Battle for Kursk - The Tigers are Burning 1943, is designed by Trevor Bender and it is the supplement game appearing in the most recent edition (Nr.34) C3i Magazine, published by RBM Studio.
The game is a well presented look at the Russian front during the period of March to November 1943, built around a low complexity game engine, but with a couple of fresh mechanisms that will keep both players engaged and giving a game that will comfortably fit into a single session.
The rest of this post gives way to a brief overview of the mechanics and loosely follows my initial outing with the game.
Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.
The game comes with an attractive map in the usual 22” x 34” standard size. The hexes are large, the counters are small and there isn’t any stacking (or game markers), so the game with its packed front is very easily managed.
The magazine itself is up to its usual high standard and amongst the bonus material is included a SPQR Deluxe scenario for Agrigentum 262 BC, something that I will try in the future.
Battle for Kursk is a sibling of Frank Chadwick’s very well received ‘Battle for Moscow’, designed in the 80’s, if I recall correctly.
Battle for Moscow was originally put out by GDW as a freebie with the sole intention of recruiting gamers to the boardgaming hobby. In just four pages of rules, it covered the common gaming processes of movement, combat and zones-of-control etc.
Significantly, not only was this a fine introductory game, but it held enough depth that regular gamers could also enjoy it for its gaming challenge and to just simply having a good game.
Trevor Bender’s Kursk, takes that basic system and adds some new twists, that are certainly new to me and are not just procedural novelties, but rather they really help bring this particular topic to life to reflect the ebb and flow of the 1943 campaign on the eastern front.
Despite ‘Kursk’ being the eye catching theme of this game, it is not first and foremost a Kursk game, something that initially caught me out, as the map set up looks like the Kursk front, with its bulging salient and the ‘objective’ marker being placed on Kursk, but in reality, the actual fighting in the Kursk battle (Operation Zitadelle) took place between 5th - 13th July, or in other words, a single turn in this system.
This game is much wider in scope. It looks at the build up, the Kursk battle and then the three subsequent Soviet offensives; Operation Kutusov (capture of Orel and collapse of that bulge), Operation Rumyantsev (recapture of Kharkov and the start of the race for the Dnieper) and Operation Suvurov (recapture of Smolensk, Roslaval and Bryansk).
In that respect, in terms of scope and scale, the game rather reminds me of Columbia Games’ Eastern Front - Kursk Scenario.
The point about this game is that it doesn’t have to be about Kursk and often it won’t be or at least it won’t be for long. Moscow is on the map and if the Germans capture that, they win a sudden death victory. Perhaps this year, they won’t attack at all and instead go onto the defensive (something that Guderian proposed), or perhaps even just shorten the line and allow the Soviet forces to exhaust themselves in attack or select another object instead of Kursk (moving the objective marker to a new target). It is 1943 grand strategic, rather than July Kursk!
Victory comes from capturing enemy cities, so winning is certainly about doing that, though destroying enemy forces in the field is one pathway to achieving that.
The Combat Result Table looks very much like the one that we saw in Battle for Moscow and while it has had a few tweaks, like its predecessor there are a scary (for an attacker) number of ‘EXCHANGE’ results in the table. An exchange will flip the defender over to half strength, which is then retreated two hexes, while the attacker must also flip to lose as many strength points as the defender just lost. This is highly attritional and on the 2:1 and 3:1 attack columns two out of the six possible results are Exchange results, so you go into these attacks prepared for losses and in turn, this means that offensives cannot really go on for a long time, before a side needs to rest and recover and it is this cycle that provides the engine at the heart of this game.
The mechanism that delivers this recovery / attack potential is called ‘Posture’.
At the start of each turn, each player secretly (solo players - don’t worry about this, see below) select their posture that will dictate the pace of game for their army in the up coming turn. A player must choose a Posture from the options of Pause, Reposition, Deploy or Engage.
Depending what you choose will determine which parts of the Sequence of play you will be able to use this turn.
So for example, Pause only allows you to take replacements, but you will get an uplift on the number of replacements, while not being able to move or attack. Reposition will give you an unenhanced number of replacements, but you get access to the movement phase. Only Engage allows you to attack and this gives you access to the entire sequence of play, giving the much fuller experience of an armour movement phase, followed by a combat phase and then a general movement phase, but you will suffer penalties on the replacement numbers due to you.
