Wargame SITREP 230326 N3 Ops – My Winning Wasn’t in the Cards in Campaign: Fall Blau (Catastrophe Games, 2023)

Looking strictly at the title, Campaign: Fall Blau (Martin Melbardis, Catastrophe Games, 2023) looks like oh-so-many other East Front wargames. I mean, just how many times can one replay the 1942 German offensive against the Soviet Union? Just how many times does one want to bang their head against that immoveable brick wall of Stalingrad? The answer, especially for those Grognards who have given up, should be “One more time!” with Campaign: Fall Blau.

Going Blau

Not your Dad’s panzer pusher

The publisher’s blurb for Campaign: Fall Blau is quite simple:

Campaign: Fall Blau is a solitaire wargame that takes place during WW2 and puts the player in charge of the German summer offensive of 1942 in Southern Russia, code named operation Fall Blau. Pick your three generals and use your resources wisely in order to obtain your campaign’s objectives.

One month turns. Decide which card (objective) to go after, each with a unique set of Soviet defences. Manage supplies required for each offensive, or choose to take an operational pause. Receive random event cards that are mostly beneficial but a few are Soviet counterattacks that can throw a serious monkey-wrench into your plans.

Play continues until the snows begin, and the Russian winter ends all further attacks.

Campaign: Fall Blau publisher’s page

Campaign: Fall Blau is about as far away in game design from a classic hex & counter wargame as one can get. First, it is a solo game. Second, it does not use hexes or counters, instead opting for a “Frontline Board,” cards, and cubes (oh my!).

I pledged my support in the late 2022 Kickstarter campaign for Campaign: Fall Blau. Catastrophe Games projected a delivery date of April 2023. I am very happy to report that my copy arrived in late March 2023, effectively a month early.

I received my copy of Campaign: Fall Blau on a Friday evening which gave me time to read the eight pages of rules. I was up early the next rainy day which gave me a chance to play before the family awoke.

Fall Blau kicks off (yes, the wrong Campaign card is shown; corrected at game start)

Op orders

Setting up Campaign: Fall Blau is fast and easy. The rules are very straight-forward with each turn consisting of a few steps performed in sequence.

  1. Adjust the Calendar (advance the turn track).
  2. Ready Generals (refresh).
  3. Draw Events (usually two cards).
  4. Issue Orders (one for each General; exhausted when ordered).
    • Advance (bring new Campaign card to Frontline).
    • Attack! (combat).
    • Consolidate (replenish).
  5. Local Soviet Counter-Attacks (the empire strikes back).

The heart of Campaign: Fall Blau are the Campaign cards. These cards represent the progress of the campaign. One Campaign card (Voronezh) starts “unlocked” and is eligible for the Advance order which brings it to the Frontline where your Generals can attack it using the Attack! order. As Campaign cards are advanced, they unlock new Campaign cards. Victory Points (VP) are scored for capturing each Campaign card. To win you must capture enough Campaign cards to score a certain amount of VP before the end of the game when the Soviet Winter Offensive begins.

Event cards in Campaign: Fall Blau usually are a bonus for the German player, awarding extra grey cubes (reinforcements/replacements) or supply. Many also have a game effect. Some cards are Soviet game effects. Certain cards have “STOP” on them which mean they are resolved immediately.

Combat in Campaign: Fall Blau is very simple. Each General card has a number of grey cubes depicting its current strength. When issued an Attack! order, the player rolls a number of d6 equal to the number of cubes (subject to adjustments based on Event cards). Each roll of [3] or more removes one enemy red cube. If a [1] is rolled, the General loses a grey cube. When all the cubes are removed from a Campaign card the card is “captured” and VP scored. During a Local Soviet Counter-Attack, a number of d6 equal to the number of red cubes on the Campaign card are rolled with every [1] removing a grey cube from the opposing Generals card. Simple rules are included to cover attacks in mountains or cities that modify the to-hit rolls. All told, combat in Campaign: Fall Blau is easy to learn and quick to resolve.

Supply is of importance in Campaign: Fall Blau but the game mechanisms used are simple—no Pasta Rule here! To Advance a Campaign card to the Frontline takes supply; Panzer armies can spend extra supply to Advance a second Campaign card. Attacking uses supply (sometimes more than one). Some Event cards or captured Campaign cards add to supply. The Consolidate order adds supply.

History isn’t always kind

My first play of Campaign: Fall Blau started out rather well, or so I thought. The Campaign cards form two “trees” which loosely represents the southern advance through Rostov and a northern advance through Stalingrad. As the Campaign cards were unlocked I weighted my effort on the southern advance which has weaker armies (fewer red cubes on Campaign cards) but also fewer VP. In retrospect, I also played a bit too conservatively and was slow to Advance new Campaign cards and maybe took the Consolidate order too often.

[A closer look at the Campaign cards in Campaign: Fall Blau reveals that in order to win you basically must “run the deck” and capture nearly all. Challenging, and in many ways reflective of the tall order coming down from high command.]

Unlocking two axis of advance

I started realizing the error of my campaign approach in the Early September turn and tried to accelerate my offensive. That’s when disaster struck. In an effort to push faster I exhausted a weakened German First Panzer Armee under von Kleist. This looked to be an acceptable risk as there was no opposing Soviet Campaign card facing von Kleist so a Local Soviet Counter-Attack was not possible. The next turn, however, saw the Event card “Soviet Air Offensive” appear which has the following immediate action: “This one-time attack targets a single General like a Major Counter-Attack card. Roll [3d6] attack dice and each roll of [1] or [2] removes a [grey cube].”

