Published by Revolution Games and designed by Michael Rinella, this is an Area Movement game that has been designed from the ground up as a solitaire game.
It has been selling very well, my own game store sold out of stock twice before I could get my copy and Revolution Games have just announced that the game has sold out, but that it will be re-printed early next year, along with the next game in the series .... Manila).
Michael Rinella is no stranger to Area Movement game design or to the Stalingrad subject. For Revolution games, this is their first foray into games with a mounted map board and they have done a splendid job.
This post will look at the components, give an overview of the system and an example of play. Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.
I am rather late to this party as this game has already been the subject of many reviews and unboxing etc.
It has also attracted a lot of comment on boardgames forums, not that this alone is all for the good, as for a while I saw plenty of questions being asked, that to my mind seemed unnecessary, but which can lead to a potential buyer being put off. Indeed, I even unsubscribed from a topic folder due to it being overwhelmed by 'noise'. Regardless, the designer has been superb and patient at answering all questions.
I don't naturally go for dedicated solitaire games, though I happily do a lot of solo gaming with games designed for two players. Yet here we are. My purchase was based on subject matter and the reputation of both designer and publisher.
Accepting that there are plenty of other places already giving insight into this game / system, I am putting down my initial impression of the game because I have enjoyed it and I know there are followers of this blog who tend to like the same games that I like and they might to have this on their radar.
First impression of handling the game is impressive, Revolution Games have pushed the boat out. The box is substantial with evocative artwork, the counters are on thick board and the game board itself is mounted on heavy board and is very attractive with a strong period feel.
The play aid card is double sided with the charts clearly and nicely laid out.
The rulebook is 16 pages long, but the actual rule page count is around 7 pages and the whole thing is well illustrated, so considering this is a solo system, the rules overhead does not really seem that much more than a traditional two player Area Movement design would rely upon.
Eight dice, 4 red and 4 black are included and everything sits in a box that is approximately 1” deep.
In this design, the player takes the role of German commander and the system manages the Soviets.
There are three distinct aspects to this game. Firstly we have a standard Area Movement game and anyone familiar with the genre will quickly slip into this. The only real difference is that even though the German unit counters will be flipped over when ‘spent’ (i.e. used), there will be no combat values on the rear side of the counter, because the Soviets do not make attacks or move. Flipping simply reminds the player that the units have been used that turn.
Secondly, we have what is essentially a sub-system of what have generally become known as ‘Untried Units’. This is one of my favourite game mechanics, which basically has every Soviet unit placed face down, so that their combat value and potential is not known until it is attacked.
Thirdly, there is a morale track and the 'grind' of this battle will tend to push German morale down. There are two stages of morale, Good and Shaken and as the game progresses, the player's attention is increasingly drawn to trying to maintain good morale. In some respects, morale can be thought of as encompassing combat effectiveness.
Here, there is an additional dimension to the ‘untried unit’ mechanic - Each Soviet unit has one of six attributes, which is activated when the Soviet unit is contacted for the first time, so for example the unit might have the capability of ‘barrage’ and this immediately causes an enemy lead unit to removed from the map OR the German player can elect to call off the attack, retire back to the area they came from and flip all counters to their spent side.
This attribute only exists for the initial contact i.e. the initial attack. If the unit is not defeated and cleared away on the first contact, then the attribute is no longer able to be used, so in the next turn and thereafter, it would be ignored - nice wrinkle for very little rules overhead.
Above - Each area is marked as being one of four different types terrain. We have Clear, Elevation, Light Urban and Heavy Urban terrain types. The defence value of each is typically different and this terrain defence bonus is added to the occupants combat strength.
Above - there are 50 Areas in total. The Germans set up in fixed starting areas and can stack unto 4 units per area. These areas are marked as being German controlled. Then in the remaining areas, the Soviet units are randomly placed face down, one per area.
There are two scenarios in the game. One covers the initial assault in September and the other the 'Factory District scenario' in October.
Turns 1 - 9 gives us September 13th through to September 30th. The second scenario runs from turns 10 to 14 and gives October 4th through to October 31st.
The Turn Sequence.
Here is a run through of turn 3 to show sequence and combat method.
Dawn Phase - this is the Reinforcement and Withdrawal Phase. Neither occur on turn 3.
Random Events - A roll is made against the Random Event chart. On this turn we get the 'Commissars' result. This result increases all Russian combat values during this turn by +1.
Supply Phase - The player rolls 4D6 to determine how much supply they get this turn. Supply can be saved and used in future turns. In this turn, the Germans get 18 points of supply.
They spend it on;
a) returning a unit to play from the 'Out of Action' box.
b) raising the Morale value by one position on the morale track
c) buying additional assets in the form of Aircraft, engineers and artillery.
Combat Phase -
There are two parts to this, Firstly the 'Bloody Streets' sub phase - the first thing to do is check for areas that have either light or Heavy urban terrain and that are contested (have units from both sides in them). A D6 is rolled for each such area to see whether street fighting has produced an effect. 1 - 4 is no effect, but 5 & 6 will harm German forces
Secondly, the move / attack sub phase;
We will illustrate this with an example. The German 295th Division (3 counters) and 244B Assault Gun are in Area 29, which is Hill 98.9.
