Thursday, 14 November 2019

OST Stalingrad

Old School Tactical is the series title of a WWII tactical boardgame system that to date has core modules dealing with east Front 1941 - ‘42 and West Front 1944 - ‘45. Each core module has associated expansion modules and this post is based on the Stalingrad expansion, which has just come back into print.  



Designed by Shayne Logan and published by Flying Pig, the system is immediately identifiable by the large mounted game boards, large attractive game counters and a ruleset that is very accessible, especially considering how complex this genre can get.

With the Pacific core module on the horizon, I have been re-establishing my familiarity with the system and thought a post about the Stalingrad reprint worthwhile.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post. 


There is an earlier post that takes a detailed look at some of the OST game mechanics and in particular the gun / armour elements. A link to that post is in the resource section below.

The first game in this series was the east front game, which is referred to as OST v1. As part of the Kickstarter, the Stalingrad module was produced as a stretch goal. A potential problem with this was that the OST v1 and the Stalingrad module became somewhat integrated, with some of the scenarios in OST v1 relying on some of the counters from the Stalingrad expansion.

This was not a problem in itself until the games sold out and OST v1 was reprinted - alone, without the expansion. New buyers (me) were looking for their Tiger I’s and T34/85’s and of course without the Stalingrad expansion, they were not available. Anyway, all is rectified now with the arrival of the Stalingrad reprint.

The lesson for the company was to keep these things separate and to print enough games in the first place that a growing series needs to keep feeding an increasing fan base. The lesson for us buyers is the same as we have learned with ASL ..... buy it now before availability becomes an issue, because it will.

Anyway, I have my Stalingrad - so thank you Flying Pig.

Before we crack on with the Stalingrad module, it is worth looking at the headline elements of this system;

It is very interactive, with impulses going back and forth between players as they activate 1 (at the most 2) counter to spend an Action Point. At the start of each turn, the players roll for how many Action Points they will get for that turn, which they use to activate units to move, assault move, fire, opportunity fire, rally, seek additional cover etc.

The tank rules use similar rule mechanics to the infantry, so once you can play with infantry, you can pretty much bring tanks straight in. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

The artillery / air strike rules are thankfully brief, effective and straight forward. This makes this system easy to get into the all encompassing aspects of tactical warfare. You will be able to access all of the scenarios without being restrained by what part of the rules you may not be familiar with.

Combat is based on a strength differential table, we have seen this sort of thing before, but interestingly (and unusually) it is also used for vehicles and I really like it. The maths are easy to sum up in your head and results feel reasonable.

I really like the way leaders operate. Firstly you can attach them to a unit and that brings benefits to the unit (and risks to the leader), but also they have a command range depending on how good they are and this gives a rally bonus to units that are within that command range. Add to this that units that go shaken or broken can attempt self rally regardless of the presence of a leader. This keeps leaders important, but dampens down any sense of them becoming dominant, though remember, a unit shaken or broken will be using precious Action Points to try and recover during play and that set against the limited number of game turns means that when a unit takes a shaken / broken result, it does feel like it is out of action for now, but not necessarily out of the game. Note, there is also a free Rally Phase at the start of each turn.

Within the hex, a unit can spend 1 action point and try and find better cover (die roll of 5 or 6), if they do, they get a +1 cover counter, maybe they found a bit of wall or a depression in the ground or made a mouse hole in a wall. I have seen this in GMT’s Panzer system and I really like it. It is a useful way for a defender who may have some spare Action Points to better prepare their position rather than burn off points if inactive and passing.

Vehicle facing creates fire arcs, but turreted vehicles can fire in any direction without penalty, so there are no turret counters, but the difference between turreted and non-turreted vehicles is still reflected in the system. On its own, that strikes out a good amount of potential rules overhead. I know some gamers like their turrets and the ability to hit the side armour of a turret that has turned or to build in delay and fire costs while a turret turns, but the abstraction in OST does make for smoother play.

Everything is here that you would typically expect to find in a tactical game, ‘To Hit’ scores, target acquisition, armour penetration values, vehicle facing, morale, rally, opportunity fire, artillery accuracy, melee and support weapons. It talks to you like a Squad Leader style game.

The Stalingrad board, note the scenario area
marked off on the lower right section.

Physically the board is big, so scenarios that only take up a small area of board may have one player stretching across the board. The overall graphics are lovely, the counters are big with nice counter art.

