Published by The History Game Company and designed by Steve Kling, Poltava is the key battle between Russia and Sweden in The Great Northern War.
The Swedes had been besieging Poltava with a somewhat depleted force, when Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) arrived with a large Russian army. The subsequent engagement saw the Swedish force under Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld defeated in battle, marking the start of decline of the Swedish Empire.
Please use the ‘read more’ tab for a look on how this game handles the battle.
This is a new boardgame company to me and I noticed on the Second Chance Games website, they already have several different game titles which on the face of it, look to have a similar game engine. Anyway, I narrowed it down to three choices, Leuthen, Saratoga and Poltava. I decided to buy (£34) and try the latter, so here we are.
The game comes in a ziplock bag with a colour jacket. There are 48 counters, only one of which is a marker and these are printed onto a sort of wood pulp / fibre board and are sized at ⅝”.
Twenty game cards (ten per side) drive the game, but in a solo friendly way, so don’t worry about that. The map is 11” x 17” and printed onto canvas. This has a certain period charm to it. The hexes are not numbered and instead there are small symbols in the hexes that show where all of the units are set up. These symbols are light in colour so that they don’t look obtrusive, but they are small and because of the weave of canvas they are not particularly clear - but still good enough to be functional. The balance is they allow set-up, but then don’t distract during play.
The rules come in a four page folder, but the back page has designer notes and a terrain chart, so the rules are really contained in three pages. You might worry at this point that three pages is not enough to carry any depth, but fear not! I think these are rather clever and do give a good game and are thoroughly well written (i.e. no short hand to squeeze them into that space), plus the cards are carrying special rules that inject further function, but without there being any sense of additional rules overhead.
After play, including a face-to-face game, I did have three procedural questions that I asked of the author and I have included those clarifications in the Resource Section below, though I should stress, if you read the rules as written, the answers are there i.e. don’t bring assumptions from other rules to this set.
Finally, I got a D6, the packaging says two, but since you never usually even get one in a ziplock and that I have four million dice around here somewhere, then it matters not.
My intrigue with this battle takes me back to around 1983 and earlier. In that year, I bought the now defunct The Wargamer magazine, issue 27, called Peter the Great - The Battle of Poltava. I can only remember two things, one, I enjoyed it and two, the map was largely constructed from brown inks (due to the 3 colour print techniques of those times), which is true of this Poltava game before us, so I think this game gives me a sub-conscious link (and therefore liking) to what went before.
Prior to ‘83, I had tried to design my own Poltava game and was defeated by the fact that the Swedes formed up into four powerful blocks. I rather fancy that I took that description too literally as this modern take on Poltava has the Swedish army with more fluidity with an army of 17 counters, including cavalry and a light artillery unit, that do not have formation restrictions.
I think the reason behind this game working historically is that the Swedish progress through the game is somewhat choreographed, by the Swedes having to first move through the redoubts to an assembly area beyond, before they are free to assault the Russian camp.
The first obstacle facing the Swedes are the redoubts. The redoubts do not have zones of control so can’t naturally stop the Swedes filtering through them. Their plan was to bypass the redoubts, form up (in what we will call the assembly area) and then assault the Russian camp beyond.
However, historically, one of the Swedish blocks misinterpreted their orders and did become engaged with the redoubts. So in the game, the Swedes are obliged to push past the redoubts to an assembly area beyond, but at least three Swedish units must engage the redoubts each turn until the defenders of two of the redoubts have been removed from play. At that point, the entire Swedish army is released to be able to move as seen fit by the player - typically to make the next objective, which is to get at least 10 units into the assembly area.
This is where the first nuance of the game comes into play because behind the redoubts are a number of Russian mounted dragoon units. They can move forwards to block the gaps between the redoubts, slowing the Swedes and having them snarled up on the redoubts - or they can pull back slowly, preserving themselves or they can contest the ‘assembly area’ or a bit of all three. They have ranged fire and their high movement allows them to retreat before combat, so they are hard for the Swedes to deal with and yet the Swedes must press on, lest they become too attrited by the dragoons.
Let’s assume that the bulk of the Swedish force gets through, while for a few turns, three units are hampered by the redoubts. If one of those three units are removed from play, the Swedish player would have to send another unit back to maintain the three units engaged there.
There is an assembly area marked on the map and the Swedish player must get ten units into this area before the army is released to assault forwards to attack the Russian fortified camp, which is packed with troops! Note, the Russians in the camp are also locked into position until the Swedes get their ten units (plus) amassed. So we are in essence now in phase 2 - assembly time.
Once assembled the Swedes can attack. I’m not sure why the Russians would want to sally out in the first instance (unless the Swedes have already taken a lot of losses), because the fortified camp gives them +2 in defence and by this point in the game Russian losses will be climbing.
HOWEVER! The combat results have 2 hex retreats as a common outcome and if the unit can’t retreat, it is removed from play. The problem for the Russian camp is that it is full of units, crammed and on the map edge ….. the outcome is not good for those needing to retreat!
