#Wargame Wednesday – Battle for Kursk (@RBMStudio1, 2020) – Bigger on the Inside

When I saw the advertisement for C3i Magazine (Issue Nr. 34) and the feature game of Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 the first thought that came to my mind is the Battle of Prokhorvka. I recalled the words of David Glantz and Jonathan House in their seminal work The Battle of Kursk (University Press of Kansas, 1999):

The mythology has accepted the German framework and defintion of the battle and maintains that it took place from 5-23 July 1943….This myth argues that Kursk was a battle of tank against tank, that Kursk was the famous battle of Prokhorovka and little else, that the tank clash at Prokhorovka was the greatest tank battle in history and Prokhorovka was the field where Germany’s wartime fate was determined.

Glantz & House, The Battle of Kursk, p. xii
Courtesy goodreads.com

So imagine my surprise upon spreading out the contents of the Battle for Kursk and discovering a map that covers almost the entire Eastern Front in 1943. Imagine my surprise in finding a wargame where each turn is 2-4 weeks, meaning the entire “Battle for Kursk” is only two turns of 12 in this game. Where are the Tiger tanks? What is this abomination?

Battle for Kursk at setup…where is Prokhorovka? (Photo by RMN)

This is Not the Battle You Are Looking For…

Above I talked about the German myth of Kursk. All too often we also ignore the Soviet myth that Glantz and House also discuss:

Yet the sheer drama of the battle juxtaposed against the limited quantities of exploited Soviet source materials has given rise to a certain mythology that has surrounded the battle….In doing so, it ignores the essential Soviet framework for Kursk, which placed the defensive battle in the Kursk salient within the proper context of the Soviets’ two-month-long Kursk Strategic Offensive Operation.

Glantz & House, The Battle of Kursk, p. xi-xii

Battle for Kursk is NOT about the tank battles around Kursk. As much as I was expecting it this is not a competitor with Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, 1943 – Kursk 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019) or other tactical armored combat games on that topic. With each turn representing 2-4 weeks and the map covering the entire frontage of German Army Group Center and South, the battles around Kursk are just one part of a far larger campaign played out here. Battle for Kursk clearly and heavily leans into a “mythbusting” interpretation of the Battle of Kursk through the use of a relatively simple game design with a very interesting Posture mechanic to show the ebb and flow of not a battle but a huge campaign.

A “Family” Wargame

Battle for Kursk is the first volume in what Rodger MacGowan is calling the C3i Combined Arms Series. Designer Trevor Bender admits that Battle for Kursk uses very similar mechanics to Battle for Moscow (found as a free downloadable in C3i Magazine Issue Nr. 25, not 24 as listed in the Battle for Kursk rules) and Objective: Kiev (C3i Magazine Issue Nr. 26). I have seen Battle for Moscow before; indeed, the Victory Point Games or a print-n-play version is often trotted out at the CONNECTIONS professional wargaming conference as an example of a very easy-to-teach/learn wargame to get people started in the field of professional wargaming. The fact that Battle for Kursk is built upon the foundations of Battle for Moscow (which goes all the way back to a 1986 Frank Chadwick design at GDW) means the game has proven “chops.” That said, Battle for Kursk is a different game built using this proven foundation.

You Need to Work on Your Posture…

The majority of the game design in Battle for Kursk is in many ways a simple, classical approach to a wargame. Each player alternates executing their turn which is composed of four phases; Replacement, Armor & Rail Movement, Combat, and Movement. Replacement awards Infantry or Armor Replacement Points that can be used to replace step losses or rebuild units. Armor & Rail Movement allows armor units to move and Infantry to “strategically redeploy” if on a rail line. Combat uses a classic combat odds mechanic with no die roll modifiers but column shifts instead. Movement is for all units and references a simple Terrain Effects Chart.

The innovative enhancement that Battle for Kursk includes is an additional segment at the start of the Sequence of Play – the Posture Selection Segment. Here each player secretly choses their Posture for the turn. Possible choices are Pause, Reposition, Deploy, and Engage. Each posture in Battle for Kursk has advantages and limitations:

  • Pause – Delivers additional replacements but does not allow any form of movement or combat; you only execute your Replacement Phase.
  • Reposition – Delivers your replacements as listed and allows you to move; execute your Replacement and Movement phases only.
  • Deploy – Reduces the number of Armor Replacement Points but allows one to execute all phases of their turn except Combat.
  • Engage – Reduces both Infantry and Armor Replacement Points but allows one to execute ALL phases of their turn – Replacement, Armor & Rail Movement, Combat, and Movement.

