Monday, April 21, 2014

Battlegame Book Series #2 of 20: World War II (Vol. 4) – Winter War

Battlegame Book #4 - World War II
Narration from a Scottish redhead...
When I was a little boy I had one of the five volumes in the Usborne Battlegame Book series by Andrew McNeil. It was called Fighting Ships (#5) and it was published in the UK in 1975.  It was chock full of pictures and helpful information on the inside, and contained four complete wargames (with pieces, rules and gameboards inside the book) that could help your imagination travel anywhere in time and space. This year, I decided to (re)collect and (re)play the entire series. And we've been playing ever since...


So in honor of the polar vortex, we decided a few weeks ago to make our second foray into the Battlegame series an entry from Volume 4 - World War II, entitled 
Winter War.

The scenario is set on the Eastern Front in 1943.  A German unit holds a town at a railroad junction.  The Soviet player is the attacker and has 12 turns to move in and occupy the village.

Of course things are never that simple.  The town has a fortified defense line with only one gap through which the Soviets can pass.  That means maneuvering behind the town to approach from the far side. (We took the liberty this time of swapping in some Axis & Allies minis instead of the game-provided pieces, but had to add some extra color complexity as there was a lot of unit variety in the order of battle - distinguishing Soviet regular infantry from ski infantry for example, or German armored units from assault guns.)

Starting positions
Partisans Found!

In addition, there are a couple of additional rules that give the scenario its added flavor. The first is a simple enough random temperature roll at the beginning of every turn. Every number on the d6 is equivalent to 5 degrees below zero. If the temperature hits 25 or 30 below, the German armor units are frozen in place, able to fire but unable to move.

The second special rule has to do with the German setup. While all of the Soviet units start the game placed on one side of the board, the German selects roughly half his units to place in the town, holding the rest off the board as reinforcements.

Meanwhile, there are five hexes surrounding the town showing explosions, on which the Soviet player places one of five random chits. Four are blank, whereas one represents partisans cutting lines of communication. The German player cannot bring his reinforcements onto the board, until after the partisans are revealed – requiring some units to expose themselves outside of the town fortifications during the Soviet approach. This is a fascinating mechanic in theory and definitely sets up a “race against time” for both player, far more than the actual 12 turn deadline.

Unit substitutions
Unfortunately, in practice it all went a bit wonky. First off, a quick read of the board will tell the German player than 4 of the 5 partisan hexes can be reached on the first turn with some vaguely simple forethought, implying an 80% chance of the reinforcements getting on the board before the race against time becomes truly relevant.

The flip side of this is that the Soviet movement rate, despite the proportion of the force being infantry of one shape or other is fast enough to reach the town roughly somewhere around turn 1.375. More or less.


So for a game designed with a 12-turn counter, an awful lot goes down on Turn One. Partisans were revealed, Commies skiied across the world. Wacky hijinks ensued.

While attacking units could combine their strengths to devastating effect, the superiority of both armor and the fortification wall became readily apparent early. The temperature clause was tripped on the second turn, just as the reinforcements were trying to enter, clogging the roads and stalling their effect on the fight.

Donny's numerical advantage made him a clear favorite by this stage, and the defensive bonus provided by the town's fortifications were the only reason my units were able to throw up any sort of defensive front whatsoever. Once my extra units finally arrived, they were easily picked off in the open field, and I re-jiggered my strategy to concentrate fire on eliminating his armored units. Shortly, the approaches were littered with burning T-34s.
"Son... Did you lose my aerial photographs?"
And then, just like that the game was over. My few remaining units were huddled in the town, awaiting the coming Red onslaught, when Donny made a quick Knowledge (Mathematics) skill check and determined that, despite still outnumbering me more than 2-1, based on the units he still had remaining on the board, there was no way he could bring sufficient firepower to bear on any of my line units to dislodge them and enter the town. Of course, he could just back up out of range, but for me to break formation would be suicidal, as it would both reduce the defensive value of my units, and expose a clear path to the town hex wherein victory lay.  Like befuddled chess players realizing they had just stumbled on an accidental stalemate, we just stared at the bored in disbelief for a bit, running through potential scenarios to resolve the deadlock, all in vain.

Ending Positions

Here is how Winter War ranked in the end:

                                    Donny         Brian
Quick to lean           3                  5
Like Siege!, the basics were easy to pick up.  I thought maybe there were too many varieties of units in play. (Normally that's something I like, but given the compact nature of the game, in this case it added an unwelcome sense of complication to the proceedings.)
Cool factor               4                  4
Winter War strove for flavor on a number of levels and achieved it.  The partisan hunting portion of the game was a nice aspect (which discourages the German player "turtling up" right away) and the cold rules definitely conveyed the historical potential for weather to complicate operations.  Plus it was just nice to be able to use tanks again.
Replayability            1                 2
Donny felt the ending accidental stalemate was a major disappointment, and one which could be all to easy to force, which soured his enthusiasm for trying the scenario again.  Personally, I felt the game was like the opposite of Siege!: units moved far too rapidly given the smallish size of the map for the game to devolve into anything really besides a scrum (a siege?) around the town outskirts by turn 4 or so.
Balance                    4                 2
The general consensus was that, at any given point in time, the game set up was pretty unbalanced.  The catch though, is that the side it's unbalanced towards swings widely back and forth, depending on the stage of the game.  We both felt the artillery units were greatly underpowered in firepower and, if valued differently, could have had a very positive efect on gameplay.

OVERALL AVERAGE                  3.125

Some relevant pages from Volume 4 - World War II

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