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Subject: The Dark Valley - Truly a Valley filled with fun rss

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Robert "Smitty" Smith
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Finally all set-up - 5 hours or so of time from start to finish.



What was your first Russian Front game? For many it was Stalingrad. I recall it being for sale at the Penn Traffic Department Store at the Nittany Mall. It just didn't look right to me even at eleven to thirteen and hence, never owned it. No, my first Eastern Front game was Panzer Blitz, followed by WW II by SPI and Third Reich by Avalon Hill. But the first substantive Eastern Front game was War in the East - which received lots and lots of floor time. What parent was going to give you a table that big for an unknown period of time? I've played many different East Front games but have come to love the Campaign games as they give you the ebb and flow of that conflict. Given the simple math, in any normal game the Soviets will survive and begin to turn the tide. So several years back when the The Dark Valley (TDV) arrived, it received a cursory look from me. I was turned off by the map for TDV, nor did a quick look at the rules and playbook hook me. I'm thinking perhaps TDV came to me while I was stuck at Ft Riley at Riley's Wounded Warrior unit - that might also have something to do with it. But the fact is it languished, one of those I would look at and try not to see. By accident, I discovered Ted Raicer, the designer of TDV designed another game Hitler Turns East (HTE), that bore more than a passing resemblance to TDV. Two turns into HTE, I was in full panzer gear head mode for TDV, as that HTE is that good. Let me say this - TDV truly astounded this old Armor Officer, as it felt like the heady days of the Blitzkrieg, and later the role of rescue units.



COMPONENTS

The game's counters are more than acceptable. The German and Soviet color schemes seem appropriate, as well as those of the Axis Allies. We have 2 22" x 34" map sheets that fit well enough together The problem with the map is the hex lines are often hard to make out, and in some places you're guessing. Good luck finding a hex in the Carpathians. One of the features of the map is it looks wrong by its cant and orientation. What I did find a little off putting was the sense the turn track was smooshed onto the map, and is a little challenging to read at first glance. The choice of the same pink to denote fortified districts was applied to the overall Soviet initial military districts. Someone at GMT should have looked at that and simply said - ah no, bad idea in terms of easy visual recognition. Although I liked the German tanks on the counters, but perhaps upgrade counters should have been given then of some sort. However I can see that getting messy. What was a great idea here was using the white hex around a unit's combat strength, indicating that it possesses a Zone of Control. But I'm glad also GMT didn't do an over reach with the counters, instead going with good sensible counters to perhaps qualm the fears of what Racier cooked up here. In addition there are four Player Aid charts: 2 Combat Results Tables & Terrain Effect charts (double-sided, an Axis-Soviet Replacement card, and the Sequence of Play card with on its reverse the Action Chits Availability. The scenarios other than Barbarossa take some work to puzzle out forces, particularly the Bagration one, where you need to figure out what is in play but what is out of play. I'm puzzled at the value to the gamer in doing unless it is to construct your forces and reserves as you wish. If that's the case why not a simple explanatory note?


The Smolensk Land battle is in full swing. But we have still in our rear those annoying pockets.


RULES

Amazingly easy and clean rules. Like in the easier Hitler Turns East, I found the rules for TDV to be surprisingly chrome free ala Ted Racier. The game is not overburdened by all types of special instances and special cases. In essence, this is a game where one can play without needing to return to the rules all the time. The rules though should have mentioned Soviet Guards unit specifically. They are in there but tucked in with other "stuff". You need to invest a little time with the Play Book to be clear on the isolation rules and pockets - I had it right beside my first pocket, using it as an example of how to work through it. The only rule I question was 12.2.1 Single unit where "no single non-mechanized...may attack alone".



GAME PLAY
Many eastern front strategic and operational level games are exciting, particularly in the Barbarossa period. But then many seem to follow the same playbook or script of sorts. Tell me you can't think of a few who fess up to that criteria. TDV never once felt like that because of the fresh and innovative chit system. The heart of DTV is a chit pull system that really works and doesn't simply move the game along but adds value. How often has anyone ever said the chit system adds value? The chits are Move, Combat, Move or Combat, Counterattack, Panzer Army Chit, Deep Battle and Stavka Chits. There is also the Combat Zhukov, Stavka and Stavka/Zhukov Chits, similar in nature to the Panzer Army chits.


