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Subject: Entering the Dark Valley - a very incomplete learning game rss

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Merric Blackman
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World War 2 is a well-covered topic in the realm of wargaming. There have been a lot of games produced about it. However, each game approaches the subject in a different way, providing different insights and allowing you to attempt new solutions to old problems.

The Dark Valley covers the Barbarossa campaign of Hitler in 1942: the invasion of Russia, and beyond, to Russia’s counterattack and approach on Berlin. This topic is not new to Racier, his game From Barbarossa to Berlin covered the same time period. However, The Dark Valley is a completely different sort of game. Where Barbarossa to Berlin was a card-driven game with a relatively small number of units, The Dark Valley has been described as a mini-monster: a lot of counters, a very large map. Despite the large number of units, the rules are delightfully simple; there are only a few real complications, and we were able to ignore most of them for our attempt at playing the game.

It should be stated that although I was sort of aware that The
Dark Valley was a longish game, I had no idea of actually how long it would take to play. The regular crew for Saturday afternoon gaming were absent, so I pulled this out instead. I didn’t expect us to finish a game… how right I was!

Glen was my opponent throughout the game, and he was aided by Rich when he arrived a little way into the proceedings. Neither Glen nor Rich have played very many wargames, and certainly not one like this! The simplicity of the rules aided them greatly, as we didn’t need to keep remembering special cases. The one rule I made sure to pay attention to was this: lone infantry units can’t attack. They need to be supported by at least one other unit (infantry or otherwise).

Did I mention that there are a lot of counters? Compared to some games, there aren’t that many. Compared to the ASL Starter Kit games, there are a lot of counters on the map when it starts. It took us 90 minutes just to set the game up!



Although the rules of the game are quite simple and, in my opinion, well explained, the set-up rules are a complete mess. It does not help that there seems to have been a miscommunication between the writer of the rulebook and the designer of the counters. The rules state that Russian units marked with an “R” are reserve units. In fact, they aren’t marked with an “R” – they state “Reserve” on the back. And that’s the easy one to understand – a lot of the counters have obscure town or city names on them with no reference in the original rulebook as to where those cities are. In a few cases, the city names don’t match what’s on the map! Errata to the playbook lists most of the city names and their locations, but it didn’t seem like quite all. It was all very frustrating.

Once we’d actually finished setting up the game and decided who was playing who (Glen=German, Me=Russian), it was time for the game to start. The Dark Valley uses a chit-pull system for activations. For the first turn, the first two actions the Germans got would be set: Attack, then Move. After that, they’d be able to activate their Panzer armies again (once each), whilst I’d get a move and a counterattack order.

Glen took the first combat order, and began moving down the map, choosing which hexes to attack and the combination of forces with which to attack them with. There are very few die-roll modifiers in this system. Instead, terrain affects the strength of units or causes column shifts on the Combat Results Table (CRT). The table is expressed in odds from 1-3 to 6-1, with one column per type of odds. A single die (d6) is rolled in each attack, with a +2 accruing to an attack on an out-of-supply or isolated unit, and a -2 when the attacking unit is lacking supply. It thus doesn’t take that long to resolve combats – just as well, as there were a lot of them to do!

Most of my infantry were strength 1 in open ground – these ones tended to die very quickly, and Glen advanced into their vacant hexes. A few units had better defensive positions and managed to survive, but it was about what I expected: a lot of dead Russians with very few Germans dead in return! Those Russians who didn’t die retreated, opening up holes in the line for Glen to exploit.



It was now time to exploit those holes, as the second activation of the first turn is also fixed: a German Move, in which he can move every unit on the map (save the southern ones, who have a special rule preventing them from acting initially).

Most of the units in this game don’t actually exert a zone-of-control around them. When they can, a light-coloured hexagon around the attack value indicates that capability, and it is primarily used for blocking line-of-supply.

The line-of-supply rules are quite interesting – you don’t actually check supply until you draw the Logistics chit out of the cup. This gives the possibility of temporarily going out of supply because a later move will restore it, but it can be a risky manoeuvre. Units that remain out-of-supply at the end of the turn can face problems…

Rich and Glen pondering the map.

