This ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be. I'm splitting it into three posts. The 1st two parts are kind of a walkthrough of some of the mechanics. The Third Part is more of my general thoughts on the game.
Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe is designer Salvatore Vasta’s strategic WW2 in Euorpe game. The game allows players to game WWII from 1939 to the end of the war in monthly turns using army level units.
According to Vasta’s designer’s notes:
The seeds of this game came out of my desire to have a strategic World War Two game that would be a low counter density, traditional hex wargame. It would be relatively simple and the emphasis was to be on the strategic action of the armed forces. It had to avoid a myriad of subsytems or mechanics which were below the game’s representation. In my opinion, many strategic level WW2 games are really operational level games expanded to include everything. They are fun, but also a lot more work.
Don’t let Vasta’s emphasis on simplicity fool you, though; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to complexity. After playing the game, I think that the best word to describe the game is “elegant.” The depth and complexity of the game come, not from complicated mechanics to resolve combat or anything else, but from the way a host of extremely simple systems work together. Rather than fighting through tedious mechanics to resolve the simplest of actions each mechanic is simple and intuitive, which allows the player to focus on playing the game rather than resolving the game.
The campaign game is ostensibly played between three factions: Axis, Western Allies, and the Soviets. But, in terms of victory conditions at least, the Western Allies and the Soviets win or lose together. The victory conditions are simple and straight forward: the Axis wins if it can cause either France or the Soviet Union to collapse and survive the game without collapsing itself. The allies must simply prevent the Axis from achieving its victory conditions.
The turn that the campaign game ends is determined by how well Germany does early on. The ending turn can range from July ’44 to July ’46, and is predicated on when both the appeasement policy and Nazi-Soviet pact have ended. This gives the German’s an incentive to end both policies early, as it shortens the time that it has to hold out in the end-game. To a certain degree, reinforcements are fixed so it behooves the Germans to try to end the game before some of the reinforcements can have much of an impact—or even enter the game.
The game also has a very simple economic/production system, as well as a simple strategic warfare mechanism to degrade production. Each country (as opposed to faction) gets production points equal to the number of factories they control—but only factories in their country—multiplied by the country’s production multiplier. For major countries, and some minors, this is simply 2x. For most minor countries it is 1x.
Production points are what really drives the game. They are used for movement/combat, removing sorties, and rebuilding units. What really limits players though, is that production points do not carryover from turn to turn. So there’s no hording of supplies during the winter for a big offensive in the spring. Since you can’t store them up, players often have to choose how to best allocate those points—e.g. whether to bring those reinforcements in this turn, or continue making attacks.
With a couple of minor exceptions, countries cannot add to their production by conquering other countries. The idea behind this is that it is not as simple as just conquering a country to get its production because of partisans and the expense of getting production back online after being conquered. The result is that a player is presented the choice of either diplomatically activating a country as an ally in order to use that country’s forces and benefit from the production, or conquering a minor—usually relatively quickly—but losing out on the benefits of its units.
Strategic war is also very simple. The Axis rolls on the combat tables against both the Soviets and the Western allies. Modifiers are based on such things as ports controlled and whether the US has entered the war yet. The results of the strategic war roll cause a faction’s “factory lost” marker to move up or down a spot. The effect is that the next turn, the faction’s production will be reduced by the number of factories lost. So there is an incentive to keep pushing the factories lost marker up through strategic war in attempt to cripple your opponent’s production. The modifiers work to give the players an incentive to capture countries/locations without having a gamey “5 VP for capturing a city on the Norwegian coast” type of victory condition. Instead, the incentive is the in-game consequences/advantages for holding the space.
Diplomacy is also very simple. Minor countries are either activated when a faction declares war on it or through diplomacy. There is a diplomacy phase at the end of each turn where each faction can spend production points to either draw diplomacy chits from a cup or add chits to the cup. There are general “success” and “failure” chits as well as chits specific for each faction.
