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AAR 25 September 2018 - Stalingrad: Verdun on the Volga, War of the Ring, Terraforming Mars

J. R. Tracy
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We closed September with nine players for some planetary exploration, Middle Earth hijinks, and another trip to Stalingrad.

Bill, Hawkeye, Stéphane, and Dave finally introduced Nate to Terraforming Mars, using the Hellas map and the Prelude expansion. Bill played Saturn Systems, Nate was the Tharsis Republic, Hawkeye represented Robinson Industries, Stéphane ran Econoline, and Dave was CEO of Cheung Shing Mars.

From gallery of jrtracy
Unbound by Earth

Our experienced hands proved to be able teachers, as Natus built a good engine and steadily accumulated points. Heavy settlement helped him accrue points on his pets card, and he built some cities of his own, managing to completely enclose one in shrubbery. All this added up to a game-topping 69 points. Perennial threat Dave was second with 65 - he had a solid game but didn't get much traction with Cheung Shing. Its special ability depends on a flow of building cards, of which he saw few. Stéphane was just behind at 63. Good, fast-moving game, and a nice win for Nate on his first time out. (Edit - a guilty conscience compelled Nate to admit this was in fact his *second* game, and much of his success was due to playing on the sympathies and good will of his unsuspecting tablemates as he parlayed his putative noob status into a barely deserved victory)

From gallery of jrtracy
Paw Patrol

Scott and Mitch settled in for War of the Ring, with Scott taking the bad guys to Mitch's Free People. Minas Tirith fell but the Freeps put up a good fight. Free People armies were well developed across the board. However, Frodo was limping badly and his will was weakening as he picked his way into Mordor. Sadly they had to pack up before they could conclude but it would've been a difficult trek up the slopes of Mount Doom.

From gallery of jrtracy
An unfinished tale

Last up, Crom and I tackled Stalingrad: Verdun on the Volga. This is Mike Rinella's take on a battle so iconic we needed the name of another iconic battle in the title. Mike's starting point was the classic Turning Point: Stalingrad, but this is very much his own interpretation of the struggle, with very distinct subsystems that improve both the history and playability.

VotV retains the area map format, impulse system, and basic combat chassis of TPS. However, while ground scale is roughly similar other elements have been adjusted - the typical combat unit is a regiment (as opposed to TPS' battalions), and a turn covers four days instead of the older game's one. However, there is still a 'day/night' construct, abstractly reflecting natural pauses in German offensive momentum and the opportunistic counterblows of the Soviets. If the first German 2d6 die roll of an impulse (called the 'Logistics' roll) matches the impulse number, their posture shifts from 'Attack' to 'Pause', with no more assault impulses allowed for the rest of the turn (unless another Logistics roll matches an impulse number later in the turn, switching it back). The first time a Logistics roll is *less* than the impulse number, the rest of the turn is considered to take place at night, enhancing Soviet capabilities; the second time this happens, the turn ends.

From gallery of jrtracy
Paulus pounces

Players alternate executing impulses, which may be either Assault or non-Assault. An Assault impulse allows the player to activate the contents of an area to move and attack. Non-Assault impulses are more for tweaking - the Regroup impulse allows you activate all your units on the map to move one area (but not into contested areas); Redeploy impulse allows you to move a single unit an unlimited amount through non-enemy controlled, uncontested areas; Troop Transfer allows you to transfer a single step between same-type units across the map; and Consolidation allows you to combined two reduced-strength units in a given area into a single full-strength unit. The vast majority of impulses will be Assault or Regroup, but the other types can be useful, and even game-saving, in certain circumstances.

Combat should be familiar to fans of impulse games in general. The attacker calculates his Attack Value (AV) as the sum of the lead unit's attack strength, plus one point for every other attacking unit in the area, with bonuses for divisional unit integrity and artillery support. The defender's Defense Value (DV) uses a similar calculation. Each side rolls 2d6 and adds the result to their AV or DV. If the attacker total is less it is a Repulse, with all attacking units losing a step (most units are two steps). If equal, it's a stalemate, with the attacker's lead unit suffering a step loss. Finally, if the attacker's total is greater, the attack is a success, with the lead attacking unit still taking a step loss while the defender must take step losses and execute retreats sufficient to satisfy the differential. If unable to do so, an Overrun results and the attacking units may immediately activate again. Note the attacker always takes a loss, no matter what the outcome - even German successes demand a payment in blood and the losses quickly add up. Both sides receive a mere trickle of replacements, but the Soviets have a 2:1-3:1 edge here thanks to the perpetual resurrection of the Worker battalions and the production of the Dzerhezinsky Tractor Works.

From gallery of jrtracy
All killer no filler

There is considerable low-overhead chrome built into the combat process. Artillery support is available by division, and may be used once per day if a divisional unit is participating in the combat. The attacker gets +2 per artillery support, while the defender gets +1. Intensive combat can create rubble, which inhibits movement and benefits the defender, but German Pioniers have a chance to clear it before combat. The Germans can throw in air support, adding a d6 to their total (adjusted for rubble and fortifications), while the Soviets have a Storm Group, which does the same, though unimpeded by rubble. Finally, the Soviets can declare a heroic stand once per turn to convert a German overrun into an ordinary success. The Hero marker is a precious resource for the defenders and early use can make for an agonizing sequence of impulses until night finally falls.

