The Hell of Stalingrad Review

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hos-cover.jpgAnyone who follows my columns or reviews will know by now that I have an ongoing obsession with war games which are capable of supporting multiple players and don’t take days to play. I was therefore immediately interested when I came across mention of The Hell of Stalingrad by Steven Cunliffe, which claims to re-create aspects of the Battle of Stalingrad for up to four players. Further researched revealed it was a card-only game and quite clearly an unusual take on the battle. The designer and publisher, Clash of Arms Games, kindly agreed to send me a review copy and after a number of games I can certainly attest that this is something new and innovative: but is it any good? 

I’ve read elsewhere that a lot of people were impressed with the graphic design on this game. Not me. I found the artwork garish, and a lot of the custom icons used don’t seem to have been printed at very high resolution. However the game does make very heavy use of historical photos, a commendable choice that really brings the players closer to the battle the game purports to be simulating. Almost every card has a relevant photo, and I found the ones which illustrate the actual district cards where the action takes place to be particularly interesting, furnished as they are with actual photos of the burnt-out city, and as a bonus a map is included showing the position of the buildings on the battlefield. However there are other production quality issues - in particular my copies of those same district cards with the great photos on them are printed on thin stock and refuse to lie flat: back-bending helps in the short term but they always seem to curl up again. This is a minor problem, and may be isolated to my copy as others have not complained, but it is annoying as during the course of the game you’ll be adding and taking away a lot of counters from these cards, and they don’t sit properly on top of the curl. The game also has a relatively high price point which makes the slightlyhos-cards.jpg disappointing production quality seem all the more unfortunate, although the cost of printing five entirely different card decks is apparently partially responsible.

The rulebook appears pretty confusing at first but it’s entirely readable and actually quite clear if you can read it one end to the other: the problem arises from the way in which the individual card mechanics get explained first, before the overall flow of the game is described. There’s a rather regrettable printing error though which makes it appear as though the “basic” and “advanced” games are basically the same when they’re not: the basic game is correctly described as being half as many turns, but the rulebook omits to mention that it also covers half as many buildings. These are pretty minor issues though and once you’ve got them sorted out you’ll discover that this is actually a relatively simple game to play. The game flow itself is not complicated and you’ll have got the hang of things by the end of your first game. Indeed when I’ve taught this game to others it tended to result in frowning incomprehension until they actually started playing, at which point everything suddenly clicked into place over the first couple of turns

The action takes place on two or four building cards from a large deck of such cards. Each building is described by two numbers: the concentration level which determines the number of formations that can fight in the building and the defence level which is the basic number of dice the Soviet player gets in the final break test which determines the outcome of the battle. Each side has two hands of cards: an open hand of formation cards, each one of which represents a division which fought in the battle, and a closed hand of combat cards which represent the maneuvers these formations can undertake. Each turn players attach the formations at their disposal to one or more of the buildings to be fought over, up to the concentration level of that building, and in doing so, add the “vanguard” units (riflemen, tanks, recon units etc) for that formation onto the building itself. Afterward each battle is fought in turn by the play of combat cards onto the active formations. Each side uses a different mechanic to limit the number of combat cards each formation can use. For the Germans there’s a fixed limit called the “shock value” and a doctrine (infantry, armoured and leader) which determines which units can use which cards. For the Soviets there’s a more flexible “patriotism” system whereby each combat card has a cost, and a unit can use cards up to a total cost equaling it’s patriotism limit. Combat cards mostly add friendly combat units onto the building or remove enemy ones, but some have more complex effects such as sniper shots, inflicting damage on actual formation cards, causing cards to be drawn or discarded or influencing the “inferno” level of a building. Instead of playing a card a player can take a hold action which usually has some minor beneficial effect and moves the battle one stage further to conclusion. After a certain number of these hold actions the battle ends in a break test. The player with the most units on a building gets a die, there’s another available for most formations, the German player gets a die for each inferno he’s started and the Soviet player gets dice equal to the defence level. You roll them all at once and the player with the highest single value wins. Each formation involved in the battle is damaged and may be destroyed, and if the building has fallen to the Germans a replacement is drawn from the deck: if it’s a building a new battle begins next turn. If it’s a river card then the position is “closed”. The German player needs to close all building positions to win: otherwise it’s a Soviet victory.

If it sounds complex then that’s largely because of the plethora of different cards effects available. Because these are mostly given as icons on the cards rather than text, these can be confusing at first but there’s a handy reference card which lists them and you’ll soon get used to which does what. And of course, any good card game needs a decent library of diverse effects in order to make for interesting game play, and The Hell of Stalingrad is no exception. In fact “interesting” may not be a sufficient descriptor - the manner in which the card effects interlock with each other to create a variety of genuine tactical and strategic choices is really very impressive. Some buildings need to be prepared for long term assaults and defences, others can be taken with a quick assault. Since formations get depleted but each formation can only use certain cards, decided what to try and keep alive and choosing the correct formations to attack and defend the right areas is crucial. Some Soviet cards require them to sacrifice ("motivate") their own units in order to get other useful effects which is a tough juggling act. Actually playing combat cards onto formations is a tricky matter as planning which effects you want when, making sure you’ve got the right formations in place to allow you to use the cards you need, and adapting those plans to the changing circumstances of the battle is no easy task. None of this is immediately apparent from the rules but trust me - my examples have only scratched the surface of the ways in which the effects interact. There’s a lot of depth and variety to explore once you’ve got to grips with playing the game.

