My family was out of town this past weekend so I got in several plays of solitaire wargames from World at War magazine. World at War is a spinoff of Strategy & Tactics published by Decision Games and is all World War II, all the time. I recently picked up a lot of issues spread throughout the publication's run so I will be able to look a bit at the development over time.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Strategy & Tactics family, it is a magazine filled with mediocre to decent historical articles largely written by amateurs. There are currently three publications: Strategy & Tactics, World at War, and Modern War. Strategy & Tactics is by far the oldest and covers a wide range of military topics though has had less WWII and modern warfare since the dedicated spinoffs were created. Each issue also comes with a game that is on the same topic as the cover story for the issue. The games frequently will draw from a series of basic rules with the same mechanics often appearing multiple times, each time slightly modified to fit the current topic. Compared to a game from a traditional publisher they are fairly unpolished, could have used rules editing for clarity, and are frequently unbalanced due to lack of playtesting. If you follow a typical 1-10 rating scale, they will frequently be in the 4-6 range. Most are worth a try, but due to the lack of balance they are often only worth a play or two before moving on. Sometimes the lack of balance is due to the historical situation being represented and the playtesting failed to come up with better objectives to compensate, but oftentimes the lack of balance is because the game is broken (as will be seen below). The other fun part is missing rules and possibly game breaking errata. For example, Panzers East Solitaire was missing a movement table that makes the game unplayable without it as non of the units have printed movement and rely on the table.
The first game I tried out was Panzers East Solitaire from issue #45. This game covers Army Group Center's summer 1941 attempt to take Moscow during Operation Barbarossa. The game plays out over seven turns, with a victory check after turns 4-7. Historically, Army Group Center was defeated at the Battle of Smolensk at the end of July, which is the turn 4 victory checkpoint that you need to take. That's right, if you do not completely outdo the historical precedent by taking Moscow you lose. In addition, you need to have eliminated at least 50 units in pocket battles representing the German's attempt to annihilate the fighting capabilities of the Soviet army and not just take territory. The later checkpoints are continuing the march to Moscow and taking control of at least a portion of the city. You also can lose the game by having a Stavka-directed attack or have a soutwest countoffensive (representing units that historically would have been pulled back to respond to Typhoon, but now do not need to) puncture the German line. Accomplishing all of this is a very difficult task for the player. The game actually has a fairly balanced edge as you need to focus on entrapping and eliminating Soviet units in the pocket, while still rapidly advancing the line in order to reach the checkpoints. The Germans initially appear unstoppable as they will be rolling 8-10 dice against the Soviet's 1-3, plus they get to roll their attacks first and inflict casualties before the Soviet response. Add this to the panzer units which can hit on 2's in open terrain conflicts and they will steamroll the Soviet line. As units are eliminated, they are drained from the Soviet pool, which refills at a slow rate of 1d6 per turn number (ie. Turn 3 is 3d6). "Wow that seems so easy! Why don't you just waltz right into Moscow right now?" Because you have to destroy 50 units in the pocket. In pocket battles, the Soviets get to strike first with no retaliation as they attempt a breakout. The German units, while incredibly powerful at full strength, drop to 1 die on their reduced side and can never be recovered to full strength. The need to destroy units in the pocket means you have to risk casualties (generally better directed to your non-mechanized infantry), but this slows down your assault as you lose attack capabilities. In addition, Stavka sends a random number of units on counterattacks every turn to create a breakthrough and cutoff German supply (this represents the German command deciding the offensive is too expensive as they historically did). The player needs to balance destroying units in the pocket (which also can be hurt by the slow Soviet recovery, as you actually need to find units to destroy), taking ground, and creating a cohesive line to prevent a breakdown when the Soviets counterattack. Overall, I would say the game is worth a few tries as the multi-staged victory check and simple AI makes for a challenging game.
First play as I was stopped at Baranowicze by a Soviet counterattack:
Another playthrough as I was within striking distance of Smolensk at the end of turn 3 before being stopped by heavy counterattack:
And the looooooooooong way I still needed to go:
After this, I tried out its sister game, Strike & Counterstrike, from issue #53 (not to be confused with the same named game from S&T #271 about a different east front battle). This uses a similar system, but instead has the player controlling the Soviet counteroffensive after the failure of Operation Typhoon to take Moscow. This game carries over the front-line mechanic as well as German combat superiority, but completely changes up the win condition system and eliminates the need to destroy units in the pocket. The Soviets have three objectives they must complete, each at a different point in the game. First, they need to push back the Germans from Tula and Moscow by the end of the first turn. Second, they need to capture over 50% of the area between the initial front and the German fall back position behind the K-line. Third, they need to control at least three (four to win) fortified locations and at least two (three to win) western hexes to draw. Unlike the previous game, the Soviets can recover their armies a limited number of steps each turn and they have many more steps per unit, so loss of attack power is not as important. On the other hand, the Soviet units are much slower in this game than their German counterparts were so failing attacks is much more costly on the territory side of the game. So all of this sounds cool, right? That is exactly what I thought after playing Panzers East Solitaire and then setting this up. I was excited to try out a different game using the same engine, but tailored a bit to a different game. Unfortunately, this game is broken. You automatically win if you can drain the German pool of units (they refresh to full every turn), which I did... every single time I played the game... on the first turn. The pool is just not large enough to handle an average game. If you roll great for unit generation (meaning less German activity), then the pool should be fine, but if you roll average to bad (meaning high German activity) you will drain the pool and automatically win. This is highly disappointing as the basic structure looks interesting. I would definitely give this game a pass.
The third game I got to the table was Commandos: Europe, from issue #55. Quick summary: this game is great. Decision should repackage this with two double sided mounted boards (or at least some cardstock), larger counters, a play aid, and cleaned up rules and I think they would have a minor hit (at least as far as wargames go). The player controls multiple (up to 4) British commando units tasked with completing various missions throughout the games four theaters (Norway, North Africa, Normandy, and the "continent" meaning generic Europe post Normandy). In each location, the player will attempt six missions before moving on to the next theater. At the end of the game, you are scored based on the number of completed missions less the number of killed commando units and aborted missions. A given theater starts by placing your base of operations (later you can buy a second one) and your units, commanders, and officers. After this you draw your first mission from a chit pool and randomly generate its location. Each theater has between 13 and 19 theater-specific missions that can each be generated at three dedicated locations (eg. in Norway, "Seize Lighthouse" will only appear at lighthouse locations). You can then spend purchase points to outfit your squad with weapons, mission-specific equipment, and vehicles to help them achieve their goals. Completing a missions is done by ending your turn with a properly equipped squad at the location (eg. bridge destruction will require a squad to be at that location with grenades or demolition gear). You also earn purchase points based off of the mission. Once you return to base, a new mission will be generated and you can change your equipment if necessary. Your units create "noise" as they move which is modified by the type of equipment carried or vehicles used (that Chevy truck might help you move a ton of stuff, but is definitely going to draw some attention) that can possibly generate enemy units. Enemy units follow 90s video game logic where they will take the shortest path to a "detected" squad and will cease looking when you return to base. They are more likely to detect units later in a theater as more missions are completed. Once the six missions are completed or aborted, you advance to the next theater. During the first three theaters, your starting squads (and commander/officer) improve between each location and become stealthier, more able in combat, and faster. Overall, this is well designed game that will likely be unnoticed because of its release as a magazine game.