how near every facet of the game, every component, is given more than one job to do – some units can garrison/fortify, but they can also go on the move; Soviet units can improve by flipping, the turn track measures the game, swings the game, evolves the game; there is a plentiful supply of event cards; combat springs nice and nasty surprises; and overall, it is clear the designer has thought about a range of historical realities and sought to present them in the game with a minimum of mechanical fuss.
For what it is, it is a gorgeous bit of work, but there is a part of me that just wishes a lot of it were different. This is not criticism; rather, it is being able to use a quality design to springboard options and get the creative imagination into gear. The game’s fundamentals are army/front units moving on a hex grid map – and it can end up looking gap-city at various points in the contest. My preference for a scale of representation like this would lean towards tailored map areas and rectangular army/front counters. Aesthetically and mechanically, you get rid of the gaps, and with that, any notion that this or that unit is like the kid on the park bench trying to stop any other kid from sitting down by holding his/her arms out to the extreme. Zones of control, I rather sense, go hand in glove with using hex maps rather than being an integral/fundamental prerequisite of military modeling.
And again, as is so often the case, you can see near everything your opponent can hit you with well before the hitting starts. And with so few units on the board, it will be up to the event cards to surprise you rather than where any unit gets shuffled to. It can sound like I am being totally begrudging, and I do not want to be, but having an army/front game probably gives the best chance of creating strategic or operational surprise if you let the army counter be just a name for administrative details and keep a linked force mix/strength level counter at the player’s side or under the unit in question.
But these are options for another design, prompted by how No Retreat got me thinking via the quality it exudes and what it has to say. By way of a contrast, I am now going out of my usual time progression by referring to…
Stalin’s War – GMT 2010.
Appearing just a brief while before the GMT version of No Retreat, Stalin’s War did not get off to the best of starts, with some notable flaws in the balance of the game’s opening turns. But once they were sorted, and it really did not take much, what was left was a pretty decent game…albeit with a map full of gaps
It is probably fair to say that Stalin’s War has suffered from being cast under the mighty shadow of No Retreat, but over time it has managed to at least partially emerge, and get a bit of credit
But if I am talking about statements, I cannot see Stalin’s War as a telling, definitive phrase in either how to do the Eastern Front or how simply to present gameplay. It partially boils down to those photographs on BGG I suppose – all gaps again…….
(the Director, Akihiko, Hitler and Stalin are approaching a table where Stalin’s War has been set up as per an example of play)
The Director: Well boys, what do you think? Now don’t go swooning all at once!
JS: I think it look like silly cobblers. Why are units all doing bunches together? It look like Kremlin drinks party with very few good-looking women to talk to.
Akihiko: No, you do not understand. (bang, hom) If we play without the map, we can also let go of our need for counters. This is our first step (bang, twang, hom) via the discipline of ZOC Buddhism.
AH: Rubbish! I’m not having my army plunging into Russia like they’re trying to work out what well pussy’s fallen into!
Director: Friction guys! I’m really sensing bad vibes all round. Now you did sort of promise you’d try and get on for the good of the project.
JS: I will not be blamed. I haf not got Japanese ally. (he points to Hitler) He has! So, I am not disposable to being told what to do by hokey-pokey “gone with ze puffs of smoke” trickster illusionist.
AH: Yes, well I really wanted an alliance with British. And as for Mussolini, you try dealing with someone who talks all the time like he is trying to keep a fly off his ice cream.
JS: When you going to understand, bunker breath? Ze British, they are not liking you. Besides, we haf saying in Russia – “If you are hunting mice, use mousetrap; if you are after ze bear, use bear trap; and if you are wantin’ invasion of Britain, make sure you are hafin’ a bleedin’ navy first.”
Announcer: (plummy announcer English) You have just been watching The Crazy Drang in “Adolf Goes East,” starring The Great Dictators as themselves, Francisco Stonewall as The Director, John Wayne as Akihiko, and Derelict Lumberpatch as Gallery Voice and Adjutant.
Music was by Hip-hop Heinrich and the Hiwis.
Yata ta-ta references are for two of the most wonderful comedians England has ever seen.
The program was written by Paul Comben, and kept funny and comprehensible by not letting the Doctor Who production team anywhere near it.
Josef Stalin is currently appearing as a glint in Vladimir Putin’s eye.
About the Author
Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.
Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.