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Posted on Nov 20, 2009 in Boardgames

The Hell of Stalingrad – Card Game Review

By Dana Lombardy

The Hell of Stalingrad

Cards-and-counters game. Clash of Arms Games. $65.00

Passed Inspection: A genuinely innovative, fun-to-play game that evokes the "feel" of the desperate and bloody close-range combat in the ruins of Stalingrad; terrain features and most major historical units correctly identified.

Failed Inspection: Basic tactical units are generic and somewhat abstract; although the 7-page illustrated Battle Phase example is excellent, rules presentation overall could be better; game needs a complete list of card and unit effects.

You want to maximize the number of dice you get in the Break Test.

I have a long history with the battle of Stalingrad. I spent years on research, designing and playtesting my own game on the subject, Streets of Stalingrad, a traditional cardboard-counter board war game first published in 1979. So when I saw this new game at Historicon 2009 I was intrigued and a little dubious, but its quick play and short learning curve, combined with designer Steve Cunliffe’s insightful understanding of the battle for Stalingrad, convinced me that Clash of Arms’ The Hell of Stalingrad (THoS) is a winner.

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The game components are high quality. Some people find the colors too garish or "loud," but I felt they were well suited to a truly different new game system. Art, like food, is a matter of taste.

Overview of the historical Battle of Stalingrad:

When German general Friedrich Paulus was ordered in 1942 to capture the industrial city of Stalingrad with his 6th Army he showed little imagination. Though his frontal assaults eventually captured about 90% of the city, they decimated nine of his divisions, including two panzer divisions.

The Soviet 62nd Army under its new commander, Lt. Gen. Vassily Chuikov, was responsible for defending Stalin’s city. Soviet strategy was to let the Germans bleed their divisions in futile street fighting, sending just enough reinforcements to keep the fighting going while building up forces on either flank for a winter attack. The Soviet victory at Stalingrad was one of the major turning points of World War II on the East Front, but in the process the equivalent of 20 Soviet divisions were destroyed.

The Hell of Stalingrad game overview:

The Hell of Stalingrad is a card game for 2 or 4 players that deals with the fighting in the city and suburbs from mid-September until the Soviet offensive in mid-November. The subsequent encirclement and attempted German breakout are not covered in the game.

The city is divided into four districts, A through D. Within each district there are five Building cards plus one card denoted "River Bank" which, whenever it is drawn, represents the final Building card for its district. There are also six Volga River cards that, if drawn, mean the Germans have successfully captured that entire district.

The German goal is to capture all four districts of the city. The full game to attempt this could take several hours, depending upon the draw of the Building cards, but you can also play a shorter game that may take as little as 30 minutes by fighting over just one Building card or for one district.

Game Components:

The game is built around 200 playing cards, divided as follows:

  • 2 Supreme Commanders per side (with replacement commander shown on the opposite side)
  • 18 Formation cards per side representing major historical units such as the 13th Guards Division and 24th Panzer Division
  • 10 Campaign cards per side representing actions and events imposed on the players such as interference by Stalin or Hitler
  • 33 basic Combat cards per side that you draw into your hand to play while fighting over a Building, such as Heroic Defiance, Dig or Die!, Molotov Surprise, Panzer Blitz, Daring Assault, etc.
  • 12 advanced Combat cards per side that add personalities such as Soviet sniper Zaitsev or German sniper Koenig (historical figures depicted in the book and movie Enemy at the Gates) and allow for multiple actions and effects
  •  50 Carnage cards that are randomly drawn to determine such things as the effects of a Sniper Shot or Precision Kill, or the Battle Intensity for the Building card drawn. A Hold Action card advances the Hold counter along a track leading to the crucial Break Test dice roll that will determine which side won control of the Building

Fighting takes place on one of 20 Building cards that are drawn, with a maximum of four Building cards shown at any one time (one per district).

There are large, 1-inch, die-cut counters that represent 13 leaders per side (Soviet commissars or German commanders), or 29 markers that are placed on a 4-by-6 card to track battle length and intensity.

One-hundred-forty smaller die-cut counters represent units such as armor, riflemen, commandoes, heavy machineguns, pioneers (assault engineers), etc., and these are placed on a Building card where combat takes place. The type and number of units each side gets is determined by that side’s Formation cards, leader values, and Campaign and Combat cards – limited by how many units may be concentrated into (stacked on) that Building card.

Game Play, Strategy Phase:

Before the game starts, each player draws a number of Combat cards equal to the hand size noted on his Supreme Commander card. Players may refill their hand ("Reload") as an action during the Battle Phase. The remaining Combat cards, along with the deck of Formation cards and a pile of combat unit counters are placed on a Player Matt (sic).

Players place their Campaign cards and Carnage cards on the Campaign Matt between them. The Hourglass counter is placed on Turn 1 OF the Turn Track. The basic game has 3 turns while the advanced game has 6 turns.