In picking a scenario for today, we have a selection from eight provided scenarios, the first being the shortest at just 7 turns, a small order-of-battle and just 2 or 3 Action Point dice, to the last scenario being the delightfully huge 16 turn and full map experience.

I have chosen the first one, ‘Rattenkrieg’, which is an infantry only scenario. On first inspection, it just reminds me a bit of that first wonderful game I ever had with Basic Squad Leader in 1977 with the highly regarded ‘The Guards Counterattack’ scenario, that had Soviet SMG units attacking over a city scape in a half SL mapboard space. It’s a good start that OST reminds me of that moment.

Our actual part of the map we are using today

Rattenkrieg (or war of the rats) 24th September 1942 - German elements (2 platoons) from 71st Infantry Division set up first. A couple of Soviet Shock groups, one of 4 squads and the other 5 squads (you can think of each of these as being decimated companies) are attacking. Winning is based upon 1 Victory Point being gained for each of the 5 specific listed building hexes being controlled and which start under German control. Both sides have morale levels of 7 and the Germans get 2D6 impulse dice, while the Soviets get 3D6 impulse dice.

Rather counter-intuitively, turns are counted down backwards. I am not a big fan of this. So the game starts on Turn 7 and Soviet reinforcements arrive on turn 6 ..... which of course I can’t help thinking of as turn 2!

I will be using the latest rules and charts, which came in the West Front core game. Those charts have a slightly more effective tank fire combat results table than V1, but of course we are not using tanks today, so that doesn’t matter.

At the start of play, each side secretly draws (solitaire players - don’t worry about this) a Luck Card, which can be played at any point in the game. The Germans get an artillery strike and the Soviets get an air strike, both very useful. 

Note as units are removed from play, they create casualty points and for every 5 casualty points that a side suffers, they reduce their Action Point allowance by 1 per turn. The following narrative includes those deductions, which obviously become bigger as the game goes on and the casualty list grows.

Lets Go!
Turn 7. Soviets win the Initiative Roll. Germans get 8 Action Points, Soviets get 9 Action Points.

The game starts with both sides needing to move. The Germans typically to shuffle one hex forwards into better positions to see across streets and set up their defensive perimeter, the Soviets arrive on the board edge, so will need to spend a turn or two to move up and engage.

There is one melee, occurring in the top left sector of the play area. A Soviet Shock team, with Molotov Cocktails and led by Sergeant Sudnik attack a German Assault section. Both sides take heavy casualties (flip), but Sudnik’s men fail a ‘Broken’ test, so are marked broken (red marker) and must pull back out of the melee hex.

The first melee combat of the game

Turn 6. Germans win the Initiative Roll. Germans get 10 Action Points, Soviets get 12 Action Points.

Events - Soviet reinforcements of a couple of rifle squads, one LMG and a leader arrive on either the East or North board edge. They choose North and drop down on where the fighting mentioned above is taking place. 

The German Assault section with Lt. Kurtz has fired twice, so has a used marked placed upon it. That marker means it cannot fire, move or assault move into melee for the rest of this turn, but there are some other tasks it can do, it decides to spend an Action Point to look for improved cover within its own hex and is successful. It will now get a +1 uplift to its defensive value. 
Lt. Kurtz' Assault section finds additional cover
                                                                                                 
Turn 5.  Germans win the Initiative Roll. Germans get 10 Action Points, Soviets get 10 Action Points.

The Soviets want to cross that open ground and infiltrate around the melee marker, but the German LMG and sniper positions (shown next to the Ground Attack card) would catch them in the open with opportunity fire, so the Soviets use their Luck Card to make an airstrike. They roll a 1, giving them a green pilot with an attack value of 4. The result is no effect against the targets and the building does not collapse ... so not a ‘Lucky’ card!

Soviets are wary about crossing that open ground

Later in the turn, the Germans need to use their artillery strike Luck Card. I needed to check the off board artillery rules and that took just a few moments - a very visible benefit of this system streamlined system.

Turn 4. Soviets win the Initiative Roll. Germans get 5 Action Points, Soviets get 10  Action Points.
Yellow markers show shaken Soviet sections,
red (under the brown infantry unit) show a broken unit.


Above - this is the situation at the start of Turn 4.

The Soviets have mostly closed into contact and are starting to put the whole German line under pressure. The game is quite balanced at the moment, but being up against the clock, the Soviets have been moving into melee situations, rather than laying down fire and running into fresh units is punishing.

Turn 3. Germans win the Initiative Roll. Germans get 8 Action Points, Soviets get 10 Action Points, they are already losing 2 points for accrued casualties.

