Battle for Stalingrad – Card Game Review
Passed Inspection: Simple rules, fast-playing; gives very good feel for the back-and-forth street fighting of Stalingrad and the decisions commanders had to make
Failed Basic: Game seems too heavily balanced in favor of the Soviet side
Battle for Stalingrad, The Epic East Front Battle Game, from Dan Verssen (DVG) uses cards instead of a game board to capture the feel of the desperate fighting for key locations in the embattled city. It forces players to make decisions about when, where and how to utilize their strengths and how to allocate precious supplies. The German player needs to capture locations quickly, because time is the Russians’ ally. This is a 2-player game that takes 90 minutes or less, so it is easy for players to finish a game, switch sides and play again. I found it also plays pretty well solitaire, although that diminishes its fog-of-war aspect. The full-color rulebook has only seven pages of rules with play examples included throughout, plus a two-page sample game description. Don’t skim over the examples or sample game during your first read-through or when questions arise during play; often, they contain clarifying information that you would expect to find in the rules themselves. All-in-all, though, this set of wargame rules is one of the easiest to understand I’ve ever come across. Kudos to Dan Verssen, developer Kevin Verssen, editor Hans Korting, and the playtesters.
There are three types of cards: each side’s Force Cards, which represent units that took part in the historic battle; 10 Location Cards representing some of the areas of most intense fighting, such as Pavlov’s House and the Dzerzhinsky Tractor Works; and each side’s deck of Action Cards, which are the heart of the game.
Additionally, the game uses round counters to show how much supply (called Rations) a unit has on hand and to track the growing piles of rubble as locations are repeatedly fought over. There are also Heroic Service counters that can be earned to give a unit benefits in combat.
In each game, five randomly chosen Location Cards are placed in a row midway between the two players. The areas adjacent to each of those cards are its Control Areas, one for the German, one for the Russian. Beyond the Control Area is the Perimeter Area for each side. Arriving reinforcements must be placed in the Perimeter Area, and units that suffer hits in the Control Area can absorb two hits by retreating into the Perimeter.
The Action Cards’ information
Each Action Card has a name (Sewer Warfare, Propaganda, etc.) and a historic photo for flavor. Below the photo is text information describing the card’s benefit to the player if he chooses to play it for its text value. In the upper right corner is a positive or negative number. This is its Firefight value, used to increase your side’s strength or weaken your opponent’s during combat.
Setting up Battle for Stalingrad
Before starting to bash on each other, players shuffle the ten Locations cards and pull five randomly; these will be the scenes of this game’s bloodletting and are placed in a row between the players. The others are put aside. If either player controls all five Locations at the end of his turn, he wins the game. Hence, even Locations that have been reduced to nothing but heaps of smoking rubble still have to be held to win. That, in and of itself, is a good depiction of the nightmare insanity that was the historic Battle of Stalingrad.
The Soviet player then chooses units from his Force Deck totaling 11 Cost points (point value shown in upper right corner) and places them in any of his Perimeter or Control areas, no more than three to a single area. He reshuffles his remaining Force Cards, sets them to one side, and flips the top card face up. He may buy that card during the game by discarding a number of Action Cards from his hand equal to its Cost (upper right). After buying a Force Card, he flips the next one face up to make it available; it can be purchased immediately or later on.
He places his units’ starting rations, based on the amount printed on its card.
After seeing how the Soviet side has set up, the German player goes through the same steps, but when selecting his Force Cards Fritz only gets to choose 9 Cost points’ worth of units, instead of Ivan’s 11; however, his units generally cost one point less each. Unlike Ivan, he can only place his starting forces in his Perimeter Areas, not his Control Areas, and will have to move some or all of his units into Control Areas during his first Action Phase.
Each player then draws a hand of cards face down from his own Action deck—10 cards for the Soviet, 5 for the German.
The Turn Sequence
There are three phases to each player’s turn: Supply, Actions and Draw Cards.
The German player always goes first. In addition to the Rations each of his units started with, he now gives one Ration to each unit in his Perimeter Areas. In later turns, he may receive extra Rations based on Locations he controls or by the play of certain cards.