They wish to assault the adjacent unit in Area 28, which is Hill 107.5, described as elevated terrain. There is a face down Soviet counter in Area 28, indicating that this area is Soviet controlled and has not been attacked during the game to date.
Above - the Germans want to attack from area 29 (Hill 98.9) into area 28. It costs 4 Movement Points to enter an enemy held area.
Above - The Germans move in and the Soviet counter is flipped over to reveal its strength and nature. This is a strength 5 counter and it adds this strength to the defensive strength of the area, which is +2 as noted in the triangle giving a total defensive value of '7'.
The Random Events roll made earlier gave us Commissars this turn and this causes the Soviets to receive a +1 defensive bonus against all attacks made against them this turn, so the Soviets are boosted to a final value of 8.
The counter also has the attribute of 'Heroes'. This signifies that after the fight here is resolved, the German morale level will lose one point on the morale track. A units attribute is only ever used when it first fights. If the unit survives and is attacked again, the 'Heroes' aspect of the counter is ignored.
For the German strength, we take;
The combat value of the lead unit, the assault gun (5 points)
add plus 1 for each other friendly unit in the attack, which is the three infantry units (+3 points).
Since all three units of the division are together, they get a further +1 for divisional integrity.
Whilst the German morale track shows good morale levels, it gives another +1.
This gives an attacking differential of 10 points for the Germans against 8 Soviet points.
The Germans want to be sure about the attack succeeding, so they throw in two artillery assets, each giving a further +2 factors, so now the Germans have 14 points v 8.
Each side now rolls 2D6 and adds the respective scores to the values outlined above.
The Germans roll 4, so their final attack value is 18. The Soviets roll 11 (wow) also taking their combat value to 19 - so the German attack fails, they are ‘repulsed’. The German lead unit is removed and placed into the ‘Out of Action Box’. The three infantry counters are returned back to Area 29 and the German Morale drops 1 points.
Because the Germans were repulsed, the Soviet attribute of ‘Heroes’ on their counter is not applied. Had the Soviets lost, the Germans would have captured the area, but that Heroes status would have dragged the German morale down by 1 point ….. obviously a tough fight!
EDIT - the above example has been modified because a gamer (JM) over at BoardGameGeek noticed that I had made a mistake on the German strength - thanks for advising.
Once the player has moved / attacked with as many units as they want to, play moves to the End Phase.
End Phase - The player checks for a possible auto victory and if one has not been gained (which it hasn't), play continues and all German counters are flipped back to their normal side. Finally the Germans always lose 1 Morale Point at the end of each turn - representing the grinding nature of the campaign.
Above - At the end of turn 4 the Grain Elevator in area 10, falls to 94th Division.
Above - A the start of turn 6, four Soviet controlled areas in the northwest have become isolated.
Above - During turn 6, in Red Square, we note that both sides remain in the area from the last turn, so the area is classed as contested and because it is an urban area, in the Bloody Streets phase, a die is used to assess the effects of the ongoing action.
The effect is that the German morale drops one point. Morale is now becoming a problem. If it drops any further, the morale status will reduce from good to shaken. The Germans will now be diverting more of their supplies and resources to try and restore the morale.
At the area containing '9th January Square', the Soviets reveal a guards unit at strength 10 in an area with defensive value of 4. Guards get to roll 3 dice in combat and choose the best 2 rolls. This could be tough for 29th Division, but they throw everything at it (expensive) and take the area.
Above - Turn 7 at Mamayev Hill, the last attack of the turn is made by 71st Division, they suffer heavy losses and the German morale drops to a value of 10, this is just hovering above shaken status. As we go into the End Phase, the last thing we always do is drop the German morale by 1, to represent the ongoing grind. This takes the morale track down to 9, the level at which morale switches to shaken status.
In turn 8, supply is spent to improve the morale by 1 level, but that costs supply points and the Germans cannot afford to return some losses from the Out of Action box .... their assault is bogging down!
Above - Oh Dear! 29th Division advances along the bank of the Volga, reaching the Oil Refinery, to find the revealed Soviet unit has the Pavlov House attribute. This is a guards unit, but that attribute doesn't just last for the first turn, it is available every turn, so this is going to be a tough location to take and likely chew up a lot of resources to ensure a win ... and the clock is ticking!
On turn 9 (last turn) 29th Division is withdrawn (fixed by timetable). The Random Event shows there are artillery shortages and morale has dipped back to shaken.
Supply is spent to bring the morale back up, but in their first combat against the isolated units at Nadezda Road (northwest part of the map), the Germans, looking for an easy win here, suffer a shocking loss and their morale dips back to shaken. Since this is the last turn, it can't recover and the writing is surely on the wall for the Germans.