The result? Von Kleist was wiped out and the General card removed from the game. From this point on I had only two Generals facing the Soviets.

The early October German disaster

Needless to say the rest of this game of Campaign: Fall Blau didn’t go so well. Right when I started facing the strongest of the Soviet defenses (the Stalingrad tree of the Campaign cards) I was doing so with one less Frontline General. By the time the Soviet Winter Offensive kicked off I had only scored 24 VP (minus 2 VP for the wiped out von Kleist) which was short of the 27 needed for a minimal victory.

Fall Blau goes red at end of game

Play ’til you’re blau?

While a very simple game, Campaign: Fall Blau has much replayability built into the design. When setting up the game, you chose three of the eight German General cards to play with. Each General has different strengths and abilities. You can also vary the effort given to the two trees of Campaign cards. The random draw of Event cards also ensures that no game is ever like another. Finally, Campaign: Fall Blau offers two additional Game Modes. The “Hard Mode” adds four extra Event cards that will greatly challenge you as the German player. The second additional game mode is called “Mission Mode” which adds specific missions you must complete each month for bonus VP or supply.

Replay is in the cards (from top left to right Campaign, Mission, General, and Event cards)

Making the case for Blau

In the Designer Notes for Campaign: Fall Blau, Martin Melbardis discusses the design goal of the game and how it tries to marry game mechanisms to history:

My primary design goal was to make a light solitaire wargame with some elements of resource and hand management but most importantly tough decisions. These choices start even with the initial selection of three German Generals to lead your armies and continues throughout the game by forcing a fine balance of resource, risk, and time management. The German High Command during this Campaign was severely hampered by these factors and this is exactly what I wanted to depict in the game.

Campaign: Fall Blau, Designers Notes

Robert Goralski and Russell W. Freeburg, in their book Oil & War: How the Deadly Struggle for Fuel in World War II Meant Victory or Defeat (Marine Corps University Press, 2021) have an excellent short description of the German 1942 offensive. Reading “Chapter 11: German Bleeds for Oil – The Caucasus and Stalingrad” the game Campaign: Fall Blau practically drips from the pages:

With barely enough fuel to move and only small quantities in reserve, Hitler began the second phase of the offensive on 28 June. Newly formed Army Group A was charged with capturing the Caucasian oil fields and pushing to the Turkish and Iranian frontiers. Army Group B was to establish a flanking defensive line to the northeast along the Don River, southward from Voronezh, through Stalingrad (now Volgograd), to the Caspian Sea.

Oil & War, p. 188
Campaign cards with two routes of advance for Army Groups A & B

The flow of the campaign and various allies are also reflected in the make up the the cards in Campaign: Fall Blau. For example:

Army Group A was to occupy the entire eastern coastline of the Black Sea and drive to Grozny and Baku in the Caspian Sea. The drive to the Caspian meant penetrating the Caucasian range. German mountain units, supplemented by Romanian Mountain and Italian Alpine corps, were ordered forward for the final stages of the operation, the more accessible fields of Maikop in the northwest Caucasus region were ordered to be “quickly occupied.”

Oil & War, p. 189
Mountainous Grozny and Maikop with Romanian and Italian allies

Of course, Hitler changed his mind and what was supposed to be a supporting effort, the advance on Stalingrad, instead became a major effort:

As a result of Hitler’s modified orders, previously concentrated power was diffused. Seeking two major objectives at the same time, Hitler was to achieve neither. Stalingrad became equal to the Caucasus, and Army Group B would no longer merely protect the flank of Army Group A.

Oil & War, p. 189

This change of priority is reflected in the Victory Point value of the Campaign cards for Stalingrad. Indeed, the 13 VP in the Stalingrad cards are nearly half the VP needed for a minimal victory.

Stalingrad Campaign cards for 13 VP

Even the Luftwaffe has a role to play in Campaign: Fall Blau for combat or supply. In combat: “The Luftwaffe, which previously had acted only in support of ground forces, was directed to bring about ‘the early destruction of the city of Stalingrad'” (Oil & War, p. 189). For supply: “Because oil supplies were running dangerously low for the panzers, an emergency airlift was begun, again diverting from strictly combat missions” (Oil & War, p. 189). In Campaign: Fall Blau the Luftwaffe Support cards can be played for a combat bonus or to gain supply.

Air support

It is interesting to see just how on can set up Campaign: Fall Blau to reflect a situation very close to the historical. Take this passage from Oil & War for instance and see an approximate “game state” in the photo below:

Without significant resistance, the Germans on 5 August captured Voroshilovsk-Stavropol, astride rail and pipeline connections between the Dagnestan oil fields and Rostov. Four days later, Maikop, center of the lesser though important oil fields, was taken on the Black Sea side of the Caucasian peninsula. The First Panzer Army continued its advance, reaching the rim of the Caucasian range, while Fourth Panzer Army units moved to within 113 km of the Caspian Sea on the Kalmyk Steppe.

But Hitler’s thinking was clouded by the symbolism of Stalingrad, not strategic considerations. Increasingly, Hitler wanted to seize the city named for his chief adversary…

Oil & War, p. 190
“Historical” situation?

Fall (Blau) all over again

Campaign: Fall Blau will certainly be getting more replays. Not only is the game fun, it is also a great example of non-traditional wargame design. There is much strategy depth is this little design. An easy-to-learn and quick-to-play wargame with a rich historical feel is something of a rarity in the hobby wargame niche. Thanks to Martin Melbardis and Catastrophe Games for bringing Campaign: Fall Blau to gaming tables to help fill that void.

Feature image courtesy RMN

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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