#Wargame Wednesday – Bonding clearly with stress free shifts determined to breakthrough narratives in Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June-December 1942 (@gmtgames, 2019)

This past week I played Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June- December 1942 as my Game of the Week. Stalingrad ’42 is a wargame designed by Mark Simonitch and published by GMT Games in 2019. It is part of Mark’s ZoC Bond Series of wargames, named in part to their unique version of Zone of Control (ZoC) rules so often used in wargames. Due to time challenges I was only able to play the eight-turn, one month Fall Blau scenario. Along the way I discovered much more about Mark’s ZoC Bond system and wargame narratives.

Bond, ZoC Bond

The unique game mechanism in Stalingrad ’42 is the ZoC Bond. In addition to the classic ZoC (all six hexes surrounding a Combat Unit) that has the usual game effects of affecting movement, those same Combat Units can also form ZoC Bonds:

7.1 How to form a ZOC Bond

Any Combat Unit in Good Order can form a ZOC Bond….When two such units (or stacks) are two hexes apart (with one vacant intervening hex) they create a bond between them that no enemy unit may enter or cross. Due to the pattern of a hex grid there are two types of ZOC Bonds—Hex Bonds and Hexside Bonds.

Stalingrad ’42, Rules of Play

ZoC Bonds have tremendous game effects in Stalingrad ’42. Units may not enter or cross a bond during movement, if forced to retreat across a bond the unit is eliminated, attacking units cannot Advance After Combat across a bond, nor can supply ever be traced into or across a bond. Thus, it is important for both players to pay close attention to where bonds exist, or don’t, and plan accordingly.

Weather, or Not

Like one would expect in a game on the Russian front, weather can have a huge impact on movement in Stalingrad ’42. However, the rules specify that the weather is automatically Clear on Turn 1-16 (late June through late August) (see rule 3.0 A. Weather Phase). This means that Minor Rivers can be crossed at no extra cost. In turn, this means that in the Fall Blau scenario Major Rivers are the primary obstacles to movement.

Interestingly, in Stalingrad ’42 all Minor River Hexsides don’t cost extra movement to cross (unless Rain) but they ALWAYS double a defender’s Defense Factors. Minor River Hexsides also halve an attackers Attack Factors if all the attackers are attacking across a Minor River Hexside while also not allowing a Tank Shift (see below).

20-40 EZ

I was surprised to see Stalingrad ’42 impose a limit of 20 Defense Factors or 40 Attack Factors in a given combat (see 8.5 Maximum Attack and Defense Factors). The designer admits in the “Design Notes” within the Play Book that, “This will be the most controversial part of the design.” Mark goes on to explain:

Some players don’t like caps, but I find them very helpful for stress-free gaming. I don’t like it when players (or myself) spend an extensive amount of time trying to find those extra few factors to increase the odds by one more column. It’s not what wargaming should be about. And there is more comfort in knowing that 7 factors in a hex will guarantee that your opponent cannot get 10-1 odds against it, and placing two 3-5-3 rifle divisions in a Stalingrad city hex is enough to prevent the Axis player getting 5-1 odds against it.

Play Book, “Design Notes,” p. 17-18

Yes, it’s controversial in my mind. Maybe Mark and I have very different definitions of “stress?” Personally, I see the hunting around for a few extra factors not stress, but a part of the game. I would argue that not imposing a limit actually encourages one to pay more careful attention to movement and organization of your force as it moves into combat. Many times I enjoy the “analysis paralysis” in a wargame, more so when its coming from an opponent who is struggling against your plan.

Tanks for the Shift

One of the most powerful combat modifiers in Stalingrad ’42 is the Tank Shift (see rule 9.2 Tank Shifts). If one or more “black dot” Tank Units participate in a combat, the owner shifts an entire column on the Combat Results Table (CRT). Elite Tank Units (“red dot”) get a 2-column shift! There are a few exceptions to the rule, but generally the game effect of this rule is that tanks act much like they historically did by bolstering the offense or defense simply by their presence. I like it!

Mark tells us that in playtesting Stalingrad ’42 the German mechanized units were too weak to reach Stalingrad. Adding extra combat strength made them too strong in cities and mountains. So instead, “I gave them an additional tank shift (the red dot)” (Play Book, p. 17). I am happy to see a simple solution to what appears was thorny problem to Mark.

Determined Defense

One of my favorite rules in Holland ’44, and found again here in Stalingrad ’42, is Determined Defense. This rule allows defenders an attempt to cancel retreat results. In Stalingrad ’42, rule 11.1.2 Not One Step Back! goes hand-in-hand with Determined Defense. This simple bit of flavor helps create a narratively dramatic first few turns as only Soviet NKVD units have access to a Determined Defense in the Fall Blau scenario (at least until Turn 8).

My Breakthrough Breakthrough

Earlier this year when playing Heights of Courage (MultiMan Publishing, 20XX), I talked about Overrun Combat and how it took me a while to truly understand the implications of even that “basic” rule. The Stalingrad ’42 counterpart to that learning experience is rule 15.0 Breakthrough Combat. This rule builds upon rule 14.0 Advance After Combat but with a twist:

Any Regular Combat that achieves an Advance After Combat of 2-4 hexes allows units that participated in that attack to conduct Breakthrough Combat. Breakthrough Combat allows units to attack during their Advance After Combat.