Above - End of game, the white areas show ground still held by the Soviets, the German have not taken enough ground to win. Their morale has dropped to 8 and they have 4 units in the Out of Action box. Historically notable areas such as Red October Steel Works, Barricade Ordnance Factory and the Tractor Factory, remain in Soviet hands.
Although I solo a lot of two player games, I have never really been interested in pursuing a solitaire game system, rather, I am quite happy playing two player games solo when the system allows - so I played this for the first time, wondering how (a) the system would fare as an AI opponent? - would it do any strange or silly things? and (b) would I be able to pursue a proper plan or tactics or would my play evolve to simply try and beat the system?
How does it fare as an AI opponent? - The Soviets don’t move or attack, so there is not much scope for the system to do something strange or out of whack - in essence their units are a series of speed bumps that the player (German) must remove from the board.
There are Random Events and on the first turn of contact, each Soviet unit has an attribute that will generally impact on the game, such as dropping the German morale or moving the lead attacking unit to the Out of Action box and together, these gently nudge the game along in a reasonable and believable way.
The 2D6 added to the attack / defence value of units have the potential to swing results, though the bell curve of 2D6 helps us anticipate probability. This is an interesting aspect. I tend to see a problem and throw everything at it to secure that win. My regular opponent, Mike, is more careful, he would tend towards getting two attacks for the same number of resources, but is more reliant on good dice because of that. In the end, I lost my game and he won his on the last turn, so it would seem that my approach, reducing the number of attacks I can make overall, just means I am less likely to clear enough areas in time.
Overall, the AI is quite gentle, but of course the situation at Stalingrad could anyway be thought of as a one sided affair in terms of player interest, as even in a two player game, the Soviet player is concentrating on defence, closing down avenues of approach and hoping to grind the German attack down.
So yes, for this gamer, this is a successful solo bot for this type of battle.
Will I pursue a proper plan and tactics? - In some respects, the overall plan is set, the Germans must squeeze the Soviet defences back to the Volga. Areas must simply be taken and so the planning on where to attack and how much resources to pour in (aircraft, engineers and artillery) become what matters and there will be frustrations (good) along the way as some attacks fail or are repulsed.
As the game progresses, that morale marker drops down the track and the player is forced to spend supply supporting the morale and looking to avoid pointless and costly attacks, that will further badly impact on the morale and I like the way the system makes the player think of the campaign in that way.
I don't think the system as presented, offers itself up to being manipulated, predicted or managed in a way to try and defeat 'the system'. The only thing that I learned in making successful attacks is to make follow up attacks in the next turn against areas that are contested with a surviving enemy unit because in subsequent combats they are unable to use their special attribute again (Heroes, Ambush, Barrage and the like), so an attack is less fraught.
Before play, I went to the Revolution Games website to look for errata, there is some that seems to really be looking at clarifying terminology. Frankly, I never referred to it, I found the game rules to be very clean and I just played the rules as written, without any questions - reflecting good development by designer and Revolution Games.
This does bring me to the point that forums can create a lot of noise about games that can make games look like they are prone to errata and that is a problem for those investigating to see whether they should buy and then being put off by too many questions being posed because it is too easy to ask questions on the internet instead of just reading the rules properly .... the answers are all there! (note - I will accept that my previous exposure to area movement games and being an experienced player may help, so please do not see my comment as arrogant - but it remains the case that there is frequently too much 'noise' on forums etc concerning many of our rulebooks).
Complexity - The back of the box is unhelpful in terms of the usual game ratings that we are used to seeing. It describes the game as suitable for novices and regular players. I think that is true. Having some previous experience of how area movement games work will likely reduce the level of complexity, but really, this is a players game, the rules are tight and well presented. I would set this at the 3 or 4 level of complexity on the usual scale of 1 - 9.
Size - This is a compact game. The board sets the space parameters, being just a 4 panel fold out board .. or a half mapper in wargamer terms. This is going to be a convenient size for most players. The system uses areas rather than hexes, so even though there is a lot of unit adjacency in the game, there is plenty of room within the areas for the stacks to breathe. The gamers just needs a little space somewhere for the control and isolation markers to sit and a place to put the play aid and rules. The box depth is around 1", so is kind to shelf space.
Solitaire - Well yes, it is designed specifically as a solo game and it does this well, It left me feeling that I want to give it another go. I did in fact put this down as a face-to-face game with Mike. I took the Soviets and my only role was to roll the dice for them and calculated their defensive combat values. Since they neither move or attack, there isn’t anything else for the Soviet ‘player’ to do, but we did this so that I could introduce Mike to the system and I enjoyed ‘watching’ the game develop and it does provide a social contact and a sharing of the various combat calculations etc.
Time - The box unhelpfully just refers to fast play, which I think is fair to translate into a single session game. I have only played the first scenario, which ends on 30th September and I would pitch this at around a leisurely 2½ hours and that includes me taking pictures and notes.
In 2014, I posted an article on Multi Man Publishing’s (MMP) Area Movement game (Storm Over Stalingrad) on the Stalingrad subject. Here is a link to the article if interested in a comparison to another area movement game on the same subject. LINK
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.