Hold Fast from Worthington Games is a strategic level look at the German / Russian conflict between June 1941 and January 1943. It is a 2 player game using blocks, but it can also be played solitaire. A low complexity design with monthly turns, the game is the first of a series of WWII campaign games from Worthington Games.
This post will take a close look at the system and highlight some game aspects by way of an AAR.
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If you don't like to tackle a large rulebook, then this is the game for you. The rulebook feels slim at only 8 pages, but really only 4 pages are actualy given over to 'proper' rules and those pages are heavily illustrated and exampled, so we are talking about a really slimmed down set that can be read and understood in around ten minutes or so. The rules are clearly and concisely written, with some nice game ideas and effects built into them. There is a small amount of Q&A on BoardGameGeek, but nothing fundamental and WG are very prompt in answering questions.
There are a few interesting tweaks to the classic type of block game, giving play a character of its own. The blocks are marked off with the various unit strengths on their sides in the traditional way, but it is only the Russian infantry that roll attack / defence dice equal to their current strength.( EDIT - I have this wrong, they always roll equal to their maximum combat strength). Everything else has a fixed number of combat dice, even when down to their last strength point. Armour gets 4 dice, German infantry get 3 dice and their allies (Finnish and Romanian troops) get 2 dice.
Hit numbers are 5 and 6, with 6 needed against armour and both 5 and 6 harming the infantry. A nice touch is that a 6 must be taken against armour if you have it - so there is no sparing these unit types by taking hits on infantry instead
Units that are removed from play go into a replacement pool, so they can come back into the game by paying resource points.
Resource Points (or RP's from now on) are an important sub-system providing the core engine to the game. At the start of each turn, both sides get 16 RP's. The Russians get an increase to 18 per turn in 1942. Players also get a one off boost in the game to reflect offensive capabilty. The Russians get +10 RP on the first snow turn (winter offensive) and the Germans get +10 RP on the first clear weather turn of 1942 (Fall Blau). The RP's can be spent to move (including rail movement), fight, get replacement points and return eliminated units to the game. Playtesting seems to have got the RP level well balanced to give the right level of activity, players are rarely left with unspent points and more often than not, you can't do everything that you want ... nice.
The game has Zones of Control (ZOCs), but they don't do the usual business of stopping an enemy dead in their tracks, rather is simply costs 2 MP to enter a ZOC (always - even the first time) and that includes ZOC to ZOC movement. ZOCs do effect supply lines and friendly units negate the enemy ZOC for supply. Interestingly, movement costs are not cumulative, so the 2 MP's for moving into a ZOC are NOT spent in addition to the cost of moving into the open or woods etc, but rather instead of. Combat penalties from terrain are however cumulative.
Supply is traced to any friendly city within 5 hexes (and the friendly board edge) that must in turn also trace back to another friendly supplied city within 5 hexes and so on, to the board edge - so this 'web' of connected cities can be vulnerable to enemy breakthrough and supply to forward cities being cut.
Rail tracks are not physically represented on the map, but the armies have a small capacity that resembles what games often describe as 'strategic movement', with the usual 'you can't enter enemy ZOC's' restriction. The Russians can go to any friendly supplied hex by rail, the Germans are limited to going to a friendly controlled city or an adjacent hex to one. These small differences do produce interesting nuances in the game and are a good example of the rules being simple but effective.
It is important to understand that in a turn, a unit can spend a RP to Move and then a RP to fight or do that the other way around. In a multiple fight, only 1 RP is spent. So for example you can spend 1 RP point on EACH of three units to move them to the enemy for a total spend of 3 RP's and then spend just 1 RP for all three to launch an attack, that is 1 RP is spent per attack, not per attacking unit. Also, you could move and then attack with a couple of armies, while some nearby unit sits it out until the result is known. You could then spend an RP on that unit (perhaps armour - awaiting a breakthrough situation to present itself) to move and also have it involved in a combat, paying the RP of course. The result is that you get fairly dynamic and fluid play, keeping the game very interesting and engaging.
I did wonder whether giving the Russians a tactical capabilty and flexibility equal to the Germans was realistic, but the game is set at monthly turns and is not tactical and the Russians spend the first part of the game trying to survive - not attacking, so in reality it all works out rather well and does give a good game.