If a faction draws a “success” chit or its own chit then the player gets to play the Political Success event. This allows the faction to manipulate the political leanings of a minor or, if the minor is already leaning toward that faction, activate it. The political leanings of unactivated minors are tracked on the map by factions placing one of their chits on the country—or removing another faction’s chit—for a political success. In order to place a chit, the faction must share a land border with an active, friendly country. This forces the players to think about which countries they might want to activate and then figure out what other countries that have to be activated first so the player can have an adjacent friendly country.
The other way for a faction to get to carry out the political success event is through conquering a country. This allows the conquering player to place a faction chit in the diplomacy cup as well as carry out the political success event. Rather than having to be adjacent to an active friendly country, the target country just needs to be adjacent to the conquered country. For the German player, there is a balance of conquering countries to get more opportunities at diplomacy and activating countries whose units will be beneficial. In the game Italy starts out completely neutral, so part of the German focus is on the best, quickest way to get Italy to activate on its side.
The combat/movement system is a combination of relatively simple mechanisms that combine into strategically deep system—while remaining simple to implement. What will be most surprising to longtime gamers is that there are no combat or movement factors on units. The biggest benefit to this is that there is no factor counting to get the perfect or optimal ratio.
Combat is a part of movement, generally requiring each unit to spend MP to conduct a combat. So units are activated individually to conduct movement/combat before another unit is activated. This creates an opportunity for breakthroughs. There are two types of combat: mobile attacks and assaults. Mobile attacks are the general form of combat, and require the expenditure of movement points. Assaults allow multiple units to attack the same hex, and are the only way to attack a fortress. A unit cannot assault if it has conducted a mobile attack; it can still move before the attack, however.
Combat itself is simple, and innovative. As I said above, there are no combat factors. Instead combat is resolved by each player rolling a die and then cross-referencing the result on the game’s all-in-one CRT. There are plenty of DRMs for the players to consider in setting up their attacks, and each player applies DRMs to his or her die roll. There are modifiers based on the unit’s country (Germany is automatically +2); the unit’s type (armor is +2 in fair weather); terrain; for elite units; whether the defending unit is surrounded; whether units are reduced; and several others.
In addition to these DRM’s present in any combat, each player has “assets,” which can be added to the combat. These assets create additional DRMs for use in the combat. Assets include air support, partisans, artillery, among other things. Some countries do not have specific armor units, and instead have tank assets. The player can play the asset and gain the benefits as if the infantry unit was an armor unit for that particular combat. Play of assets alternates between the two factions involved in the combat and ends when the players pass consecutively. This allows the players to minimize how many of their assets they commit. You don’t have to worry about throwing everything you have at a combat only to find out that the other player has not committed anything.
If both players commit air units to the combat, then the air units resolve a sub-combat to determine who gets air support. Most of the time both factions will end up with air support, the biggest thing is the number of sorties each air unit takes (I’ll talk a little bit more about the sorties below).
As you can imagine, weather plays a big role in a game that covers the Soviets in WWII. But as with the rest of the system, the weather mechanic is simple, yet elegantly accomplishes what is intended of it. The map is divided into four regions. At the start of each turn, a die is rolled to determine the weather for each of three of the regions (northern Africa is always good weather). The result is cross referenced on a simple chart based on the month of the turn to give one of three weather types: good, poor, and severe.
The primary impact of the weather is on combat. It does not affect movement per se; it only increases the MP cost for conducting combat. Poor/Severe weather reduces the DRM for armored units as well as reducing the effectiveness of air support.
The biggest impact, however, is in the fact that the differences between poor/severe weather are carried out completely differently. Poor weather gives the attacker a -2 DRM. That attacker penalty is not present in severe weather, though. Instead both the attacker’s and defender’s DRMs are halved. In many instances, the attacker exposes himself to very adverse consequences (possibly a step loss) by attacking in poor weather. The attacker may still retain the opportunity for a positive result. But in severe weather, the results just get a much tighter grouping. The attacker is almost assured to not get the adverse result, but, at the same time, is almost assured to not get the positive result either. The vast majority of the results in the severe weather (all things else being equal) is to get a no result.
