Stalin’s War – Boardgame Review
Stalin’s War, The Eastern Front 1941-1945. Boardgame. GMT Games. Designed by Ted Racier. $55.00.
Passed Inspection: Challenges abound for both sides—the Germans must strive for early victory while the Soviets delay until the balance of power shifts their way.
Failed Basic: Small map (11 hexes from Warsaw to Moscow) that fills just over half the map sheet; hex size is a little cramped for the counters.
Bottom line, upfront, Stalin’s War is a good game that will offer challenges to players, but I am not totally sold on it. I really like games designed by Ted Racier and published by GMT Games—one of my top favorites is Paths of Glory, a Command Decision Game of World War I—so I opened Stalin’s War with great expectations. As I looked inside the box, my mind drifted back to walking down a street in a small town in Germany and looking into the window of a bakery where all sorts of breads and confections were displayed. I purchased a large crème puff, sat down with a cup of coffee, took the first bite—and found my mouth filled with a big wad of nothing. They don’t put sugar in the crème filling in Germany. Looking into the Stalin’s War box reminded me of that experience because the contents seemed a bit sparse for $55.00. My initial displeasure was slowly won over, though, by a slightly complex game system that can produce some tense and challenging situations.
The game comes with a single 22 x 34 mapsheet, 368 counters (some are half-inch and some five-eighths inch), 110 strategy cards that cover two time frames (Blitzkrieg and Total War), two nicely done players aid cards, two six-sided dice, a rule book and a playbook.
The mapsheet reflects GMT’s usual quality. It has nice, strong graphics and is laid out in a gamer-friendly manner so that all charts and game record management areas are accessible to both players. However, for a game of this scope, I had expected a large, two-sheet map with an area movement style similar to Paths of Glory or Omega Games’s East Front Solitaire. The small map has hexes that the counters fill up, and fat-fingered me has trouble picking up counters without moving every adjacent counter(s) also.
I thought that the combat tables and Terrain Effects Chart (TEC) are overly large in what seemed like an effort to fill empty space, especially since they are also located on the player aid cards. The terrain key also has TEC information listed next to every terrain type, again in what appears to be an attempt to fill space. Whereas GMT’s The Caucasus Campaign had a map sheet that was crowded, the map sheet for Stalin’s War seems open and roomy. The game cards, however, are high quality and will stand up to repeated use.
The player’s aid cards have the most important game information listed on one side, facilitating ease of play. On the backside is a Regional Effects summary, Campaign Game Victory Checks info and a curious Easily Forgotten Rules table. (What?!) The rules book is straightforward and gamers can be playing fairly quickly. The playbook is tremendous, with a full three-turn example of play. I used it to initially set up the game and follow along and play through in order to gain understanding of the game system and mechanics. It is a great asset. Units in the game represent Corps, Armies and Fronts. Corps are considered to be small units, and the remainder are considered to be large.
The rules are for the most part standard fare that experienced gamers will easily grasp: an I go/U go of five rounds per game turn; movement allowances that can be reduced due to terrain and weather; zones of control (ZOCs) for large counters and armored/mechanized formations; and the need to maintain a line of supply. The devil is in the conditional details. For example, ZOCs can stop movement—unless it is exploitation (called Blitz in the game), which can ignore ZOCs, unless weather is a factor. A ZOC can block a line of supply, but opposing ZOCs in a hex nullify each other for supply determination.
A game turn consists of players alternating through rounds of activity, with the German side going first. A player can play a card for an event or for the operations valve or play no card and take a zero operations round. Unlike Paths of Glory, units are allowed to move without an operations point being played, and the only major restriction is a lone unit cannot exit an enemy zone of control unless an operation point is spent. Operation points are used to attack and move units strategically (by sea or rail).
Another departure from Paths of Glory is that the value of a card played for operations decreases by one for every consecutive card played. This can be a severe restraint if a player finds himself with a bad hand of cards. However, discarding or playing a card for an event resets the counter to zero for consecutive operations. The cards in your hand can be critical to your plans, and a poor starting hand for the Germans can result in a very difficult game ahead.
Cards range in value from 1 to 4 operation points. The German Blitzkrieg part of the deck has 25 cards and only six have an operational value of 4, there are eight 3’s, nine 2’s and two 1’s. Many of the German 4-point cards have events that the German must play to attack Moscow, Leningrad and/or Stalingrad.
The Soviets are severely restrained by conditional rules early in the game, and it is in their best interest to try and play as many event cards as possible to bring in the Total War Deck. With the Total War Cards the Soviet will be able to start stripping away German strength. For example, "The Duce Falls" card requires all Italian units to be removed from the game and eight German attack factors, five of which must be panzer strength points, to be transferred to the "Other Fronts" game box. This means that the German will usually have to send a minimum of two panzer corps away. Panzer/Mech units are important as they can "Blitz” (but usually must take the first casualty point in combat).
Combat is resolved based upon the size of the largest unit involved on each side. There are two CRTs, similar to Paths of Glory, one for small units and one for large. A player totals his strength points, adjusts for any modifiers and rolls a d6. The results are in steps lost. Small units may have only one step, while large units may have four. If a defending unit loses it must retreat at least one hex, up to a maximum of two if the difference between losses inflicted is greater than one. Retreats can be modified by terrain, field works or by taking an additional step loss. Some cards can affect combat, such as "Dora," which can cancel effects of a Soviet fortress, or "T-34" which can provide a favorable column shift for Soviet attacks or defense.
As previously mentioned, attacks require spending an Operation point, but if a player has an armor/mech unit adjacent to a hex from which an attack has been designated, then the adjacent hex is also activated for attack. Under the right conditions, this could allow attacks from up to six hexes at the cost of a single operation point, and they need not be against the same hex. The only major attack restrictions are that only one large-size unit (Armies/Fronts) can be involved in any given hex attack, and attackers can only use units from up to two adjacent hexes to attack a single hex.
The supply rules are simple but very punitive. If you are not in supply movement is halved, you cannot move strategically or entrench, you have no ZOC, all combat is shifted one column to the left, you cannot receive benefits of combat cards—well, it just sucks. A unit that is Out of Supply during the Attrition Phase at the end of a player’s turn is removed. Soviet units so removed are available to be immediately rebuilt while German Large units can’t be rebuilt until three turns later.
A particularly nice aspect of the game is the use of Partisans. Once the event is played allowing their creation, they can be placed and are either inactive or active. If inactive they only affect German rail movement and retreats, and German units can freely move through and/or stack with inactive Partisans. Inactive Partisans can only be removed by the "Partisan Sweep" event card and can be recreated. Active Partisans are treated like any other combat unit, with some restrictions and supply conditions, and if destroyed in combat are eliminated from the game.
On the first play-through, Stalin’s War did not leave a good impression on me or the friend I played against. It’s just a tad abstract for my tastes. But upon repeated playing the craft of the game design has become more apparent, and I can see the forest through the trees. It has generated intense online discussions about optimal game play and is developing a solid group of dedicated followers around the world who are using Vassal and Cybergamebox to play games and test new theories and strategies. I think Stalin’s War will become known for its chess-like requirement of thinking ahead, although card play can and will affect how events play out. You may very well feel like you are playing Texas Hold’em: you won’t win it all with one hand and you won’t win every turn, but with foresight and skill you can emerge victorious.
Solitaire Suitability: 7
About the Author:
Michael Peccolo is a retired Armor Major from the US Army with overseas duties, Company commands and additional assignments in recruiting and ROTC. He lives in Tennessee where he raises horses with his wife.