15.1 [Breakthrough Combat] In General

Much like Overrun and Exploitation Combat in Multi-Man Publishing’s Standard Combat Series, in Stalingrad ’42 the rules for 12.0 Retreats, 14.0 Advance After Combat, and 15.0 Breakthrough Combat combine to create a powerful effect that deliver a very “blitzkrieg” feeling in play. Indeed, in a scenario like Fall Blau where the German player has little time (8 turns) to try and grab 8 Victory Points there is great “motivation” to not slowly grind against a defense but to find a weak point, breakthrough, and rapidly exploit the opening. On the other side, the Soviet player needs to cut off those racing German units and counterattacking by striking deep at supply lines is a viable strategy as opposed to a straight-up fight.

Bring a Mask?

I want to also call out a rule found in the Campaign Game, for Stalingrad ’42—rule 34.0 Maskirovka. This rule allows the Soviet player to secretly place Reserve Armies arriving on Turn 21 of the 36-turn Campaign Game. This rule is obviously not usable in a two-handed solo game, but when playing a live opponent the implications are huge in exchange for limited rules overhead.

Fall Blau – The Narrative

I was able to play the Fall Blau scenario for Stalingrad ’42 as part of my Game of the Week series. Fall Blau is the first scenario covering eight turns and using only Map A (roughly Voronehz to Rostov). To win, the Axis player must have at least 8 VP in any Victory Determination Phase. The Soviets win if the Axis player fails.

As much as I was looking for a quick blitzkrieg, the reality of terrain, especially the Minor River Hexsides and Fortified Hexes, made movement and combat on the first turns slower than I expected. I also thought the Special Rule limiting Axis Combat Units to Tactical Movement (2 hexes) only would have a slowing effect but given so many units “start in contact” the impact was less than I expected.

What actually surprised me the most about my play of Stalingrad ’42 was the seeming lack of combat. I first noticed this in the Example of Play in the Play Book but thought that was an artificial by-product of the need to build and EoP and not a true reflection of the game. As I played, I found that although the front was long and many units were present, on each turn there seemed to be focus areas with relatively few units in action on both sides. At first I thought, “Hey, this is hardly an offensive with all these little raids going on.” As the game progressed more units were gradually sucked into battles but, on the whole, it still felt like the actual number of units fighting was small. This didn’t feel like a Russia Campaign game to me at all.

Feeling like the game was becoming boring, I started to think about the narrative that Stalingrad ’42 was delivering. I kept playing and thinking and, gradually, came to realize that my expectation of this wargame was incorrect. I went into playing Stalingrad ’42 and the Fall Blau scenario expecting a sweeping grand offensive with Panzers advancing from North to South across the steppes of Mother Russia. Instead I had a few units fighting, and many more just sitting there. It was then I realized that the narrative Stalingrad ’42 delivers is focused much differently than I expected. At this scale (Brigades, 10 miles per hex, 4-day turns) the fighting depicted in Stalingrad ’42 is not ALL the fighting, just the “most important.” I had to tell myself that although two units may be facing off against each other and no dice are rolled, that doesn’t mean they are “doing nothing.”

Once I made the mental shift that Stalingrad ’42 was showing me the “critical” parts of the battle the entire game sped up in my mind. Whereas before I felt that the game was ponderous and slow with little action, the simple shift in my mental attitude led to a dramatic shift in my enjoyment of the game. Instead of focusing on the “do-nothings” I focused instead on the “action.” The game immediately became much more interesting.

It was at this point the major game mechanics also snapped together into a story. Visualizing the ZoC Bonds became essential in planning both offensive and defensive actions. Rivers became “phase lines” or “defensive lines.” Instead of hunting around for all the combat power possible it became sufficient to get “just enough” to make the effort. Mechanized units with their Tank Shifts became vital on offense or defense, and it became a real game to decide when a Determined Defense was needed or when it was time to turn that Advance After Combat into a Breakthrough. Through the lens of these decisions, a narrative of the battle emerged in play.

Such is the power of narratives in wargames. The story a wargame tells in actually very important to my enjoyment of the game. Too often I feel I get caught up in the mechanics of a game and lose the story. That’s when a game can become too procedural—and boring. This is why I very often personally fail to connect with many Eurogames; the prioritization of game mechanics over theme often means to me that I execute game mechanics but with no motivation beyond optimizing a game engine. I place my workers there to collect something I need, not to raid the enemy. It makes the game boring to me because I start to feel like I’m solving a puzzle, not playing a strategy.

On the whole, I think wargames get shortchanged when it comes to narrative. I mean, many people expect a wargame to tell a story, but so often that story is just an alternate retelling of history. What I think many people miss is a possible narrative about not only how history can change, but why. Not every wargame can do this, but I think more can then we give credit to.

Stalingrad ’42 taught me that putting Panzers on the wide open steppes of Russia and letting them run was not as simple as it sounds. Although the Eastern Front was long and many units fought there, it really was action in key areas with a rather select set of units that made the difference.

I really need to get the other scenarios of Stalingrad ’42 to the table. Problem is it never happens soon enough.

One thought on “#Wargame Wednesday – Bonding clearly with stress free shifts determined to breakthrough narratives in Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June-December 1942 (@gmtgames, 2019)

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