And so, this is the final phase, the Swedes trying to break into the camp.
Underpinning all of this are the victory conditions. The Swedes automatically win the moment that they have three units inside the camp or when the Russians have lost 18 units. The Russians will instantly win if the Swedes lose 11 units - suddenly at this point in the game, every result seems to really matter as the armies approach these tolerances.
Anyway, simple system or not, this phasing of activities helps deliver the feel of Poltava.
Two other game engine points that matter are;
THE CARDS. A player draws one at the start of their turn. It will state how many units can move, how many can attack and then there is a special event which helps bring the history into the game and can highlight differences between the two armies.
The right or wrong card can be deliciously received at the right or wrong time. Imagine setting your big attack up and the card is only allowing you to attack with three units or you don’t want to attack and it forces you to attack with at least 2 dragoon units! - nice.
THE COMBAT SYSTEM. Each unit has an attack and defence value. The attacker rolls a D6 and adds it to their attack value. If they equal or beat the defence value by 1, then the defender flips to disordered and retreats two hexes. If they win by two or more, then the defender is removed from play. If they force an already flipped unit to retreat, it is removed from play instead.
There is a LOT of nuance here between attack values and defence values and terrain helping defence value and some of the cards helping attack values. As you would guess, the Swedish guard are very hard for the Russians to deal with and a good number of Swedish units have good attack values. That is countered by the Russian advantages of having plenty of units that can make ranged attacks and they also benefit from +2 in defence when in a redoubt or behind the camp defences.
The thing of ranged fire intrigued me. Each unit has a range at which it can engage. Artillery is ranged at 3 hexes and musket armed troops are either 2 or 1 hex. I asked the designer why the Russian infantry enjoy a higher proportion of range 2 units and the Swedes only have range 1 units and he advised that it reflected that tactically the Swedish doctrine was to attack with cold steel rather than rely upon musketry.
Steve is also a book author specialising in this period and his friend, Brigadier Einar Lyth, also an author, is the considered national expert on the Battle of Poltava and Steve consulted with him over various aspects of the game, so this design is under-pinned by that expertise.
Add in a few twists like after movement, but before combat, the other side can defensive fire with up to three units. This will almost certainly rain on your parade at exactly the wrong moment - good!
Also, those units with ranged fire cannot use ranged fire (they can use range 1 i.e. assault) if they moved before attacking. It is all of these things taken together that give a game system that is punching above its weight in those three pages of rules.
For the purposes of this article, I have played the game three times. Twice solo and then face-to-face. I was keen to get Mike’s view of the game because firstly, if this works for us in our relatively short sessions and the design delivers, then other titles in the range would be of interest.
Further, I wanted to see his reaction as to whether he saw the game in the same way that I had described, with a relatively simple ruleset delivering a good game with nuance, but importantly with a good sense of history and whether he also enjoyed the flow of the game and the way it seems somewhat directed (choreographed as I explained above), but to the good.
His thoughts were similar to mine. He initially felt that it was too ‘uphill’ for the Swedish player and this was visible in the game as his enthusiasm got sapped as the dragoons just kept pulling back in front of him and he didn’t see how the Swedes could win ….. then suddenly, there he was, assaulting the camp and for him the game came alive, enhanced by the tightness and precarious nature of the situation, where everything matters. In essence, seeing this, it was clear that the game does manage to put the player in the ‘emotional’ hot seat that the real commanders faced, giving a good connection to play.
At the conclusion he appreciated the simplicity of the system Vs the nuances that fell from the game engine and agreed that there was more game than 3 pages of rules suggest. He went on to get a Swedish victory and it is was only really at the end of the game that one properly understands how the whole game hangs together. Mike said he would be happy to play it again, so that is that!
In my first solo game, The Swedes broke into the camp with 2 units but at the moment of doing so, had also racked up 18 Russian units removed from play, so they got an auto win on turn 18. The bit I hadn’t played right was that I allowed the Swedish army to fight and get hung up on the redoubts for a few turns, having missed the subtle point that, as per history, only a few units (those that confused with their orders) assaulted the redoubts, the rest of the army pressed on to the assembly area - which they are obliged to do under the rules.
In the second solo game, I was more aware of using the Russian dragoons ability to retreat before combat and also that the Swedish cavalry is quite vulnerable to loss. Those two things saw the Swedish force take very heavy losses and as they broke through and moved to the assembly area, they only had 10 units, plus the weak 1-6-6 Vallecks unit at the top of the map, which was compelled to come down and assist …. just in case the Swedes needed them to make up the necessary 10 units to fill out the assembly area. So this was a bit touch and go and a pressure moment for the Swedish side.
|The assembly area is a light brown oval shape on the map|
The fight for the camp was a huge too and fro affair. The Swedes broke in and then were ejected, they broke in again, but came under significant pressure …… and then suddenly! The Russians drew the ‘Command Indecision’ card, just at the worst possible moment for them in the game, they became ineffective and unable to re-secure the camp hexes that they had either lost or were currently exposed. Sure enough, next turn, the Swedes captured the 3rd camp hex for a win.
|Attacking the camp with its +2 defences|
This whole ending was very close and a nail-biter that brought out every nuance of positioning, attack potential and troop quality factors into play.
