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  TRACES OF WAR FROM VUCA SIMULATIONS Traces of War takes us back to the Eastern Front and its physical contents initially made me expect a...







Traces of War takes us back to the Eastern Front and its physical contents initially made me expect a welcome return to the system used in Crossing the Line and Across the Bug River.  The sheer quality of all its components certainly puts it in the same league.  However, a quick look at the designer's name, Tetsuya Nakamura, and the fact that this is a re-tread of the Japanese magazine issue, Manstein's Last Battle, made me realise that this was a very different and simpler system.  I had encountered his system in the MMP production of A Victory Lost and like many others had both enjoyed its simplicity and playability, but not the disappointing production values.  So it's with many thanks to Vuca Simulations for providing this review copy and opportunity to explore its qualities.

Vuca Simulations have established an excellent reputation for quality and the only feature in Traces of War that has raised some criticism is the two-part map.  There are those who, relishing the company's previous beautifully mounted maps, lamented that these are paper maps.  Others have complained of the slight imperfection in matching up the two maps, though some have qualified that their concern stems from their experience of Vuca Simulations' record for perfection!  What I do like about the maps is the almost linen-like feel to them.

Personally, I've not found the matching up of the two maps anything other than a minor imperfection, especially once the Soviets start advancing into that area of the map, though I would highly recommend plexi-glass sheets that are always useful, especially where you have two-map games.  
Other than that, all other components live up perfectly to the company's customary excellence.   The three sheets of familiar rounded-corner counters are some of the best you'll find.  

Smilarly, the four charts [two identical ones for each player - another highly commendable practice] are the very thick, rigid A4-sized cardstock that also has become an expected feature.  These double-sided cards will rapidly become all you need to play the game.  Player Aid A contains a detailed sequence of play and all the necessary charts, while Player Aid B outlines all the rules and critical information.

Frankly after a turn or two, all you will really need is the single side of charts, because the rules are very easy to remember.  This is partly because they are relatively short, a mere 13 pages, but mainly because of their absolute clarity and the rule book's admirable presentation.  The pages are glossy without being too shiny, with the text set out in double-columns with plentiful illustration and examples that couldn't be easier to read because of their size.

A typical page of the rulebook
Having looked carefully at the English rules translation for the original Japanese magazine edition, I can safely say that these in Traces of War have an organisation, flow and readability very much lacking in the original. 
Sequence of Play
Luftwaffe Reorganisation Phase
This is a simple random chit-pull of German aircraft tokens that give offensive or defensive column shifts in combat.  The increasing number drawn - and there are only a maximum of four - depends on how many crossing-points the Soviet has captured.  Therefore it will be several turns before any are available.
Command Chit Selection
Both players choose which activation chits they will include this turn.  Mainly these are HQs that can activate all units within a given radius, but there is a single supply chit that is always included and the German player potentially has 2 OKH chits from turn 2 onwards and the Soviets receive a single-use airborne chit and airborne unit and may have a Stavka chit available from turn 5 onwards.  I like chit-pull activation mechanics generally and the system in Traces of War is an admirable one that is crucial to creating both the differing abilities of both sides and a substantial amount of the tension this game generates.
Action Phase
As a chit is drawn, the player has the choice for all units within the drawn HQ's command radius of either a move-combat sequence or a combat-move sequence.  I like the flexibility of choice and the variation to pace this offers the players, though as the German I would have loved the option of a move-move choice!
Both Movement & Combat are swift and easy to carry out. It's a rare pleasure to be able to remember all the terrain modifiers and movement costs in my head and the Combat Table too is very user friendly.  Most results are either R or RR - i.e. one hex or two hex retreats.  If this sounds like a very bloodless chart, don't be fooled, because a lot of that retreating will be through an enemy ZOC, each of which causes a step loss.  Imagine what might be going to happen soon to those German units in the pocket forming around Kharkov.

