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Subject: The Eastern Front from a magazine (review) rss

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Thom0909
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At the time I write this, Iron Dream not only has no reviews on BGG, but no forum posts at all. Ty Bomba has cranked out a lot of East Front games, so maybe this magazine game (Command issue 53) has gotten lost in the shuffle. It seems to have a pretty good reputation. Is it merited?

Overview
Iron Dream covers the Eastern Front from October 1941 through November 1942. So it skips the initial blitz and ends before the Soviets take over the attack.

The rulebook describes it as “low-to-intermediate complexity," which sounds about right to me. It can be made even simpler if you bypass some rules marked as skippable for beginners (this includes all supply rules).

Traditional hex-and-counter, IGO-UGO, with ZOCs and a CRT.

Some key details:
-28 turns, or is it 56? (see below)
-A short scenario begins in June 1942
-About 20 pages of rules (including charts)
-24x44 hex map (34” x 22”)
~20 mile hexes; German Corps vs Soviet Armies (mostly)
-3/4” counters, 156 of them. In practice, you might have around half of them in play at a time.
-Stacking is only two per hex, except in cities where it is four.
-Length of play: If each of the 56 turn-couplets takes 5 minutes per person, that’s close to 10 hours. However, turns are quick and might go closer to half that long. My solo games are broken into enough sessions I can’t judge, and the two-player game I played didn’t go the distance.

I’d rate the rules as very well written. There’s less than one page of errata that I think you can find at the Consimworld forums. Although seemingly innocuous, these actually fix a quick, though perhaps not obvious, auto-win for the Germans. (Note: I also found one unreported counter error - the Soviet OBR unit wrongly becomes faster on its reduced side). There’s also a Turn Record Track here at BGG which I found invaluable in absence of any Player Aids.

Scroll down for a picture of the map. Though not pretty, it’s functional and there should be no disputes over terrain. The Caucasus region is off map, represented by two boxes. The combination of this and pushing back the start date allows the game to zoom in a bit. Smolensk is a couple of hexes in, controlled by the Germans from the start. Leningrad is at the top of the map, 7 hexes in. Stalingrad is in the bottom right corner and Moscow is near the center.

Terrain is clear, forest, marsh, hills, cities and towns, rivers and lakes, with some permanent Russian fortifications.

Turn Sequence
As mentioned, 28 turns, two per month, but there are actually two “couplets” per turn, making it more like 56. Only a few things are done once per turn rather than once per couplet.Here’s what you do each turn:

1. Roll for Weather
2. Germans move or fight (player's choice)
3. Germans fight or move (do the other one)
4. Soviets have the same two operations segments.
5. Move on to next couplet and repeat.

Units are standard attack-defend-move. I’ve seen criticism about the lack of variety of ratings, and that’s true but it doesn’t really bother me. Note that Soviet units lose more than half of their defense strength when reduced (e.g., infantry drops from 4 to 1).


The rulebook suggests use of fingernail clipper, but I haven’t done so. Didn’t have a problem with “hooking.”

Victory is all about VPs. The German accumulate them by capturing large towns (1 point) and cities (3). Some bonus points are given for Leningrad being under siege (but not yet captured) and the Germans going to the Caucasus.

What the Game Does Differently
The following aren’t necessarily unique to the Iron Dream, but they are what keeps it from being generic.

Fight-Move or Move-Fight.
Each couplet, the player chooses a sequence, either fight-move or move-fight. The choice you make applies to every unit; you cannot choose F-M for some and M-F for others. The former is better for attacking (one column bonus on the CRT), but the latter is better for surrounding. There are some other peculiarities (in fact, there’s actually a rulebook section named “Turn Sequence Peculiarities”).

Variable Victory Points for Leningrad, Stalingrad and Moscow. You roll a d6 per hex and get that many points (they have 1, 2 and 3 hexes, respectively). The designer says this is because we don’t know what would have happened if they’d fallen. You can question this, especially if you roll low (but you would roll 3d6 if you grab all of Moscow). What’s weird to me is, if the Russians re-capture, you roll for a new number. It’s possible (though unlikely) you could, e.g., capture Leningrad, lose it, then re-capture it, and wind up worse than if you never captured it to begin with.

VP Check Points occur at the end of turns 5, 17, 22 and then 28 (the end). Don’t assume the game will go the distance. My experience is the Germans have to work hard to survive past Turn 5.

Also, The USSR has a Sudden Death win if any one of his units makes it to the West edge of the board after Turn 2. I had this happen once playing solo, but it shouldn’t happen to an alert German player. It does require him to form a line of sorts (ZOCs help of course).

Speaking of ZOCs, but Germans can slide directly from enemy ZOC to ZOC in most weather. Soviets can never do so.

The Caucasus is abstracted. If the Germans capture Rostov, they can optionally go for the Caucasus. Both players permanently remove some units and the Germans gain 6 VPs. What’s dangerous here is if Rostov is re-captured by the guys in red, the Germans lose the 6 VPs but none of the units return. Some players might regret not being able to play out the action to the South, but it does save a lot of map space.

The CRT differs for the two sides.
Ultimately, the Soviets always suffer a 1L column shift penalty. Also, only Germans may retreat in the game (soaking up one step loss).


Results are step losses, attacker/defender.

Supply rules have some wrinkles.
-Germans can airdrop supply up to two units behind enemy lines (reduced to one unit later in the game).
-The dreaded German Attenuated Supply (GAS), for most of the first half of the game, burdens the Germans with an attacking penalty shift of up to 3L on the CRT (roll each combat to see how much).
-The antidote to the GAS is German Supply Concentration, in which he can identify six units which will avoid this penalty, but all other units can only move one hex and cannot attack. A steep price, but maybe necessary to win a key battle.
-Soviet Offensive Supply: Soviets suffer their own supply penalties starting Turn 9. Upshot is, they drop a marker (later, 2 and then 3 markers) and only units within 5 hexes of it can attack at full strength.
-The immediate above is juiced up a bit with dummy markers, so the Germans won’t initially know where supply is directed. This is the game’s lone nod to Fog of War, other than a rule that you can’t peak below the top unit in a stack.

