Rundstedt Attacks!

For the last couple of weeks my solitaire boardgaming has been taken up exclusively with Scenario Three – Rundstedt Attacks! – from Barbarossa Army Group South. I am glad that I played the two previous (smaller) scenarios first, as they were a good introduction to this one which features more space, more tanks, and more challenges.

The scenario is on one map, and is about the initial attacks through the Lvov Gap. There are several special rules to replicate the historical limits on the forces and both players have much to do. The Axis player has to secure the Victory Point (VP) hexes and destroy enemy tank and artillery units. The Soviet player has to hold the VP hexes and destroy enemy tank, artillery, or motorized division units.

I played the scenario to a conclusion twice with a win for each side. My general impression is that the Axis player has to push hard and take risks to be in with a chance of victory.  However, since I haven’t played enough to be anywhere near a good level of play, don’t take that assessment of balance too seriously. In these games,  I am less interest in perceived balance and more bothered about historicity: does the game offer a reasonable simulation of the actual campaign? To make a worthy assessment of that, I would need to devote more time than I have. So, this is not a worthy assessment; rather, it’s a gut feeling, personal opinion. And the assessment? I think it does a good job.

With only six turns, this is a reasonably short and accessible glimpse as to what the East Front system offers. I wanted to record, for my own sake, some observations. Please note, I am not trying to cause offence or suggest the game is broken. (Far from it.) I appreciate the effort that goes into these games and am grateful for the opportunity to play them.

So, without further delay, here’s what I liked:

  • Complexity level. This is not a difficult system to play. There are exceptions to rules and some raw edges, but on the whole it’s pitched at exactly the right level for me.
  • Force differentiation. The sequence of play is not symmetrical. The way you get the best out of the Axis forces is different from what you need to do with the Soviet forces.
  • Force representation. The Axis forces are powerful, but not overly so. And the Soviets have some pretty powerful units of their own.  The game does not pander to the ‘Axis as Supermen’ club.
  • Soviet mandated attacks. This clever little rule delivers Stalin’s influence on to the battlefield. If the Soviet player doesn’t do a certain number of attacks, it can cost VP. The Axis player, however, has to be making progress to get these VP.
  • Overrun portrayal. In virtually every other game I know, overrun means an attack resolved in the movement phase. In this system, overrun is resolved on a special table using a die roll that may cause the overrun forces to retreat (perhaps losing a step) but only the weakest (single step units) will be eliminated. So, you have to use overrun carefully, trying to get your armor forces into position for the next attack. Of course, this also is a strike against the caricature portrayal of Axis forces as overrunning the enemy all the way to Moscow!
  • Command confusion. When Soviet HQ units become non-operational, the Soviets are truly hampered. It makes it that much more difficult to organize the defense – primarily because artillery support is slashed, and meaningful reaction is impossible. So, in this game, there is a real consequence of the Soviet player having the front line broken and Axis tanks running amok in the rear.
  • Supply. While I might quibble with one or two points of detail, the supply system is simple and effective. (Yes, in this system, artillery units do get to fire!) I like the fact that the effects of being out of supply take a little time before they kick in.
  • Retreats through ZOC. In many games, surrounding the enemy with units and zones of control (ZOC) is required to maximize combat outcomes. In this system, units can retreat through one ZOC and, subject to a die roll, may survive. In this way, for example, some pocketed Soviet units may live to fight (and die) another day.
  • Retreat options. In certain cases you can call for your defending units to stand firm (No Retreat) or flee (Additional Retreat). This is a nice piece of chrome and, although it may have been tempting, it’s notable that there is no die roll required to implement such retreat options.
  • The grind. The Combat Results Table has a special result that, every so often, requires the affected side to take an extra step loss if attacking without Attack Supply or attacking a fortification or (for the Soviets) making a Mandated Attack. Over the course of the scenario, this special result can grind down your forces. This is as it should be.
  • Combined arms. The bonus available for a combination of armor and infantry on the attack is negated in certain terrain and by certain types of units on defense. This is a relatively easy set of rules which works well.
  • Setup coding. Units have color and symbol codes so you can more quickly identify which units are for the scenario you are playing. This must have taken ages, and it is much appreciated as it saves a lot of setup time for players.
  • Maps. Terrific.
  • Counters. Terrific.
  • Rules and Play Aids. Terrific. The scenario and player notes were outstanding. I am aware that the Play Aids have been buffed up and made even more beautiful in later volumes in the series.

The aspects I liked less:

  • Lack of Axis HQ. The Axis forces are never going to have any command issues because they have no HQ units to attack.  On the plus side, the absence of Axis HQ units certainly means less counters to move and rules to worry about. However, if only for comparison purposes, I’d like to see the designer’s analysis of Axis HQ capabilities.
  • Soviet fortifications persisting. Unless an engineer or division sized unit occupies a fortification in the Axis Engineering Phase, a captured fortification continues to hinder Axis movement and supply. Markers are provided. I felt this requirement (and marking) was unnecessary chrome.
  • Lack of unit quality. There may be ways in which unit quality is represented – for example, simply by the combat factors or stacking points – but no single quality rating. So, presumably, better quality divisions have higher strengths. I would prefer that troop quality were a distinct rating and that it had some impact on play.
  • Distribution of losses. Unless I am missing something, the owning player determines how to distribute losses. So, as the attacker I was constantly trying to add in a sacrificial lamb or two to satisfy losses instead of having the bigger, more powerful and valuable units suffer.
  • Stacking. Sometimes the stacks are too high.  A holding display for Panzer and Motorized divisions would have been a help.

Overall, I was delighted with my time spent playing the system. I shall definitely return to it again. It’s not perfect – no game is – but for me it delivers a lot of what I want out of a wargame.