In addition to chaining the card effects together, the game boasts an element of timing and bluff. Part of this is down to the card effects: some may be better now, some may be better later depending on the way the battle goes and the while German player can only play a fixed number of cards onto his formations, he has no way of knowing whether or not the Soviet player has actually finished playing cards for the turn because some Soviet cards cost nothing to play and the “motivation” effect can buy them more plays. And you always have the option of taking a hold action which drives the battle closer to conclusion and the break test and in addition has a useful effect for you, so you’ll be wanting to take more hold actions than your opponent does. So what do you do, and when? How many combat cards do you want to cram in - indeed given the restrictions how many can you cram in - before the break test? This can lead to gruesome games of “chicken” where the players take early hold actions and then skirt round trying to counter each others’ cards and get themselves to be in a position to have the upper hand and take the final hold action to get into the break test with most dice.

Once battle is joined there is a considerable fiddle-factor in finding out the appropriate unit tokens to put on the card and applying their effects which usually means removing enemy units. Since most battles will see a number of actions and cards played, this can mean a lot of shifting counters on and off the card. And yet all this messing about with units is all for the sake of fighting over a single break die, and at first it seemed like an awful lot of work for relatively little effect. However, the more I’ve played this game the more I’ve come to regard that break test mechanic as both essential to the appeal of the game and its greatest enemy. Because the highest dice wins, a single dice can indeed make all the difference: rolling one dice might net you a 2 and a loss, but rolling two dice could get you a 2 and a 6 and a win. It’s an exceptionally blunt instrument and simultaneously thrilling and frustrating. Everything rides on rolling those bones, so the tension when you and your opponent pick up the dice is palpable. And yet letting them fall and loosing when you’re rolling six dice to two (I’ve seen this happen) after you’ve done all the work to get as many dice as you can is hugely annoying.

There are several ways to play this game. The rulebook includes the (misprinted) basic game which takes 60-90 minutes and the advanced game with takes 3-4 hours. Although the basic option is good for teaching and as filler, the advanced game is certainly preferable: you get more cards in the deck with more interesting effects and choices, more turns means there’s less importance on random building draws and far more importance on good use and preservation of formations. And here’s the rub: I’m entirely happy for a whole game to be determined by that blunt break test mechanic after an hour. After four hours, even three, I’m considerably less happy about it. Essentially the advanced game runs somewhat longer than the mechanics of the game can really support, but the basic game is significantly less interesting. It’s an unfortunate Catch-22 situation and this is the major problem that I have with the game - and it’s a pretty big problem too. It’s a shame that there isn’t an intermediate length game offered but I suspect it would be difficult to balance in a satisfactory manner.

It’s worth noting that the basic and advanced options are not the only ways in which you can play the game. Two different solo games - a Soviet and a German one - are downloadable from the publishers website. I’ve tried both and found them to be satisfying and compelling in different ways. The German game is basically the standard game rules against a Soviet AI and invites quite a lot of analysis not least because you get to see the Soviet hand so you can plan in advance to account for what cards are going to be played against you. The Soviet game is rather different and uses a modified rule set to represent the use of snipers to pick off German generals and heroes before the Soviet front collapses. It’s rather more random than the German game, but as a result rather more exciting and it also seems more difficult to win. Both offer varying difficulty levels depending on the buildings in play, can be completed in 60-90 minutes and are easily good enough to be worth multiple plays. There’s also the multi-player option. As it turns out this is a team play game but with the interesting twist of giving each player a separate supreme commander with his own special abilities. Individual buildings are assigned to individual commanders, but formations come out of a shared pool and commanders can play combat cards into each others’ battles. It’s OK if you’re fond of team games, there’s certainly a lot to discuss, but not as good as I was hoping. I think it could probably be considerably improved by a house rule to assign formations to commanders rather than putting them in a pool, and stopping cross-play of combat cards, but I haven’t tried this to confirm. Nevertheless, the potential flexibility of the game to cover different player numbers and play times is a great boon in terms of both replayability and getting it to the table: virtually anyone will eventually find themselves in an appropriate circumstance to squeeze in some plays.

I can’t end this review without spending a paragraph exploring the historicity and theme of this game. While The Hell of Stalingrad is clearly marketed as a historical war game the rulebook makes it clear that this isn’t entirely true. The game includes a few formations that didn’t actually fight in the battle, and a few characters who are either entirely fictional or who are of dubious historical pedigree (such as the German sniper Major Konig, featured in the film Enemy at the Gates). It would be more accurate to describe this as a historically themed conflict game than a proper ConSim. The angle the game takes is also interesting, disregarding the intricacies of maneuver and focusing down on the chaos and brutality of the conflict. The design notes suggest that the designer was trying to capture the feeling of being a senior commander in a grinding battle of atrocity and attrition. I’m not sure if this is entirely successful, but the barbarity of it all certainly does come across. Indeed it may have been emphasized too far: at times I felt that the rulebook and some of the cards presented things with a sense of ghoulish delight which I found slightly disturbing. It certainly isn’t a game you’d want to play with minors. The asymmetric play style for the two sides also captures the history well - the Germans with powerful but inflexible formations and tactics and the Soviets fighting desperate rearguard actions.

In conclusion The Hell of Stalingrad is a good game which contains, I think, the seeds of an excellent game. It needs some refinement, some streamlining, some polishing to either get the play time down or smooth over the crude nature of the break test mechanic - or better still, do both. Fortunately the box promises that this is the first in a “War is Hell” series so hopefully we’ll be seeing future iterations which can do just that - the next scheduled for release is “The Fires of Midway” and should be out before Christmas. The basic game engine is cleverly designed and would make an excellent starting point for any simulation of urban or guerrilla warfare. The price point is certainly off-putting, but there’s plenty here to enjoy and plenty of different ways to enjoy it. Stalingrad might have been hell, but this game based on it is rather more appealing.

The Hell of Stalingrad Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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