In combat both sides roll fighting dice simultaneously, but only the attackers pay a RP. In the early part of the game, this allows the Russians to spend their RP's on getting units back into the game and moving to block the German advance, while still having a chance to cause attrition on German forces.
The German advantage comes from their three luftwaffe counters. One can be used to support an attack (then it is spent) which gives the Germans an extra two attack dice in that battle. They can only be used in clear weather. Their absence in the mud / snow turns is a good brake on taking the fighting edge away from the German army during the bad weather.
Anyway, with the basics explained, I will move on to an AAR. In my previous game, the Russians got a lot of unlucky combat rolls in the first part of the game and the Germans got lucky when rolling for weather. That combination got them close to a win (they failed by being defeated on the outskirts of Stalingrad and then being pushed back away from that city. They already had Leningrad and so either Moscow or Stalingrad by the games end would have given them their win), so it will be interesting to see how differently another playing will turn out.
A players part of the turn starts with taking the RP allowance. The weather is then established and if mud or snow, it will lower the number of RP's available. Reinforcements are collected and replacements paid for. Units then move and fight and at the end of the player turn, any friendly units out of supply are removed from play.
Setup - The below map shows the starting positions. There is one scenario. An optional rules allows players to swap units around within those locations, but this AAR sticks with the historical deployment.
June 1941 clear weather.
Let's run through an attack in full detail. In the photo below, the object of the German attack is the Russian 4th Army in the woods. The German 4th Infantry Army pay 1 RP and move from the grey hex next to the Russian, one hex forward into the Pripet Marsh staying next to the Russian unit and must stop (because of the marsh). It pays 2 MP's because it has moved from ZOC to ZOC. The German 2nd Panzer Army then pays a RP and moves into the space just vacated by the first German unit.
The German player pays a further 1 RP so that the two units can attack the adjacent Russian unit in the woods. They allocate one of their air units to the attack. The above photograph reflects this moment of attack. The attack is calculated as follows:
Russian 4th Army is at strength 2, so rolls 2 dice
German 4th Army is at strength 4, but the German infantry have a fixed combat value of 3 dice, regardless of their current strength. There is a -1 modifier for attacking out of swamp, so that unit ends up with 2 attack dice.
German 3rd Panzer Army is at strength 4, but tanks have a fixed combat value of 4 dice, regardless of their current strength. There is a -1 modifier for armour attacking into woods and a -1 modifier for attacking across the river, so that unit ends up with 2 attack dice.
The German Luftwaffe unit simply adds 2 attack dice to the battle. So the Russians will roll 2 dice and the Germans will roll 6 dice. Combat is simultaneous. The Russian get 4 and 5, the 5 scores 1 hit on German 4th army, which is rotated from its 4 to 3 strength edge. The hit could not be used against the panzer unit because armour is only hit on a 6. The Germans roll 6,6,5,4,1 and 2. The defender does not have armour, so the 5's and 6's are used on the infantry unit to give 3 hits, which remove the 2 strength infantry unit form play. It is put in the replacement pool to be brought back into the game later at strength 1 by paying RP's.
There is no advance after combat in this game. Both the German units have already moved so cannot move again. So to take advantage of the gap just created, the Germans spend a RP on 2nd Panzer (that was behind 3rd panzer) and it moves into 3rd Panzers hex and then on into the now vacant woods hex. This unit has travelled through two enemy ZOCS, so the cost is 2 MP per hex - as mentioned, movement penalties are not cumulative, so you just pay the highest cost, which is the 2 MP for each enemy ZOC entered. 2nd Panzer has now moved so cannot move again this turn, but it has not yet fired, which it can do at any point in the turn if a RP is spent on the attack that it is involved in. Slightly rotate the block to remind yourself of this. This opening assault has cost 4 RP's in total, leaving the Germans with 12 more RP's for this turn.
Above - from the Russian position, (sorry about the flash) this is the end of the German part of the turn and a serious gap has opened in the centre, but in the north (on the right) there is a defiant Russian defence going on ... can the Russians close that centre gap down in their part of the turn?
They do, they use the Pripet Marsh as part of their defensive line and also recover 3 units from the dead pile. They used a unit based in Riga to help stiffen the line and this has left Riga undefended, an unavoidable act to save the moment, but it will cost the Russians in the next turn.
July 41 - clear
The Germans spend 2 RP's to make good their losses. They take abandoned Riga. Russian 8th army is pocketed and removed for being out of supply at the end of its turn. The Russians are worried about a Minsk to Smolensk line of attack.
