Saturday, April 5, 2008

Blitzkrieg ' 41 review

Blitzkrieg '41 is a testosterone-laden hard-core hex-and-counter wargame of panzer drives, massive encirclements and savage combat on the Eastern Front of World War II that appeared in the premiere issue of Command magazine in 1989.

Covering the initial 10 months of the Barbarossa campaign in monthly turns (mostly) and 45-mile hexes, the German player uses corps-level units to capture victory-point yielding cities and resource areas from the Soviet player’s infantry armies and mechanized corps. Eschewing odd game mechanics and change for change’s sake, Blitzkrieg ‘41 set the tone for most of Command’s later games by using a few special rules within the framework of familiar wargame mechanics to create magazine games that were worth playing instead of gathering dust. Based on the strength of that first issue I was willing to be a subscriber. While Command did have its misfires, it seemed to hit the mark more often than the competition and many of the magazine games compared well with boxed wargames.

Blitzkrieg ‘41 was one of those. The 20-page rule-book is clearly written, marred only by a lack of examples of play, a common failing in magazine games. The rules are nearly-error free, with the published errata minimal and minor. The map is an attractive David Fuller production with oversized hexes which make the 1/2-inch counters easier for fumble fingers like me to grab.

Those counters are traditional attack factor-defense factor-movement factor affairs, with the German infantry in feldgrau and the panzers in black with white print. The Soviet Red Army is, naturally, red, with the infantry printed white on red and the mechanized units red on white. The hapless Axis allies contribute two Rumanian armies in green, a weak Hungarian armored corps in blue and an Italian motorized corps in yellow.

As I said, the game mechanics are familiar, with a IGO-HUGO turn sequence, overruns (here called “Mobile Assaults”) and an odds-based combat results table.

Designer Ty Bomba uses a few special rules and departures from the wargame norm to evoke the free-wheeling nature of the Eastern Front’s first campaign. Notable among those is no “zone of control” rule, which forces defenders to occupy every hex of the very long front. Each sides has extensive, and completely different, supply rules. The German has the more usual supply line type of rule, restricted by a maximum length which slowly increases as the game progresses. The German will soon find himself bumping up against the limits of his effective supply just at the point he’s hoping to finish the Soviets off.

For the Communists supply is based on proximity to supply cities, which means most of any given line will be defending at reduced effectiveness. That reduction, as well as all other combat strength modifications due to terrain and weather, are handled through an awkward percentage reduction calculation. For the German player the key to success is using his 11 panzer corps most efficiently every turn to cause the maximum damage. While the German infantry is capable, it does not have a significant enough advantage over its Soviet counterparts to be anything more than a supporting player -- and a supporting player left trying to catch up after the first few turns.

Soviet players need nerves of steel as the Germans send fistfuls of red and white counters into the dead pile every turn, only to be resurrected by the replacement steps. The Soviets start with 53 steps on the map and receive 151 more over the course of the 11-turn game, which will give some indication of how heavy the losses will be. The Soviet player is not fated to merely be slapped around, however. The RVGK rule, skillfully used, gives the Reds a chance to hit back tellingly. Named after the transliterated acronym for the “Reserve of the Supreme High Command” (Bomba is fond of doing this, the Italian Corps is the CSIR, Italian acronym for “Special Italian Corps, Russia”), the rule allows the Soviet to move up to five infantry armies into an off-map box per turn for redeployment on the map in supply at the beginning of a subsequent turn. This simple rule gives the Soviets a chance to launch surprise counterattacks nearly any place on the map. Used in conjunction with the Soviet’s one mobile supply source, no part of the extended Axis line is safe from being suddenly faced with a powerful attack. If the Soviet player concentrates his replacement steps, a section of line held by a half-dozen one-step armies can instantly turn into a powerful dozen-or-so two- and three-step attackers ready to smash a gaping hole. Only the lack of suitable exploitation forces this early in the war limits this tactic. (In Bomba Eastern Front games set later in the war the appearance of tank and mechanized armies remedies this and makes life even more challenging for Axis players).

The victory conditions are based on German acquisition of territory while avoiding excessive losses. The first few turns are tense as the Germans will always seem to be one city away from achieving a sudden-death victory, but most games between experienced players will end up as draws. Bomba’s designer’s notes say this was a deliberate decision but many players will find this annoying. He suggests switching sides and playing a second game to settle the ego thing if that’s important to you. The Germans have several different strategies available for victory, increasing the replayability.

Playing a single game will probably take no more than an evening. It takes about half an hour to set it up.

Recommendations(Yes) For Wargamers: I’m not an Eastern Front specialist, so I can’t say whether this game will supplant your favorite Russian campaign game, but it does appear to be a worthy addition that will provide a satisfying game experience and some interesting insights into the campaign. I own (or have owned) Stalingrad, The Russian Campaign, EastFront and Proud Monster and it compares well to any of those.

(Yes) For Collectors: The game is the magazine game included in the first issue of Command magazine and therefore has value as a collectible.

(No) For Euro gamers: Like most hard-core hex-and-counter wargames the elegance of the game play is compromised by accounting for the messiness of simulating actual events. There is a lot of detail and some of it involves extensive rules for uncommon events with little game effect. (The Sivash, The Oranienbaum Bridgehead Group, Sea Movement, Cavalry Raids, to mention a few examples).

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