As the turns go by, players will build up their forces, go onto the attack, take losses and their offensive will burn out, seeing them adjust to lower postures so that they can recover strength and adjust the line and then hopefully return to the attack (the next offensive).
This rather nicely models the stop - start - burn out of offences and recovery that marks 1943 progress on the eastern front.
Another interesting concept is the use of ‘Offensive’ markers. Both sides get a limited supply of these. Basically at critical points, attacking armour or shock armies can place an offensive marker and it allows the lead attacking unit to draw support from adjacent friendly units in the rear (that are not themselves adjacent to an enemy), with each such supporting unit giving a favourable column shift. I’ve not seen this used anywhere else before and it really helps in a non-stacking game, show the explosive capability of forces built up for attack on a narrow frontage.
There are two variations of the game that can be played. The shorter one starts on 5th July and is really showing the forces as they were at the start of Operation Zitadelle. The longer game has four pre-turns labelled A - D. These are monthly turns starting in March. The idea is that the forces are exhausted from the earlier campaigning and each turn, you can build up the forces that you want, in the places that you want and move some units around, so that by the time you reach 5th July, you are positioned to fight the battle that you want, which might not necessarily be Kursk focussed!
The A - D phases also switch on the various defensive belts as they are built and come into commission, with the Moscow belt being built first.
The design notes do include a historical posture schedule, which, unsurprisingly for these early turns, include quite a bit of the Pause posture as both sides build up their forces ready for the summer campaign. As such, Turns A - D can pass very quickly, so the shorter game is not in reality that much shorter.
Anyway, in my first game, rather than opening with a Pause posture, I had the German force go straight to Engage posture in March.
It cost them their replacements capacity, but it allowed them to attack Soviet positions while those forces were weak (not yet re-built to full strength) and also the first line of defensive belts were not yet built, so the attacks were pretty much successful. But that then left me only three turns to try and build the German armour back up to get ready for the Kursk campaign. For their part, the Soviets stayed in Pause posture for the four pre-turns and accordingly, they maximised on their replacement levels.
Above - some German gains made by attacking early. Note where they have captured the red shaded (yet to be built) Soviet fortress line.
Was that a good German opening plan? I don’t know really, certainly when the campaign started up in July, the Soviets were very strong, because they had concentrated on building forces, but it did give the Germans some better positions to launch their summer campaign.
Above - it is the two week turn starting 3rd August. The Soviets have selected ‘Engage’ posture for the turn, the Germans have dropped to ‘Pause’. The Soviets put in an attack against 4th Panzer (the black counter) on the southern shoulder of the Kursk salient and by expending their ‘Offensive’ chit, they also drag in the rear support of 5th Guard Tank. It yields an ‘Exchange’ result. 4th Panzer flip, losing 8 strength points and is retreated two hexes by the Soviet player, but the Soviets must flip two of their units to at least match the German losses (which is what an exchange result means).
This is quite nicely reflective of the real world Soviet counter-attack after the Prokorovka battles and the heavy losses sustained by 5th Guards Tank.
Above - the Germans break the Soviet line on the left, which could be an opening to drive to Moscow, but they lack the reserves and strength to make that viable, perhaps they should have ‘Repositioned’ some extra forces here in the previous month! (note on the grey hash you can see the words TURN A, this reminds the player that the German fortified line exists for that turn i.e. the start of the game).
At the start of the 15th October turn (penultimate turn), both sides have been in the ‘Engaged’ posture and the Germans are becoming fatigued, with gaps opening in their line. The Soviets have been better placed to absorb their losses. They have taken Bryansk and are on the doorstep of Stalino, Kharkov, Smolensk and Vitebsk.
The Germans could really do with a ‘Pause’ posture to build their forces, but they need to manoeuvre to shorten and protect the line, so they drop to ‘Reposition’ posture. This will give them their normal replacements, but still allow them to use the normal move phase.
The Soviets on the other hand can’t afford to allow the Germans to recover, so they stay in ‘Engaged’ posture, so that they can carry on attacking, but this reduces their available replacements by 2 infantry and 2 armour.
Worse for both sides .... it is a mud turn, so both sides movement is cut to just 1 hex and armour is halved in attack.
