Robert "Smitty" Smith
The Battle of Berlin as to be one of the most irrational battles in history by any rational standard, except life in the death throes of the Third Reich was hardly rational by any measure. But places like Breslau, and Lauban truly make little sense except for the sheer irrationality of the macabre leadership of the ardent Nazis at this point in the war as exemplified by the Gaulitier Hanke and Field Marshall Schorner. Hanke had the mayor shot for displaying defeatism. Festung Breslau (FB) by Adam Niechwiej of Strategemata Games neatly captures this epic battle of last-ditch defense for Breslau. FB neatly captures this battle in a way that I can see Adam easily using it as a model for other games such as Konigsberg and even Berlin.
Breslau serves as a symbol, alongside the loss of Konisgberg of the destruction of centuries of German culture in the East, even as far as the Volga Republic in the Soviet Union. Books such as Savage Continent speak to the forced resettlement of those Germanic settlers and culture, displacing as many as eleven million people, with hundreds of thousands killed in 1945 and post-war in retribution. Hanke refused to allow for the orderly evacuation of Breslau which had swollen to over a million people due to the influx of refugees from the east. Instead, after the rail lines had been cut, Hanke ordered the expulsion in the dead of a brutal winter, with snow half a meter deep and temperatures of minus four degrees Farenheit or minus twenty degrees centigrade of all useless mouths, driving the old, women and children out of the city to an unknown fate. Like many of the bureaucratic "heroes" of the Third Reich, as the city was poised to fall, Hanke fled by plane to short-term safety, before meeting a well-deserved fate.
Often new companies to make ends meet either skimp on components or manufacture counters of an inferior nature. We often get maps that are sometimes garish or express the inner-frustrations of an artist who to make ends meet is doing gaming maps - or decides on some new fanciful approach that doesn't work. You can rest assured that FB suffers not at all from any such afflictions. All my counters punched out cleanly. Now they were perhaps a little thinner than I like and the font was teeny, making them on the harder side to read, but they were legible and sharp, just small font.
Initial set-up. I have to admit I was unsure as both players what to do. At first it was one of those shrug -ok let's just do it...but when I set and pondered it for a while. not having any idea what to do put me in the Soviet position who at best were hoping for intel from local disaffected folks.
Rules that are translated into American English often have glaring syntax issues. American English is hard enough with its idiomatic grammar in a sense for Americans, but to get it right properly as a non-speaker is even more challenging. I can safely say the rules to FB are pretty darn good in that regard. In fact the only place where the language is a bit tortured is the battle's history. After reading and researching the account of the battle, I can understand how that part is perhaps a bit mangled as it's an odd battle to follow. Part of the reason for it being tough to track is that unlike Stalingrad where we know of Pavlov's House, the Tractor Factory, the Grain Elevator and the "Tennis Racket", FB doesn't have any such things burned into our collective memories. What perhaps needed to be done for the rules though is the illustrative diagrams of play needed to be on a two-sided sheet and in color as the print quality isn't great and...it's a smallish font. The good thing is though these examples of play serve as an excellent reference point.
FB is a bloody game without a unit ever being eliminated in the sense we think of them being eliminated. Soviet units tend to be more brittle than German units, to include even the Volksturm units. Volksturm units tend to have a bad reputation but they often did fight well enough on the Eastern Front when in good defensive positions and corseted by at least a smattering of experienced cadre. So is the case here that Volksturm units will give a good account of themselves. Combat effects are pretty simple - German units get disrupted and if disrupted a second time go into the "dead pile", where they can be resurrected for the expenditure of supply points. Soviet units when disrupted simply get recycled, coming back based some turn in the future, decided by a die roll divided by two. In actuality, it's a pretty ingenious combat system. What is also interesting is German SS units have the ability to become fanatic, which means they are a bear to get rid of and have enhanced combat power.
Although the Soviets took two more VP hexes, the Germans savagely counterattacked and took 3 back. I was surprised as the Soviet at the number of German attacks. Lesson to self as German Player - counterattack much earlier.
Managing Soviet artillery and airpower is an important component of the game. Without the proper use of artillery to soften up positions, the Soviet assault never will get its footing. This goes back to the disruption system that all German units flip back to their undisrupted side in time for the German Player turn, meaning they are able to participate in combat. This is a significant difference than most games where disrupted units get flipped back at the end phase of both player turns. What you have though is too many places where you need to bring fire upon but not enough artillery as Breslau became a bit of a backwater fight. So do you risk lots of strikes at low odds and hope for great success or go for several more sure disruptions and hope you pick up several other less firepower attacks?
What is interesting is at first I simply thought the Soviets would swamp the defenders. Again, the clever combat system prevents that from happening. Neither side is terribly effective in terms of overall combat ability. Combat is results are determined by adding together a die roll with the number of assaulting units plus any modifiers, Again it sounds as if the Soviets will swamp them. The key to this is defensive fire, that units can fire every single time at any unit that moves adjacent to it. Although the game takes a little more time than many as it clocks in at four to six hours. Game play though never felt like it was dragging or that it was a slog as the perimeter began to shrink. There is some neat chrome added to the game that impacts each players decision tree subtly. For the Soviet do you take those additional reinforcements (and in real world bring Stalin's glare upon yourself). For the German, do you build the Armored train? Do you build the alternative air strip as Hanke chose to do so? All of this is a trade off in terms of the expenditure of very limited supply, but the air strip is a gamble to get more supply.
Turns 9 & 10 German supply is nil - but they finish the air strip (we misplayed the supply rules a little we found out but not too badly). Their sense of supply for the 1945 German Army is handled easily enough - frustrating for the German but...real enough. Turn 9 we lost 1 German victory hex...and by turn 10 the Soviets have 19 in their hands, only needing 20 to win - at the end of the game which is 20 turns. German supply will get a bit better with the airstrip built in the city now and we have started launching local counterattacks to buy back hexes.
FB neatly captures this battle in a way that I can see Adam easily using it as a model for other games such as Konigsberg and even Berlin. FB like the old Wiley Coyote and Road Runner cartoons whacked me alongside the head with the its approachability, fun and easily played game. It's so well done that east front gamers can only hope he transfers this urban combat model over to some other battles of the Gottdammerung era of the Third Reich. FB is a shockingly good game on a bit of an obscure subject. A litmus test for me is does a game then make me want to dig significantly deeper into its subject- and Festung Breslau met this test. It's simply a must game for those obsessed by the east front as it cover, and covers very nicely, a generally heretofore unexplored area of the Red Storm into the Reich.
The Armored train Porsel which you can choose to build in the game.