The lack of infantry spelled DOOM for the Panzers here.


In the early days of the invasion, the Germans are awash in chits, allowing them to get to spots the firstest with the mostest. The Soviets? The poor Soviets who the first two months of the war are limited to one move and one counterattack chit. In time for the Smolensk Land Bridge battle, the Soviets add a Stavka Chit to their Move and Counterattack chits. Early each turn the German chit draw allows the equivalent of six Panzer Army chit draws. By October that is down to half, which coincidentally German Panzer strength even with Herculean maintenance efforts barely hovered in the fifty percent region. Did I mention there are no over runs in this game? Can you think of an East Front game without over runs? I think Ted's vision was to make the German Maneuver to build those encirclements and pockets. I found myself thinking more about pocket building in this game than any previous East Front game.

The Soviet in 1941has an Army that in the words of David Glantz is a Stumbling Colossus. It doesn't do anything particularly well, except get surrounded and die. Like in the early War in the East there are many 1-4 infantry divisions, lacking any Zone of Control. They are a mere annoyance except for holding up the German Supply Depots moving forward. The 1941 cobbled together Mechanized Corps are a mixed lot in terms of performance. Burn those babies up as by Turn 5 they are pulled off the map. Use of the two City Defense counters can salvage a situation and buy you some time as cities without this are treated as towns for purposes of combat. That impact is pretty important as a town only gives a +1 to the defenders total defending whereas a city is one column shift to the left and mechanized is halved in attack value.

DTV - it's a semi?demi?mini?monster wargame which is simply playable. The nastiest chit in the game is the logistic chit. It makes you assess your supply situation at that moment in time. It is generally not a mood enhancer for the German after July 1944. Choosing which rail lines get repaired and then hoping you can clear the way for them to advance is always a concern. Oh yes there are four pages of errata which some folks have had litters of kittens over. Most of the errata is simply clarifications, and none were awful to me. A number of these I already had from the GMT Magazine. I would recommend playing back to back the scenarios of Barbarossa and then Bagration. They both highlight different ends of the vision Ted had for TDV and how well that was achieved as these two highlight these two armies in different stages. Some games feel long to play but the DTV didn't.

CONCLUSIONS

The Dark Valley is the first campaign game since Russia Besieged that has fired my imagination, making one eager to get back to the game table. The lack of card play and seemingly just the right number and type of chits to reflect different periods in the war presents the veteran East Front player with new and well-though out challenges. It will present both sides with many agonizing challenges, perhaps more reflective of that than any other game of its type. The truly ingenious and well thought out rules on isolation and attrition add to its overall value. It's currently on GMT's P500 list and is expensive on Ebay. But if you are a real East Front fanatic, this is the one game this year to plunk down funds for on for the P500. A must have.





Now we see the disaster in Rumania. The lesson would seem to be a thin line with units to the rear to protect Bucharest and Ploesti.




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Douglas Brunton
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I'd asked in the play testing for more historical setups for the 1942 and later scenarios - for some reason there simply wasn't any move to create those. I thought that the play balancing would have really been helped but the creation of baseline historical setups because otherwise its very difficult without a standard starting point to evaluate whether the system is giving plausible historical results.

There's no doubt though that designing and creating these games is a herculean task so my hat is off to the designers and developers of games like this.

Doug
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Robert "Smitty" Smith
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Dang - we thank you!

Smitty
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Robert "Smitty" Smith
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Doug:

Shameful on my part not to have played this sooner. IT's an epicly great game.

Smitty
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Cole Dano
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Great review, I've got to break this game out.
It was the very first wargame I bought after a 45 year hiatus, and the rules overwhelmed me.
I think I can handle it now. Thanks for the inspiration.
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Robert "Smitty" Smith
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Cole:

You are most welcome. It's well worth the time - and the time you will spend looking at the map pondering what to do.

Smitty
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Cole Dano
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Pondering is the best thing about wargaming
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Lawrence Hung
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Wan Chai
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I am reading the rules and going to pondering with everything in the game soon!
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Robert "Smitty" Smith
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it is - and I have a bride who complains not about that!
 
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