Above - the 3rd November turn has ended (end of play). The Soviets have taken Stalino, Kharkov, Bryansk, Smolensk and Vitebsk. that gives them 5 victory points, plus a further victory point for (surprisingly) suffering fewer losses than the Germans. Zero is a draw, so a clear Soviet win. You can see looking at the map that German held Orel is under threat and likely to fall soon.
Above - while at Kharkov, strong German forces there looked well placed to re-take the city, but they would need to raise their posture to ‘Engage’ for any units to attack, which reduces their access to replacements, whereas the German strategic need at this moment is to get more replacements and fall back to a more secure position, to cover the gaps and weak spots in the rest of the line, so they would likely go for a ‘Reposition’ posture and lose the opportunity to re-take Kharkov!
I really enjoyed the game. It needs playing once to best understand the implications of posture and how that can limit your access to the sequence of play and importantly - replacements. I think my second game will be more nuanced.
The separate rulebook has around 6 pages of rules, plus further pages chock full of examples with good illustrations, so it really is a fairly quick read to get into this.
The high attrition from that Combat Table that is pretty much forced onto the attacking player, linked to the posture rule, gives a nice pace of game to help show the the cycle of offensives running out of steam. Once the game gets underway the situation pretty much drives the posture needed by the players to meet the demands of that turn, which helps the secrecy behind the posture rule become less problematic to the solo player.
Initially, the game was fairly slow, with a hex taken here and one there, then suddenly the line ruptured in several places and there were several German controlled cities under threat, but with the Soviets also running out of steam and seeing opportunities that they simply could not take advantage of.
Mindset wise, I initially approached this game as a ‘Kursk game’, which of course it is not, rather, it is a ‘front game’ and so play naturally reveals things that we can think of more strategically as the 3rd and 4th battles of Kharkov, the fall of Bryansk and the Pressure on Orel.
There isn’t a meaty 1943 article in either the rule book (there are good designer notes) or the magazine, so the game has had me reaching for my two Osprey Kursk Campaign titles that cover the Northern and Southern shoulders to the Kursk salient. The books stop at 15th July, but does cover the earlier build up from the start of the year and and of course the July battles in good detail, plus the detail of the fighting and good range of photographs, does help the wargamer build a mental picture of what is going on down in 'that' hex. Both books are in the designers bibliography.
Anyway, a very accessible game, playable in an evening and providing both sides with plenty to think about, I’m glad I bought this and can see it returning to the table soon.
Complexity - At the heart of this game is the introductory game engine of ‘Battle for Moscow’, so there is a pedigree there for simplicity. The Posture and Offensive rules are added, but the rules themselves are not complicated, it is learning how best to use them that adds depth to the design. The Publisher gives this a complexity level of 4 (lower end of medium), I would be inclined to suggest after the first game, this would be a 3 (higher end of low complexity). I thought the rules were clean and I played it without getting stuck on anything.
Size - The map is 22” x 34”. All of the charts are on the map, so you will not be using player aid cards. Storage wise, this is a magazine game, that gets a bit bulkier once the counters are cut and bagged - as they all do.
Solitaire - The publisher rates this as 3 (high end of low suitability). I suppose the words ‘secretly select the posture’ is the reason for this, BUT, I played my game solo and it was not a problem. I think in the end the game situation drives the player posture choices or at least narrows them down to what seems for the overall best at that moment. I certainly didn’t find it a barrier to solo play. For anyone really bothered by it, the author does provide a schedule of the historical choices made over the course of the entire game, which match the historical offences and the gamer could quite easily just copy that. Aside of this, it is a two player game that plays fine solo, with the gamer just playing each side as best they can. Mud turns are fixed by default, but there is an optional rule for variable mud turns, so that is something else that can add a bit of chaos to the solo game.
Time - I didn’t time my game, but I watched it either side of a TV programme and would say that it comfortably came in under the three hour mark. The rulebook is an easy read. I didn’t really need to look at the copious examples of play, which would obviously add some reading time, but not in an onerous way.
There is a decent intro video on this game over at BoardGameGeek that the reader wanting to know more may enjoy. LINK
I bought my copy from Second Chance Games in the UK, I don’t know of any other suppliers for this magazine on this side of the pond. LINK