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BLOODY STEPPES OF CRIMEA 1854 BY STRATEGEMATA As promised this review stands at the opposite end of the scale to my previous ...






As promised this review stands at the opposite end of the scale to my previous one on The War of the Worlds.  This package from the Polish company, Strategemata, presents the three famous battles of the Crimean War and harks back in several ways to earlier products of the heyday of hex and counter simulations.

In part I was fascinated by the rarity with which this conflict has been gamed.  My first gaming encounter with this period was many years ago with GDW's Crimea [pub. 1975], a largely strategic game, but with an odd, and not altogether satisfactory, substrata to fight these individual battles.  However, my best experience was with SPI's Quad Crimean Battles [pub. 1978] containing four folio sized maps to fight all three of the battles offered by Strategemata, plus Tchernaya River.  I have to say that I played these battles repeatedly, as like all SPI's Quad games they were presented with a simple basic set of rules with  a few minor additions to reflect small individual elements of each battle.  

Bloody Steppes of Crimea couldn't be more different.  It comes with one full sized map with the Battle of the Alma on one side and Balaclava on the other, while Inkerman has its own folio size map.  These maps are glossy and on fairly thin stock.  As I tend to store virtually all my papers flat, the effect of refolding them doesn't tend to be a worry, but I doubt these would stand much folding.  The landscape depicted is largely bare.  Most notable are the colours used to depict the changes in elevation, with only a few other features, particularly the river that gives its name to the Battle of The Alma, but unfortunately, the hex numbering is very heavy and prominent, as can be seen in the photo below..

The maps particularly have a slightly dated appearance to them, but the muted colours work well with the strong, bright colours of the counters.  These are on the thin side which perhaps reflects their being the product of a small independent company.  However, in terms of detail and illustration they are clear with a wide variety of images and the key information of formation and numerical values easy to see and interpret.

They have been so strongly die-cut that about 70 had fallen out of their frames when I initially opened the box and this certainly caused problems of identifying the organisation of brigades and divisions that they belonged to.  At this point, Strategemata were extremely helpful in emailing me photocopies of the countersheets that helped me piece together the original layout of the counters.

Nevertheless problems are still compounded by the fact that there is no overall play aid that identifies the organisation of the units.  Instead each battle has its own separate Order of Battle and its a slow process putting together exactly which units are needed.  The colour bar at the top of some of the counters is a help and essential in play for identifying brigade level formations for activation purposes, but there are many units that operate at corps or army level that add to the complexity - and I'd strongly advise that this is a complex game system in all respects.  This is something I'll return to in my conclusion.

The rulebook is a substantial document and needs careful reading.  By and large the translation for the English rules is fluent, though occasional omission of words and questionable use of the intended preposition makes meaning at time a little unsure. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that small, but important points don't always occur in the main rule book, but in the short individual battle pamphlets.  For example, it is there that you will find which units are at corps or army level.  Even more significant is that some units have a counter that is used in one battle and replaced by a stronger/weaker one in a different battle.

The text is presented in double columns of small, dense text often in lengthy sentences and numbered according to the familiar case system using Roman numerals for the fifteen major sections labelled as Chapters with often as many as 54 subsections, but interspersed with separately numbered side headings.

As you can imagine there is a significantly large amount of reading and assimilating to get through, before you are anywhere near ready to start playing.  Though there are a reasonable number of examples, they are all in black and white and for the depth of rules  several more would have been very helpful.  My advice is to break out a small number of counters for each side and set them up on the Alma map to work through many of the rules.

As you do so, these are some of the key features of the game that you will encounter.  First of all a detailed Command system takes us from the supreme Commander down though Wing/Corps Commanders to Divisional and Brigade level with written orders to be followed.  There is a good degree of flexibility with many leaders able to roll against their own initiative to change orders.  Following the practice in many games with this type of system, a player needs to decide in advance whether to allow a senior leader to attempt to  change orders or wait and allow individual subordinate leaders to roll individually.