So two games down and two Swedish wins, but the last one really could have gone either way. Russian losses were 15 and Swedish losses were 7, both are respectfully bad.
In the face-to-face game, I took the Russians, because as hosts we generally give the attacking side to the visiting player as a courtesy. I did of course advise Mike of all that I had learned in the solo games and outline the advantages and disadvantages that his army held.
This time the Russian dragoons played an excellent role in falling back slowly and inflicting casualties on the Swedes while doing so. Preserving the dragoons is important, they can frustrate the Swedes as they fall all the way back to the camp and because they have a 2 hex shooting range, they can harass the Swedes as they try to build up in the assembly area.
By the mid game, Mike was despairing of even getting off the assembly point and successfully striking at the Russian camp.
But that is just how the game unfolds - you have to stick with it and believe that things will come good …… and they did! Mike broke into the Russian camp at the same time as the Russian losses were 16 (just 2 short of losing). I pulled the Command Indecision card (again!) and it was all over, there was nothing I could do. On the next turn, the Swedes secured their three hexes of the camp and got an auto win. Again, it was a tight game towards the end, with both sides respecting the strengths of the others army and taking nothing for granted.
Perhaps knowing that the Command Indecision card was due, I should have moved some of my better units out of the camp and attacked, but I think I would have got the worst of it and Swedish losses were not high enough at that point to make anything certain.
With the game over, just to see, from a design perspective, I drew the next Russian card to judge whether the bad luck of drawing the Command Indecision card alone that caused the victory. The replacement card would not have helped me either … I was doomed :-)
It can seem a tough challenge for the Swedes (remember … they did lose historically!), but we are given 24 turns to perform the task and in each of my games, there was a victory established with 5 - 6 turns still to go.
I could say at this point, based on wins, that the game is slightly pro-Swedish, but that margin is quite tight, so much so that I doubt my three games are enough to pronounce on game balance with any certainty. We are going to play again, this time Mike wants to have a go at being the Russians, so he no doubt has already seen some alternatives to the things that I did, that he wants to try.
Overall, the game flow follows the same path on each playing, in fact we are ‘directed’ to the ultimate action at the camp, but along the way, there are a myriad of local situations created that keep both players engaged and with the game continuing to feel fresh, especially as you are always immersed in the moment.
Complexity - They describe the game as low to moderate complexity. I would describe it as low, but with some nuances that mean you have to have read the rules properly. For example, when assaulting and causing the enemy to retreat, you can advance after combat, but not if you are in an enemy Zone of Control. In many games, you commonly can do that regardless of the ZoC, so don’t assume anything. The rules are tight and well written. If you have a play question, at just three pages you will quickly find the answer and not get held up.
This is certainly a game that with short notice and not much pre-reading or setting up, you could get it to the table easily and as such would increase gaming opportunities for say a midweek game.
Size - This really is a small format game. There are no reinforcements and no separate charts, so everything is working off that 17” x 11” map, making this ideal for kitchen tables and vacations - even hospital stays if practical.
Solitaire - Cards in this game are not a problem to the solo player and in fact the variables that they inject into each turn, helps solo play. The direction of the battle is pretty obvious, so it will be obvious what each side roughly has to do each turn and having played it both solo and face-to face, I don’t feel solo play is in any way compromised.
Time - They say 90 minutes. There are potentially 24 turns, but the victory conditions have a sudden death element to them, so you may have a shorter game. Either way, 90 minutes seems a fair estimate and with a bit of chit chat, you probably have a two hour session. I timed my second solo game and that came in at 80 minutes. Our face-to-face came in at 2 hours and 10 minutes (130 minutes).
These three procedural clarifications were given to me by the designer (thank you Steve for prompt replies);
Point 1 - Retreat before Combat (when allowed) - This occurs during the other player's Combat phase. Defensive Fire happens before the Combat phase. So theoretically, a unit could conduct a defensive fire then retreat if attacked and it satisfies the other criteria for retreat before combat. (I note that this is a clever way to use the sequence of play to give the dragoons a little more flexibility).
Point 2 - Can you return to play one of the original redoubt occupants from the elim pile (the point of my question being they have zero movement)? Answer - Yes, it could be returned provided it is placed as required. A zero movement unit cannot retreat and therefore is eliminated if forced to retreat like other units that have no path to retreat.
Point 3 - When a unit retreats BEFORE combat, can the attacker move up into the initial vacated hex? Answer NO. Only units that have inflicted a loss or retreat on an enemy unit in combat by dice roll may advance after combat.
My sister webspace ‘COMMANDERS’ is being re-configured to showcase various figure and boardgame systems that I am enjoying and gives a flavour of where current projects are up to. Link.