I AM ASHAMED. Ashamed to admit that I have only one game by designer Brian Train in my collection. Mr. Train is a very prolific designer, having published games and/or historical articles with BTR Games, Compass Games, Decision Games, Fiery Dragon Productions, Flying Pig Games, GMT Games, Hollandspiele, Lock n’ Load, Microgame Design Group, Modern Combat Studies Group, Nestorgames, One Small Step Games, Schutze Games, Simulations Workshop, Strategy Gaming Society, Steambubble Graphics, Tiny Battle Publishing and XTR Corp. He often focuses on irregular warfare, “pol-mil” games, and asymmetric games (his webpage is here). I recently played a Brian Train game and was very impressed by the narrative it created.
The one Brian Train game I have in my collection is Reichswehr & Freikorps: If the Red Army Invaded Germany, 1920 (Strategy & Tactics 273, Mar-Apr 2012, Decision Games). When I first got this game in 2012 I didn’t like it. This weekend, I pulled it off the shelf, set it up, and played. I was curious to see if I had missed something.
In 2012 I was very much a simulationist wargamer; that is, a wargamer deeply focused on the hardware. Hence my love for games like the Admiralty Trilogy-series from Admiralty Trilogy Games, the Panzer-series from GMT Games, or the Fighting Wings-series from J.D. Webster. RWFK is none of that. RWFK is, “a low-complexity, strategic-level, alternative history wargame of the conflict that would’ve resulted had the Poles been defeated by the invading Red Army in the summer of 1920.”
I am not the wargamer I was in 2012. Indeed, I am not the gamer I was in 2012. These days I play many boardgames (non-wargames) as well as wargames. One consequence of playing a wider variety of games is that I have grown to appreciate game mechanics like I never did before. An appreciation of mechanics has, in turn, allowed me to see many more games as “narratives” that teach me much as I explore them.
When I first looked at RWFK in 2012, the “low-complexity” and abstractions made in the game (Railhead Markers? With no railroads?) turned me off. Playing it this weekend I discovered a game that is a actually a tense race-against-the-clock with a neat mechanic to model decreasing Red Army effectiveness. The game neatly creates a narrative of a large, cumbersome Red Army trying to suppress the smaller, more agile German forces before time runs out.
Looking at the map, the first thing one sees is a big map apparently with low counter density. The map is 17×24 hexes for 176 counters of which only around 125 are actually units. I can still remember in 2012 being fixated on the stacking rule which allows the Germans to stack up to seven (7) divisions in each hex (8.4 German Stacking Limit). The Red Army gets to stack all units from the same army in a hex (8.5 Red Army Stacking Limit). I seem to remember my 2012 game as a series of large stacks blowing across the map and the war quickly ending with the Red Army capturing Berlin. I put the game away and rated it a mere 5.5 (little better than Mediocre – Take It or Leave It) on BoardGameGeek.
In 2018, I now see I did not give enough consideration to rules 4.0 HOW TO WIN & RED ARMY MORALE, 5.0 THE TURN SEQUENCE, and 7.0 SUPPLY & GERMAN RAILROAD MOVEMENT.
As 4.1 On to Berlin states, “The Red Army player is generally on the offensive during the game, attempting to run a campaign that will, ideally, culminate with his force’s entry into Berlin.” This ties neatly with 4.4 Winning & Losing on Victory Points which states, “In general, the player who has managed to accumulate the greatest number of victory points…is declared the winner.” Rules 4.2 City & Town Hex Control and 4.3 Red Army Southern Front Reinforcements both describe how VP are gained and lost. These rules are very straight-forward and very much what my simulationist grognard mind expects.
The rule I didn’t give enough consideration to before is 4.7 Red Army Morale. This rules is actually a “core mechanic” of the game – maybe even the most important rule. Red Army Morale (RAM) can be High, normal, or Low. When the RAM is High, all combats (offensive & defensive) gain a one-column shift in the Red Army favor. Movement factors are also increased. Conversely, when the RAM is Low, all combats suffer a one-column shift against the Red Army, and movement factors are decreased. If the RAM ever drops below zero, the Red Army is said to have “collapsed” and the German player automatically wins (4.8 Ram Collapse).
RAM is automatically reduced by 2 at the beginning of every turn. RAM is gained or lost based on the capture of Towns & Cities, as well as from the arrival or defeat of various Red Army formations. In order to maintain effectiveness, the Red Army player must go on the offensive and stay there. If the German player can stymie his actions, the Red Army will quickly lose morale and combat effectiveness. This is a neat built-in timer to pressure the Red Army player to act. In effect, RAM acts as the “game clock” in a manner possibly more effective than the Turn Record Track.
Rule 5.2 Game Turns & Player Turn Procedures is the second leg of the core mechanic. After the 5.4 Mutual Railhead Adjustment Phase conducted by both players, the game proceeds to II. Red Army Player Turn. Using a chit-pull, different Red Army Fronts are activated to conduct a Reinforcement & Movement Phase followed by a Combat Phase. At any point during a Reinforcement & Movement Phase or Combat Phase, the German player can interrupt the Red Army player and conduct his own Railroad Movement, Regular Movement, or Combat Phase. The German player only gets one of each phase in every Red Army turn so the challenge is to decide when (and in what order) the phases should be played. This mechanic neatly shows a superior German command & control ability as well as avoids an IGO-UGO turn sequence. It makes the chit-pull agonizing for the Red Army (I really need to get the Southwest Front moving!) while forcing the German player to carefully determine when is the best time in the Red Army turn to interrupt and take his action (Gotta go now before they move away!).
The third leg of game is the supply rules. 7.4 Tracing Supply Lines details what a supply line is with the most important factor being it cannot be longer than eight hexes in length. The supply line uses a mix of railhead supply sources and “ultimate” supply source hexes. The rule ties neatly with 5.4 The Mutual Railhead Adjustment Phase in which each player can place one (and only one) railhead marker in any one city or town they control that does not presently have a marker. Units don’t want to fight when out of supply (OOS) because when they are OOS movement and combat factors are halved! (7.6 Effect of Being OOS).
The combined impact of these three core mechanics is that the Red Army MUST attack while the German player has more flexibility in his campaign. The Red Army is also in a race to win before they lose combat effectiveness as symbolized by their RAM. Finally, in order to stay on that offensive, the Red Army must build supply lines deep into enemy territory. To build supply lines takes time; time the Red Army has precious little of.
But what about those stacking rules? One certainly can have large stacks race around the board, but to do so means few VP gained (to offset automatically dropping RAM) and a tenuous supply line at best. Better to spread the armies out, take more cities and towns, and build a supply net to support troops forward. The stacking rule is actually not that important as the game model encourages players to act in other ways!
In the end, RWFK is a very narrative game. Can the Red Army overcome with more units (but generally lower quality and losing effectiness over time) a smaller but more flexible German Army? To really enjoy RWFK one must embrace the abstractions. In 2012 as a simulationist wargamer I was not ready to embrace the narrative. These days I am, and I enjoy the narrative of games. My previous rating on BGG was too low and a result of a lack of appreciation for the game model. Both the rating and myself have changed. I enjoyed RWFK this weekend, and am going to seek out more games by Mr. Train. Publishers of Mr. Train’s work need to be ready because I feel a few purchases are in order!
Featured image courtesy boardgamegeek.com.