Robert "Smitty" Smith
The Soviets ready the offensive...KV1 and T-34 Tank engines are roaring to life...Will they dare execute a series of 2 to 1 attacks early to cause a crack?
GMT’s release of The Caucasus Campaign was I thought a watershed event in East Front game releases, that it was as good as it got for us East Front fans. So after saying that, GMT released (actually rereleased but since I never had the original...), Ukraine '43: The Soviet Summer Offensive Against Army Group South. It is as reconfigured a gaming masterpiece, a game that deserves played often and is the perfect game for group play - but let's not get ahead of ourselves. The problem for some folks is once the Germans are rocked back on their heels, and games no longer offer opportunities of massive victories with tremendous carnage in terms of Soviet losses, well many gamers seem less interested. Is this a hold-over from the Cold War? Is it more a holdover of the pre-discovery of the Wehrmacht's complicity in their campaign of genocide in the Ostkreig?
What is interesting is there was a game early on that dealt with these Soviet offensives post Kursk. The game? SPI's 1972 Kursk. Anyone who played it thought perhaps it was skewed way too much in favor of the Soviets. In retrospect, SPI was closer to the mark than we realize. So it was with some excitement I opened this game. The only thing wrong with it is the anti-tank gun on the cover wasn't in service in this period - silly. It's a 37-mm PaK 36 but in 1943? Naw as they were phased out by the end of summer 1941 since they could not compete with the Soviet armor. But does it really matter as it's an attractive concept.
South is only sort of ugly - but still decently anchored on the Black Sea...
The map from the original is different in that the battlefield seems expanded. It's your standard very attractive GMT Eastern Front maps at 34" X 36 1/2". They are easy to glance at and assimilate what is going on with them. GMT offers the standard fare Player Aids with the Combat Results Table and Terrain Effects Chart. There were several Order of Battle Errors though in Scenario one with the German At Start units. The counters are easy to read and nice enough, simply the standard you expect with GMT.
It's funny but the back cover for Ukraine '43 lacks the standard meter complexity rating chart in its standard up down - no they have it lying down! GMT calls it a moderately complex game. It is that but perhaps tends to the lighter side of that spectrum based on my multiple plays of this game. It's a game that is very easy to get into the cycle of play based upon rules that make sense. The extended Example of Play covers most things and gives you an accurate sense of play. It's one of their better one folks in terms of accessibility. The Player Aids here are a boon and not solely a series of charts. It reminds me of GMT's recent Enemy Coast Ahead where the Player Aids allowed for quick immersion into the game. I was surprised to see folks comment on the rules being iffy to them but no one really clarified what iffy meant. Seldom did I go back to the actual rules except for situations that seemed more complex. Simply put - the rule "overhead" is virtually non-existent.
A line of sorts...is cobbled together in the north - but using Security Divisions? SIGH....
I will note up front I studiously avoided the old Ukraine '43. It seemed beyond fiddly to me in terms of game system and play. It wasn't simply the old tread head in me, for it just didn't look fun. Well from comparing this Ukraine '43 to the past Ukraine '43 this is more than just apples and oranges as this is a complete redesign. The new Ukraine '43 is based on the Normandy '44 and France '40 systems, games I've played. Even the components were changed, and reading between the lines of comments from the past, Simonitch's redesign choices were all top notch.
The Ukraine '43 reflects nicely in game terms the historic reality as the battles were very fluid, with a great deal of back-and-forth, thrust and counter-stroke. Every turn feels like a crisis of sorts for the Wehrmacht. They aren't walking a tightrope, as it's more like crossing a tightrope across the Grand Canyon blindfolded. Welcome to the German nightmare in Army Group South in the summer of '43. Recommended reading for this period is The Wehrmacht Retreats by Robert Citino. Citino's book doesn't solely focus on the Eastern Front but his treatment of it and tying it into the West enables the reader to see the challenges that hamstrung responding to the crisis in Army Group South.
What makes this such a great GAME is that the two forces are at some level of parity. The German Player is hamstrung in very real ways because if you give up territory too soon, you allow the Soviets to amass early victory points and redeploy those forces to go after other victory point cities. If the Soviet punch through as example early in the south towards Stalino with all those juicy bunched up victory point cities, well, you have to respond. You know the Soviet is going to take Kharkov. But overly focusing here takes your eye off of weak points like Sumy to the north. Should the Soviet Player make a good effort along the Sumy axis and breakthrough, it becomes a ride through the country as the terrain doesn't enable you to anchor any patched up defensive lines on much. The art of thinning your line out and judicious counter-attacks is time and time again - along with when to put on your Nikes and slightly skedaddle is how to win.
Do understand that Zones of Control are not rigid and can be left for two additional movement points. Soviet infantry is one movement point (MPs) slower at 3MPs than the Germans at four. The role of infantry in this game should not be underestimated and the German can solely use it to screen their Panzers. The Determined Defense Rule? Use it but seat every time you do) I always hear Kenny Rogers singing the Gambler when I roll on it).
Playing the Soviet Player is simply fun because it's payback time. Your forces are strong and you have both regular artillery divisions and Guards artillery division for purposes of breakthroughs. Although stacking works against the Soviets here as their command and control (C2) is still not the equal of the Germans, they can enhance their stacking by use of their Tank Army HQs and Shock Army HQ that allow for increased stacking due to this extra C2. The Soviet Player also needs to carefully understand and use the Advance After Combat Table to get the most of their hammer blows. Not using these to their maximum effect allows the Wehrmacht the ability to recover. In addition, expect some heavy losses breaking through the fortified zones. You will roll often on the Heavy Loss Table.
I've played every scenario through twice in reviewing as it's that good. Every scenario is truly different, with no feeling of sameness or intellectual skimping to concoct something. Personally I think as the German Player the Third is my favorite because the world is ugly and you are going to get hurt and hurt bad so how you manage it is fun. You begin to understand Field Marshall Model's value, "The Fuehrer's Fireman" after playing this. The biggest negative and I don't see it as that is the Campaign Game of 27 turns is a bit long but highly recommended. Due to the game's flow though it won't seem that bad as it doesn't ever drag. Operational games seem to be the hardest to model but this one is in that top 1 % as Simonitch 's design is artful.
Ukraine '43 is a must have game. Lots of good games out there but again, this is a must have. It's very clean, the right amount of complexity without getting subsumed in pointless sub-routines, fraught with tension and ugly choices on almost every turn. Is it too much to call the "new" Ukraine '43 an epic game? If you like a back and forth game with at times precarious flanks, Ukraine '43 is for you. Exercise your bank account now and make yourself happy with its purchase.
Overall I was stunned to see I nearly replicated and in some instances exceeded the Soviet drive in 1943.