Rations are the currency of Battle for Stalingrad. Want to move from a Perimeter Area to a Control Area? Pay a Ration for each moving unit. Want to attack from a Control Area? Pay a Ration. Take hits in combat? Pay one Ration per hit. If you take more hits than you have Rations allocated to a unit, kiss that unit goodbye, at least temporarily. (As noted above, retreating also absorbs two hits, and certain Action Cards can be played to absorb hits.)
Each player can take as many actions during his own turn as he has the ability to pay for via Rations and / or cards. He can take them in any order he desires, and a unit can carry out multiple actions. The player can move, attack, resupply, or play Action Cards (such as Dive Bombers, which inflict four hits on one enemy unit). He can also purchase reinforcements or two Rations by discarding Action Cards.
The other player can play cards when it is not his turn, but only in response to his opponent’s action, e.g., play a Sniper to stop a unit from moving or play a card when an attack is declared that reduces hits from that attack. A couple of nasty little cards cancel the text effect of whatever card has just been played.
When the German player has a unit in his Control Area for a Location, he may declare an attack on the forces in the Soviet’s Control Area there (and vice versa during the Russian turn). He places a Rubble marker on the Location and pays a Ration for each unit in the attack (up to three units can be in any friendly Control or Perimeter area).
Each Force Card has a combat value, which may be modified based on the card’s text or by playing Action Cards from your hand. Action Cards can be used for their text value or their Firefight Value. The Firefight Value can be used to increase the total combat strength of your forces in the firefight (if the Firefight Value number is positive) or to reduce the total strength of the opposing force (if the number is negative).
After one player uses a card to increase or decrease strength, his opponent may play a card, using its Firefight Value in the same manner. This I-play-one, you-can-play-one continues until both players pass. (If the attacking player does not play a card, the defender can still play one; the attacker then has the option of responding in kind or passing again. If he passes, the defender can play another card, etc., until both decline to play a card for its Firefight Value.)
Once both players pass on playing additional cards, they each flip the top card from their Action decks and apply its positive or negative value to their own force. This adds a level of uncertainty. You can spend a valuable +2 card from your hand only to see it negated by drawing a -2 card from the top of your Action Deck. Players have been known to shout, “Shuckey-darn!” when this happens. Or something like that …
Example: The German side has two powerful units attacking for a total of 9 points vs. two powerful Soviet units that also total 9, a risky proposition, but in Actions earlier in the turn the German played a Supply Raid to steal two Soviet rations and give them to his own force, then played a Dive Bomber so his opponent’s force had to discard four more Rations. Now, in the firefight, the German plays a card (ignoring its text) that has a +2 Firefight Value to raise his combat strength total to 11, but the Soviet plays a -1 Firefight Value on the German, bringing the total down to 10. Neither side chooses to play any additional cards. The German player flips the top card from his Action Deck; it has a -2 combat value, which brings his total combat strength down to 8. He inflicts 8 hits. The Soviet player also flipped over a card with a value of -2, so his 9 points drop to 7. He inflicts 7 hits on the German.
Both sides remove Rations and / or retreat to absorb hits. The defender always deals with his hits first, but that doesn’t affect the number of hits he inflicts on the attacker. The Russians’ units have 1 Ration counter each. He removes those 2 Rations, and he can retreat both units to absorb a total of 4 more hits, but that is still 2 short of the 8 hits he suffered. With no other means of absorbing hits, his two units are destroyed. He places them at the bottom of his Force deck. If they work their way back to the top, he may be able to purchase them again later.
The German, meanwhile, has 5 Rations between his two units, so he discards those Rations, then retreats one unit to absorb the final two hits, leaving one unit in his Control Area, thereby gaining control of the Location, and he places a Heroic Service marker on the unit in the Control Area. For as long as it survives in the game that unit will add +1 to its combat strength and absorb 1 additional hit when retreating.
The German player may now go on to perform other actions. He could, for example, play a Resupply card to get two Rations, give them to the unit that retreated to the Perimeter, then spend one of them to move the unit back into the Control Area.
When he is finished with all of his actions for the turn, he draws 5 cards from the Action deck to complete his turn. It is now Ivan’s turn, and he will be looking for revenge as he goes through the same phases of Supply, Action and Draw Cards.