Good bit of chrome, including but not limited to:
-RVGK box, which allows the Soviets to re-deploy units across the board, with certain restrictions.
-Germans gain Strategic movement (starting Turn 9) which allows a few units to fly anywhere from town/city to town/city, unless Soviet ZOCs prevent it.
-Special unit types: Soviet partisans, militia, Leningrad Counter-Fire Corps, etc.
-Germans have four satellite units (with some restrictions to use), one Mountain infantry unit, and 11th Army units which gain attack bonuses on fortresses and population centers.

The chrome adds complexity, but is eased by the fact that it dribbles in over the course of the game. There’s a lot of “starting Turn 9” and “ending Turn 17” in the rule book. The user made Turn Record Sheet is invaluable here as it reminds you of all this. While you certainly should read all the rules before playing so there are no surprises, the inevitable “brush ups” can be spread out over the course of the game. Or you can just ignore these rules, as beginners are advised to do.

And of course, there is weather. Five types - dry, rain, frozen, mud and snow - with the first three mostly being pro-German and the last two pro-Soviet. A slight majority of all turns are automatically snow.

I’m not going through all the details, but weather can hurt combat and movement, but also help in freezing over rivers, lakes and marshes. Weather also determines who gets the lone Air Combat chit (1R bonus to attacking).

-----------------

How it Plays
Although you never get to see the Soviets go on full offensive, the game still has a nice ebb and flow to it. The Germans really need a smashing first turn couplet, when they are freed of supply difficulties (no GAS) and the weather is dry. If they don’t take advantage, they might not make it past the Turn 5 VP check. You could and probably should study the first couplet the way you’d study a chess opening.

The Soviets then have the advantage as the weather sours and the turn track is loaded with red and white counters. Fortune should shift back to the Germans after winter (around turn 12), when the weather is good and the Soviets begin to get the worse of the supply restrictions. The game ends during the second winter and the last few turns might not be easy for the Germans.

In addition to this calendar-induced variety, there's also variety of terrain you get from the full EF. Different map areas will have different feels. The North tends to be a mountainous grind, while the Center-South is wide open.

I found the turn sequence choice of F-M vs. M-F to be interesting. As much as you want the attacking bonus that comes with F-M, sometimes it is better to use M-F to maneuver and surround your opponent.

The Soviets could try a strategy of retreat, which would force the Germans to use M-F. But this often means sacrificing solid defensive terrain (not to mention VP towns/cities). Also, with Moscow being in the center of the map, they can only retreat so far.



The picture above is from the short scenario start which begins Turn 18. It's interesting that the Germans haven't advanced a lot since Turn 1. In fact, they still have only the minimum VPs needed to survive beyond Turn 5.

Of course, this is a setup position and doesn’t look like what my games did when I got to this point in the long game. But it could give you an idea of how things could look after all the back-and-forth.

While the above shows a typical front of units and ZOCs, there are times in the game where the weather will do the work for you, limiting enemy movement, keeping the Panzers in check. Once the Germans can use Strategic Movement (Turn 9) the Soviets really do need to be careful about holes.

Note that the the Fight-Move sequence lets you create breakthroughs even in the position shown. If not, the Germans can slowly slide from enemy ZOC to ZOC and make progress that way.

German units are more precious so they’ll want higher attack odds. Late in the game, replacement points reduce to 3 Soviet and 2 German, and you feel like what you have on board is pretty much all you’ll ever have.

Is it balanced? My experience is the game is tougher on the Germans, but that could just be me. Mostly playing solo, i don't mind this sort of thing, treating it as a challenge to win with the tougher side.

Solo play works well enough. This isn't chit pull, but the only hidden information relates to the Soviet use of dummy production counters. You can just ignore that part.

One concern I have is whether the VP check points proscribe certain strategies. In particular, the German need to pass the Turn 5 check seems to preclude making a run for Moscow. You won't get there that soon, and will miss the VPs you could have gotten elsewhere.

Overall, I like the game a good bit, although I'm not sure it stands out among a crowded of Eastern Front games (maybe it stands out as one of Ty Bomba's better EF games). Iron Dream is relatively easy to play and low in counter density, but doesn't dumb down the EF. Plenty of interest decisions: not just where you're going to push your counters. In addition, magazine games often suffer from production errors. This one does not. On the downside, it won’t win over those who consider IGO-UGO hex-and-counter outmoded.
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Lewis Goldberg
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Nice review, thanks. This is still unplayed by me. One day...

Prop Joe wrote:
-Length of play: If each of the 56 turn-couplets takes 5 minutes, that’s close to 10 hours.


10 hours? 5 times 56 is 280 minutes. Divide that by 60 is 4.66 hours.
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Thom0909
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lgoldberg wrote:
Nice review, thanks. This is still unplayed by me. One day...

Prop Joe wrote:
-Length of play: If each of the 56 turn-couplets takes 5 minutes, that’s close to 10 hours.


10 hours? 5 times 56 is 280 minutes. Divide that by 60 is 4.66 hours.


But for two players. If every "I go now" takes 5 minutes, that's 10 minutes per 56 couplets (or 20 minutes for 28 turns).

Will clarify above.
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Ty Bomba
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Say, you ARE aware this design is approaching the 20th anniversary of its publication, eh?

To experience a more recent materialization of my thought in regard to this portion of the war in the east, I suggest you check out my "Zhukov's War" from "World at War" magazine issue no. 50 (2016).

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