August 1941 - clear
Minsk falls, though the Germans lose 2 armour steps and 1 infantry step in the attack.
September 1941 - clear
The Germans take replacements, knowing that when the bad weather comes, lower RP's make replacements an expensive choice. The Germans are on the outskirts of Smolensk, while in the south, they choose to attack Odessa rather than Kiev, but the defenders hold out valiantly.
October 1941 - Roll for weather = clear (not the mud alternative).
Smolensk falls. Odessa falls. Kiev falls. End of turn Photo below.
November 1941 - roll for weather = mud (not clear or snow)
This is a dire time for the Germans, they roll an 8 for the mud effect on RP's and lose that many RP's from their allowance of 16. Movement is down to half and the airforce cannot be used. The Russians only lose 2 RP's due to mud, they also get 2 Guard armies as reinforcements.
December 1941 - roll for weather = Mud (not snow)
This time the Germans lose a whopping 10 RP's to the mud, they use their remaining RP's to improve the line and take replacements. There are no German assaults this turn, but the Russians get a chance to hit back at last. 2nd and 1st Guard Armies assault Smolensk and 10th and 18th armies hit the Germans on the southern shoulder of Smolensk. The Germans take big losses but hold their ground, the Smolensk defenders drop from strength 4 to 1 ... very close.
January 1942 - snow
The snow causes the Germans to lose 3 RP's but the first snow in the game always gives the Russians a bonus 10 RP's for that month (for their winter offensive). German 4th Panzer relieves Smolensk. The Russians attack the shoulder again. They take the defenders down to 1 strength point, but cannot do anything to take advantage of that.
February 1942 - snow
Dnepropetrovsk in the south falls. The Germans keep feeding new troops into the Smolensk area. The Russians forces are slowly increasing in numbers, but they still don't have enough of the Guard type units to put in big attacks, though it feels like the Germans are stalling and they need to up their game.
March 1942 - roll for weather = mud (not snow or clear)
The Germans lose 6 RP's to the mud and their attacks don't yield results. 1st Guards Tank Army arrives as a Russian reinforcement.
April 1942 - roll for weather = clear (not mud)
The Germans get a bonus of 10 RP's in the first clear turn of 1942 (to represent Fall Blau). Rostov Falls. 3rd and 4th panzer defeat 2nd Guards in front of Smolensk. Below is an end of turn photo. The way to Moscow looks like it could open fully in the next turn and in the south a bulge (reminiscent of the Kursk salient a year later) looks a tempting target for pocketing.
May 1942 - clear
There is a big tank battle in front of Smolensk, with both sides concentrating a lot of strength but amazingly, casualties are very low to both sides and the whole thing is all rather indecisive.
June 1942 - clear
The Germans attack Kharkov, but it holds. 1st Guards are lost while attacking Smolensk. Smolensk is a key city due to how it sits within the supply net and for several months it has been absorbing all the Russian attack capability, though it has not fallen, this has somewhat pinned the German forces there (Army Group Centre in effect).
July 1942 - clear
Kharkov falls. The Germans note the Russian 4th Tank Army has arrived and it is clear that the Russians are getting stronger.
August 1942 - clear
The Germans are still making advances. They blow a hole in front of Voronezh (where the lone unit is in the centre left of the above map, behind the river) but don't have the RP's to exploit it.
September 1942 - clear
Spectacular tank battles outside Smolensk develop and Voronezh (south) falls. The first German full block loss occurs near Leningrad. The unit goes into the replacement pool.
October 1942 - roll for weather = clear (not mud)
Siege of Leningrad begins and incredibly it falls straight away with a hand full of 5's and 6's being rolled. This will drop the Russian RP's by -2 every turn. With one objective captured, the Germans now only need capture either Moscow or Stalingrad to call a win at the end of the game. This is feeling like a tight game, with both sides strong enough to absorb the attacks from a single month and denying the other the 'breakthrough' opportunity needed to open up the game. The Germans are however inching closer to Moscow.
November 1942 - roll for weather = mud (not snow or clear)
Bad month for the Germans, they lose 7 RP's to the mud, the Russians lose just 1 and they also get two more tank armies.
December 1942 - roll for weather = snow (not mud)
The Germans get ever nearer to Moscow, but they run out of AP's. In their part of the turn, the Russians destroy 3rd panzer Army in front of Moscow.