With all the DRMs available it’s difficult to make any generalizations about combat in the two different situations. I do think, however, that you can generally say that you still can make some progress in poor weather, but in severe weather all progress will almost assuredly be stop because the majority “no result” that you will receive. The big thing is for the attacker in poor weather to look at the CRT carefully before committing to combat. If he doesn’t have a lot of DRMs in his favor to counteract the -2 penalty for attacking, he can actually lose a step.
Air/Naval operations are generally integrated into the land operations. Air units can provide support for ground combat, can attack other air units, can interdict naval units/bombers, and there are bomber units for the western allies that can bomb cities in Germany (affecting strategic warfare). Naval units are used to trace supply for ground/air units that cannot trace a ground supply line to a supply source (generally in the country’s mainland), interdict the movement of other naval units, and transport ground/air units.
Unlike ground units that take step-losses as in a typical wargame, use/effectiveness of air/naval units is based on “sorties.” Basically every time one of these units activates, it takes on at least one sortie. If it has to engage in combat during its activation, the winner of the combat has one sortie inflicted, while the loser has 2-4 sorties. These units can activate as many times as the player wishes during a turn until a unit has 6 sorties.
As units accumulate sorties they lose effectiveness. In effect, each sortie is a -1 DRM to combat. So a air/naval unit with 0 sorties attacking an air/naval unit with 5 sorties will be at a big advantage at the outset (0 DRM to -5). Beyond losing effectiveness, the other limiting factor is that you can only remove 2 sorties at a time at the end of your turn. So players generally don’t want to inflict more than 3 or 4 sorties, or else risk not having the unit be effective for again for a couple of turns.
This simple system leads to a lot of strategic depth. For the naval system this is driven through the need to use transports to supply overseas units. Most overseas units will have to rely on naval supply to keep at full supply. The rub is that when you use a transport to trace supply, it costs at least 1 sortie to get a unit supplied. The supply trace can be interdicted, and transports alone can be sitting ducks. In the Mediterranean, for example, the Italian player may decide to use air units to attack enemy naval units in order to inflict sorties so that when the player traces supply his transports + escorts will have a better chance of making it through—or even better, the opposing player won’t attempt to interdict the trace at all.
Similar considerations arise for air units. Players have to balance whether to keep air units in close enough range to be effective in ground support, but at the same time not being positioned so the enemy can easily attack the units and run up the sorties. If you can get the number of the other player’s air unit sorties to 6, right before winter, then you can run up your own sorties to 6 six in ground support (# of sorties doesn’t change the DRM for ground support). Then, once winter comes around and severe weather will limit operations, you can move your air units away from the front lines to remove sorties with impunity.
As I said at the beginning, each of the individual mechanics is simple—and even in combination they remain simple. But there is a certain synergy of all these simple mechanisms that gives the game great strategic depth. Strategic choices aren’t driven, as in many games, by assigning key historical locations a VP value sufficient to make them a strategically viable target in the game. Instead players are driven to strategic objectives by what will benefit their war effort while hurting the opposing player’s war effort.
One of the great things about the game is the relatively open nature of the diplomacy. It is up to the Axis player whether to attack east or west first. It is up to the Axis player whether to try to diplomatically gain allies or conquer as many minors as possible as quickly as possible. It is up to the Axis player whether attack into Scandinavia or the Mediterranean. The simplicity of the diplomatic system allows the players to focus on these decisions rather than think about the mechanics that implement diplomacy. There is a transparency to the simple mechanisms that allows the players to focus on strategy where a more complicated system would be opaque and might lead the players to stumbling around trying random things with no real plan.
After the conclusion of the game, players—especially the German player—will be left wondering how he could have held out longer. Should I have attacked the Soviets first? Should I have focused on the Mediterranean and tried to knock out British production there? Should I have tried to control ports in Scandinavia to help the strategic war effort? Should I have tried to ally Poland to use its troops instead of conquering it?