With the exploitation done – and with the movement cutting off the potential supply of some of my units – Glen then drew the 3rd Panzer chit. This is quite interesting: it allows units within range of the 3rd Panzer HQ to activate. Given there are four of these counters, it provides the possibility of some very quick movements. Glen used it to break through further, and although I drew a Counterattack chit next, my main goal was to retreat my units rather than attack – I didn’t have enough firepower to really take on the Germans. One or two hexes were attacked, where I actually outnumbered the German forces, but mostly I pulled back and formed new defensive lines.



The full draw of the chits for the first turn went like this:

German Combat (fixed), German Move (fixed), 3rd Panzer, Russian Counterattack, 4th Panzer, 1st Panzer, Logistics, 2nd Panzer, Russian Move

It was not a happy turn for the Russians. But, for all of us, there was one problem: it had taken us a little under 2 hours to play that turn!

Yes, when people start talking about monster games, it’s a good idea to put aside enough time to actually play them! It was now 4:10 pm, and we had just over an hour before the D&D players would start arriving. The Barbarossa scenario that we were playing is fairly short – 8 turns – but there was absolutely no way that we’d be able to finish it in the time we had left. Still, I was quite happy to keep going until we had to stop. More than anything, it was a learning experience, and would teach Glen and Rich a lot of the basics about wargames of this nature. (A lot of the rules and principles are found in smaller wargames as well. In fact, this game don’t confuse most of them with exceptions, so it’s a fairly easy one to start with, if you can handle its scale!

I expect that experienced wargamers could also play through the first few turns a lot quicker than Glen and Rich could – but they were doing really well for their first game of this type!



One of the lovely things about this game is the map. The hexes are a little smaller than I’d like, but the terrain looks great. The Pripyat Marshes are also quite noticeable – they were apparently quite a barrier to Hitler’s forces, dividing the front in two. As in the real war, Glen and Rich took their forces around the marshes on either side. Their attacks in the north caused more retreat results than eliminations, so I was able to retreat some of my forces back to form yet another defensive line. Unfortunately, the rest of my forces there were surrounded.



We eventually had time for five chit draws in the second turn: 3rd Panzer, Russian Counterattack, German Move, Russian Move and 2nd Panzer. The Russian Move immediately following the German move was quite frustrating for Glen, as it allowed me to move my troops out of combat range again, thus negating the strategic effects his previous positioning. I’d also gathered a large force to defend the south of the Marshes – it would have been really interesting to see what happened next!

However, it was 5:10 pm, and we were out of time. So, be warned: This game can take a lot of time!

Ultimately, it was a fascinating experience. It is a pity that the printed playbook and counters aren’t quite accurate, but the game itself seems to play quite well. Having so many counters might make the game take longer, but it also means that there are a lot of rules overhead that isn’t needed.

Did we get stuff wrong? I’m sure we did. For the first couple of activatons, I was thinking that Out-of-Supply rules are always checked (as they are in many games), but it seems they are only checked when the Logistic chit is pulled. There were also special rules for the scenario that we only paid cursory attention to: enough of a struggle moving all the units rather than worrying about the odd exception.

I can’t say when the game will hit the table again, as it just takes so long to play, but at least it’s given Glen and Rich an idea of some of the way wargames are played, and will prepare them for when I bring in a smaller-scale game to play!
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Eric Brosius
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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Thanks for the report!

I believe units that move on a counterattack chit cannot move unless they proceed to attack.
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Tom Stearns
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That was a good mix of session report and review. I good post for someone considering buying the game. It's a good game and worth the time investment to learn and play.
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ted raicer
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Thanks for the report. As was noted, the Counterattack chit only allows movement by units that attack. And the Stalin Mandated Counterattacks forces a certain number of those attacks, or the loss of a rifle division for each attack not carried out.

Ted
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Merric Blackman
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Thanks! Yes, I really should have realised how the counterattack worked.

One thing I left out of the report: I got this game in the GMT Games sale, and we played this session about two hours after I picked up the package.



Cheers,
Merric
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Bradley Fletcher
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A few things: 1) Set up time will speed up a lot as you become familiar with the game, map, and keep the pieces sorted. I think I set it up now in less than 1/2 hour or less. 2) Counter density starts high, but drops off very quickly. By about turn four or five I'm always amazed as to where all those stacks of units went! Now they are spread out across the expanse of Russia. 3) The game's learning curve, and variability of the chit-pull mechanism makes it hard to generalize about turn length--my own feeling is that it just doesn't apply--but over time I think this, too, will be cut in half or more. So, hang with it--it is an amazing game, and I really look forward to porting it over to Africa!
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