January 1943 - snow
Last turn. The Germans cannot make headway, the Soviets attack and start an opening towards Kharkov (left in the photo below). The below end of game photograph is taken from the Russian players perspective (the values on the right of the counters are the current strengths, as I played from the south side and this is the view from the east).
Having played the game twice, it is too early to say how the game might 'typically' play out, but an initial impression is that my games can be divided into thirds.
The first third (or Barbarossa I suppose) can see the German rip into the defenders if good move / fight decisions are made and armour is maximised. The advance slows at the Smolensk - Kharkov line and it looks like Moscow is a tough one to get.
The second third (Russian winter offensive plus some) This sees the Russians starting to get a limited offensive capability. The Germans survive this okay and they can maintain a slow plodding advance, but there is a thickening of Soviet units across the map and the quick German victories are over.
The final third. The German army is close enough to the 4 fortress cities to be able to claim one or more of them. In my first game, I took Sevastapol, Leningrad and fought on the outskirts of Stalingrad. In the game shown here, only Leningrad fell and on neither occasion has Moscow become a reality. In this phase, the stronger Russian army will be inflicting bigger losses on the Germans, who do not have enough RP's to both attack and sort out replacements, as a result, you start to see their blocks in the replacement pool as well. The armies are strong enough to take and inflict punishment each turn and so it can feel like a stalemate is being reached as both sides just try to seek out that weakness that will allow a breakthrough and fluidity to return.
Conclusion - I like this game. While relatively simple, it does rather a lot within that low level of complexity. There are some interesting effects, such as making Russian infantry blocks the only units that actually have attack dice that equal their maximum (starting) strength, allowing some real differences in unit capability to be reflected. The weather rules seem to have it just about right, even stopping the German air support in the mud turns abstractly reduces attack capability without adding new rules. Note, I played this wrongly, I had Russian infantry rolling to 'current' strength, so those infantry guard units would have had more teeth in some of the early 1942 situations, though once they took hits, I tended to swap them out of the line, so that I could build them up faster.
The historical campaign is a popular game subject and there are other choices for the gamer. Someone who is an east front fan may question some things such as whether the RP costs for the Russians attacking in 1941 should be higher or whether that year they should be able to only move OR fight (it doesn't matter, they don't have the capability to fight) rather than both or wonder whether there should be some turn 1 restrictions on the Romanians etc (again it doesn't matter as the Germans typically don't have enough AP's to get this front going in turn 1). But in reality, the play and enjoyment from the game does not suffer for any absence of additional chrome and of course the design intention will likely have been to put a brake on the addition of chrome, after all, where does one stop.
The system seems very stable (so add more chrome if you wish) and one can imagine this transfering well to other campaigns. For gamers finding it increasingly difficult, due to busy lives, to get a game off the shelf and onto the table quickly without re-learning big chunks of rules and more importantly remembering the subtle ones that can be missed, Hold Fast type games can be appreciated for their ready fix. In anycase, there are those of us who have come to a point of wanting low rule complexity and high playability in our games and in that regard Hold Fast is just the ticket.
Solitaire Play - This is a two player game that can easily be played solitaire in the way that most hex and counter games can. The advantage of a face to face game with this system would be that you would gain some fog of war regarding the strength of enemy units, not knowing where those early Guard units will pop up would be fun. But playing solitaire is fine - and it is nice to see that actually being put on the back of the game box.
Size - The gameboard is a 4 panel folding heavy card board and the block density is quite low (27 Soviet and 22 German units). You need a small space to one side to use as a replacement pool for eliminated blocks and the RP track (which is on the back of the game box). The play aid can be hand held and the game track is on the board. This is a compact game that is fine for the kitchen table.
Complexity - The box says 3 out of 10 and that is about right, at least for the first game. With just 4 pages of well illustrated rules, you might think it should be lower, but the the game can do quite a lot in subtle ways. In my second game, I picked the rule book up once. When I first read the rules, I jotted down about 12 lines of notes that I keep with the game just to make sure that I capture the small bits such as terrain costs being cumulative for combat but not for movement etc and it gives me a quick cheat sheet to jump straight into subsequent playings.
Time - The box says 3 hours, That seems pretty consistent with my two games, which came in just under that.
EDIT - I have added some consolidated Q&A to BGG.