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BATTLE FOR STALINGRAD From the moment that I received Battle for Stalingrad [BfS], it's been an up and down experience. At...





From the moment that I received Battle for Stalingrad [BfS], it's been an up and down experience.

At first sight it looks like a classic DVG game - the usual lovely glossy box in a dark and sombre black and steely blue with evocative illustration on the front.  But, wait a minute - Russian soldiers advancing down what looks like a vast, open road in the face of tanks in Stalingrad?  Close quarter combat, rubble, dodging in an out of buildings - well perhaps somewhere, at some point this empty boulevard might have been seen.  After all it's only atmosphere [isn't it?] - but, hang on, those Russian soldiers look nothing like any picture of  a Russian WWII soldier I've ever seen!  Tight-fitting, modern clothing and even more obviously modern helmets.  OK, suspend judgement for the moment.

What period did these soldiers come from?

Next the physical box itself.  Heft the box, much lighter and slightly shallower than usual.  Go on, open it.  Open it!  DVG boxes are noted for their quality and snug fit, so much so that they can be a bit tight to open, but this was a wrestling match.  I was seriously concerned that I'd damage the box and even now after repeated extractions, it's no easy matter to separate the two halves.  At last inside was ... a significant amount of empty space filled by a cardboard insert that nearly reaches the box lid, with a shallow, narrow trough down the centre containing three packs of cards, on top is one sheet of counters and a rule book.  A typical DVG rule book in quality of paper and lay out, but 8 pages of rules and 2 and a half pages of a sample game is amazingly brief.  A very slim rule book indeed.  No mounted board, no card displays.

This really is a departure from the expectations associated with most DVG games.  First of all it is 2 -player only, unlike the predominantly solitaire games that DVG are noted for.  Its components consist of a set of ten cards that give you famed locations from the Battle for Stalingrad, a small deck of Force cards for each player and a much larger deck of Action cards for each player too.  The single sheet of counters are Rubble and Ration markers and what look like a small number of control markers, but are in fact Heroic Medals, earned by destroying all the enemy forces in a battle and controlling the location; such a medal is awarded to one of your own unit cards to strengthen its abilities.

So far, so uncertain.  Next for the cards - DVG are good at getting cards right and these are as right as right can be.  Every single one of the 168 contains a reproduction of an historical photo.  Even considering that, where there is more than one of the same card [e.g. the five Russian reinforcement cards], the same photo is duplicated, the game is almost worth having just for the cards to look at!  Also, that road those reinforcements are motoring down is sooo wide I've got too revise my view on some of the box art too!

The broad boulevards of Stalingrad?

The ten terrain cards that you will be randomly choosing from to form your five target locations cover all the most famous sites: the Grain Elevator, Pavlov's House, the all-important high ground of Mamayev Kurgan, the Red Barricades Factory and so on.  In how many tactical games have I fought over Pavlov's House, but to actually have a photograph to aim for is something else. 

Every card tells a story - it's that house!

I particularly like the inclusion of the two airfields, Pitomnik and Gumrak, that were so important for German supply, especially the inclusion of Gumrak airfield [which now lies under part of Volgagrad International Airport] and was the last of the seven airfields to be retaken by the Russians.  Finally each of the 27 Force cards also has its own individual picture.

Another of my favoured locations.

One of my major concerns was the lack of any mounted board.  Instead, the layout of the cards forms the playing area in a five card by five card grid.  The top row is the Russian Perimeter Area and the next row is the Russian Control Area, the centre row is where you place five of the ten building cards randomly selected, the 4th and 5th rows mirror the Russian layout but this time for the German player.  If this sounds familiar, it will be if -like me -you possess the game, Hell of Stalingrad, published by Clash of Arms in 2009.

Obviously, this feature of the cards creating both the playing area and the forces involved has been used in many other games, especially the fantasy genre of games.  Here the format is at its simplest and slickest and the fact that it is so simple is not a criticism.  It means that the few pages of rules are quickly and easily assimilated and all the focus is on playing the game and not thumbing through endless pages to check.  Consequently, this is a game that can be put on the table after a considerable period of time and you'll still be ready for play almost immediately.