This continues until one player or the other has sole control of all five Locations at the end of his turn to win the game.
A Question of Balance
The two sides’ Action decks seem to be identical in terms of what the cards can do and how many of each card is in the decks, with one big exception. The Soviet player’s Action deck includes six Operation URANUS cards (although the game is set in the city of Stalingrad, not on the flanks where Operation URANUS tore through Romanian defenders). Each one requires him to pay a cost when playing it, such as discarding Rations or Action Cards or destroying a unit. In return, the card does very good things for the Russians or very bad things to the Germans for as long as it remains in play. To remove it (return it to the Action deck, where it can show up again if the deck is depleted and reshuffled), the German has to pay a penalty that is usually greatly in excess of what it cost the Soviet to play the card. There are no equivalent cards on the German side.
And that is a big part of the only real problem with this game. It seems to be heavily weighted in favor of the Soviet side. In repeated playings, the Germans only won once, and that was when I was walking through the sample game provided in the rulebook.
The Soviets can set up initially in Control Areas; the Germans can’t. The Soviet player gets 10 Action Cards to begin play, the German gets 5. (Thereafter, each side draws just 5 cards during the Draw phase, plus one card for every location that side controls. Since the Soviet player can begin the game in control of up to five Locations, the German immediately has to wrest some locations from him or the imbalance in number of cards will begin snowballing from the get-go, since there is no limit to how many cards a player can have in his hand.) Seven German Force Cards have special abilities, such as +2 when attacking; the Soviets have 11 such cards with special abilities. Now throw in 6 Operation URANUS cards that give the Soviet player superpowers, and the Russian bear is almost certainly going to be gnawing on German bones.
There are a couple of German advantages, though in the games I’ve played they weren’t enough to offset the Soviet advantages. The German player has a total of 12 Force cards available (Soviet has 15). Most of them cost one point less to purchase than the Soviet Force Cards, and they enter play with more starting Rations. At first glance they also seem to have greater combat strength, but while the Germans have three 5-strength-point units to the Russians’ one strength-5, the Sovs have four strength-4 units and the Germans have none. (The Germans have two more strength-3 units than the Russians have.)
If the German player draws some very good Action Cards to begin with, his greater number of beginning Rations may allow him to maneuver into favorable positions for a quick victory if he plays well, but the longer the game goes on, the more Soviet advantages multiply, due to starting positions, Operation URANUS cards, and a starting hand of 10 Action Cards to the Germans’ 5. The Soviet player can simply choose two of his most powerful forces and start with them in control of two of the best Locations, then take few actions initially so he hangs onto his cards and draws more each turn to prepare his counterattack; as stated above, there is no limit to how many cards you can have in your hand.
This opportunity for Soviet buildup is historically accurate, as is their ability to begin the game in possession of some or all of the Locations. The Soviets should have an edge in the game since they were the historic victors, but it feels like that edge is too great. The German player will have very little chance of winning unless he can do so swiftly, especially if the Soviet plays two or three Operation Uranus cards in one turn.
I like this game, despite what I and my opponent perceived as too great an imbalance. (He complimented it as, “A slick little game.”) This might be adjusted by some house rules, such as placing only one or two URANUS cards, chosen face down, into the Soviet Action deck and limiting each to just one use per game.
Were it not for the imbalance, I would rate the game about 95%. It plays quickly and is easy to learn—but make sure you read the sample game before playing for the first time. Players are faced with a lot of trade-offs and therefore a lot of decision-making, which I like in games. To my surprise, I found it even plays pretty well solitaire, though you lose most of the fog of war that way. The cards and counters are high quality and very durable. I’ll go back to Battle for Stalingrad for at least a few more games to see if I can find ways to win with the Germans. If the balance issues were addressed, this would be a top-notch game.
Armchair General Rating: 87%
Solitaire Suitability (1 is low, 5 is high) 3
About the Author
Gerald D. Swick is senior web editor for ArmchairGeneral.com. His article “Romanian Nightmare at Stalingrad” will appear in the March 2015 issue of Armchair General® magazine, in stores in January.