Soviet casualties may already be too high for them to reach those objective hexes with the forces at hand. Their attack from the North (top left of map) has totally dissolved and they are now reliant on the centre to break through and reach the objectives hexes.

The German centre has a HMG, which has also managed to pick up a +1 cover counter, though in this system, the only advantage a HMG has is the extra range that it can fire, so at close ranges as found here, it is quite underpowered compared to some of the strength 5 squads that we have in this scenario.

Turn 2. Soviets win the Initiative Roll. Germans get 4 Action Points, Soviets get 9 Action Points.

Both sides have fought each other to a standstill, having taken significant casualties, though the Soviets still have some marauding teams that are trying to infiltrate into the German rear.
At the start of turn 2, the Soviets have a lot of work
to do to reach those control markers


Turn 1. Soviets win the Initiative Roll. Germans get 6 Action Points, Soviets get 4 Action Points.

Both sides are totally exhausted, but by the end of this turn, the Soviets have managed to infiltrate into 4 out of the 5 objective hexes, that will give them the win.
Just making it!

Possible Extra Turn - Turn zero! At the end of a scenario, players always roll 2D6 to see if the game will extend by an additional turn (if 7+ is rolled), but the two sides are so frazzled that there simply isn’t enough fight in either side to shift the game in any other direction, so I conclude the game.


Conclusion
That was a really enjoyable game taking around 2½ hours to play.

The game ran mostly from the well organised play aid double sided card, with few references to the rules and when the rules were needed, their layout made access relatively quick.

The system quite nicely shows the differing qualities of the infantry without extra rules overhead, based on the values of the unit and the short hand notes displayed on the unit card. Example, the Soviet Irregulars unit card - below, shows the unit to have a lower firepower (2) than typical and they will get a -1 dice roll modifier for being poor quality, which further reduces effectiveness, not hugely, but enough to give a flavour.

All units get a useful unit card and the vehicle cards
have an essential gun performance chart.

The system is streamlined while carrying detail and nuance, so I suppose the question we must ask ourselves is whether this game module is delivering a Stalingrad feel - did this playing give a Stalingrad moment, with desperate and dangerous fighting over a small area of real estate, with close up assaults, plenty of automatic weapons and grenade bundles etc and with the holding or gaining of every hex every hex being important. Is the tenacity and fighting style of the troops captured? 

Well, I would say so. The visuals of the ruinous city automatically do part of the job by delivering the right atmosphere. Having specialist troops in the scenario (Assault and Shock sections) which get a melee bonus, makes melee slightly more deadly and decisive. The density of units / weapons makes open spaces dangerous to traverse and infantry typically pick their movement routes (slowly) through buildings, but ultimately often need to take risks of move into the open to physically try and wrest control of buildings from the enemy in melee’s that are frequently closely matched in fighting strength and the outcome uncertain, both sides will fight hard and suffer badly. You do find yourself looking at the next target, that one building hex and you get a focus on just 50 metres of ground, the importance of grabbing / defending what seems like a really important place at that time. The battleground does becomes a ‘grinder’ with both sides fighting themselves to a virtual standstill in ‘that battle’, with attacks burning out and the bigger picture being that it feels obvious that another almost anonymous battle, after reorganisation, will spring up later in the day to capture / re-capture buildings.

The big full map scenario begs to be played and will probably be the next OST outing that I write about. I have not played an OST scenario that big before and it will be interesting to see how that goes. I am guessing that such an accessible system will come into its own with such demands.

This system is at last starting to shape up into a solid series with a depth of subject material that tactical gamers want and as such can start to increasingly compete with other tactical systems that are current and pushing out material. The recent Ghost Front (Bulge) module, scheduled Pacific game and hinted at Commonwealth expansion helps with that notion. The expansion modules are a solid way to increase mapboard variety and extra kit and for my own interests, I (and no doubt many others)  hope that an east front mid-war expansion is somewhere on the designers list.

The scenario booklet has a blank page at the rear - entitled Notes. I don’t know whether anyone actually does write in their rulebook, it’s a huge No - No for me and I think this blank page was a wasted opportunity that could have included either some history, playing suggestions or design notes. I would have like to have known a bit more about the basis of the map or even about the unit types involved.

Bottom line, a very enjoyable tactical series that has some richness and nuance, yet can be left unplayed for a while and still be relatively easy to come back to.