The Strategy Phase of a Turn proceeds as follows:

  1. Both players turn over the top card on their Campaign decks and immediately apply any effects.
  2. Both players draw a number of their Formation cards, based on the number of Buildings currently in play plus the Reinforcement number on the Campaign card they drew. For example, if there are four Building cards in play and your Reinforcement number is 1 you would draw five Formation cards and add a level 0 Leader counter to each Formation card.
  3. Depleted Formations may be consolidated by returning one Formation to full strength while the other is sent to the destroyed pile along with its Leader counter.
  4. Building cards are drawn and placed between the players, one Building for each of the four districts. When a Volga River card is drawn, it indicates that district is considered captured and therefore closed to further fighting. Next to each Building in play a Tracking card is placed which notes the level of intensity of that combat and shows when a Break Test must be made.
  5. The German player then "maneuvers" his Formation cards to one or more Building cards, limited to the maximum number of Formations allowed for that side by the Concentration Level number on that Building. The Soviet player then responds by maneuvering his available Formations in the same way. The Battle Phase of the turn then begins.

The Strategy Phase followed by a Battle Phase for each turn continues until the Hold track shows a Break Test must be made (described below).

Game Play, Battle Phase:

The Battle Phase of a Turn proceeds as follows:

  1. First the Soviet player, then the German player, complete all of the Vanguard effects from all of the Formation cards they maneuvered to a Building. For example, a Vanguard effect includes the types and number of combat unit counters each Formation may place on the Building, plus any special effects such as an immediate kill (the defender chooses the unit counter destroyed and removed).
  2. Either player then draws one Carnage card which determines two things: First, the battle intensity level (where the Fire marker is placed on that track), and second, who has the Initiative and goes first in the Action Rounds. A Stuka dive-bomber symbol means the German player goes first, a rat symbol means the Soviet player goes first, or a binoculars symbol means that the side with the most Recon units goes first (Soviets win ties).
  3. Action Rounds consist of the Initiative player doing one of three actions, then the other player perform an action. Players alternate actions until the Hold counter reaches the Break Test square on that track or the turn ends. Actions include playing a Combat card, Reloading cards in your hand up to the limit allowed on your Supreme Commander card, or Call a Hold Action.
  4. In a Hold Action you draw a Carnage card and advance the Hold counter one space along the Break Test track. Carnage card effects include: Sniper Shot that might eliminate a Formation’s Leader counter or hero card; Precision Kill, which targets and destroys any combat unit counter; or advance the Fire marker along the Battle Intensity track.
  5. Combat card effects include adding specific types of combat units to the Building, Sniper Shot or Precision Kill, advance the Fire marker, draw extra Combat cards, force your opponent to discard one or more of his cards, etc.

While all this may sound complex, combat play can become intense,
and the symbols used in the game (binoculars for recon, flame markers for fire, etc.) help to make learning intuitive. It did not take me long to understand effective card-play tactics to reach my goal – which is to get the most possible six-sided dice to roll in the Break Test.

When the Hold counter reaches the Break Test square on the Combat Intensity track, players perform the Break Test to see which side won the Building. You get one die for each full-strength Formation and another die if your side has the most combat unit counters on the Building at that point (if equal, each side gets one die). The German player also gets one die for each Fire marker that reached the Inferno square on the Combat Intensity track, and the Soviet player gets a number of dice equal to the Defensive Level of that Building. The German player gets at least one die even if he gets no other dice for this roll (Pity Die).

The highest roll value wins. For example, if both sides roll a 6 but the German player rolled two 6 results against one 6 for the Soviets, the German player wins. Ties result in a Bloody Slaughter.

If the German player wins, he captures the Building and places that card nearest to his side, and another Building card is drawn to replace the one captured. If the Soviet player wins, the Building card remains and the German player may choose to assault it again (after deducting additional losses).

After resolving the Break Test, all Combat cards and Hero cards are discarded, depleted Formations return to their start line, level 0 Leaders who survived are flipped (promoted) to level 1, and combat units are moved back to the appropriate pile.

Remember: You want to maximize the number of dice you get in the Break Test, so killing enemy unit counters is only one of the things you need to focus on.


Summary:


THoS is a fast-playing card game based on the history as well as the legends of the battle of Stalingrad. Some characters and events included in the game are apocryphal; however, these do not detract from play since THoS attempts to capture the feel of the battle, not simulate it.

The game’s greatest drawback is its rules organization. I strongly recommend players read the rules by starting on page 17, where the Strategy Phase set-up is nicely outlined and explained, then read the Battle Phase illustrated examples of play on pages 20-30; then refer to the rest of the rules for detailed explanations.

Symbols on the cards and counters are very important during play. Although a chart does explain many of them, it does not cover all the symbols used; an accessible, comprehensive list of symbols and their meaning would really facilitate play.

Despite these shortcomings, I look forward to the next title in this unique card game series, The Fires of Midway, due out in early 2010.

About the author:

Dana Lombardy’s award-winning Streets of Stalingrad was first published in 1979 and has had two follow-up printings, the latest in 2002. He was also publisher of Game News and Napoleon magazines.

Armchair General intel:

Clash of Arms Games

 

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