A feature I've always enjoyed in some games of this level is the presence of dispatch riders who operate on the turn track in covering shorter distances to transmit orders, but for longer distances actually appear moving across the map.  Alongside this is an intriguing idea that was new to me and that is that accompanying the order a specific vector of 60 degrees must be designated and a specific number of hexes that must be travelled by the leader in question.  Once that destination is reached by the leader the order automatically changes to a Defense order until a new order is issued. 

This information is handled on specific charts that accompany each individual battle.  On one side is the order of battle and the hex set-up for the units, on the other is a display for the strength of each unit and a display for each leader to mark the vector/distance and order.  Unless you're going to photocopy the chart and employ a pencil and rubber, I'd suggest you need to either laminate the chart so that you can use a dry-wipe pen or create your own separate display just for orders.

The chart for the battle of Balaclava
Along with this admirable element is the familiar and popular chit draw for selecting which formation is the next to be activated.  Again some nice tweaks have been added to how this system works.   Each side places a chit for each formation in play into a separate draw cup, but the player with fewer formations adds enough blank chits to match his opponent's total.  One side may not activate more than two formations in a row, the first is drawn randomly [except for the very first activation in a turn], while the 2nd one has to be chosen and rolled for.    

Even these early rules have some depth to them, but the picture that builds up as you progress at times feels formidable.  Any system that employs a variety of formations, as here, inevitably adds to the depth of rules.  By choosing unit strength charts rather than Strength points printed on the counters, one aspect of such complex systems is avoided and that is the use of a plethora of formation markers. Instead change of formation can be covered by simply flipping a counter to its appropriate side. The only exception is infantry entering square formation.  That is a real plus.

However, one downside of various formation types is inevitably a highly detailed movement chart which, even with repeated playings needs frequent referral.  Making things even more difficult is the fact that many of the basic costs as well as the additional costs for hexside and elevation change involve 0.5 of a movement point.  The difficulty is not just in remembering the cost, but the actual maths needed to carry out movement slows the game down considerably.
With a detailed movement chart comes a similarly detailed combat modifier chart based on terrain, plus modifiers for range.  Add on separate charts for Infantry Fire, Artillery Fire and Melee modifiers. And all this is after you've wrestled with the rules detailing how to conduct Fire, Melee [wonderfully titled Attacking With Cold Steel], Cavalry Charge and Counter-Charge, Visibility [oh no line of sight, as always is not an easy task] et al.

There is just so much to get your head round.  Exceptions because of formation, type of unit [e.g. skirmishers and French Zouaves]. effects of disorganisation and rout.  Everything familiar is here and much that is innovative. especially the lack of ZOCs and the ability of the enemy to react when a unit moves adjacent.

In consequence, you have a game that takes considerable time to accommodate mastering all the rules and gives one of the most highly detailed levels of play that I've engaged with.  As a result this is game that can take considerable time to play, depending on your choice of battle.  

If you feel that you can take on the challenge, I would suggest the Battle of Balaclava as your starting point.  It has the lowest unit density and the fewest additional rules.  Follow up with Inkerman, again low unit density and some fairly fragile British units supported by more powerful French ones , though with some of the more detailed additional rules.  Finally, the first major battle of the Crimean War, the Battle of the Alma should be tackled last.  Everything is in there and in large numbers that you can see below.

The Battle of the Alma

My conclusion is that this is a simulation very much for experienced hex and counter players - what in gamespeak are usually labeled as "grognards".  Having served 43 years in the ranks of historical board game players, I still found several concepts challenging to get to grips with and for complexity level I think a comparison with at least the La Battaille series is appropriate.  There is certainly little out there on the Crimean War and for depth and detail I doubt that it is likely to be rivalled or surpassed.  

Many thanks to Strategemata for supplying the review copy and for their very friendly support.  

Purchase cost in UK ranging from £47.99 to £54.99