Complexity - I think for this particular type of game, the term complexity has to be judged against the background of a potentially complicated subject and what other systems are doing in this same market space. In that regard, this game has been designed to be very accessible, especially as it uses common principles for infantry and armour and it avoids the list of ‘exceptions’ to rules that exist in some other designs, which can distract from a confident wider grasp of the rules.

The bullet point type rules help me quickly navigate the concepts, as I am familiar with tactical games in general. It would be interesting to know how someone absolutely new to WWII tactical gaming finds that style of rule layout.

Here, you are looking at a mid-complexity game that manages a good balance of complexity with fun and simulation. I would place the game as being easier than ASL, Lock ’n Load and Panzer and closer to the Worthington’s Band of Brothers system and the Academy Games Conflict of Heroes series, because they have shared mechanics across the system, easy artillery / air strike procedures and no turrets. However the ‘soul’ of the game mostly reminds me of the original Squad Leader (1977) 4th Edition game, though being easier than that, while giving something of the same enjoyable feel and voyage of discovery.

Size - The big single board is table sized at 30” x 41”, though scenarios are most often using smaller portions of the board. The downside is the playing area is always big regardless of the scenario played and will be too big for some gaming spaces or for gamers who cannot stretch. The upside is that it all looks rather glorious and the sense of a constant landscape is quite compelling.

My personal preference for practical rather than aesthetic reasons would have been to go for the size of individual boards that come with the Conflict of Heroes system and in some respects, not doing that has seen Flying Pig releasing a ‘Pocket Battle’ module (another likely), which use smaller paper maps and include 4 west front scenarios, but that is just an observation, we are where we are. The size of the boards results in a game box that is a non-standard 11” x 16”. Game tracks are around the board edge, so you don’t really need additional space for game aids.

Solitaire - This is a two player game that like many such games, plays fine solitaire, just play both sides to their best advantage. Solitaire play is significantly helped by the impulse system, which drives play back and forth between the two sides, so that the player is pretty much constantly re-acting to the moment. There are some luck cards in the game, but these support the game (definitely don’t drive it) and are relatively straight forward to absorb into solitaire play.

Time - The back of the Stalingrad box says 45 minutes to 5 hours. I’m not sure where that 45 minutes comes from. I think this particular range of scenarios will fit a 2 - 5 hours spectrum, with most sitting in the 2½ hours plus side of things. I have not tried it yet, but the big one mapper scenario may even push that. I will edit this once that has been played.

Resource Section.

My sister webspace COMMANDERS is a bit more snippet based than here. Link.

An earlier post looking at the gun / armour mechanics for this game. Link

13 comments:

  1. Thanks Michal, if playing face-to-face, there is no down time for either player.

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  2. Good to read. I'm fast losing the will to resist buying into yet another tactical system...

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  3. Ellis, remembering a time when we were working on getting a ‘starter’ set of rules together for the old ‘Combat’ system, I think this game sits at a level that would intrigue you.

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  4. Norm, you have highlighted so many interesting WWII tactical offerings that I am confused as to which to try. Still only returning to SL and ASL after many, many years away. The choice in competing systems is staggering. I would enjoy seeing your take on an exercise of "Rank 'em" whereby you rank all of the tactical systems you have played with your rationale as to why.

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  5. Thanks Jonathan, it used to be so easy, there was SL and ASL and that was essentially it, to the point that pretty much everything produced since seems to get benchmarked against that series.

    I tend to spend a few months with a given series, otherwise I would just get confused with so many similar rules in my head, a “rank ‘em” would be really interesting ... though a lot of work for my wordy style.

    here is a link to an earlier attempt, I had always promised myself that I would come back and do another 5 titles.

    http://battlefieldswarriors.blogspot.com/2014/12/comparing-lower-complexity-tactical.html

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  6. This was great, Norm. The Stalingrad module is the only one I haven't got and I'd missed the news of the reprint. Cheers.

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  7. Kevin, Second Chance Games were just advertising it yesterday. I checked their stock and was interested to see that they didn’t have Airborne or Ghost Front (Bulge), so perhaps they are already hard to get.

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  8. Norm, I am obliged. I normally buy from Hexasim but they were sold out but I got the last copy from Gamesquest on ebay. Looking forward to the Pacific module.

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  9. Great review and narrative. You have a knack of presenting chit and map games really well, so well each sounds like an interesting buy. đŸ˜€

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  10. Thanks Stew, I only ever write about games that I like, so I think that helps.

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  11. Very well presented review as always, interesting presentation of a real grind of a battle!
    Best Iain

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  12. Thanks Iain, more of that to be played I think.

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