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The Russian Empire Strikes Back: Lodz 1914» Forums » Reviews

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Robert "Smitty" Smith
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White Dog Games (WDG) is company I like as it is because I can play their games often in one sitting. Their games are usually value driven in terms of game play, components and gaming subjects a bit off the beaten path. I became deeply acquainted with the Lodz Campaign of 1914 after reading David Stone's The Russian Army in the Great War and Buttar's Collision of Empires. I was actually looking for their new little strategic level WW II Pacific game when I spotted their The Russian Empire Strikes Back: Lodz 1914, hereafter Lodz. But I'm not certain still why I chose to order this one except WDG's write-up for Lodz WAS enticing. Most of us for the Eastern Front in WW I know of the Austrian disaster in Galicia in 1914, the Russian disaster at Tannenberg in 1914 and the Brusilov Offensive. For many that's the total sum knowledge of that and if you know a bit more, you're probably a show-off since you know about the first use of Strosstruppen at Riga in 1917. Other than Warsaw and perhaps Konigsberg, nothing stands out to the Western gamer. Unlike their Solitaire Caesar which was entertaining, Lodz is more reality grounded without becoming dull, something many WW I games struggle with avoiding.


Components
Lodz comes in a nice little burgundy? Georgia Red Clay? bookcase style box. Coupled with the light gold print, Lodz is an attractive box thought the Tsarist Eagle artwork on the front is on the dark side. The back is standard, but good use for store purposes sense or scale of complexity for the casual browser. The map is an 11" x 17" map. The hex numbers were barely readable on my map. At first I thought it was my eyes but no. I came to find out I got a bad map copy. In addition, about 10 % of my counters were fuzzy. WDG was aghast and made both of these good. Me? I'm satisfied and neither component issue were show stoppers but the customer service provided by Michael Kennedy at WDG was simply first-rate. The counters though were crisply done, easy to read and sturdy. Everything dismounted with not a single issue.

The double-sided Player Reference Card is well laid out. But folks, why not put the terrain combat modifiers on the Terrain Effects Chart instead of having the player need to go back and consult the rules. It would have been nice to have a larger Combat Results Table. The font and table are a little challenging to read. Again, nothing major but a small cosmetic issue.


The Rules
Lodz's eight pages of rules are very complete and will take about 30 minutes from time you start until you are ready to play. Now there are some little things that will aggravate some, such as not giving the standard unit counter example in terms of what values mean on a counter. It is often aggravating for with a game that might be different in terms of design vision, that assumption by the player could be simply wrong. I am also a font guy. I like easy to read font and larger type print like WDG uses in its rulebooks. The total sum of questions I had from the rules? One whole question and that was about Enemy Zones of Controls (EZOC) and that question didn't arise until Turn Ten of our first game. You can move from EZOC to EZOC but must then halt your movement. I was pleased to see that this was the designer's intent. The Vistula River example figure in the rulebook left me confused at first as I kept looking for those white lines I figured that reprinted bridges or fords. Instead they show crossing paths. But the extra rules in the game design here work easily such as weather, command points, artillery and processing broken unit.


Game Play
Before playing this game I would first recommend the player look at an actual campaign map just to get a better sense of the orientation of the actual geography. I did so after the first night of play of two turns and somehow the ground and what was going on simply clicked better for me. Throw away though all your WW I East Front assumptions at least for this game. Although the Tsarist Army isn't a steamroller in Lodz, neither is it the bumbling, incompetently led and commanded armies of the Tannenberg Campaign. By the way, I still think the BEST writing on the Tannenberg Campaign was that done by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Instead, you have two fairly matched armies at this point in the war. It's not like the old SPI folio WWI game where the Russians beat up on the Austrians and in turn the Germans beat up on the Russians. No, here the Russians cannot just absorb punishment, but give it back in equal measure to the German player. We see what a properly mobilized and at least marginally well-led Tsarist armies could do. For that reason alone, this game is worthy buying and playing for the "study" aspect of it...except it's also so darn fun!

The game only has the campaign and no scenarios but I see that of little consequence. The German Player needs to push hard early on as there is a gap between the two Russian armies that start on the map. You need to rack up either victory points or punishment them enough to be ready to face the third Russian army that comes into play. In terms of Reinforcements, the Russians have a slight edge of eleven units to eight German units. It doesn't help either that of those eight German reinforcement units, that the German Posen Army unit is of minimal value. But back to that gap, oh that gap is so beguiling to the Stonewall Jackson type who wants to split asunder two poorly coordinated forces and roll up the flanks. But the German Player has a numbers issue - they don't have a lot of units. Killing units help BUT they generate no VPs for you. Victory Points are garnered by either holding or being the last to pass through certain geographic objectives. So for the German Player, you have to assume more risk by how you go after the Russian - and remember the game is only 10 turns long.

The German unit only has one Headquarter (HQ) unit as well since command radius matters in Lodz. Units outside of command radius are penalized in terms of relative combat power if outside the command radius of their respective HQ element. Although the German HQ unit has a radius of five hexes irrespective of terrain, they still only have one -and get no other ones in the game, with resultant impacts on units having negative modifiers for being out of Command and Control range. The Russian 1st Army starts with a miserly command radius of two hexes but might improve later whereas 2nd Army is simply a two for the entire game. However the 5th Army HQ has a five hex command radius and that's when the Russians become truly dangerous.

Where Kennedy's design vision becomes wicked is how he handles Command Points (CP). Kennedy could have done it in a way we are used to that hamstrings the Russian player like the Ammo restrictions in When Eagles Fight. Instead to reflect the opening situation correctly, Kennedy has the German much stronger and the Russian weak in that game aspect. However from there on out each side rolls for their CP authorization with leftover CP's carried forward. One game saw the Russians rolling extraordinarily well and always having more CPS than the German Player. Initiative in who goes first is driven by who has the most CPs. CPs of course allow you to plus up an attack or add to the defensive firepower by a value of two combat factors. Each side can only add one CP to each combat. CPs also allows you the opportunity to roll for the recovery of broken units at a cost of one CP per recovery roll.

There is also an artillery bombardment combat modifier. The attacker needs to roll a five or six to receive this while the defender roll adds a four to their chances. With an effective artillery bombardment roll, the die roll is modified by one. All of this works without needing to do a lot of extra work or extra phases...allowing you to simply PLAY. The design's intent is clearly to allow you to focus on game play while adding just enough detail. Lodz's use of breakthrough movement is perhaps its most unique feature for when a unit gets a broken combat result and is removed from the map, you have the option of moving up to your full movement allowance without regard to EZOCs or terrain costs. Again, a nifty, clean and simple way to handle this.


At game's end the Russians smashed and broke two German Corps - here we see the Cossacks getting ready for pursuit!



Conclusion
Lodz is a game easy to overlook. East Front WW I, no movies, no great accounts of this campaign, no grand, sweeping movement...no easy hook for Lodz to attract the casual gamer. That's a real shame as Lodz impressed me by the 2nd night of playing as I could come back to the game and not have to immerse myself again in the rules just to get up to speed to try and play. Now that was a pleasant surprise but everything works. The "chrome" is layered in seamlessly, so that you are more concerned about playing as a commander than playing the game system. Lodz is a small game with a huge fun factor. Be very surprised at how fast the momentum can shift, leaving you aghast at your sudden change of fortunes. If you like WWI games it's a must and if you look for something new as a pleasant diversion, you won't be disappointed.
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