From gallery of jrtracy
Cutting off the Kurgan

The designer has tweaked the Advantage concept considerably. In TPS and several other impulse games, the Advantage allows a re-roll or a double move, after which it is handed to the opposing player. In VotV it's much more low key, but also more predictable - the attacker can use it to covert a Repulse into a Stalemate, while the defender can similarly reduce a Success to a Stalemate. The German can use it to ignore the impact of his Logistics roll for purposes of his posture (the combat result would still stand but he would remain in Attack mode), and either player can use it to ignore a switch from day to night or a turn-ending die roll. Finally, if in hand during refit, it can be expended to generate additional replacements. Used or not, it *always* changes hands during the turn - the Soviet gains possession when night falls if he doesn't already have it, and it is returned to the German at the end of the day. In TPS the possession and use of the Advantage was an often-distracting subgame; here it is used early and often and is part of the natural flow of the action.

One last rule is worth noting before getting into gameplay - Mike has added a rule for 'Combined Operations'. As noted above, in some impulse games the Advantage may be used to activate two areas in one impulse, a rare but powerful move that can break a front wide open. VotV allows players a double move *every impulse* in their favored conditions, daylight for the Germans and nighttime for the Soviets. The Germans may activate any two areas, while the Soviets can activate either of the zones on the far side of the Volga, plus another in the city itself. Since the Soviets can only cross the river at night, this allows them to bring forces into the city and still be active along the front in the precious few night impulses available each turn. Crossing the river is no certain thing, either - it requires a die roll per unit and is affected by German occupation of the Mamayev Kurgan and the riverbank. In the midgame a lot of Soviet play is focused just on maintaining secure landing areas.

From gallery of jrtracy
High end real estate

Players may choose between a five or ten turn scenario. In either the German wins an automatic victory by essentially controlling the entire riverbank. Otherwise, victory turns on control at game end of specific areas, such as the Red October steel works and the Barrikady ordnance factory, terrain well known to ASL fans.

From gallery of jrtracy
Resistance stiffens

In our game, Jim took the Wehrmacht while I defended the Motherland. He opened with a focused drive into my center, hellbent on taking the Kurgan. After a brief but fierce fight, the heights were in his hands. However, I stymied him on the left, short of the sawmill, and his attempt to take the workers' settlements west of the industrial zone bogged down quickly.

On the first night I attempted to isolate and retake the Kurgan - I managed to kill off an entire German division but could not take the position itself. I slowly stripped my northern defenses to reinforce the center, wary of the small but powerful mobile force Jim maintained opposite my northern shoulder. The meat grinder in the center continued to take its toll, as the Soviet dead pile mounted and few German forces remained on their full strength side.

From gallery of jrtracy
Entering the endgame

As turn five approached, I managed a couple local encirclements that forced German counterattacks to maintain supply lines. This further depleted German point formations and burned precious impulses needed to take more victory areas. Our game came down to German attacks on the Barricades, the Brick Factory, and the Tractor Works. Jim needed to take all three but managed only two, coming just short of a win.

In our recap, we discovered a few rules errors and oversights, one of which probably swung the game. I forgot my Tractor Works replacements, which cost me a tank regiment per turn, but this was more than made up for by my illegal regroups - I was infiltrating units into contested areas, a big no-no and likely the decisive factor in my riverside stand. I think by rights this should have been a German victory and will be recorded in the Tome as such. We each learned a lot over the course of the game. I overestimated German mobility and was too conservative in my redeployments as a result; Jim took a couple turns getting the hang of Combined Operations and how best to use them to leverage a positional advantage. There is much more yet to be learned, and I feel the replayability should be as good as its predecessor.

From gallery of jrtracy
Last grab for the Barricades

Overall, we very much enjoyed the game. Balancing positional play against attrition is tricky for both sides, especially with the clock ticking in the background. The pace is swift, thanks to the way Mike condensed the unit and time scales. Rules-wise, it's a very clean presentation - our gaffes were pure oversight, and not due to a lack of clarity. Graphically and ergonomically it's easy on the eyes and easy to use, beyond some difficulty in reading setup and turn info on the units. I think it tracks well with the history of the battle - the attrition rate feels right, something lacking in many Stalingrad games. I particularly like the auto-hit on the lead attacking unit; the Germans tend to lead with their powerful armor, but after a few turns (or even a few impulses) the panzers are bled out and the landsers take the point. The roles are asymmetric yet equally challenging - obviously the Germans have the offensive initiative for the duration but the Soviets have their moments too. TPS remains one of my all-time favorite games, but Verdun on the Volga is a worthy successor. If you are a fan of the Avalon Hill classic or a student of the battle, this is well worth your consideration.
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