In terms of Phases, that's it.  Unlike most games, Supply and Reinforcements are handled not as Phases each turn, but as part of the chit pull system.  In this eight turn game, the Soviet player has six batches of reinforcements.  When he/she chooses to include the Reinforcement chit in a turn, one of those batches in numerical order will be placed on the map.  I love this further element of choice, along with the uncertainty of when in the turn they will arrive.  The ability to position them just where you most want them may perhaps be rather too powerful.  However, it is balanced by the chance that they won't arrive until they are too late to be valuable this turn.
For the German player, the reinforcement element is even more unusual and more restricted.  Just as for the Soviet player, it does depend on the inclusion of a chit in the Activation Pool.  In this case, it is the inclusion of an OKH chit and the German player has two of these chits available to include from the beginning of turn 2.   This is not the powerful tool it sounds, because the OKH chit can fulfil three different functions [1] activate an HQ [2] activate a set number of units anywhere on the board [3] provide a number of Negotiation Points to be used either to buy reinforcements or remove a Supreme Command Order.  All of those choices are going to be vying for the German player's attention every turn.  It's one of the frustrations and delights of playing the German side and for me gives a very convincing feel of what a desperate situation being the supreme commander must have been like with his nightmare of conflicting demands.  
If you're wondering what a Supreme Command Order is, it is this game's way of incorporating a version of what, in other games, are called Hitler Directives.  The six major cities on the map each holds one of these markers representing Hitler's demand that they should be held at all cost.  Should the Soviet player succeed in controlling any one of these cities while the marker is still in place, he/she wins.
As some of these will eventually be captured, the German player must at some point use Negotiation Points to remove those markers from cities where the Soviet player looks likely to seize control.   It is another simple, but hugely successful rule to ratchet up the pressure on the German player and provide a neat series of quandaries.  The German player is constantly forced to think what's the key priority now.
Supply too is governed by a Supply Chit that goes in the draw bag/cup every turn and when it is pulled out both sides check supply.  Again, I like this, though the method of checking supply definitely shows its age.  All that's needed is a line of any length free of enemy ZOCs and a few other restrictions, such as not passing through an enemy city or an unbridged major river.  

[Couldn't resist showing my favourite chit-draw bag "borrowed" from the V-Commandos game]
An additional feature that characterises the carefully thought out double-edged nature of some of my favourite rules in the game is the rule about Crossing Points of which there are six on the map.  All are located on the Dniepr that bisects the centre of the map and along which the Germans will strive to form some sort of coherent defensive line.  Their capture by the Soviets greatly aids their advance, but the corollary is that all the German bonuses [such as Luftwaffe markers, Supreme Command Negotiation Points and the value of the OKH chits] increase depending on how many the Soviets control.  This is both a clever balancing help for the Germans and a dilemma for both sides.
Before I conclude, a word about the very high solitaire value [9] given on the back of the box.

The only solitaire element in the game is the Play Aid below, which reproduces the two player charts that are printed on the opposing map edges.  This is provided so that, when you play the game solitaire by playing both sides, everything is facing you and easy to use.  As those of you know who've read other of my reviews this is my preferred way of soloing a two-player game and so I'm very happy to have such a simple resource.  But for those who want/need solo rules/bots, this is not what this game provides.

My final question is that of play balance which is already being argued about on BoardGameGeek [Ok, what game's play balance doesn't get vehemently argued about on BGG?]  The Soviets are definitely going to be doing a large percentage of the attacking and the Germans the defending.  There are two scenarios in the game: a short play of the first 4 turns and I do think that for the Soviet to accrue the necessary VPs to win is a well-nigh impossible task. However, the full game of 8 turns is the important consideration.  It is a struggle for the German player first to survive losing to an automatic Soviet victory and secondly to prevent the Soviet player gaining enough VPs to win at the end of the full 8 turns.  However, the more I play this game the more that German victory seems achievable and the more rewarding the feeling when you do!

Not one of my best efforts, as Dnipropetrovsk falls early
 to give an automatic Soviet victory

To sum up this is above all a highly playable game with short, very accessible rules.  Its components are a pleasure just to see set out and play is a tense experience, fuelled by plenty of interesting decision making for both sides.  It's a game that I strongly recommend and one that will be staying in my collection.