There are limits here. In Battle for Kursk you can always choose any Posture lower than your current but you can only go up one step in Posture every turn unless you use an Offensive chit (see below). Also, if you get “caught” where your opponent declares Engage while you are in a Pause, you can use an Offensive chit to change to Reposition.

Another important mechanic in Battle for Kursk is the Offensive chits. In addition to their uses above to change Posture, these chits (each side only has three) can be “expended” for additional replacement points or used in combat to allow non-adjacent units of the same formation to participate in the fight. The rarity of the Offensive chits (they become non-expended according to a schedule on the Turn Track) makes every use an agonizing decision.

Posturing Play

The Battle for Kursk starts in March 1943. The first four turns, labeled Turns A-D, are in many ways the lead-up to the historical start of Operation Citadel. If the German player does not chose the Engage Posture on Turn 1 or any prior turn, a Strategic Objective marker which starts German-side up on Kursk and awards an extra Victory Point if that city is taken is instead flipped to its Soviet side and moved to Kiev to signify the loss of strategic initiative to the Soviets. This puts pressure on the German player to fight which is harder than it sounds for one quickly discovers that replacements don’t come fast enough or units are not in the right place and to get a better chance in combat means the use of Offensive chits which are so useful but in short supply. It becomes vitally important that both players control the ebb and flow of the battle by carefully managing their Posture selection.

Beyond the rules for Posture and the Offensive chits the rest of Battle for Kursk is kinda vanilla, but definitely the sweet kind. The game uses Zones of Control, has rules for Mud, and advance after combat. There are no specific supply rules, but at several points in a turn units may have to check to see if they are In Communication to allow an action (or prevent a column shift). Victory in Battle for Kursk is very straightforward; control of Victory Point cities, a bonus for inflicting more casualties, and that Strategic Objective marker.

Mr. Bender thoughtfully provides a Historical Posture table in his Designer’s Notes for Battle of Kursk. If you study the table, you discover the Germans only “Engaged” three turns between mid-March and early-November 1943. The Soviets “engaged” five turns which covers their historical offensives of Operation Kuznetsov (12 July -18 August), Operation Rumyantsev (3-23 August), and Operation Suvarov (7 August – 2 October). Historically speaking, half the game of Battle for Kursk has NO COMBAT.

“Historical Posture” Table from Battle for Kursk (RBM Studio, 2020)

You won’t miss it. That’s because in Battle for Kursk the Posture Selection Segment is the heart of the game. Knowing when to pause, when to ramp up, and when to fight becomes just as more important than actual combat. Combat is the culmination of your plans, not the heart of them. To be successful in combat you have to “set the conditions” and skillful management of your Posture is the key.

Clean Sweep

A few words on component quality of Battle for Kursk. “Clean design” comes to mind when I talk about the game mechanics, but when talking about the components I have just one word:

Incredible.

Charles Kibler’s 22″x34″ map is gorgeously simple. In additional to the map the side area has every table, chart, or track needed for play – for both players. The rule book shows the care and attention developer Harold Buchanan gave the game, and the Art Direction by Rodger MacGowan is evident on every page for the 16-page rule book which uses color in very useful ways, is nicely illustrated, but is also deceptive. Deceptive in that the rules for Battle For Kursk are very compact coming taking up 11 of the 16 pages with the balance being the cover and Designer’s Notes along with a 2-page interview of the designer.

Finally, a word about the countersheet in C3i Magazine Nr. 34. Traditionally, I am a counter-clipper. I cannot stand tufts on the corner of my counters or corners that have become undone/unglued as they are punched out of the sheet. When I opened my copy of C3i Magazine Nr. 34 all the counters were in the tree, but as I started punching them out I couldn’t help but notice how cleanly they fell. Of the 114 counters for Battle for Kursk, I find not one with tufts on the corners, and really only two have separated corners (my fault, as they were falling out so cleanly I was getting excited and tried to go faster which didn’t help). I played this game using the counters as they fell, a true exception for me in the hobby these days.

Sitting Up Straight…

I am looking forward to future titles in the C3i Combined Arms Series. I am interested in seeing the use of the Posture Selection and Offensive chits in other theaters. In the meantime though, I’m going to get Battle for Kursk to the table a few more times and explore not just the battles of Kursk and Prokhorovka, but the entire 1943 spring-summer campaign. Trevor Bender has given us a useful tool to explore some of the major what-ifs, like what might have happened if Operation Zitadel was launched in May instead of July.

The innovative of mechanics and focus on posture makes Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 worthy of attention. It’s well worth it if you sit up and take notice.

5 thoughts on “#Wargame Wednesday – Battle for Kursk (@RBMStudio1, 2020) – Bigger on the Inside

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