What players won’t be thinking about is such things as: If I just would have taken Oslo, those 5 VP could have won the game. Instead of considering the game state, players will be considering the broader strategic questions, which are similar to those that their historic counterparts confronted.
The game’s sandbox does have its limits. Major countries can’t be completely conquered. If the Axis conquers the Soviet Union the war on the Eastern Front just comes to a standstill. German units are forced out of certain areas of the USSR and the two factions cannot attack each other (or anyone in the case of the USSR). The “treaty” between the two generally lasts for 9 turns. But that isn't fixed. When the 9th turn is reached the Soviets have to roll to see if the treaty ends (50/50 chance). This seems like it might create the potential for the Germans to try to get into a position to knock the Soviets out and then stop when the Soviets are on the verge in an attempt to effectively extend the length of the treaty.
Soviet collapse also doesn't seem to be an actual penalty for the Soviets. It basically gives them breathing room to build their forces back up as well as giving them factories back that they may have lost. This is probably necessary to ensure an interesting endgame; without a strong Soviet Union it would be next to impossible for the Western allies alone to conquer Germany. In that respect, it leaves the conquering of the Soviets somewhat unsatisfying from a simulation standpoint. But from a game standpoint it works.
The great thing about the game/system is that most criticisms a player might have can easily be implemented. Don’t like that Italy starts completely neutral? Start the game with an axis diplomacy chit on it—or just start the game with Italy as part of the axis. Don’t like the historical unit mix provided? Use any number of hypothetical units included in the game. The list goes on and on. Because of the simplicity of the sub-systems, the game is readily modifiable to any player’s tastes.
Overall the game is impressive. It’s simple to pick up and that simplicity belies the strategic depth that players are faced with at every layer. The game seems to work from an historical standpoint—if you choose to follow the historic paths. There are a lot of innovative mechanics here and they all seem to work. There really isn’t much bad to say about the game.
*Originally posted elsewhere on the webz
Great review. You did a good job of explaining what makes this game both different and awesome.
I do agree collapsing the USSR is not as satisfying as it could be because they come back. There have been some folks on here trying out various variants to find a better compromise.
I myself have thought about a variant where the Axis only wins if it forces both the USSR, UK, and France to collapse. A challenge to be sure, but the balancing factor being maybe the Axis gets extra production equal to 1/3 of conquered factories (rounded down). Improves the utility of taking enemy factories (where there is normally none) but gives harder victory criteria.
Indeed a great review. I agree with the above that you pointed out very well the things that makes this game so good.
Just a couple of comments: the original printed Soviet collapse rule indeed had exactly the problems you identified, but it was errataed a long time ago. I think the current version works a lot better. There's still the problem of not feeling like a great victory, which is probably required to keep the endgame interesting (I still prefer this solution to the one where half of the games end early and the Allies never get to the fun part, i.e., attacking).
I suggest you check out the other errata too. There's a lot of it, mostly because Sal really corrects even the most minor punctuation errors, but that one is probably the most important along with the changed weather odds. By the way, the attention to detail really shows in the rules, I think they are one of the best wargame rules I've ever learned, which is an important factor in a game like this at least for me.
Another minor point is that Germany typically doesn't actually want to activate Italy when France is still in the game, because that's a good way to lose Libya due to the French navy. This leads to a pretty tight balance for Germany so you can activate Italy from the extra success you get from conquering France, but don't allow the Italians to pick the wrong side meanwhile. So I can't really recommend starting Italy on German side.
- Last edited Fri Sep 2, 2016 11:01 am (Total Number of Edits: 2)
- Posted Fri Sep 2, 2016 11:00 am
Thanks for pointing out that the Soviet Collapse rules have changed. The review was originally posted elsewhere quite some time ago (looks like summer of '14). I think the change was subsequent to that and I hadn't heard about it. I'm currently involved in a PBEM game, so I'll let the other player know about the change in case he is unaware of it.