So, how does a typical game play out.  First randomly select your five objective location cards - obviously, if you wish to, there's nothing stopping you choosing your favourite locations. [Can't help wanting to sneak in Pavlov's House.]  The Russian player then selects 11 pts worth of Force Cards [costs range from 1 to 4] and places them in any of the Perimeter or Control zones.  As a player wins by controlling all five locations at the end of their turn and the German player will take their turn first, I would say that it's important that the Russian player mainly occupies Control zones.  The Russian player also draws 10 Action Cards.

One of the strongest of the German Force cards

Then the German player selects 9 pts of Force Cards and draws 5 Action Cards.  He/she then deploys their Forces in any of their Perimeter zones.  Each Zone can hold up to three Force Cards [except for Pavlov's House, where each side can field only one Force.]  It's especially important to remember that, when a Force Card is first placed, it has a specific number of Rations marked on the card that are placed with it.  These Rations fuel so much of what happens in the game and represent far more than the basic meaning of "ration". 

A typical starting lay-out

First of all, to move a Force from one location to another costs a Ration.  Each Force that wishes to attack must also spend one Ration.  As you can imagine your supply of rations will soon be depleted and a single fresh Ration token can be gained at the beginning of your turn by each of your Forces, only if it is in a Perimeter zone or controls a Location card.

There are a limited few other ways of gaining rations, such as playing a Raid Action card to steal 2 rations from the enemy to give to your own troops.  Played at the right time this can be a life saver or the means to put just that extra bit of pressure on the enemy.

A feature of the game that I find very appealing is the fluidity of your turn.  Movement, Combat, buying Force cards, playing Action cards can all be combined and repeated in any sequence you wish, Forces can be moved and fight and move and fight again.  All this is purely dependent on how far you wish to deplete your rations and Action cards. 

Equally important, and again I would consider it a strength of the game, is the variety of uses for the Action cards.  They can be played for their text or used to buy new Force cards; they are played in Battle to add to your Fire power or subtract from the enemy's Fire power.  It is the age old dilemma: you will want them for everything, but can only choose one use! 

One of the many Action Cards

A knowledge of the cards is important, but a couple of games should have you well aware of the range and potential.  On the Russian side, the six Action cards that relate to Operation Uranus will often play a significant role.  They all come with a play cost for the Russians, but with a far more powerful harmful effect on the German player which is permanent, unless the German player pays an even more painful higher cost to remove them from play.

One of six important Operation Uranus cards

Play at the right time can be crucial to Russian victory

Play balance has had some criticism, but the number of those who believe the Germans have a lock on winning seems about the same as those who think the Russians have a similar lock on winning.  So that's one sort of balance, in a way.  For myself, I'm perfectly happy, having had victories and defeats playing both sides.

Initially, I found the game rather repetitive and drawn out, but I would strongly recommend persevering, as I've found the game really has grown on me.  One of the reasons for this is the Combat system, one of the game's strongest elements.  It is highly interactive with both players able to continue to add in cards to increase their own fire or decrease their opponents.  When both players have ceased this exchange of fire, a final unknown Action card is turned up from each player's deck and its modifier applied.  This last minute uncertainty is an effective touch. 

It is rare for both sides not to take some losses.  The number of hits inflicted can be reduced by one for each ration that you are willing to spend and every unit that retreats from the battle to its rear Perimeter zone cancels another two hits.  Despite this, when faced with possibly about 15 hits, wiping out three enemy forces is certainly achievable.  Occasionally, both players may find their forces wiped out. 

While on the topic of combat, I would strongly recommend either downloading Nagato Fuyibashi's excellent little chart for tracking hits for both sides from the Battle for Stalingrad site on BGG or creating a simple one of your own.  It really does make remembering the numbers easy and the battles swift to play out.

For those who believe purely card based games are just about hand management, that may be how you will perceive this game too.  But give it a try.  As you desperately try to cling on to a position or throw the last few points on your Action cards into overwhelming the defence or when you cannot decide whether you can afford to abandon 6 rations in order to cancel a particular Operation Uranus card,  I hope you'll get the same sense of tension and narrative feel as I do from playing Battle for Stalingrad.


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